The sixteen Sanskars (Sacraments)

Like other religions, Hindus are also prescribed a number of ceremonies called Sanskar, also pronounced Samskars, which means the actions which purify, refine or reform. The nearest English translation is Sacraments. When a diamond is found in a mine, it does not look beautiful until it is refined and polished. Similarly, a human being must also undergo some purifying ceremonies in order to shine spiritually. In Hinduism, the Sanskars are not superstitious acts to ward off evil spirits; their objective is to invoke favourable results, and to allow Hindus to express their joys and sorrows, hopes and ambitions in a dignified manner. Like the traffic signs on the highways, the Sanskars also give directions to human life at every crucial stage of its development, starting from conception and ending at death. The sage Angiras poetically compares the Sanskars to a painting:
“Just as a picture is painted with various colours, so the character of the individual is formed by the proper performance of the Samskars.”

According to Max Muller, these ancient ceremonies reveal “the deep rooted tendency in the heart of man to bring the chief events of human life into contact with a higher power, and give to our pure joys and sufferings a deeper significance and a religious sanctification.”

Hindus have sixteen Sanskars but most people no longer perform each and every of them. Therefore, we will describe all of them briefly, but elaborate on only the most important ones.

1. Garbhadan: This ceremony is performed when a married couple decides to have a child. According to Hindu scriptures, even the act of a man to approach his wife for sexual intercourse to procreate is a sacred duty. Blessings and prayers are offered ritually for a virtuous and healthy child.

2. Punsavana: Three or four months after conception, this Sanskar is performed by the parents for the sound growth of the child in the embryonic stage. During the ritual, they pray for the birth of a worthy and physically healthy child, and a few drops of the juice of the banyan tree stem is poured into the pregnant woman’s nostrils. According to Hindu medical science, Ayurved,the banyan tree extract is beneficial during pregnancy.

3. Simantonnayana: In this third pre-natal Sanskar, performed between five and eight months of pregnancy, certain rituals are aimed at keeping the would-be mother in a happy mood. Prayers are also offered for full and proper development of a child’s organs.

4. Jatakarma: The child is formally welcomed into the new world with this sanskar.

5. Namakarna: This is the name-giving ceremony that takes place on the 11th day after birth. Hindus attach great significance to the name. The name chosen for the child is supposed to be a source of inspiration. It is quite common to name the child after great sages, heroes and kings or other famous historical and mythological characters. Most Hindu names are meaningful. In many instances, the first syllable of the name is based on the science of numerology or astrology.

6. Nishkramana: After keeping the child indoors for four months, the child is taken outdoors to be introduced to nature. The child is exposed to the sun rays with a prayer for a long life.

7. Annaprashana: During the first six to eight months, the child is breast-fed. When teeth begin to appear, the first feeding of the child with solid food is an important event in the child’s growth. This stage is sanctified with prayers and rituals. This Sanskar is widely practised amongst the Bengali community in Canada.

8. Choodakarma: This is the head-shaving ceremony, usually performed during the first to third year. During the ceremony, a prayer is uttered for the good health and intellectual development of the child. According to Hindu medical science, shaving of the head after birth promotes healthy hair growth and enhances brain power. Charaka, the famous Hindu medical scientist of the ancient times, was of the opinion that cutting and dressing of hair, clipping of nails and trimming of the beard gave vigour, purity and beauty.

9. Karnavedha: This Sanskara takes place at the age of three years when the child’s ears are ritually pierced with prayers for good health. It is believed that the purpose of this ancient practice was both medical and ornamental. The piercing of ears for wearing jewellery, by males and females, was quite common in most ancient civilizations. This custom has also reappeared in North America. Medically, it is considered an acupuncture to prevent hernia.

10. Upanayana: This word means to acquire sight that can see within. In the ancient times, this Sanskar was usually performed from age five to eight years when a child was formally placed in the care of a Guru for spiritual education. Like the Confirmation in Christianity and Bar-Mitzvah in Judaism, Upanayana is an important landmark in the life of a Hindu. In Vedic times, both boys and girls underwent this rite, but as the status of women went down, girls were no longer entitled to it. This ceremony is also called Yajnopaveet, or the sacred thread ceremony. After a Hawan is performed, the boy is given a large circular sacred thread consisting of three strands. The three strands symbolize the three aspects of God i.e. Creator, Sustainer and Regenerator. Some believe they represent three virtues- knowledge, action and devotion. The sacred thread hangs loose diagonally from the left shoulder across the right hip. The boy takes the vow of celibacy, Brahmacharya, which is of great importance in the life of a Hindu student. The thread reminds him of his vow. From this stage, his status is upgraded to that of a Dvija or twice born because he starts a new life of learning to acquire knowledge. The ceremony ends with a feast.

11. Vidyarmbha: This expression literally means the beginning of education. The ceremony is performed immediately after Upanayana, in order to formally introduce a child to the alphabet. He offers prayers to Ganesh, the deity of auspiciousness and Saraswati, the deity of knowledge and art.

12. Samavartana: This Sanskar, performed between twenty-first to twenty-fifth year, marks the completion of education. It is like the modern day convocation or graduation function. The young Hindu is now considered ready to be employed and participate in the social and economic life of the community. This ceremony is very popular among Hindu Canadians.

13. Vivaha (Wedding): The Wedding ceremony, called Vivaha Sanskara, which literally means to carry with the best of abilities, is prescribed for the purpose of sanctifying the marriage. The process of marriage used to be a very elaborate one, full of numerous colourful rituals spread over a period of two weeks and ending with the actual wedding ceremony. Gradually, the demands of modern life made it a much shorter affair. Busy Hindu Canadians cut it down to a one day event. For the interest of the readers, instead of limiting ourselves to the actual wedding rituals, we are describing below a typical North Indian Hindu wedding in its entirety.

THE WEDDING CEREMONY & VOWS:

Wedding, a family affair: The entire Hindu family participates actively and enthusiastically in organizing the wedding of one of its members; each member has a key role to play. Many relatives from India and other provinces of Canada also arrive to attend the wedding. The parents usually spearhead the whole operation in active consultation with the bride or the groom. The parents from both sides hold a series of meeting to plan the wedding. Modern Canadian Hindus have broken and modified many centuries old customs in order to integrate the wedding ceremony into the social environment of their adopted land.

In India, the actual wedding ceremony is always held at the residence of the bride’s parents who are responsible for the entire cost of the ceremony including reception. The groom arrives at the bride’s house in the form of a procession called Baraat. The colourful process is headed by a series of live bands, and the groom rides a beautifully ornamented horse. The procession ends at the bride’s residence where the groom’s wedding party is formally received by her parents, relatives and guests. In Canada, the same process takes place but in a improvised manner. Here, the wedding either takes place in a temple or a community hall followed by a reception, usually a gala extravaganza. Many affluent Hindus arrange the entire event in a five or star hotel and the cost is shared by both sides. After buying a house, the wedding of a son or a daughter is the second major expense in an average Hindu family.

The wedding ceremony is held under a colourful canopy, called Mundup or Vedi, adorned with fresh or silk flower festoons and glittering lights, set up in the wedding hall. The main entrance or the gate of the wedding hall or hotel is also decorated with festoons. The groom’s family, friends and guests assemble near the wedding hall, usually the parking lot, and form a wedding procession which is led by some sort of music arrangement, drummers, or large ghetto-blasters. In Punjabi Hindu weddings, the young men and women dance to the music boisterously in front of the wedding procession to give a carnival or parade flair to the event. The groom’s wedding party is received at the entrance by the hosts, the bride’s family and relatives. The colourfully dressed and adorned bride, escorted by wedding maids, slowly and gracefully walks to the entrance to formally welcome the groom. While the priest chants the Mantras, she puts a large garland, specially prepared for the occasion, around the groom’s neck. The groom gracefully bows to receive the garland, the bashful bride gives him a repressed smile and the audience of guests and hosts clap. This is a very touching moment cherished by the couple. The guests in the grooms party are greeted with a garland, bouquet or a flower as a gesture of honour and friendship. They are offered soft drinks and light snacks.

The next step is called Milani or greeting. Each close relative of the bride garlands and embraces the respective relative of the groom. For instance, the bride’s father greets the groom’s father, her brother greets his brother, her uncles greet his uncles, so on and so forth. They are formally introduced to each other. After a brief interlude, the guests on both sides settle down in chairs laid around the wedding canopy to witness the wedding ceremony. The parents from both sides, the priest arranged by the bride’s parents, and the groom sit on the floor cross-legged under the canopy, waiting for the bride to arrive. The ceremony commences after the bride walks slowly to the Mundup, escorted by her maternal uncle, followed by close female relatives and friends.

The wedding ceremony, usually one to two hours long, consists of a series of symbolic rituals performed in front of a fire lit in a small steel cannister, called Hawan Kund, with small pieces of wood and camphor. The rituals may slightly vary according to the region of India the bride’s family come from. Most Hindu rites are performed in front of a fire which symbolizes purity and represents all other divine attributes. The major rituals of the wedding ceremony are as follows:

Pani grahan or Kanyadan: The bride’s father places her right hand in the groom’s hand and declares to the assembly that he is giving away his daughter who has agreed to marry the groom of her own free will. The bride’s mother also gives her approval by pouring the sacred water on their joined hands. The priest then helps the bride and the groom light the sacred fire and perform the Sacrifice rite. As the priest recites the Vedic hymns, they make offerings into the fire and place their faith in the omnipresent God.

Lajahuti and Satpadi: The corner of the bride’s Saree or dress is tied into a knot with the end of the groom’s waistband which denotes union. The bride’s brothers stand beside her to give her parched rice which she offers to the fire. They both slowly walk around the sacred fire four times; the bride leads in the first three rounds and the groom in the last one. The couple then take seven steps together while the priest recites the hymns with each step explaining their duties as householders. They both sit down and the groom invites the bride to exchange her seat and sit on his left i.e. close to his heart where she now belongs. The priest makes seven statements on her behalf before she accepts his invitation:

1. We are both lucky to meet each other, and thank God for that.

2. I want your love, not just gifts to please me.

3. I shall be your true partner for life, and hereafter I will join you in all endeavors.

4. I will stand by you in good and bad times.

5. I should be accepted by your relatives and they too should invite me along with you, otherwise I will not go with you uninvited.

6. I shall accept your family with great pleasure. You have to accept my family the same way.

7. When you are out of town on business, you are not to spend time with other women.

The groom responds by making the following statement:

“These vows are difficult. I am a human being and may err, but I make this promise by touching your head and keeping my hand towards your heart: From today and onward your heart is mine and my heart is yours; I bind your mind and heart with this promise; Once our hearts are united these conditions are not necessary.”

After some more rituals, the guests and relatives gather around the newly wed couple and give them their blessings, Ashirvad, showering them with flower petals. The assembly adjourns until the reception time in the evening.

If the bride or the groom is a non-Hindu, the Hindu parents usually agree to a second wedding ceremony according to his or her faith. This shows the tolerance and respect Hindus have for other faiths.

14. Vanaprastha: Having completed the first two stages of life, being a student and a householder, a Hindu enters the retirement stage with this ceremony in preparation for the next stage of total detachment. This rite is not commonly performed by Canadian Hindus.

15. Sanyas: This ceremony marks the beginning of the last phase of life when a Hindu renounces all worldly attachments and directs all his activities towards God.

16. Antyesthi: This is the funeral rite connected with cremation. Hindus cremate the body, symbolizing that all five elements of the body- namely, earth, water, fire, air and ether- merge back with these elements in nature. Traditionally, a funeral pyre is prepared with firewood to cremate the body. Prayers are offered for peace to the departed soul, and the officiating priest gives comfort to the bereaved family by quoting from the scriptures and reinforcing the concept of immortality of the soul. Usually, the eldest son of the deceased performs all the rituals guided by the priest, and torches the funeral pyre. In Canada, instead of the funeral pyre, Hindus use the modern system of cremation. The ashes and the remains are taken to India by the eldest son or the closest family member and released in the holy Ganga (Ganges) with another ritual.

Hindus usually wear white clothes, symbol of purity, at the funeral, and sit on the floor, which symbolizes humility, while visiting the family of the deceased to offer condolences. Mourning lasts for twelve days and a formal public ceremony, consisting of Hawan and prayers, is performed at the house of the deceased on the thirteenth day to end the mourning period. The actual procedure of the ceremony may vary from region to region. In North India, the priest wraps a turban around the head of the heir, usually the eldest son. The purpose of the Pugree (turban) ceremony is to formally and publicly declare him the heir and new head of the household. To express respect for the deceased and allow the family to overcome their grief, most Hindu families refrain from celebrating any happy events, weddings, birthdays and festivals for twelve months after the death. The first death anniversary is marked by the formal ceremony of Hawan and prayers, attended by all relatives and friends of the deceased.

Book: Hindus of Canada
Author: Ajit Adhopia