Rites of passage ~ Samskaras:
Samskaras are rites of passage within
Hinduism. Sixteen such ceremonies are prescribed in the scriptures. They can
be classed as religious ceremonies marking entry into the different stages of
life. The first samskara takes place before
conception has taken place and the last takes place after death. Some of the
earlier samskaras include: naming ceremony, the
first feeding of cooked food and the first hair cut. We deal with four main
ceremonies: The naming ceremony, the sacred thread ceremony, the marriage
ceremony and the final cremation ceremony.
Naming ceremony ~ Namakarana
means the ‘naming ceremony’ and is usually performed around the eleventh day
after birth. Sometimes the paternal aunt is given the privilege of choosing
the name, sometimes a horoscope is consulted to
decide on the first letter of the name. It is believed that the planetary
configuration helps the child to achieve his or her full potential. Sometimes
the name is chosen to inspire the child, and may be the name of God, or a
virtue to aspire towards. The name serves a religious purpose as it acts to
remind the family of higher values.
Sacred thread ceremony ~ Upanayana is the
sacred thread ceremony. The word ‘Upanayana’
literally means ‘getting closer to God’, and marks the beginning of life as a
student. In ancient times, this used to be around the age of eight. The child
would undergo the ritual, in which a ‘havan’ or
sacred fire is lit, and a priest recites hymns from the Vedas. The father or
the priest whispers the Gayatri mantra into the
child’s ear, which marks initiation into a religious lifestyle. The child is
then invested with a sacred thread draped over the left shoulder. It consists
of three strands, representing his debts to God, his forefathers and his
spiritual teacher. The child is then deemed fit to enter the Brahmacharya Ashrama.
Marriage ceremony ~ Vivah
Vivah is the
marriage ceremony, which marks the individual’s transition from a student to
a householder. A suitable partner is found after the individual has completed
their studies. The vivah varies considerably depending
on local customs, but there are a few basic guidelines that are observed at
many ceremonies. The bride’s father offers the hand of the bride to the
groom, a gesture called ‘panigrahana’. A havan or sacred fire is lit, and a priest recites hymns from
Holy Scriptures. The bride and groom offer grains and clarified butter,
‘ghee’ to the fire in order to obtain the blessings of higher beings. Fire is
considered the witness to the ritual. The bride and groom walk around the
fire four times, and after every turn, the bride places her right foot on a
piece of rock to symbolize her steadfastness in her wifely duties. As a
symbolic gesture, the couple takes seven steps together, each representing
health, wealth, strength, children, happiness, life-long friendship, and God.
The wife marks her forehead (and hair parting) with red powder called ‘kum kum’. The couple is
showered with rice grains and petals to wish them well. The wife is now
addressed as the ‘sahadharmini’ or the companion in
Final rites ~ Antima-Kriya
Antima Kriya is the
final death rite, and involves the cremation of the body. Hindu philosophy
states that the body is just the outer garment of the individual, and that
the real self never dies, but is reborn in a different body in due course.
The body is not considered important hence it is cremated rather than buried.
The body is bathed, clothed and placed in a coffin to be taken to the
crematorium. The eldest son or male relative will set fire to the pyre. Verses
from the Bhagavad Gita
which explain the immortality of the soul, are recited to comfort relatives.
The ashes are collected and taken to be immersed in the river Ganges.