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Samskaras (Samskrit : संस्काराः) are the rites prescribed by the vaidika and dharmika texts either for purification (removal of a papa) or generating or infusing some qualities by which a person becomes eligible to perform some more rites. In other words Saṃskāras are for cleansing the mind and body and leading consequently to a healthy, happy and peaceful life in this world and Mokṣa after death. Of the worldly beings, man is the only creature, who has the ability to do good and bad karma (papa and punya karmas) with the direction of Viveka-Buddhi.
Indian tradition firmly stands on four pillars, viz. Dharma, Artha (money and other mundane matters), Kāma (married life) and Mokṣa (renouncing the world and studying about Brahman to arrest the cycle of birth and death). The ultimate purpose of Saṃskāras is simply to generate Vividiṣā (a desire / taste in Vedānta and attain Mokṣa). Except in Vivāha (marriage) Vedic mantras are not to be used for a girl child.
The term Saṃskāra is pregnant with meaning and hence untranslatable. Saṃskāra here refers to any rite prescribed by scriptures either for purification (removal of papa) or generating / injecting some qualities by which a person becomes eligible / qualified to perform some rites. Vīramitrodayam defines a Saṃskāra thus:
आत्मशरीरान्यतरनिष्ठः अतिशयविशेषः संस्कारः। ātmaśarīrānyataraniṣṭhaḥ atiśayaviśeṣaḥ saṃskāraḥ ।
A special virtue / quality that is connected with mind or body is called Saṃskāra (the rite for such a virtue / quality is also called Saṃskāra).
Number of Saṃskāras
There is difference of opinion as to the number of Saṃskāras. Gautama in his Smṛti (Dharmaśāstram) enumerated forty Saṃskāras, including five Mahāyajñas, seven Pākayajñas, seven Haviryajñas and seven Somayāgas. Finally, it is decided in Saṃskāradīpikā that the following sixteen Saṃskāras are essential:
आधानपुंसवनसीमन्तजातनामान्नचोलकाः। मौञ्जीव्रतानि गोदानसमावर्तनविवाहकाः॥
अन्त्यं चैतानि कर्माणि प्रोच्यन्ते षोडशैव तु। antyaṃ caitāni karmāṇi procyante ṣoḍaśaiva tu ।
- गर्भाधानम् ॥ Garbhadhanam
- पुंसवनम् ॥ Pumsavana
- सीमन्तः॥ Simanta
- जातकर्म॥ Jatakarma
- नामकरणम्॥ Namakarana
- अन्नप्रासनम्॥ Annaprasana
- चौलम्॥ Chaulam
- उपनयनम् ॥ Upanayana
- वेदव्रतानि॥ Vedavratas (4)
- समावर्तनम्॥ Samavartana
- गोदानम्॥ Godana
- विवाहः॥ Vivaha
- अन्त्येष्टिः॥ Antyesti
It should be noted that the three Saṃskāras, viz. Garbhādhānam, Puṃsavanam and Sīmantonnayanam, have to be performed before the birth of the child. Since they are for Garbhaśuddhi (cleansing of the womb and embryo), they need not be repeated.
The Purpose of Ṣoḍaśasaṃskārakarmas
The very purpose of each Saṃskāra is explained in the following verses:
निषेकात् बौजिकं चैनः गार्भिकं चापमृज्यते। क्षेत्रसंस्कारसिद्धिश्च गर्भाधानफलं तथा॥
गर्भे भवेच्च पुंसूतेः पुंस्त्वस्य प्रतिपादनम्। निषेकफलवत् ज्ञेयं फलं सीमन्तकर्मणः॥
गर्भाम्बुपानजो दोषः जातात्सर्वोऽपि नश्यति। आयुर्वर्चोऽभिवृद्धिश्च सिद्धिर्व्यवहृतिस्तथा॥
नामकर्मफलं त्वेतत् समुद्दिष्टं मनीषिभिः। अन्नाशनान्मातृगर्भमलाशादपि शुद्ध्यति॥
बलायुर्वर्चोवृद्धिश्च चूडाकर्मफलं स्मृतम्। उपनीतेः फलं त्वेतत् द्विजतासिद्धिपूर्विका॥
वेदाधीत्यधिकारस्य सिद्धिरृषिभिरीरिता। देवपित्रर्णापगमः विवाहस्य फलं स्मृतम्॥
niṣekāt baujikacainaḥ gārbhikaṃ cāpamṛjyate। kṣetrasaṃskārasiddhiśca garbhādhānaphalaṃ tathā॥
garbhe bhavecca puṃsūteḥ puṃstvasya pratipādanam। niṣekaphalavat jñeyaṃ phalaṃ sīmantakarmaṇaḥ॥
garbhāmbupānajo doṣaḥ jātātsarvo'pi naśyati। āyurvarco'bhivṛddhiśca siddhirvyavahṛtistathā॥
nāmakarmaphalaṃ tvetat samuddiṣṭaṃ manīṣibhiḥ। annāśanānmātṛgarbhamalāśādapi śuddhyati॥
balāyurvarcovṛddhiśca cūḍākarmaphalaṃ smṛtam। upanīteḥ phalaṃ tvetat dvijatāsiddhipūrvikā॥
vedādhītyadhikārasya siddhirṛṣibhirīritā। devapitrarṇāpagamaḥ vivāhasya phalaṃ smṛtam॥
Meaning : Niṣeka and Garbhādhāna (both mean the same – the first physical union of wife and husband) would remove the impurities related to sperm, blood and cleanses the womb. Puṃsavanam is for having a male child. Sīmanta (parting) is as good as Garbhādhānam. Jātakarma (the rite performed to a son just born) kills the bad affects born out of consumption of the water of the womb by the child.
Nāmakarma (naming a child) is for increased longevity and brightness and to pronounce name during rites as well as mundane day to day transactions. Annaprāśana (feeding rice for the first time) purifies the child from the defects of eating the bad material while in the womb. Cūḍākarma (cutting of hair on the head for the first time) is meant for increased strength, longevity and brightness. Upanayanam is for attaining Dvijatva (second birth) that is essential to get eligibility to learn Veda and perform different rites. The four Vedavratas, viz. Āgneya, Saumya, Vaiśvadeva and Prājāpatya are performed before the beginning of the learning of Veda for injecting more power into the Veda that is learnt. Vivāha (marriage) is for paying back the debt of deities and father.
The Saṃskāras from Jātakarma to Cūḍākarma are to be performed in the case of a male child of Dvijas, viz. Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas and Vaiśyas. In the case of the female child of a Dvija, only marriage (Vivāha) has to be performed with Vedamantras. Saṃskāraprakāśa rules that there cannot be any Saṃskāra for a Klība (impotent child).
Nirṇayasindhu, by quoting Smṛtis, says that Śūdras are entitled to perform six Saṃskāras, viz. Jātakarma, Nāmakaraṇam, Niṣkramaṇam (bringing the child into sunshine for the first time), Annaprāśanam, Cūḍā and Vivāha and the daily Pañcamahāyajñas (Devayajñaḥ, Pitṛyajñaḥ, Bhūtayajñaḥ, Manuṣyayajñaḥ and Brahmayajñaḥ). Śrāddhakarma (death ceremony) and other Saṃskāras for Śūdras have to be performed with verses from Purāṇas and not Vedic mantras. Varāhapurāṇa says that for a Śūdra, the Brāhmaṇa can repeat the Mantras.