On one hand there is a crisis of meaning, on the other there is this way to find meaning in the ordinary events and mundane acts of life
Samskaras are various rituals performed through the lives of ordinary Hindus or followers of Sanatana Dharma since time immemorial. Samskaras begin at conception of a child and continue till the last rites after one’s death; they encompass the entire life of a Hindu’s existence on earth.
Sanatana Dharma is anchored by four pillars namely: Srutis (Vedas), Smritis (Dharmashastras and various sutras), Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and Puranas.
Samskaras don’t find much mention in the Vedas. However, various Smritis like Grhuya Sutras and Manusmritis among others elaborately discuss the concept. Let us understand the word first. Samskara - Sam + Kriya = A Good Act. There are various interpretations of this word such as ‘to purify’ or ‘to sanctify’. According to the Jaimini Sutra, it means an act “done to attain a specific qualification or eligibility”. For example, the Vivaha Samskara (marriage rite) qualifies a person to enter into Grahasthashrama (Life of a householder).
Samskaras are described for simple routine practices such as washing dishes to the most important ones like marriage. To simplify further, Samskaras are nothing but living in harmony with nature, according to our sastras. These are not just dry rituals as assumed by the unsophisticated, unscholarly, benighted people with short sight.
They were created by our great Rishis and Gurus to purify and discipline individuals. When Samskaras are used as a template in our everyday activity, we obtain elevated social status; lead a full-fledged life according to the dictates of the scriptures, thereby living in continuous harmony with our environment.
The great Rishis and Gurus understood the importance of these Samskaras and prescribed them so that every soul can obtain a higher dignity and the person can lead a civilised social life. Various Smritis and Dharmashastras mention different kinds and numbers of Samskaras. The most popular Manusmriti mentions 10 Samskaras. Later, there were further additions.
At present, there are 16 prominent Samskaras. They are Garbhadana (conception), Poomsvana, Seemanthonayanam (done between 3-6 months of pregnancy), Jathakarma (at the time of birth), Namakarana (naming ceremony), Nishkramana (First outing of child), Annaprashna (first solid food), Chudakarana (tonsuring), Karanabheda (ear piercing), Vidyarambha (starting primary education at home), Upanayana (initiation ceremony) or Deeksha, Vedarambha (starting Vedic education), Keshanta (hair cutting and Guru Dakshina), Samavartan (deciding to enter household life), Vivaha (marriage) and Antheshti (after death).
Samskaras, it can be observed, in today’s materialistic existence, have gone into oblivion. Most practising Hindus or Dharmics, do not observe them all in the manner described and prescribed in the Sastras. We come across mostly Upanayana and Vivaha these days, and to a lesser extent, Seemanta and Vidyarambham.
Even these Samskaras, and the way they are practised, lack Vedic inputs. They are mostly done for publicity and to exhibit the wealth of the kartas. The rite of Garbhadhana, the samskara before birth, is falling into oblivion. The reason this Samskara was done at the time of impregnation was to invoke the blessings of god and to beget a good soul. According to Sanatana Dharma, every soul is given a choice before birth to choose its parents. By performing Garbhadhana, the parents invoke the wise, pious and less karmic soul to be born as their child, thereby, elevating their nobility and reducing karmic debt. But in today’s world, such a concept will be laughed out. The concept of a karta chanting a mantra to beget a noble soul as his child is long forgotten today.
Similarly, Pumsavana and Seemantonayana are totally forgotten or not done at the right time in pregnancy, leave alone the Vedic mantras behind it. Pumsavana is better understood by appreciating the fact that pregnant Rani Kayadu, wife of the demon king Hiranyakashipu, takes refuge in Narada’s ashrama where the already-conceived child in her womb listens to Narayana Tattva. We all know how the child, Prahlada, turns out to be – one of the parama bhaktas of Mahavishnu.
Seemantonayana is better understood today thorough studies on Japanese and Jewish behaviour in pregnancy. In gist, “a happy, pregnant lady has better chances of a safe pregnancy, and begetting a healthy child.”
Namakarana and Annaprashna are observed scantily and are devoid of any citations from the Vedic texts. The whole affair today is strictly materialistic in design, unless of course, they are done in traditional temples such as Mookambika of Kollur or Srisailam of Andhra Pradesh or Guruvayoor of Kerala (Temples we can remember immediately).
In most cases, the Caula (first cutting of hair of a male child) is performed on the day of the Upanayana and Samavartana is also performed a few days after Upanayana. Even for anthesti, today, there are abridged versions as the karta has no time to spare for the departed soul. This is the sad state of Samskaras and Sanatana Dharma today.
Now, why are we in this situation? Are Samskaras irrelevant in modern times?
Let us look at why this question arises in the first place. Can there be anything in the sastras which can become irrelevant over time? The simple answer is ‘never’. These practices have been there for thousands of years. Then, why is it that we find no relevance for them now? There is no denying the fact that even today in mind and spirit, Hindus believe in the importance of the Vedic tradition. Then, what has made them indifferent to these practices?
There are two main reasons, which are interrelated.
First, century after century, this tradition has been subjected to cultural attacks and molestations from rival religious schools. The advent of Islam in India eclipsed Hindu culture and in the major part of the country, political and economic frailty probably prevented the Hindus from performing their religious rites in totality, which probably necessitated the abridged versions in the first place. A few orthodox families persisted with them at great risk. Every Hindu must read this link on Hindu persecution.
Secondly, in the recent decades, the more modem impact of materialism inherent to western culture, along with evangelical manipulation, have attacked Hinduism at the very roots of Dharma. Through weapons like an anglicised Macaulay’s educational system and foreign media of instruction (they have complete control on what goes into the minds of people), the church has been fairly successful in alienating a large number of Hindus from their traditional, value-based system of life, both intellectually and emotionally. Hindus are not able to appreciate their loss as they have no sense of what they are losing.
Due to this constant onslaught on Sanatana Dharma, the previous generations lost valuable knowledge about our tradition. With a decreasing number of scholars who could reason out each and every ritual, faith in rituals started fading gradually. However, previous generations still followed it because their parents followed it.
Today, as life moves on in a hasty, unrelenting pace, people hardly have time to devote themselves to acts which have no bearing on material gains. When one has to think always in terms of profit and materialism in this world, it is natural that spiritual life is bound to be overlooked. Worse still, it has made the neo-converts of Hindu ancestry hostile towards the traditional life of our country, sceptical and intolerant of anything remotely spiritual and religious.
Another issue which the current generation faces is that the previous generations were not able to provide “proof of benefit” of rituals or the rationale behind them in an acceptable form, to the younger generation.
Any Samskara has three components: The Dravyam (Material needed), the Kriya (Action) and most importantly, “Mantra” or the formulaic potency.
Deficiency in any of these three makes a Samskara less effective or ineffective. However, the most important of these three is Mantra, which has divine power to compensate for the other two. Due to lack of awareness about the benefits of mantra and scarcity of good scholars, we are concentrating only on the first two (material and action). Hence, Samskaras become dry and mundane without any values as a result of which Hindus are automatically losing interest. This might be the key reason for dwindling of most Samskaras in the present-day scenario.
There is no simple or single solution to the issue because the indifference is not just with Samskaras but our religion as a whole. Hence, what is required is a holistic approach to a deeper understanding of our religion and the knowledge it imparts. There are three groups of people in the Hindu religion. One group is outright materialistic. They don’t believe and care about the religion. We cannot change them.
The second group, which we think still forms a vast majority, wants to, and is following the Sanatana tradition. Except, due to improper understanding, there is gross deviation from what is recommended in the scriptures and what they follow. Their ignorance makes them timid enough to be snubbed by religious rivals as well as by the people of the first category. This leads to doubts in their mind about the importance of the Hindu way of life and the Hindu civilisational legacy.
The third group is of the so-called rationalists, which wants an explanation for each and every thing.
First, we should have strong conviction in our minds that Dharma is the most rational among all. In fact, all the questions raised by present-day atheists and rationalists have been raised previously and answered by our great Rishis. We suggest readers to refer to the Brahma Sutra written by Veda Vyasa for answers to such questions. This thought should be appreciated by the individual, and then family, then the small group and then society at large. We need to start educating our children right from the start about the richness of our civilisation, the purpose of our life, Karma and our relationship with God.
For that, first, we need to equip ourselves with adequate knowledge.
In recent days, we find increasing spiritual sparks everywhere, thanks to the Upanyasas by various great learned scholars, the bhajans organised by bhakti movements, as well as online material. It is heartening to see even youngsters taking to such preaching and bhajans. We need to make use of this, take time out and educate ourselves first. The purpose of each Samskara and for that matter each festival we celebrate should be taught to our children. Once we are able to provide with a material reason behind the practices and concepts, their acceptance will follow as matter of course.
Our Itihasas, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata, should be taught to our children in the right way and not as shown in recent times in various shows. At this juncture, it is important to highlight the erroneous and shoddy ways in which some of these epics are portrayed in television serials. When the younger generation sees these television versions first, without adequate priming, it leaves the wrong imprint in their minds about our puranas. Hence, it is our duty to prime them, teach them the correct stories and values from the direct sources themselves. Elders in the family should take the lead in such matters.
Hindus as dharmics today should expose their children to some form of Vedic education in addition to the modern education they already receive. This will definitely help in disciplining them. Bhagavad Gita learning should be made compulsory for each and every child. There is nothing more to know than the Gita as it is directly spoken by Sri Krishna himself and is the essence of the Vedas.
Also, temples should get back to their original function and importance in a Hindu society. They should not only be places of worship but also become places of higher learning. Did you know that that the Greenwich Meridian has a far more ancient counterpart in the line which passes through the Mahakala temple in Ujjain, and that it is used as such even today in our Panchangas? Or that it is advised to take a dip in the Ganga as the river is self purifying (see here, here, and here)?
If Mathematics is the language of the Gods, then Hinduism is the religion and our temples are centres of learning to attain it. So, every Hindu must visit temples at least once a week. Each one of us should take responsibility in maintaining the temples of our ancestors (Kuladevata).
Finally, we need to change the education system and improve it to suit both modern science and the traditional Hindu way of life. This, however, shall be discussed in another article. These efforts will go a long way in improving the faith of the masses in Sanatana Dharma and samskaras. As practising doctors, we can think of this situation as one where there is an infection of the body by multi drug-resistant bugs akin to multi drug-resistant Tuberculosis. Hence, not only are newer and stronger antibiotics essential, but more than that, we need to improve the host immunity and defence.