Hindus believe that every aspect of life is sacred. That is why each significant stage, from conception to cremation, is celebrated as a reminder that life is a gift from God which should be duly respected and lived according to His wishes. This is the first installment describing the significance of the 16 Samskaras.
Since eternity man has strived to improve his own self. This realisation, unique only to mankind, has led him to think deeper about his physical, mental and spiritual well being. Towards this end, the Vedic seers prescribed a set of observances, known as Samskaras. (Though pronounced Sanskaras in Gujarati, we shall use the original Sanskrit form.)
The nearest English word for samskara is sacrament, related to the phrase 'rite of passage'. In the Oxford English Dictionary, sacrament is defined as a "religious ceremony or act regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward or spiritual grace." In classical Sanskrit literature texts, such as Raghuvamsha, Kumarsambhava, Abhijnan-Shakuntal, Hitopadesha and Manu Smruti, samskara is used to mean: education, cultivation, training, refinement, perfection, grammatical purity, polishing, embellishment, decoration, a purificatory rite, a sacred rite, consecration, sanctification, effect of past actions (karmas), merit of karmas, etc. A general definition of samskara, encompassing nearly all of the above is "to improve upon something while removing its undesirable attributes."
Purpose of Samskaras
(1) Cultural. The variety of rites and rituals related to the samskaras help in the formation and development of personality. In the Parashar Smruti it is said, "Just as a picture is painted with various colors, so the character of a person is formed by undergoing various samskaras." Thus, the Hindu sages realised the need of consciously guiding and molding the character of individuals, instead of letting them grow in a haphazard manner.
(2) Spiritual. According to the seers, samskaras impart a higher sanctity to life. Impurities associated with the material body are eradicated by performing samskaras. The whole body is consecrated and made a fit dwelling place for the atma. According to the Atri Smruti a man is born a Shudra; by performing the Upanayana Samskara he becomes a Dvija (twice born); by acquiring the Vedic lore he becomes a Vipra (an inspired poet); and by realising Brahman (God) he becomes a Brahmin. The samskaras are a form of spiritual endeavor (sadhana) - an external discipline for internal spiritual edification. Thus, the entire life of a Hindu is one grand sacrament. The Isha Upanishad reveals that the final goal of the samskaras, by observing the rites and rituals is "to transcend the bondage of samsara and cross the ocean of death." To this we can add that after transcending the cycle of births and deaths, the atma attains Paramatma - the Lord Purushottam.
Although the number of samskaras prescribed by various scriptures vary, we shall consider the sixteen that are a consensus among scholars:
(1) Garbhadan (Conception)
(2) Pumsavana (Engendering a male issue)
(3) Simantonayana (Hair-parting)
(4) Jatakarma (Birth rituals)
(5) Namakarana (Name-giving)
(6) Nishkrama (First outing)
(7) Annaprashana (First feeding)
(8) Chudakarma (or Chaul) (Shaving of head)
(9) Karnavedh (Piercing the earlobes)
(10) Vidyarambha (Learning the alphabet)
(11) Upanayana (Sacred thread initiation)
(12) Vedarambha (Beginning Vedic study)
(13) Keshant (Godaan) (Shaving the beard)
(14) Samavartan (End of studentship)
(15) Vivaha (Marriage Ceremony)
(16) Antyeshti (Death rites).