Lifecycle ceremonies (samskaras)
Hindu lifecycle ceremonies, samskaras (sacraments), sanctify the individual’s life course from before birth to after death and effect the transformations necessary to the individual’s transition from one stage and status to the next. These ceremonies include rituals dating back thousands of years. The number of these varies in different texts, but the most commonly given number is sixteen. The first nine of these relate to babies, from before conception, through pregnancy and into early childhood, reflecting the worries surrounding this period in ancient times, not completely removed by modern medicine. These include such events as the naming ceremony, weaning onto solid food, head shaving, and ear piercing.
Foremost of the educational rites is the rite of initiation (upanayana), including investiture with the sacred thread, which traditionally inaugurated a period of Vedic study that prepared the initiate to participate fully in Vedic religion and culture. In ancient times the boy/young man would spend time living with and serving his teacher (guru) and observing a vow of celibacy (brahmacharya). This practice, and the knowledge of the sacred Vedic texts and associated rituals, was traditionally only available to twice-born (dvija) men, in other words, those in the top three varnas (classes). Despite its importance, this rite is now largely restricted to brahmins and the period of studentship retained in only simplified and shortened form. A few contemporary Hindu groups have introduced equivalent ceremonies for girls, and there is some textual evidence that occasionally in ancient times both girls and boys from other social groups were initiated. More commonly, marriage has been viewed as the equivalent of initiation for women.
The rite of marriage (vivaha) which marks the beginning of life as a householder is often celebrated in elaborate and lengthy ceremonies. Among the important traditions are the welcoming of the groom and his family, the giving of the bride to the groom, and the exchange of gifts including a necklace (mangala sutra) for the bride from the groom’s mother. The couple circumambulate a sacred fire, taking seven steps together with seven prayers for the success of their partnership and casting an offering of grain into the fire. Marriage retains its central significance though there has been a move away from ‘arranged’ marriage towards both ‘assisted’ marriage where the future partners take the initiative but still involve their families and ‘love matches’.
The last of the samskaras is the funerary rite (antyeshti) which normally features cremation of the body, disposal of the ashes and offerings of rice balls to enable the deceased to join the ranks of the ancestors, succeeded by memorial rites (shraddha) at regular intervals. Renouncers, in contrast, tend to be buried and they may have undergone funerary rites before renouncing the world to symbolise the death of their old way of life.