Hindu samskars (var., samskaras) are sacred rituals or sacraments designed to imbue every stage of human life with dedication of activity (and action in that stage of life) to the divine. Hindu samskaras are inborn impulses which are brought across with the mind from the previous birth and cause samsara, the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The sixteen samskars laid down by Hindu religious texts are:

Impregnation (Garbhadana)

Pumsavana (Ensuring birth of a male child)

Simanta (Hair-parting)

Jatakarma (Ceremony on birth)

Namakarana (Naming ceremony)

Karnavedha (Ear-piercing ceremony)

Nishkramana (Taking the child out)

Annaprashana (First solid food-feeding)

Chudakarana (Tonsure; removing impure hair)

Vidyarambha (Teaching alphabets)

Upanayana (Munji, initiation)

Vedarambha (Higher studies)

Keshanta or Godana (First shave of beard)

Samavartana or Snana (Completion of studies)

Vivaha (Marriage)

Antyeshti (Last or funeral rites)

Sacraments may begin before a soul is even conceived. Orthodox Hindu couples consider the moment they decide to have a child as sacramental time, and many offer this activity as nishkama karma, (selfless activity) praying unto God for an intelligent, devoted and highly evolved soul to enter the womb of the wife. Sexual relations are then engaged in with full conscious intentions to conceive a child.

Paramahamsa Yogananda, in Autobiography of a Yogi [1] reported that his parents only ever had sexual relations twelve times; each occasion was on the anniversary of their marriage. They dedicated the conjugal act to the Goddess Devi, and offered to be parents for whatever child the Goddess would send to them. They had 12 children.

Birth Janma itself is a sacrament. The birth rite is called jatakarma which means birth action. Paradoxically, for Hindu, the act of birth is both sacred and polluting. Jatakarma functions to purify the physical and mental aspect of suffering and shedding of blood that accompanies childbirth.

Several sacraments are performed in childhood. Usually between the third and sixth week of life, the child is given a nama, name, often after consultation with the pundit, who may consult the astrological conditions and influences prevailing at the moment of birth. Sometimes, parents may go to the family guru or priest and seek an auspicious name for the child. The first time the child is taken outside, its universe expands exponentially. The first time a child takes solid food, this marks the end of dependency on breast feeding. Ear piercing is often scheduled when a child is one year old, although it may on occur until a child is five. Hindus believe that certain points of the body are centres of energy, (not unlike Chinese acupuncture points), and the body is made up of several sheaths; ear piercing is said to benefit the mental and spiritual health of the child and may provide spiritual protection. Formal initiation of a child into study (vidya, eduction) occurs when the parent or guru takes the child's finger, and traces out a letter of the alphabet in the grains of rice.

For young people, there are the sacred thread ceremony, Upanayanam, where the young person is initiated into the spiritual life with the giving of the Gayatri Mantra. Goddess Saraswathi is invited to this ceremony. Without this right, upper caste (Brahmin) boys cannot study Veda or marry. After Upanayanam, the boy is considered "twice-born", as this spiritual initiation is considered as a second birth.

The next sacrament for a young man is the first shaving; gifts are exchanged all round, and male relatives give advice and remind the young man to remain celibate until marriage. The equivalent sacrament for a woman occurs when she has her first menstrual period. She is closed away to adjust to her new status as potential mother; friends come by to advise and tease her. Then she emerges for a ritual bath and feast of celebration. Sometimes the young woman is taken to the temple and arathi lights are waved around her, signalling that Goddess resides within, and has granted the power to produce new life to the young woman.

Vedarambha used to be performed at the same time as Upanayanam, as it involves purification and grace to pursue higher vedic studies. Samavartana is returning home after completion of vedic studies. Marriage and Last rites are called the housholder sacraments and relate to that stage of life beyond childhood and celibacy. Sanyasins will, as part of the rite of taking sanyas, will perform their own cremation and burn themselves in effigy. From the point of view of Hindus, sanyasins are dead to their families. Witness the life of Jnanadeva with his brothers and sisters, who had to seek certificates of purity because their father Vitthalpant gave up sanyas, returned to his village and his wife, and took up the householder state. Husband, wife and children were all shunned and exiled from their village.

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