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Even Before Birth: The Purifying World of Hindu Samskaras

Article of the Month - August 2011
Viewed 40066 times since 15th Aug, 2011
A person was once digging up his field for planting seeds. Suddenly he came across a greenish stone. He thought it to be beautiful and took it to a jeweler. The jeweler said that it was nice and paid the man a hundred rupees for the stone. The jeweler then took the stone inside his workshop. He first cleaned the dirt, and then evened it out by doing away with its ruggedness. Further he polished it, and then the stone started shining. Thus the stone was made suitable for setting into an ornament. After it had become a piece of jewelry, the same emerald that as a stone had fetched only a hundred rupees became worth a million. Such a process of refining and enriching is called Samskara.

All the scriptures, whether it be the Gita or the Upanishads, are there to give us Samskara. Even the science of Vedanta, the highest knowledge available to mankind, is meant to remove our Avidya; i.e. Vidya acts by removing an impurity (Avidya), it does not give anything new. Gaining knowledge in Vedanta means removing Avidya, it does not mean ‘acquiring’ knowledge.
Manusmrti (Sanskrit Text with English Translation of M.N. Dutt, Index of Slokas and Critical Notes)

The Vedas have delineated sixteen Samskaras for purifying us. The Manu Smriti outlines their purpose:
‘All impurities inherent in the seed of the male and the womb of the female are removed by Samskaras.’ (Manu Smriti 2.27)

HINDU SAMSKARAS (Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments) The term ‘Samskara’, has similar origins to the word ‘Sanskrit’, meaning to refine, polish, prepare and perfect. ‘Sanskrit’ is human language refined and perfected enough to become the language of the gods. Samskara in the ancient scriptures stand for various sacraments performed on an individual during his life cycle, not only for removing impurities and imperfections inevitably associated with his birth, but also ultimately making him eligible and suitable for Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life and death.

The sixteen Samskaras to be performed on an individual during his life cycle are:
1). Garbhadhana: The rite of insemination.
2). Pumsavana: Bringing about a male child.
3). Simantonnayana: Ritual Parting of the Wife’s Hair by the Husband.
4). Jatakarma: Birth ceremonies.
5). Namakarna: Ceremony of Naming the Child.
6). Nishkramana: The child’s first outing.
7). Annaprashana: The first feeding of the child with solid foods.
8). Chudakarana: The child’s first haircut.
9). Karnavedha: Piercing of the child’s ears.
10). Vidya-arambha: Beginning of the child’s studies.
11). Upanayana: The wearing of the sacred thread.
12). Veda-arambha: Start of Vedic studies.
13). Keshanta: First shaving of the beard.
14). Samavartana: Taking leave of one’s teacher.
15). Vivaha: Marriage.
16). Antyeshti: Last Rites.

The Pre-Natal Samskaras 

Samskaras begin even before the birth of the individual, since it is believed that the state of the parent’s mind during conception affects the well-being and ‘quality’ of the offspring. Thus says the Narada Purana:
‘The state of mind during the placing of the seed into the womb determines the type of child to be born.’ (2.27.29-30)
Illustrated Susruta Samhita - 3 Volumes (Original Text in Sanskrit, Translation in English, Explanatory Notes and Pictures)

This is confirmed by medical texts:
‘The quality of diet, actions etc of the man and woman lead to an offspring with similar qualities.’ (Sushruta Samhita Sharira Sthana 2.46)

The first Samskara thus deals with the sanctification of the womb and seed. This is known as Garbhadhana. It is performed soon after the wedding because the prescribed purpose of marriage is to secure noble and worthy progeny (and not a license to indulgence).

Timing of the Garbhadhana Samskaras:

As mentioned above, the obvious time for Garbhadhana, the placing of one’s seed inside the wife, is when she is physically prepared to conceive. This is known in the scriptures as Ritu-Kala, or the period of fertility. The proper time of conception is from the fourth to the sixteenth night after the monthly periods begin. For example, if a woman begins her periods on the 1stof August, then from the 4thof August to the 16th of August she is ready for conceiving. However, the following restrictions apply:
1). Physical contact between man and wife should take place only in the nights, and never in the daytime (Prashna Upanishad 1.13). This is a strict no-no, and anyone indulging in it becomes liable for ‘Prayashchitta’ (atonement).
2). Physical contact is to be avoided on all festivals or days of fasting (Manu Smriti 3.45; Yajnavalakya Smrti 1.79)
3). Certain days of the lunar month are also restricted. The eight and fourteenth of the lunar month and the full-moon (Purnima) and no moon (Amavasya) days.
4). Also the eleventh and thirteenth nights after the advent of the periods. In the above example, the 11thand 13thof August too would be forbidden (Manu Smriti 3.47).
Approaching one’s wife during her Ritu-Kala is not only preferable but also compulsory. The great Manu says: “One should be faithful to one’s wife, and approach her in every Ritu.’ The Parashara Smriti goes further and says: “The man who, even though he is healthy, does not go to his wife during her Ritu, is guilty of the sin of abortion” (Parashara Smriti 4.15). However, the above mentioned prohibited days do have to be respected.

The Method of Garbhadana:

The actual method of Garbhadhana has been delineated in detail in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. On the fourth night after menstruation, after the wife has purified herself with a bath, the man should think thus: “my wife wearing pure clothes is like Goddess Lakshmi.’ Then he should go near her, offer her Sattvik (pure) food, and reciting nine specified mantras, invite her for conception.
Later, his successive actions like embracing her etc. too are accompanied by the chanting of various mantras. Before the actual process he has to chant this mantra, touching her at different places:

‘I am the sky, you are the earth,
Come, let us unite,
Deposit the seed,
To get a child.’
During the actual process he has to chant:

Prasthanathraya Volume-V Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (The Only Edition with Shankaracharya's Commentary in the Original Sanskrit with English Translation) May Lord Vishnu make your womb capable of generation,
May Lord Surya shape the child’s body,
May Lord Prajapati sprinkle seed in you,
May the Lord of Fate look after your fetus.
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.20-21)

The Purpose of the Garbhadhana Samskara:

Lust and physical attraction is a characteristic common to all living beings, as a consequence of which there is intercourse, which leads to creation of offspring. This however is animal instinct. If we don’t rise from this level we are not humans, but beasts only. To gain this ascendance we need to rein our base instincts through Samskaras. The physical contact between husband and wife should be according to the rules laid down in the Shastras (ancient scriptures), ensuring that the would-be child would be marked with the spirit of spirituality.
The Garbhadhana Samskara makes us realize that the physical contact between man and wife is not a fulfillment of an animal need, but rather a yajna (sacrifice).When man and wife, bedecked in the shower of auspicious mantras (chanted by the husband), indulge in the actual physical act of creating an offspring, they indeed give rise to a child of superior disposition.
The whole purpose of the Garbhadhana Samskara is to invoke the gods to participate in the act of procreation, the human counterpart of divine creation. That the human act of procreation is of divine origin is clearly mentioned in the scriptures:
‘It was Lord Prajapati the creator who first established his seed in the lower part of a woman. A man should do the same because it is the way of the world to follow in the footsteps of those superior to us.’ (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.2)
In comparing the married couple to the earth and the sky, the Vedas recognize the inherent nature and necessity of this union in accordance with the cosmic laws of procreation.
However, those who do not recognize the essential sacredness of the act of procreation are headed for disaster. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘Many Brahmins lost all their merit (punya) because they indulged in this act without knowing that it is but a sacrifice (yajna).’ (6.4.4)

Pumsavana: Samskara for Bringing about a Male Child:

After the wife has been impregnated, the scriptures advise her to live a careful and pure life:
‘A pregnant woman should not ever let her mind be depressed. She should not engage in too much hard work; she should always remain pure. She should never utter any inauspicious words; protect herself; always wear clean clothes, and do charity on auspicious days and festivals. The woman who follows these rules with diligence gives birth to a son with noble character and long life.’ (Matsya Purana 7.36-47)
As for the man, it is explicitly stated that ‘a husband should always keep his wife happy, giving her whatever she wants, because any unhappiness can have a negative effect on the baby to be born.’ (Yajnavalkya Smriti 3.79)
Traditionally, male progeny have been preferred, as the continuity of the family is maintained through male lineage, and sons are required to perform the necessary rituals that guarantee a safe sojourn for the father and mother after they leave this world.
However, daughters are also welcome and desired in addition to sons, as is evident in various texts such as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4.17) which advises that “a man who wishes to have ‘a learned daughter who will life out her full life span’ should ask his wife to “cook a special meal of rice and ghee. The couple thus becomes capable of begetting such a daughter.”

ATHARVAVEDA SAMHITA: 3 Volumes (Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes and Index of Verses)

During the third month of pregnancy, the scriptures prescribe a Samskara for ensuring a male child. Known as Pumsavana, it is performed before the fetus begins to move in the womb (Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.11). This is an extremely auspicious Samskara and is mentioned by name in the Atharva Veda (6.11.1).

The woman who undergoes this Samskara fasts and bathes in preparation for it. Afterwards, she adorns herself with new clothes. Then in the night, sprouts of the banyan tree are pounded and the juice administered into her right nostril by her husband.
During the process, the following mantra from the Atharva Veda is chanted: “may a male embryo enter your womb, as an arrow into a quiver. May a son be born after ten months.” (3.23.2-4)

The Significance of the Pumsavana Samskara:

Atharvaveda (Saunaka) with The Pada-patha and Sayanacarya’s Commentary (In Five Volumes) - Sanskrit Only
Sayanacharya, the greatest commentator on the Vedas, remarks that the above verse signifies that as an arrow is placed comfortably in a quiver, so would the child live peacefully in the womb. Additionally, it is also a prayer for the child to complete his full term of ten months in the womb, thus precluding the possibility of premature birth.

This Samskara strengthens the bond between husband and wife, bound together by a common desire for male offspring. At this crucial and difficult juncture of her life, this sharing and support is psychologically highly comforting to the wife.
According to the Susruta Samhita, one of the principal texts of Ayurveda, the banyan tree has got properties of removing various kinds of troubles during pregnancy. Also, insertion of medicines into nostrils is a common practice in the Indian system of medicine. Therefore, it is evident that this Samskara is based, amongst many other things known and unknown, on the foundations of scientific medical practice.

The Simantonnayana Samskara: 

After a few months, another Samskara is performed on the expectant mother. This consists of the parting of the wife’s hair by her husband. In popular tradition, this is a rite focused on the mother, educating her while entertaining her, encouraging her to concentrate on her own well-being so as to ensure the full and healthy development of the child. The texts discuss feeding the woman auspicious foods as well as those that satisfy her special cravings, all the while entertaining her with songs, anointing and massaging her, and garlanding her with a string of unripe fruits. During the last trimester of her pregnancy following this ritual, relatives pamper and protect the mother to be, catering to her various whims. Every precaution is taken for the well-being of the fetus.
According to Ayurveda, from the fifth month of pregnancy, the formation of the mind of the child begins. So the pregnant woman is required to take utmost care to facilitate this process, avoiding any physical shock to the fetus. This is symbolically emphasized by parting her hair.
This Samskara is definitely geared to keep the woman in good cheer, and to show her that she is special. The parting and dressing of her hair by the husband are powerful rituals which affirm that he continues to be very much with her during this difficult phase, and that he finds her as attractive as ever despite the obvious physical changes in her body.
For the actual ceremony, the wife has to fast on that day. Wearing new clothes, she is seated on a soft seat, and the husband first parts her hair upwards, and then ties five fruits as an ornament around her neck. While doing so he chants the following mantra: “O woman with beautiful hair, the branches of this strong tree are laden with fruit. May you too be fruitful like it.” This mantra makes it obvious that this Samskara is also a ritual of fertility.
After doing her hair, the husband asks two singers to sing aloud stories of brave warriors. This is meant to generate a heroic atmosphere and thereby influence the unborn child, much like Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. The latter learnt the most powerful battle stratagems while in his mother’s womb itself.
Like all auspicious occasions, this ceremony too ends with a lavish feast for Brahmins. The mother, highlighting the solemnity of the occasion, keeps silent till the stars appear in the sky. Then she touches a calf and breaks her silence by uttering ‘Bhur Bhuvah Svah.’

The Shastras operate at much deeper psychological level than we can ever imagine. By governing, nay enriching and refining our life through these Samskaras, they ensure a spiritual foundation for our material well-being. One thing has to be realized: it is not we that sustain the tradition, but rather, it is tradition that sustains us.

References & Further Reading:

Bist, B.S. Yajnavalkya Smrti: Sanskrit Text, Transliteration and English Translation: Delhi, 2004

Dutt, M.N. Manusmrti (Sanskrit Text with English Translation): Delhi, 2010

Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2007.

Joshi, K.L. Matsya Purana (Sanskrit Text with English Translation in Two Volumes): Delhi, 2007

Joshi, Laxmanshastri. Dharma Kosa, Samskara Kanda (Six Volumes): Wai, 1983.
Khemka, Radheyshyam. Samskar Ank: Gorakhpur, 2006.
Malviya, Dr. Sudhakar. Gobhila Grhyasutram: Varanasi, 1997.
Mishra, Dr. Jagdishchandra. Paraskara Grhyasutram (With Two Sanskrit Commentaries): Varanasi, 2010.
Mittal, Sushil and Gene Thursby. The Hindu World: New Delhi, 2004. 

Oldenberg, Hermann. Paraskara Grhyasutra (English Translation): Delhi, 2005

Pandey, Rajbali. Hindu Samskaras: Delhi, 2006.
Rai, Gangasagar. Yajnavalkya Smrti with the Commentary Mitakshara: Delhi, 2007. 

Sharma. N.N. Asvalayana Grhya Sutram (With Sanskrit Commentary of Narayana): Delhi, 2010

Tachikawa, Musashi., Shoun Hino & Lalita Deodhar. Puja and Samskara: New Delhi, 2006
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