Life has been a great mystery to man. Its origin, growth, decadence and disappearance have always exercised his thoughts and emotions. The Hindu Samskaras were just an attempt to fathom and to facilitate the flow of this mystery. Through observations and experiences and through faltering and confidence of ages the ancient Hindus realised that life was an art like any other art in the world. It required cultivation and refinement. Man born and left to himself was a mass of elements, crude and brutal and slightly removed from his fellow citizens of the forest. His life stood in need of as much care, protection and cultivation as a plant in a garden, crops in a field and an animal in a cattle farm. The Samskaras involved consciou efforts to meet this need. The seers and the sages of yore, to their light and resources, tried to transform crude animality into refined humanity.Life a Mystery and an art
As in philosophy so in rituals life was regarded as a cycle. It starts where it ends. From birth to death it is continuous series of incidents moving round a nucleus of desire to live, to enjoy, to think and ultimately to retire. All the Samskaras and their ceremonies emanate from the centre of life and are concurrent with its circumference. The Ghyasutras, the oldest manuals of the Samskaras start with the Vivaha (marriage Ceremonies), because marriage was supposed to be the centre of life which supports and sustains all social activities. The Smritis, however, begin with the conception of a child in the womb of its mother, as, obviously, the life of an individual germinates here and they end with the Antyesti (Funeral Ceremonies), which apparently mark the end of an individual life. Between births and deaths like life, the Samskaras revolve.Life a Cycle
In the beginning, the Samskaras, though not automatic, were spontaneous. There was no dogma and there was no code. Precedent was the only authority; the question of rationale did not arise. When in course of time the various ceremonies connected with the Samskaras developed and they were amplified according to the social sentiments and needs, a conscious attempt was made at the codification of the Samskaras, and dogmas were fixed. This provided for the stability of the institutional aspect of the Samskaras, but it hindered its spontaneous growth which resulted in its stultification and decay.Dogma a Conscious Development
The forms and procedure of the Samskaras were suggested by ovservation and reasoning. Even in early times there were elaborate and distinct procedures of the Samskaras. Their precise origin is lost in the depth of antiquity but it is certain that they originated in social needs and in course of time they assumed a religious garb. Symbols and taboos played an important part in the procedural development of the Samskaras.The Procedure of the Samskaras
In the beginning of civilizations life was much simpler than it is at present and it was not divided into compartments. Social institutions, beliefs, sentiments, arts, sciences etc. were all closely interwoven. The Samskaras covered all these fields of life. Religion was all embracing factor in ancient times and rituals were giving sanctity and stability to all possible incidents in life, and to this end, they are utilising all the moral and material resources of the world to which man had an access. This aim of the Samskaras was to create conditions for the development of an integrated personality of an individual, who can adjust himself with the world around him believed to be full of human and superhuman forces.
When in course of time the complexities of life increased and distinctions in action came to be made, the Hindus recognized three definite paths of life – 1) Karma marga (the Path of Action), 2)Upasana marga (the Path of Meditation and Worship), 3)Jnana marga (the Path of Knowledge). Though the samskaras were sufficiently comprehensive in their scope originally, they came to be included, later on, in the Path of Action (Karma marga) alone. The first path of life was a preparatory step to the second and the third ones, meant for the purification of mind (Chitta shuddhi). Therefore though the samskaras were not of the highest importance in life, they were of the primary importance and thus essential for every individual. As a matter of fact they provided a necessary training for a higher type of culture intellectual and spiritual.
Indian philosophical attitude towards life centred round the idea that temporal life, in its last analysis, is futile and that a permanent state of consciousness transcending the earthly existence is to be reached. The samskaras which blessed the Mundane affairs of life were looked down upon by retiring aspirants after the transcendental values of life. Some of the upanisadic thinkers derided all sacrifices, including the samskaras, and compared them with frail boats unfit for crossing the ocean or mortality. But the classical Hindu mind, being synthetic and taking a balanced view of life, was able to reconcile ritualism with philosophy and under the same sacrificial canopy, side by side with most elaborate sacrifices, the highest metaphysical questions were raised and discussed. The Charvakas (Materialists), the Buddhists and the Jains (Heterodox religions) attacked rituals in vain. The Charvakas, having no rituals and dogmas to rest upon, died out. The Buddhist and the Jain churches developed their own rituals, leaving their laity to follow the popular rituals current in the society. The Brahmanical thinkers never tried to discard them, perhaps, thinking that people could not live without some kind of ceremonies; the samskaras, being the best of them. Received their approval.
The development of Puranic Hinduism synchronized with the decline of the Vedic religion and the gravity of religious life shifted from home – the venue of the samskaras – to the places of pilgimage and the temples. The emphasis was laid on the idol worship. But though the big sacrifice fell into disuse, the samskaras survived with the change that some of them, eg., the Tonsure and the Upanayana, in some cases, came to be performed at a temple instead of at home. The samskaras were so closely associated with the personal life of an individual that they clung to him or her through all changes and vicissitudes. Their hold on life was so strong that even some of the deities had to undergo some of these samskaras.