Birth Rituals and Pilgrimage in Hinduism
The Hindu Council of Australia forwarded to me questions that were asked by Eboni, a Year 11 student from a Catholic educational institution for her Study of Religion assessment. She was asked to do ethnographic research which required that she correspond with an adherent of Hinduism.
The topic of her study was birth rituals and pilgrimage in Hinduism. The questions raised by Eboni and my response thereto may be of interest to others as well, hence this article.
What are the most important birth Samskaras and why?
The samskaras can be defined as rituals that make an individual ‘fit and proper’ for the life ahead. The upanayana samskara, for example, makes the individual eligible to study the Vedas and Upanishads (philosophical texts). ‘Tantra-vārtika says that samskāras are those actions and rites that impart fitness and it further says that fitness is of two kinds: (a) it arises by the removal of taints (sins) or (b) by the generation of fresh qualities’ (Kane, 1941:101). According to Klostermaier (2007:147), ‘the samskāras, often called the sacraments of Hinduism, are rituals by means of which a Hindu becomes a full member of the socioreligious community’. Using the English word sacraments, however, doesn’t fully capture the essence of the Sanskrit word ‘samskara’. It is not just about outward religious rite (like baptism) but captures whole lot of concepts like embellishment, making perfect, refining, or polishing. They are meant for “sanctifying the body and purifying it in this life and after death’ (Manusmriti, 2.27ff cited by Klostermaier, 2007:147).
‘The Samskaras, are described in some hymns of the Vedas, a few Brahmanas, the Grahysutras, the Dharmasutras, the Smritis and the later texts’ (Pandey, 1949: VIII) and begin with conception and end with cremation. The sage Gautama lists 40 in total – however, at present only 16 Samskaras are considered the principal samskaras (Kane, 1941). Pandey (1949) classifies samskaras in five categories: (a) the pre-natal samskaras (b) samskaras of childhood (c) educational samskaras (d) marriage samskaras (e) funeral ceremonies.
The birth samskaras would fall in the first two categories. The pre-natal samskaras start with ‘garbhadhan’ (conception-related). Pandey (1949) provides an elaborate discussion of the appropriate time/day for conception (for example, to beget a son or a daughter) to take place as enunciated in the various smriti texts of Hinduism. The second is the pumsavan samskara which was to have a male child. The purpose is also to avoid abortion. This samskara is generally performed in the third month of pregnancy or before the foetus begins to move in the womb. A few drops of herbal medicine prepared from banyan tree are usually put in the right nostril of the pregnant woman. The third samskara is simantaonnayana, which involves parting of the hair of the pregnant woman by her husband. It is performed in the 5th month of pregnancy as the mind of the would-be child starts to develop. Its purpose was also to ‘bring prosperity to the mother and long life to the unborn child’ (Pandey, 1949:106). A red mark (called kumkum or sindoor) is usually put by the husband in the gap between the parted hair with the intention to keep evil influences at bay. Several duties are also cast on the husband to look after his pregnant wife to keep her cheerful and happy given the impact her state of mind can have on the unborn baby.
The samskaras of the childhood, begin with the birth of the child called Jatakarma (birth ceremonies). Elaborate arrangements have been prescribed for taking appropriate care of the women before delivery. The tradition is to perform the Jatakarma before the naval cord is severed but can be performed thereafter too. According to Pandey (1949), it has the following aspects: the medha-janana is performed so that the child is bestowed with great intellect (medha or buddhi). The ayush ceremony is performed for a long-life for the child. The strength ceremony is performed so that if a male child is born the child becomes masculine and martial. Thereafter, the mother is showered with praise by the husband and the family for having given the greatest of gifts to the family in the form of the child. All guests are given appropriate gifts and alms are given to the needy. The next of the samskaras is called the nama-karan (name giving ceremony). Typically, the name of one of the many Hindu deities is chosen as it is believed that the deity would protect the child. Furthermore, when the family and friends call by that name, they too get divine blessing. The scriptures contain literally thousands of names, for example, Vishnu is typically worshipped by reciting his one thousand names. Any one of these names could be chosen. Similarly, other deities too are known by various names. There are similar rules for naming a daughter. It is suggested by the Hindu texts, for example, that where the girls name ends with ‘a’ or ‘i’, it is considered as auspicious and the girl is blessed by the divine. The nama-karan ceremony is typically performed on the 10th or 12th day of birth.
The next of the samskaras is the niskramana (first outing). The child can be taken outside the house any time after the 12th day of birth till the 4th month. Typically, in the third month after birth, the child is taken outside the house and shown the Sun while in the fourth month it is shown the Moon. The maternal uncle is usually invited for the ceremony.
The next of the birth samskaras is anna-prasana (first feeding). After about six months of breast-feeding or cow-milk feeding, the child is well developed for a taking solid food. Typically, a mix of meshed boiled rice, milk, curd (yogurt), honey and refined butter is given in small quantities by the father. The next samskara is the chudakaran (tonsure/ caula) involves haircut. Sometimes this samskara is performed at a temple and takes place within one to three years of age. The top hair (tuft) is usually kept. It became eventually an indispensable practice among the Hindus. The tuft is kept so that the child gets long life. The next samskara is karnavedha (ear piercing). Ears of a child are bored to protect it from diseases. It is usually performed on 10th, 12th or 16th day after birth. Some sages are of the view that it should be performed in the sixth or seventh month.
How do Hindu birth rituals impact the rest of an adherent’s life?
The samskaras serve two purposes. First, they create a responsibility on the individual to follow the duties as ordained in the scriptures (for example, the vivaha samskara (marriage) imposes duties on the husband and the wife towards each other) and second, they establish a cultural connect. On the occasion extended family, friends and the neighbours also join. The child eventually develops a cultural and social connection as it grows. ‘The samskāras had been treated from very ancient times as necessary for unfolding the latent capacities for development and as being the outward symbols or signs of the inner change, which would fit human beings for corporate life and they also tended to confer a certain status on those who underwent them’ (Kane, 1941:102).
Why are birth rituals so important to your religion?
Traditionally, not only birth-related but all subsequent rituals were important. Some of the texts in which these samskara are mentioned date back to 4,000 BCE . They were probably introduced to suit the circumstances that existed then and may have held practical utility and a purpose suited to that time. However, many changes and modifications have taken place over the years as required to meet the needs of the society. Hinduism is not a fossilized religion and ‘in its long history, it has undergone many changes rapidly adopting to modern times’ (Klostermaier, 2010:5).
Many birth-related samskaras arose out of the belief to ward off the new born from evil influences and attract beneficial ones for growth, peace and prosperity of the new born (Pandey 1949). The birth rituals (samskaras) are now falling apart and going into oblivion barring very few that are still in vogue. ‘It is to be noted that in modern times most of the samskāras (except garbha-dhāna, upanayana and vivāha) have fallen into oblivion and are hardly ever performed even by brāhmanas in the manner and at the times prescribed by the smritis. Owing to the rapid rise in the marriageable age of brāhmana girls, even the samskāra of garbha-dhāna is falling into abeyance. Nāma-karaṇa, annaprāśana are performed in a popular way but without Vedic mantras or without calling a priest to officiate. In most cases cauḷa is performed on the day of the upanayana and samāvartana is also performed a few days after upanayana. The Jātakarma and Anna-prāśana are performed on the same day in some parts’ Kane (1941:105).
What is your personal experience with the birth Samskaras?
I had curiosity about everything since my childhood. Consequently, I enthusiastically participated not only in the samskara ceremonies at home but would also seek information from the priest and others about the meaning thereof – whether the samskaras were done in my own individual case or in the case of other family members. What appealed to me in most cases was the rationality that was underlying the ceremonies and the spiritual thought that underpinned it, though some of the samskaras are obviously outdated.
Do birth rituals have more significance than other rituals in Hinduism? Why or why not? How do the birth rituals relate to your scriptures?
I don’t think birth rituals have any extra significance as compared to other rituals in Hinduism. Furthermore, most of the rituals are falling into the oblivion as society is changing rapidly. A few major are still there, for example, nama-karana (name giving) and would continue to be there for long such as vivah (marriage) ritual or rituals related to death. Birth-related rituals are now confined to the immediate family and may not be performed as intended in the Hindu texts strictly. Many may be performed only symbolically.
As already stated above, birth-rituals were an important part of the overall samskaras described in the scriptures.
How do traditional birthing rituals integrate into modern society in Australia? Have the rituals changed recently?
Hindus can adapt to the modern society in Australia easily since Hinduism is ever-changing as per the needs of time. Some of the birth-related rituals are still performed but may not be strictly in conformity with the scriptures. In Australia, a typical Hindu family would still perform nama-karana, anna-prasana, and chudakaran in varying forms though. These may be performed either by inviting the priest at home or at the nearby Hindu temple. As already indicated above, most rituals have disappeared. It is rare that a young Hindu family living in Australia would follow these to a tee. The situation in today’s India may not be very different but as facilities are available the rituals may be performed with more intensity than say in Australia. Some of these may be performed when the family living in Australia travels to India. In Australia, for example, the woman may be sent home after delivery in a couple of days. So the baby has in reality seen the outside world much earlier without any specific Niskramana Samskara !
Generally, how does living in Australia impact your life as a Hinduist?
Living in Australia doesn’t impact my life as a Hindu at all, though one does miss the fun, for example, Diwali (festival of lights) where the whole country is in a festive mood and provides occasion to connect with friends and relatives and enjoy together. As stated earlier, Hindus are highly adaptable and responsible members of any society and mould themselves to conform with the society. They typically confine religion to home or at a community place of worship like the temple. They are certainly not fanatical or fundamentalist when it comes to observance of religious practices. This is because the focus of Hinduism is on development of the Self spiritually (for example, through Yoga) and pursuing a rational inquiry in to the divinity or supreme consciousness (Sathye, 2018). Hindus are free to practice their belief in whatever way they want. Given the plurality of worship, a Hindu is naturally accepting of other people’s right to worship in their own way and doesn’t impose her/his world-view on others. Consequently, a Hindu can easily assimilate in any society.
What is your experience and opinion regarding pilgrimages to the Ghats on the Ganges river in Varanasi India?
I have visited Varanasi thrice so far (1974-75- with friends, 1985-86-with parents, and 1994-95- with wife and daughter.
On all occasions, it was a remarkable experience. As I walked through the narrow lanes to reach the Ghats and first saw the Ganga, I was overwhelmed by the sea of water where you could not see the other bank of the river. One must take a boat to reach the other shore- a fascinating journey. I folded my hands in reverence to the sacred river. The thought that it is the river on the banks of which many sages over thousands of years did penance and embarked on the search of the Divinity or Supreme Consciousness rushed to my mind. It is the place where leaders of major Indian religions gave their first sermons – Buddha, for example, gave his first discourse at Sarnath (Varanasi).
There are many Ghats (over 100) – long rows of steps that lead one to the river. I visited only the two main Ghats (Dashashwamedh and Assi). In the early morning, one can see hundreds of pilgrims taking a dip in the Ganga and offering Arghya (holding Ganga water in the two palms joined together and slowly releasing it back to the river chanting prayer to the Sun). What impressed me most was their devotion, the absolute reverence to the mother nature – represented by the Ganga and the Sun for sustaining life and a prayer to lead one from darkness to light, from the unreal to the Real (the Ultimate Truth) and from mortality to immortality (bliss). In the evening, the Ganga worship (arati) is performed daily at Dashashwamedh Ghat – a spectacle not to be missed.
The Ghats are a very crowded place with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving daily. Cleanliness is often the casualty. The current Modi government has launched a massive clean India movement which has seen many Ghats free from the filth. A national project for cleaning the Ganga is also under implementation.
How did you come to be a Hindu? Were you born Hindu, or did you make a decision to pursue this faith later in life?
As is the case with most Hindus, I came to be a Hindu as my parents were Hindus. One can also decide to be a Hindu (like, for example, George Harrison of the Beatles or Julia Roberts- the Oscar- winning actress). As already stated, Hinduism is not a ‘faith’ or ‘ism’ at all. It is philosophy of life or a way of life. Consequently, it can’t be put in a narrow framework of a ‘faith’ as is usually understood. It is not an organised religion and doesn’t go about proselytizing people. As all are children of the Divine to whom are you converting – from a Divine to the Divine? – a Hindu would ask. The prayers that Hindus chant daily, wish for the well-being, health and prosperity of all and not just for the members of their commune, as some organised religions do. Hindus consider everything to be divine since the hand of the divine is everywhere. For a Hindu, the word ‘neighbour’ in the dictum ‘love thy neighbour’ would include not only humans but also animals, plants, rivers, mountains everything. Accordingly, a Hindu typically desists from violence towards any of these. It is naturally an ecology-friendly paradigm. There is no imaginary God in Hinduism who gave his message exclusively to a particular person, at a particular time and at a particular place yet applicable to all people, at all times and at all places. Hindus are seekers of the Supreme Consciousness – not believers in an imaginary God. There is no idol worship in Hinduism as is wrongly understood. Hindus do ‘murti’ worship. The murti is a manifestation of the divinity (Sathye, 2018).
Cooper, D., 2003. World Philosophies: An historical introduction, Blackwell Publishing, USA
Dasgupta, S.,1922. A history of Indian philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. UK.
Kane, P.V., 1941. History of Dharmasastra, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune (India).
Klostermaier, K.K., 2007. A survey of Hinduism. SuNY Press, Canada.
Pandey, R., 1949. Hindu Saṃskāras: Socio-religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, Vikrama Publications, Varanasi (India).
Sathye, M. 2018. The General Framework of Hinduism I and II, Indiafacts, Bengaluru. Available at: http://indiafacts.org/the-general-framework-of-hinduism-i/ and http://indiafacts.org/the-general-framework-of-hinduism-ii/ accessed on 17 November 2018.
 ‘Jatūkarṇya as quoted in Sam. Pr. (p.135) enumerates the 16 as garbha-dhāna, puṃsavana, sīmanta, jātakarma, nāma-karaṇa, Anna-prāśana, cauḷa, mauñji (upanayana), vratas (four), godāna, samāvartana, vivāha and antyeṣṭi (Kane, 1941:103).
 According to Bal Gangadhar Tilak – known as the ‘Father of Indian Unrest’ – the Vedas date back to 4,000 BCE but Max Muller, considers their age to be 1,200 BCE (Dasgupta, 1922)
 In the West, idol worship is usually equated to devil worship.
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