Question 31. What is Samskara? How many Samskaras have been listed in out scriptures? Why should they be undertaken? What are the Samskaras that are still extant and applicable to all sections of Hindus society?
Our life can be compared to a Yajna, a sacrifice. Even as the implements of a sacrifice are cleaned and purified, every Hindu is expected to cleanse and purify his body and mind through certain rites. These rites prescribed for such purification, are termed Samskaras (sacraments). Though these are religious rites, they have a social dimension too. The Samskaras are usually listed as sixteen. Out of them Jatakarma, Namakarana, Annaprasana, Upanayana, Vivaha and Antyeshti are considered more important.
Jatakarma, as its very name indicates, is the rite which is performed as soon as the baby is born. Medhajanana (uttering a mantra in the car of the baby, by the father, to generate the power of intelligence and memory), prayers for longevity and good health are the chief features of this Samskara. However, this is not in vogue now. Namakarana is the act of christening the child on the 10th or 12th day after birth. The name chosen is usually that of a god or goddess or of a saint. Feeding the child with solid food for the first time is Annaprasana. The food should be consecrated by ceremonially offering it to the family deity before feeding the child. With Upanayana begins a period of Vedic studies and spiritual discipline.
Hence it is considered to be extremely important. Literally, the word means leading to the Guru for education (upa=3D near, nayana leading). If physical birth is the first birth, this rite gives a spiritual birth, which is the second. Hence, one who has undergone this Samskara is called a dvija (twice born). Acceptance of the loin cord and loin cloth, wearing the Yajnopavita (the sacred thread), initiation into the Gayatri Mantra (also called Savitri) and begging the food these are the chief steps of this rite.
The loin cloth signifies the beginning of a life of continence and self control. The symbolism of Yajnopavita is that from the day it is worn, life becomes a Yajna, a sacrifice, for the good of the society. The repetition of Gayatri Mantra engenders wisdom and memory, and is a great aid in the path of spiritual evolution. Begging for food impresses the novice of his indebtedness to society. He is expected to serve the society all his life and to the best of his ability in order to repay the debt.