The best rendering of samskara in English is made by the word "sacrament," which means "religious ceremony or act regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace." Sacrament also means "confirmation of some promise or oath; things of mysterious significance,sacred influence and symbol."
--Sri Raj Bai Pandey, Hindu Samskaras
For the Hindu, life is a sacred journey, and every step from birth to death is marked by a traditional ceremony called a samskara. During these Hindu rites of passage, a temple or home ceremony deeply influences the soul and directs life along the path of dharma. There are many types of samskaras, from the rite prior to conception to the funeral ceremony. Each one, properly observed, empowers spiritual life, preserves religious culture, and establishes bonds with inner worlds as the soul consciously accepts each succeeding discovery and duty in the order of God's creation.
Religious samskaras serve two purposes. First, they mark clearly within our minds the occasion of an important life transition. Second, they solicit special blessings from the devas and deities, society and village, family and friends. These blessings and feelings of love have a markedly positive effect, stabilizing the mind so that the deeper meanings of life can unfold within us. Of the many Hindu samskaras, eight are illustrated and described below.
Anna Prasana, First Solid Food
During the Anna Prasana Samskara, solid food is fed to the child for the first time. This is done by the father or the mother in the temple or at home. The choice of food, such as rice, offered to a child at this crucial time of life is said to help forge his or her destiny.
This ear-piercing ceremony, for both boys and girls, is performed in the temple or the home, generally on the child's first birthday. Health benefits are said to derive from this ceremony.
The official beginning of the child's education is performed in the home or temple, during the fourth year, when he or she writes the first letter of the alphabet in a tray filled with uncooked rice.
Ceremonial head-shaving is usually performed before the end of the third year in the home or temple. The shaven head denotes purity and egolessness and is said to mitigate past life karma.
The ceremonial presentation of the sacred thread is performed in the temple or home between the ages of 9 and 15, when a boy begins the study of the Vedas. Thereafter, he is considered "twice-born."
The marriage ceremony is performed in a temple or special hall around the sacred homa fire. Lifetime vows and seven steps before God and the Gods consecrate the holy union of husband and wife.
The funeral ceremony is performed or arranged by the relatives according to local traditions. It includes preparation of the body, cremation, rites of mourning, purification and rememberance.
In addition to the primary rites of passage described and illustrated here, there is a rich collection of other traditional samskaras ranging from complex to simple, from prominent to obscure, from current to obsolete. Here is a sampling.
When a boy first shaves his facial hair, this indication that he has come of age is celebrated in the temple or at home with the Kesanta Samskara. It is a joyous time of gift-giving , yet it is serious as well. Often a vow of brahmachariya (celibacy) is taken at this same time.
As puberty dawns for a young girl, the ritu kala home-ceremony is performed to acknowledge her first menses. New clothing, jewelry and her first sari are given as she joyously and openly joins the young adult community.
This ceremony--literally, "returning home from the house of the guru"--marks the end of studentship and indicates formal closure to the brahmacharya period of life. The young person now must choose one of two paths: the grihastha path (family life) or the renunciate path (monastic life).
Nischitartha or Vagdana
This is the betrothal ceremony in which a man and woman are declared formally engaged by their parents with the exchange of jewelry and gifts. Based on this commitment, they and their families begin planning a shared future.
The literal meaning of the term pumsavana is "the quickening of a male child." Not practiced today, this ceremony was performed by the husband for the wife beseeching the birth of a son, primarily as an assurance for the continuance of the family line.
This is the "hair-parting" rite. Not commonly practiced today, this ancient ceremony of parting the hair of the pregnant wife was performed to bring cheer as well as ward off evil spirits.
During the later days of pregnancy, a woman may have the Jatakarma samskara performed. This rite, based on a verse from the Atharva Veda written specifically to assure safe child birth, was designed to yield blessings for life as well as protection from harm for both mother and child.
A hundred years ago, when a young brahmin began his Vedic studies, this initiation was common. In recent times, however, with the growing importance, popularity and use of non-Vedic liturgy, this practice is fading into obscurity, except among priests.