Samskaras: Rites of Passage

Almost all rites of passage involve a havan ceremony. Here a bride and bridegroom throw grains into the sacrificial fire

Hindu rites of passage are not mere formalities or social observances, but serve to purify the soul at critical junctions in life’s journey. The word “samskara” means “mental impression,” for the ceremonies help create a favourable mentality for stepping positively from one phase of life into the next. The samskaras are considered essential for the three higher (twice-born) varnas, and neglect of any ritual might render a member “fallen” from his status.

Significantly, the first samskara, called “purification of the womb,” begins prior to conception. It aims at sanctifying the consciousness of both husband and wife before they try to beget a child. Scripture explains that the type of soul that enters the womb is largely determined by the mental states of both husband and wife, a notion graphically illustrated in the Mahabharata. If “members of the twice born” neglected this ceremony, and acted on sex impulse alone, then the child conceived might not develop the attributes to become a qualified member of a higher varna. Such offspring would then be called dvija-bandhu, “friends of the twice-born.” This practice implies that the system of four varnas was not hereditary, but based on individual merit. The rites of passage were considered essential for preserving the purity of the individual and of the social system.

Although some traditions mention ten rites of passage, or up to sixteen – or occasionally even more – only four are currently popular, namely:

  1. Jatakarma – birth ceremonies (plus others in childhood)
  2. Upanayana – initiation (the sacred-thread ceremony)
  3. Vivaha – marriage
  4. Antyeshti – funeral and rites for the dead

These are discussed later in this section.

Key Points

  • Hindu rites of passage are called samskaras.
  • They serve to purify the soul, and mark the various stages of life.
  • They are considered essential for members of the three higher varnas.
  • The first rite is before conception.
  • Most traditions say there are a total of sixteen samskaras.
  • Four sets of rites are commonly practiced: for birth, initiation, marriage, and death.

Related Concepts

  • The soul (atman)
  • Reincarnation (life as one stage of an ongoing journey)

Related Values and Issues

  • Life in the womb/abortion
  • Designer babies/cloning etc.

Personal Reflection

  • What is the meaning of rites of passage in your own tradition or other faiths?
  • How does Hinduism compare? What are the similarities and differences?
  • Meaning and Purpose
  • The purpose of life’s journey