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If you'd like to learn a little about why rites and rituals are so important to the Hindu tradition, take a look below for a brief description.

The Journey of a Lifebody
by David M. Knipe

The Journey of a Lifebody

On the fourth night after the marriage and prior to first intercourse the groom addresses the bride with the verse: “May Vishnu prepare the womb, may Tvashtar mould the embryo’s form, may Prajapati emit seed, may Dhatar place the embryo. Place the embryo, Sinivali, place the embryo, Sarasvati! May the Ashvins garlanded with lotuses provide the embryo, the Ashvins with their golden fire-churning sticks, the embryo that I now place for you to bear in ten months.” (Jaiminiya Grihya Sutra 1.22)

Hindus recognize multiple sources of power in the world about them, sacred forces in rivers and rocks, in village temples and on hilltop shrines, even in holy women and men. It has been noted that time, like physical space, also reveals an abundance of spiritual meanings and events. There is the time of nature, a cosmic time of seasons and universal changes, measured by celestial bodies and monsoon winds, and evident in the alternations of light and darkness, warmth and cold, rain and drought, growth and decay. But there is also the time of an individual in the hoped-for span of a hundred years between birth and death. Like cosmic time, carefully segmented into memories of important events of the seasons and the deities, so too personal time is ritually marked. The marks are called samskaras, rites of passage and transformation.

Some ritual manuals consider as many as forty samskaras to be worthy of performance, but a more traditional set of ten to eighteen is characteristic. A samskara is literally an accomplishment, perfection, or refinement, and therefore the ritual advancement of a lifebody from its moment of conception to the moment just beyond its bodily death. Since many of the symbols are agricultural, the metaphor of ripening is often employed: A single cycle of life proceeds from seed planting to harvest sacrifice and beyond to rebirth in the succeeding cycle. Therefore food and its transformation, both material—in processes within the body—and spiritual—in ritual exchanges—remain dominant expressions.

Every culture, every religion, pays ritual attention to the life cycle. Not all of them, however, place as great an emphasis as Hinduism does upon the substantive transformations that occur in such procedures. There are several significant features of Hinduism to keep in view during a survey of the samskaras.

First, because of unquestioned acceptance of the concept of transmigration, the personal journey from conception to cremation or burial is not a singular one. Rather, each life is one of a great number of rebirths for that self until the achievement of its final state of liberation from the birth-and-death cycle.

Second, this personal journey of a lifebody is not a lonely one. It begins, obviously, as an extension of an existing parental family with all of its remembered forebears. It ends, ideally, with a living son, one further extension of the lineage, acting as performer of the last rites, the final sacrifice of the used-up body. If our own cultural image of a family tree is a great spreading oak or chestnut with many branches, the Hindu image is a slender bamboo, tall and undeviating, with regularly spaced joints (vamsa, “lineage”) to represent an unbroken descent from father to son. The masculine character of this lineage is one of the central features of Hindu ritual and kinship: Every attention is given to producing a son to keep the lineage and its ritual structure intact. A daughter is only a temporary member of the family, since she will be assumed into her husband’s lineage, first during the marriage ceremony itself, and then, after her life in his village or town, again at death when she may join the company of his ancestors. From the point of view of the personal journey of each lifebody, however, it is important to remember this wider community that is involved in every ritual. It is composed not only of all the visible relatives, but the invisible ones as well. The participant presence of the deceased, both male and female, is never forgotten, and offerings of food with accompanying mantras are invariably shared with them, as with the living.

Third, there is in the series of samskaras, to borrow a current media expression, an apparent front-loading. The majority of the rites occur before the age of six months and, in fact, several are accomplished before the severance of the umbilical cord. Since a dominant concern of thesamskaras throughout a lifetime is refinement, that is to say, the elimination of impurities, attention is drawn once more to the previous career of this self, including its dangerous passage from body to body. What follows is the orderly sequence of samskaras, the ritual passage from conception through childhood, initiation, marriage, death, and beyond.

From Conception Through Childhood

Vedic manuals for domestic rituals begin the life cycle with marriage procedures. It is on the fourth night of the wedding ceremony that consummation should occur, and sexual union is actually the rite of impregnation. According to the mantra of a famous wedding hymn in the Atharvaveda, the bride is earth and the groom is heaven. This notion of woman as crop field and man as provider of seed remains throughout Hindu myth and experience. Furthermore, the embryo that grows in the bride as a consequence of the marriage rite is itself a new being composed partly of the father’s semen—the source of bones, teeth, bodily channels, and semen—and partly of the mother’s uterine blood—the source of blood, flesh, and internal organs. If the father’s contributing substance predominates, the new being will be male; if the mother’s is stronger, then female.

The next samskara, however, performed in the third month of a woman’s first pregnancy, is the “generation of a male.” This indicates that ritual action may still determine the sex of the fetus. Beans, barley, berries, or banyan tree shoots may all play a part in the ritual. In the fourth or a later month is the ritual “parting of the hair” in which the father-to-be parts his wife’s hair three times upward, from front to back, using for a “comb” a porcupine quill, tufts of sacred grass, or a full spindle. Ripening fruits are also employed in this ceremony that, like the others, takes place at the hearth fire of the home and involves special mantras. In some parts of India the mother-to-be looks at cooked rice, envisioning the child yet to be born.

The ritual of birth itself is performed immediately upon delivery, before the umbilical cord is severed. The first part of this samskara concentrates on the “production of wisdom” in the newborn; the father touches the baby’s lips with a gold spoon or ring dipped in honey, curds, and clarified butter. The name of the goddess of sacred speech, Vach, is whispered three times into the infant’s right ear. The second part of the rite includes mantras, for “long life.” After the cutting of the cord the infant may be given a secret name, known only to the mother and father, before being placed at the mother’s breast.

In the Vedic period several mysterious feminine powers were in attendance during birth, functioning as midwives of the child’s destiny as well as its physical arrival into the world. Worship of the goddess Shasthi (“Sixth”) on the sixth day of life is a contemporary survival of such ancient feminine guardian figures.

Ten or twelve days after the delivery (or in some areas, one year later), the baby undergoes the name-giving samskara and receives an everyday name, often that of an astrologically appropriate deity, by which she or he will be known. This name serves as a “cover” or distraction from the real one, still a secret from the evil eye or other dangerous elements. Amulets, black threads around the wrist, lampblack marks on the body, and other devices may also guard the child from now until puberty or later.

Some time in the fourth month the newest addition to the family may be taken out of the house for the first time. That event, witnessing the sun and the moon, is a samskara, as is the moment of first feeding with solid food (cooked rice), usually in the sixth month. A month or so later is the ear-piercing ceremony, the earlobes being ringed with wire, the right ear first for boys, the left one first for girls. Ritual shaving of the head and direct removal of impurities held by the hair is an important procedure throughout life in Hinduism and is often connected with special pilgrimages and vows as well as standard rites of passage. Thus the first such tonsure is the forerunner of a continuing voluntary ritual. When the hair is shaved away a small lock is left at the back of the bare skull, a twist of hair as a visible reminder of this consecration . Incidentally, the first tonsure rite is the only samskara that may be performed in a temple, often an ancestral goddess temple, as well as in the home. A secondary tonsure for males in their sixteenth year is sometimes considered a samskara, this one including the first shaving of facial hair as well as the scalp.

Education, Marriage, and Adulthood

The most powerful of samskaras between birth and marriage is certainly the initiatory thread-ceremony known as the upanayana, the ritual “leading near” of a student to his guru for religious instruction. Nowadays only the most exacting Brahman families request such a performance for a son; more frequently an abbreviated version serves as a preliminary to the marriage vows.

Through the Vedic era and on into classical Hinduism the upanayana was the indispensable second birth for all twice-born classes, that is, the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, who received their threads at the ages of eight, eleven, and twelve, respectively. Being “born again,” bound for a lifetime by a sacred thread worn over the left shoulder, was a transition of great community as well as personal significance. An initiate was not merely introduced to the Vedic tradition, both textual and sacrificial, when he heard from his guru the first mantra (the gayatri, which is Rigveda 3.62.10) and learned from him the procedures for offering into the sacrificial fire (the standard homa). At that moment he became a link in the ageless transmission of knowledge and assumed his part of human responsibility for maintaining cosmic truth and order. No small step was that.

The elaborate ritual itself opened the door to the first stage of life, that of the student “living according to brahman,” the brahmacarin, receptive to his guru and all that this spiritual father would turn over to him in this lengthy birthing process. The Atharvaveda speaks with awe of the Vedic student more powerful than a thousand suns. Still today a few Brahman boys from special families follow the ancient tradition, living in the home of the guru for a period of years, learning daily the Vedic texts, orally, one line at a time, reciting the line back until the entire Veda, or significant parts of several Vedas, are committed to memory.

Another samskara marked the other end of the brahmacarin’s career, the “return” to the parental home after a ritual bath signifying graduation. The second stage of life, that of the married householder, became the focus of ritual attention. The ancient student received his entire education during the years with his teacher; nowadays, of course, a Brahman boy will normally be in public schools like everyone else. Today the tradition has been trimmed down to a symbolic studenthood of the religious life: the investiture with the thread, whispering of the gayatri mantra, instructions in domestic sacrifice, and the ritual bath and “return” all occur on the same day in the boy’s own home, usually on the day before his departure for the marriage ceremony that takes place in the village or town of the bride.

The marriage arrangements, for all castes, are the responsibilities of parents, and preparations may take a great many months. The ceremony proper, a samskara transforming both bride and groom, occurs at night in the house of the bride’s father. It is embedded in a wide range of other rituals and local practices that may go on for several days and usually have all the traits of a community festival. One preliminary ritual of significance, done in the privacy of the respective bride’s and groom’s homes well in advance, is the anointing of their bodies with an oil of turmeric, the yellow root known for its powers of fertility.

Already in the ancient period there were many variations of procedures and levels of symbolism in this union of two individuals, two cosmic principles, male and female. Modern India has even greater diversity in this universally observed samskara, but a number of features have carried over from the Vedic manuals and may be recognized in most parts of India and the wider Hindu world today. These include construction of a ritual booth of auspicious banana and mango leaves, tying of a thread around the wrist of the bride, first gazing of the couple at one another after the removal of a separating cloth, placing the bride’s foot three times on the family grinding stone as a vow of fidelity, the important seven steps northward from or around the ritual fire, and an initial offering into the hearth of the new home. The homa that the boy learned in his initiation is now performed with the bride as the pair assumes the role of householders in the community. Together they observe the pole star, Dhruva, and the nearby star, Arundhati (wife of the sage Vasistha), who is, like Dhruva, a model of loyalty and steadfastness. Usually there is a ritual marking of the part in the bride’s hair with a stroke of vermillion, a signal to all of her marital status but also the symbol and promise of her powerful new role as mother-to-be.

Death and Beyond

The last samskara in the journey of a lifebody is the ritual disposal of the material body after death, either by cremation or by burial. This is a “final offering,” as the samskara is named. Cremation and burial are both known from the time of the Rigveda, and both are widely practiced in Hinduism today (although the tendency for higher caste groups is to burn, for lower caste groups in South India to bury their dead). Funerary rites highlight once again Hinduism’s claim that death is a continuing experience in the long course toward liberation, while the self in process remains indestructible.

This samskara declares the same ends as all the previous ones. It celebrates the completion of a stage of life, in this case, the end of the lifebody. It refines, by eliminating impurities and rendering the entire material body to ashes or earth. And it promotes, by liberating the subtle body for another birth in the long course. Again, this set of rituals, like the preceding ones, is subject to wide variation, but the traditional ritual sequence includes preparation of the body in or just outside the home; a procession to the burning-ground or cemetery, both usually found together at a river bank in or just outside the village or town; a ritual lighting of the pyre or placing of the body in the grave; circumambulation of the pyre or grave by the chief mourner, usually the eldest living son, who is the “offerer” of his father’s body; the breaking of a large ceramic pot of water over the fire or grave; ritual bathing by the mourners along with shaving and tonsure of the men; the symbolic or actual gifting of a cow. If cremation is the means of disposal, a bone-gathering ceremony follows; later these fragments are dispersed in a sacred river.

More or less elaborate preparations, depending upon the ritual and financial status of the mourners, are immediately begun to promote the deceased on to a new journey. No longer technically samskaras, these shraddhas, as they are called, constitute a whole ritual enterprise in itself and an important dimension of Hindu life and thought.

To summarize and reflect upon what can be learned from this review of a life cycle according to Hinduism, a number of insights into the tradition as a whole become available. For example, there are correspondences between cosmic time and personal time, as well as an apparent symmetry of generation and regeneration. The seed of a lifebody is ritually placed in the field-womb, where it germinates after ten lunar months (“days”). After death the used-up body is ritually devoured by the funeral fire or the earth and a new temporary body is ritually begun, one that also germinates after ten days, then functions to carry the self to the company of ancestors. The clustering of essential rituals at the points of birth and death-rebirth is best understood in this light.

Throughout these rituals there are strong continuities with the oldest layers of Hinduism. It is perhaps in the samskaras and ancestor rites that India best remembers its ancient Vedic heritage. Basic samskaras have endured through centuries of change in doctrine and practice. They proved to be an all-Indian template, a unifying pattern that countered the regional diversities and popular innovations that inevitably sprang up across the subcontinent. Of course not every householder today performs the entire set of samskaras, but everyone knows the system, participates in the most essential ones, and attempts, even if the scale is abbreviated or several rites are telescoped into a single performance, to accomplish as many as possible on the oldest surviving male child. Here, too, we learn of the ritual need for continuing lineage, a link in the living present to connect the ancestors to those not yet born, a link who must by long tradition be male provider of seed. And as noted more than once, in these rituals there is an underlying spiritual basis for Hindu physiology.

Above all, a lifebody does not begin, nor does it remain, whole, pure, or safe. It requires ritual prescriptions in a lifelong process of ripening and refinement. This process is accomplished within the context of the family and its sacred hearth. Household deities may be invoked or mentioned, but no one of them is credited with these mysterious transformations. The male head of the household or an invited Brahman priest is the outward visible performer, but it is the ritual “work” itself that succeeds in refining, shaping, perfecting the ongoing lifebody and advancing it on yet another step on the path toward ultimate liberation.




Copyright © 1991 by David M. Knipe

From Religious Traditions of the World, edited by H. Byron Earhart


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