Sanskara refers to the diverse rites of passage in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In Hinduism, the sanskaras vary in number and details according to regional traditions. The Gautama Dharmaśāstras details as many as 48 sanskaras while the Grihyasutra texts from centuries later give a list of 16 sanskaras. Hindu sanskaras include both external rituals such as those marking a baby’s birth and naming ceremony, as well as inner rites of resolutions and ethics such as compassion towards all living beings and positive attitude.
The sanskaras are a series of sacraments, sacrifices and rituals that serve as rites of passage, that mark the various stages of human life (ashrama), and entry into the next significant stage. These sanskaras involve oblations to gods, ancestors and guardians in accordance with the Vedic dictums for a Dharmic or righteous life.
In the April issue we dealt with sanskaras relating to the birth of the child – Jatakarman and Namakarna. We now move onto the next series, post the first 4-6 months of a Hindu child’s entry into this world.
Nishkramana (First Outing)
Nishkramana relates to taking the child for the first time outside the house. On the day of the Nishkramana, a square area in the courtyard from where sun can be seen is plastered with cow dung and clay and the sign of swastika is marked on it. The mother of the child scatters grains of rice over it. The child is brought by a nurse, and the ceremony ends when the father makes the child look at the sun with the sound of the conch-shell and the chanting of Vedic hymns. As per the scriptures, the month in which this is done differs – per Manusmriti (II.34), in the fourth month after birth, while the Yamasmriti, indicates that the child should see the sun in the third month after birth.
The Annaprasana (The First Feeding)
The next important stage is the intake of the first solid food or Annaprasana, after the initial months of breastfeeding. After 6-7 months the child’s body requires greater quantity and different types of food for it to develop a healthy mind and body. Also, the baby needs to be gradually weaned away from breast milk. Thus this sanskara is connected with the satisfaction of the physical need of the child.
The ceremony is performed in the six month after the birth of the child. The growth of teeth is the visible sign that the child can take solid food. Giving food before sixth month is strictly prohibited. For a weak child, a further extension of time is allowed. Depending upon the strength of the child, it can also be held in the eighth, ninth or tenth month, with one year being the upper limit. Any further postponement of this impacts both the physical well-being of the mother as well as the digestive capability of the child. The
scriptures suggests even months for boys and odd months for girls, for the Annaprasana sanskara to take place.
Chudakarna (Tonsuring the Head)
The purpose of Chudakarna is the achievement of long life for the recipient. Life is prolonged by tonsure. According to Sushruta, shaving and cutting the hair and nails removes impurities and gives delight, lightness, prosperity, courage and happiness. At the basis of the tonsure ceremony is the idea of health and beauty for the child.
Verses in the Vedas and Sutras give details such as wetting the head before the tonsure. The razor is praised and requested to be harmless for the tonsure. The father is to carry out the ritual for abundance of food, progeny, wealth and strength. The barber who is seen as the very personification of Savita or the sun, is welcomed. Finally, the head is tonsured with the chanting of Vedic mantras.
The Chudakarana ceremony should be done before the child reaches the age of one year and latest before the age of three. However, later texts show leeway to tonsure even at the age of five or seven years and even at the stage of Upanayana or thread ceremony!
Karnavedha or ear piercing is done for both male and female children. The piercing is carried out with a particular thorn and butter is applied over the wound for quick healing. Ear piercing can occurs in the third or fifth year for Hindu children. But can be performed in later years too.
The purpose of Karnavedha is to open the inner ears of the child for receiving sacred sounds. This rite has deep mystical and symbolic significance. It is believed that merely hearing sacred sounds has merit in that it cleanses sin and nurtures the spirit.
Over the centuries, particularly in recent time, this ceremony is losing its significance in Hindu male children.