Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Samskara, The Hindu Rites of Passage

Samskaras, or Hindu rites of passage, according to the ancient sage Panini, are the ornaments that decorate one's personality. They mark the important stages of one's life and enable one to live a fulfilling life complete with happiness and contentment. They pave the way for one's physical and spiritual journey through this life. It is believed that the various Hindu samskaras meticulously leads to a purification of one's sins, vices, faults, and even correction of physical deformities. The Upanishads mention samskaras as a means to grow and prosper in all four aspects of human pursuit -Dharma (righteousness), Artha (wealth), Karma and Kama (work and pleasure), and Moksha (salvation).

How Many Samskaras do Hindus have?

The detailed explanation about samskaras is found in the ancient Hindu scriptures - the Smritis and Grihasutras. However, all the different Grihasutras differ on both the names and numbers of samskaras. While the sage Aswalayana lays down 11 customs, Bauddhayana, Paraskar, and Varaha explain 13. Sage Vaikhana has 18 and Maharishi Gautam talks of 40 samskaras and 8 self qualities. However, the 16 samskaras that Rishi Veda Vyas propounded are considered the most important rites of passage in a Hindu's life.

What are the 16 Major Hindu Samskaras?

1. Garbhadhana is the conception ritual for having healthy children. Lord Brahma or Prajapati is appeased by this ritual.
2. Punswana is the fertilization ritual performed on the third month of pregnancy asking for life and safety of the fetus. Once again Lord Brahma is prayed to in this ceremony.
3. Seemantonnayana ritual is observed in the penultimate month of pregnancy for safe and assured delivery of the baby. This is a prayer to the Hindu God Dhata.
4. Jatkarma is birth ceremony of the new-born baby. On this occasion, a prayer is observed for goddess Savita.
5. Namkarana is the naming ceremony of the baby, which is observed 11 days after its birth. This gives the new-born an identity with which he or she will be associated all his life.
6. Niskramana is the act of taking the four-month-old child out for the first time into the open to sunbathe. The Sun God Surya is worshiped.
7. Annaprashana is the elaborate ceremony conducted when the child is fed cereal for the first time at the age of six months.
8. Chudakarma or Keshanta karma is the ceremonious tonsuring of the head and Lord Brahma or Prajapati is prayed and offerings made to him. The baby's head is shaved off and the hair is ceremonially immersed in the river.
9. Karnavedha is the ritual of having the ear pierced. These days it is mostly girls who have their ears pierced.
10. Upanayana aka thread ceremony is the investiture ceremony of the sacred thread where Brahmin boys are adorned with a sacred thread hung from one shoulder and passed around their front and back. This day, Lord Indra is invoked and offerings are made to him.
11. Vedarambha or Vidyarambha is observed when the child is initiated into study. In ancient times, boys were sent to live with their gurus in a 'gurugriha' or hermitage to study. Devotees pray to the Hindu God Apawaka on this occasion.
12. Samavartana is the convocation or the commencement to the study of the Vedas.
13. Vivaha is the lavish nuptial ceremony. After marriage, the individual enters the life of a 'grihastha' or conjugal life - the life of a householder. Lord Brahma is the deity of the day in the wedding ceremony.
14. Awasthyadhana or Vivahagni Parigraha is a ceremony where the marrying couple encircles the sacred fire seven times. It is also known as 'Saptapadi.'
15. Tretagnisangraha is the auspicious ritual that starts the couple on their domestic life.
16. Antyeshti is the final rite of passage or Hindu funeral rites that is performed after death.

The 8 Rites of Passage or Ashtasamskara

Most of the above 16 samskaras, which originated thousands of years ago, are practiced by most Hindus even to this day. However, there are eight rites that are considered essential. These are known as 'Ashtasamskaras', and they are as follows:

1. Namakarana - Naming ceremony
2. Anna Prasana - Beginning of solid food
3. Karnavedha - Ear piercing
4. Chudakarma or Chudakarana - Head Shaving
5. Vidyarambha - Beginning of Education
6. Upanayana - Sacred Thread Ceremony
7. Vivaha - Marriage
8. Antyeshti - Funeral or Last Rites

The Importance of Samskaras in Life

These samskaras bind an individual to the community that nurture the feeling of brotherhood. A person whose actions are connected to the others around him would definitely think twice before committing a sin. Lack of samskaras give rise to indulging in individual physical pleasures and fanning one's animal instincts. The inner demon is aroused that leads to the degeneration of oneself and the society as a whole. When a person is not aware of his moorings in society he runs his own selfish race against the world and the greed to pitch himself over others leads to destruction of not only his self but the entire human community. So, the samskaras act as a moral code of conduct for the society.

10 Benefits of Hindu Samskaras

1. Samskaras provide sound mental and physical health and the confidence to face life's challenges
2. They are believed to purify blood and increase blood circulation, sending more oxygen to every organ
3. Samskaras can energizes the body and revitalizes it
4. They can increase physical strength and stamina to work for longer period of time
5. They rejuvenate the mind and enhance concentration and intellectual capacity
6. Samskaras give a sense of belonging, culture, and refined sensibilities
7. They direct energy to humanitarian causes thereby building a strong character
8. Samskaras kill vices, such as pride, ego, selfishness, wrath, envy, covetousness, gluttony, sloth, lechery, greed and fear
9. They bestow moral and physical balance throughout life
10. Samskaras give the confidence to face death bravely owing to a contented and righteous life

What are Samskaras? - Subhamoy Dass

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nāga Panchami

Nāga Panchami is a Hindu festival organized in almost every part of India. According to the Hindu lunar calendar the festival is held on Panchami (the fifth day or "tithi" of the fortnight or "paksha") in Shravan (Shravanam) month. In the Gregorian calendar it is July and August.

During the festival people honour Nāga Devata (Cobras). Five nagas are worshipped - Ananta, Vāsuki, Taxak, Karkotaka and Pingala. There is a Puranic myth stating that Brahma’s son Kashyapa had four wives.

First one gave birth to Devas, second to Garudas, third to Nāgas and fourth to Daityas. Kashyapa's third wife was Kadroo. That is why Nāgas are also called Kadroojā. They ruled in Pātāl-Loka ("Nether world").

The skin of a snake is covered with scales. Whole outer layer of skin is shed in one layer. This process is called ecdysis or in more common language moulting. Because of cyclical repeating of the process Hindu people believe that snakes are immortal.

The famous temple honouring snakes is in the city of Mysuru (Mysore) located in the state of Karnataka in the south of India. The temple is at the place called Subramania. Subramania is also the name of a giant snake that Lord Vishnu reclines when sleeping in the sea. This snake is mentioned in many Indian folk stories.

People go to temples and snake pits and they worship the snakes. People offer milk and silver jewelry to the Cobras. They believe that they keep them from evil. Sometimes people put little pot with milk and some flowers next to a hole where snakes live. On Naga Panchami people also fast.

Naga Panchami is the day when Lord Krishna beat the snake Kalia when fall from a tree into the river Yamuna. After the big fight Kalia asked for mercy. The Lord Krishna let the snake go but the snake had to promise not to bother people anymore. On the day of Naga Panchami Lord Krishna is known as "Kaliya Mardan".

On Naga Panchami married women visit their parents. Farmers never plough their fields during Naga Panchami. Why? There is a legend that one farmer while ploughing his field accidentally killed some young snakes.

To punish the farmer mother of those snakes killed him and his family. But she made one exception. One of farmer's daughters survived. She was praying to the Nāgas. Because of her devotion the rest of family was brought to life again.

On the day of festival special figures of snakes can be seen on walls of houses. Women made them using a mixture of black powder, cow dung and milk. After that women make of milk, ghee (clarified butter used in cooking), water and rice. It is believed that because of it people living in the house won't be bitten by snake.

Maharashtra is third largest state in India. It is located in the west of country. Local snake charmers go from house to house carrying tamed snakes. They get some offerings including clothes.

Kerala is a state located in the southwest of India. People there visit temples with metal icons of the cosmic snake called Ananta or Sesha. Many of homes in Kerala have altars with a silver or copper cobra. Offerings of milk and sweets are put at the altar. People pray for the welfare of their children and prosperity in general.

Punjab is the state in the northwest of India. The state borders with the province on same name located in neighbouring Pakistan. People in Punjab honour snakes in the festival called Guga Naumi which is organized in September and October.

People make a snake of dough and put it in a basket. They carry the snake through the village. People in each house give some flour and butter as an offering. The dough snake is then buried.

People in West Bengal and parts of Assam and Orissa worship the goddess Manasa. She is the sister of Vasuki, king of Nāgas and wife of sage Jagatkāru (Jaratkāru). It is believed that she helps in case of snakebite and also in matters of fertility and prosperity.

In parts of southern India, people use red sandalwood paste to draw figures of snakes on wooden boards. Special clay sculptures of snakes, painted yellow or black, can be purchased. These sculptures are worshiped. Milk offerings are given.

Traditions & Customs - Mislav Popovic

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Akshaya Tritiya: The Golden Day of Eternal Success

Hindus believe in the theory of "mahurats" or auspicious timings in every step in life - be it to begin a new venture or making an important purchase. Akshaya Tritiya is one such momentous occasion, which is considered one of the most auspicious days of the Hindu Calendar. It is believed, any meaningful activity started on this day would be fruitful.

Once a Year

Akshaya Tritiya falls on the third day of the bright half of Vaishakh month (April-May), when the Sun and Moon are in exaltation; they are simultaneously at their peak of brightness, which happens only once every year.

Holy Day

Akshaya Tritiya, also known as "Akha Teej", is traditionally the birthday of Lord Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. People conduct special Pujas on this day, bathe in holy rivers, make a charity, offer barley in a sacred fire, and worship Lord Ganesha & Devi Lakshmi on this day.

The Golden Link

The word "Akshaya" means imperishable or eternal - that which never diminishes. Initiations made or valuables bought on this day are considered to bring success or good fortune. Buying gold is a popular activity on Akshaya Tritiya, as it is the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity. Gold and gold jewelry bought and worn on this day signify never diminishing good fortune. Indians celebrate weddings, begin new business ventures, and even plan long journeys on this day.

Myths Around Akshaya Tritiya

The day also marks the beginning of the "SatyaYug" or the Golden Age - the first of the four Yugas. In the Puranas, the holy Hindu scriptures, there is a story that says that on this day of Akshay Tritiya, Veda Vyasa along with Ganesha started writing the great epic Mahabharata. Ganga Devi or Mother Ganges also descended on earth on this day.

According to another legend, during the time of the Mahabhrata, when the Pandavas were in exile, Lord Krishna, on this day, presented them an 'Akshaya Patra,' a bowl which would never go empty and produce an unlimited supply of food on demand.

The Krishna-Sudama Legend

Perhaps, the most famous of the Akshaya Tritiya stories is the legend of Lord Krishna and Sudama, his poor Brahmin childhood friend. On this day, as the tale goes, Sudama came over to Krishna's palace to request him for some financial help. As a gift for his friend, Sudama had nothing more than a handful of beaten rice or 'poha'. So, he was utterly ashamed to give it to Krishna, but Krishna took the pouch of 'poha' from him and relished having it. Krishna followed the principle of 'Atithi Devo Bhava' or 'the guest is like God' and treated Sudama like a king.

His poor friend was so overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality shown by Krishna, that he could not ask for the financial favor and came home empty handed. Lo and behold! When he reached his place, Sudama's old hut was transformed into a palace! He found his family dressed in royal attire and everything around was new and expensive. Sudama knew that it was a boon from Krishna, who blessed him with more than the wealth he actually intended to ask for. Therefore, Akshaya Tritiya is associated with material gains and wealth acquisition.

Bright Births

It is also believed that people born during this time shine bright in life. Many luminaries were born during this period: Basaveshwara born on May 4, Ramanujacharya and Adi Shankaracharya on May 6, Swami Chinmayananda on May 8 and Lord Buddha on May 16. Akshaya Tritiya is also celebrated as the birthday of Lord Parashurama, one of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu.

The Golden Day - Subhamoy Das

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