The rites that pertain to the stages of life are called samskaras. They are purificatory rites which sanctify life and give a spiritual touch to the important events in the life of the individual, from conception to cremation. They mark the important stages of a person’s life and are the samskaras of childhood, adolescence, middle-age, old age and death.
The garbhadana, conception or entering the womb, sanctifies the creative act. The husband prays fervently from the core of his heart that a child may be conceived. The new child is conceived amidst the vibration of mantras. Good impressions are impressed in the brain cells of the embryo. For a person who is endowed with pure intellect and right understanding, the sexual union is not for the sake of mere enjoyment. He uses the divine, creative, vital energy for the formation of the human body. Husband and wife should be cheerful and pious when they have intercourse. When their minds are perturbed or agitated they should avoid copulation.
If they have the image of Arjuna, they will have a chivalrous and wise son. If they have the image of Lord Buddha, they will bring forth a son with mercy and other virtues. If they have the image of Dhanvantari, they will get a son who will turn out to be a reputed ayurvedic doctor. If they think of Surya, the sun-god, they will bring forth a lustrous son with splendour and effulgence.
In the third month, the pumsavana ritual is performed with mantras. The food sheath, annamaya kosha, and the vital sheath, pranamaya kosha, of the child are formed. It is the first time the child stirs in the womb. The simantonnayana ritual is performed in the seventh month with recitation of vedic mantras. This protects the mother from negative influences and bestows health on the child.
The above three samskaras protect the mother and child. The body of the child develops nicely. The harmonious vibrations set up by the recitation of mantras and the performance of the ceremonies help in shaping the body of the child beautifully.
The next samskara, the ceremony performed immediately after the birth of the child, is the jatakarma. The father welcomes his newborn child. He prays for its long life, intelligence and well being, and feeds it with honey and butter.
Namakarana is the naming ceremony. The newborn child is given a name on the tenth, eleventh or twelfth day with recitation of mantras. In the sixth month, when the child is given solid food for the first time, the annaprasana samskara takes place. Mantras are recited and oblations are offered to the various deities.
The chudakarma, the tonsure or shaving of the head, is performed in the first or third year. The karnavedha or ear-boring ceremony is performed in the fifth or seventh year or at the end of the first year with the chudakarma. The body of the child is protected and harmonized by these ceremonies. Any hereditary defect that arises from defect of semen and embryo is removed.
Vidyarambha, introducing the alphabet, is another samskara. This samskara is also known as aksharabhyasa. These samskaras pertain to the child stage of life.
The most important ceremony which marks the beginning stage of youth is upanayana. It is a landmark in the life of the child, his second or spiritual birth. The word upanayana means bringing near. The child is brought near his guru or spiritual teacher. The preceptor invests him with the sacred thread, yajnopavita, initiates him with the Gayatri mantra, and gives him a staff.
This is the beginning of brahamacharya ashrama, the period devoted to study and learning, during which brahmacharya, perfect celibacy, is instructed. He is to begin the life of study. The initiation makes him a dwija, twice-born. The father and mother gave birth to the child from mutual desire. This is his physical birth. Initiation into Gayatri mantra is his true birth.
According to Yajnavalkya, the upanayana ceremony is performed at the eighth year for a Brahmin, eleventh for a kshatriya and twelfth for a vaishya. Manu gives the age in the fifth year for a Brahmin, the sixth for a kshatriya and the eighth for a vaishya.
The children were initiated into three practices to help them in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth: surya namaskara, nadi shodhana pranayama and the Gayatri mantra.
The sacred thread or yajnopavita consists of three threads knotted together. He who wears the thread should have triple control over his mind, speech and body or thought, word and deed. The holy thread signifies the various traits which exist in the world such as: sat, chit and ananda, truth, consciousness and bliss; creation, preservation and destruction; the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep; the three qualities of sattwa, rajas and tamas; and the trimurtis Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.