The word ‘saṃskāra’ has no single-word equivalent in English; it has many meanings including ‘refinement,’ ‘cultivation,’ ‘perfection,’ ‘embellishment,’ ‘consecration,’ ‘education,’ ‘positive transformation,’ ‘effect of past deeds,’ etc. In general, it refers to ‘doing something well’ or ‘improving upon something while removing what is undesirable.’
Swami Harshananda says, “The word ‘saṃskāra’ literally means ‘to do well.’ A block of stone when subjected to ‘saṃskāra’ by an expert sculptor becomes a lovely image. Similarly rice, sugar and milk get converted into a delicious pudding in the hands of an expert cook.” He goes on to explain how basic materials like the block of stone or rice-sugar-milk are called ‘prakṛti.’ When the stone-block is broken into pieces or rice becomes spoilt or milk goes bad, they become ‘vikṛti’ (‘deformed’) – they become useless. “We want saṃskṛti and not vikṛti. We want ‘saṃskāra’ which can convert ‘prakṛti’ into ‘saṃskṛti and not its opposite, ‘vikāra’ (distortion, deformation).”
Ancient texts and scholars give specific definitions of the word ‘saṃskāra.’ In the Vedas, the word ‘saṃskāra’ is not common but we find it in different forms like ‘saṃskṛta’ and ‘saṃskṛtatra.’ Other meanings of the word ‘saṃskāra’ include – ‘an act of purification in a yajña,’ ‘that which adorns one’s personality,’ ‘something that makes a person or a thing fit for a specific purpose,’ and ‘action or rite that imparts fitness of two types: removal of taints and generation of fresh qualities.’
Saṃskāra has also been defined as a peculiar excellence that resides either in the soul or the body due to the performance of rites ordained by the śāstras. It is said to be of two kinds – one that makes a person eligible for performing other actions (e. g. Upanayana makes a person eligible for Vedic study) and one that removes the evil taint that may have been generated (e.g. Jātakarma removes the taint due to the seed and uterus).
Our ancient works don’t discuss in detail the purpose of the saṃskāras or their significance in the development of the personality. However, it becomes clear that these are envisaged as ‘rites of passage’ from one phase to another. From the earliest times, these saṃskāras have been treated as essential to develop human beings. They are the outward symbols of the inner change that prepares a person for the real world. The successful completion of these saṃskāras also conferred a special status.
Among the saṃskāras, some were considered more important than the others, particularly upanayana and vivāha. Dr. Kane says that some saṃskāras “like Upanayana served spiritual and cultural purposes, they brought the unredeemed person into the company of the elect, they opened the door to Vedic study and thus conferred special privileges and exacted duties. They have also psychological values impressing on the mind of the person that he has assumed a new role and must strive to observe its rules.”
To be continued…
Thanks to Pradeep Chakravarthy for getting me to write this essay. Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna, who have always supported and encouraged me, were kind enough to go through the essay and give their detailed feedback. Shashi Kiran B N, a young scholar-poet went through the essay and offered valuable suggestions. Yet another scholar-poet, Arjun Bharadwaj, helped me with getting some of the reference books needed for this essay. My heartfelt gratitude to all of them.
Achari, Sri Rama Ramanuja. Saṁskāras: The Hindu Sacraments. Srimatham, 2015 <http://www.srimatham.com/uploads/5/5/4/9/5549439/hindu_samskaras.pdf>
Devuḍu. Mahādarśana. Bangalore: Devuḍu Pratiṣṭhāna, 2009
H H Sri Rangapriya Swami’s lecture on the Gāyatrī mantra
Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana: Sandhyāvandana and Gāyatrīmantrajapa. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
Harshananda, Swami. A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. R-Z. Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, 2008
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. Vol. II, Part I. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941
Pandey, Rajbali. Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1969
Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. Vol. 17. Ed. Rao, H. P. Venkata. Mysore: Sri Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamala, 1948-62
Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s seven-part lecture series in Kannada titled Ṣoḍaśa-saṃskāragaḻu at Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) in December 2005
The Sixteen Samskaras <http://cincinnatitemple.com/articles/SixteenSamskaras.pdf>
 Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana: Sandhyāvandana and Gāyatrīmantrajapa. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math
 Dr. Kane lays out the meaning of ‘saṃskāra’ based on the ancient authorities. See HDS, pp. 190-92
 See for example, Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 5.76.2 (saṃskṛtam), 6.28.4 (saṃskṛtatram), and 8.33.9 (saṃskṛtaḥ)
 This is Jaiminī’s definition. We find the word ‘saṃskāra’ often in the Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra (3.1.3; 3.2.15,17; 3.8.3; 9.2.9,42,44; 9.3.25; 9.4.33, 9.4.50,54; 10.1.2,11; etc.) The Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra, composed by the seer Jaiminī, is a defining text of Pūrva-mīmāṃsā, one of the six classical schools of Indian philosophy (āstika-darśanas)
 This is Pāṇini’s definition – Sampari upebhyḥ karotau bhūṣaṇe – Aṣṭādhyāyī 6.1.137. Pāṇini, a fourth century BCE Sanskrit grammarian, philologist, and scholar; he can be called the father of linguistics
 This is Śabara’s definition: Saṃskāro nāma sa bhavati yasmiñjāte padārtho bhavati yogyaḥ kasyacidarthasya – Śabara’s commentary on Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra 3.1.3 (p. 660). Śabara-svāmin, a first century BCE philosopher, wrote a famous commentary on the Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra of Jaiminī. Also see:
Yogyatāṃ cādadhānāḥ kriyāḥ saṃskārā ityucyante – Tantra-vārtika of Kumārila-bhaṭṭa, p. 1078
Saṃskāro hi nāma saṃskāryasya guṇādhānena vā syāddoṣāpanayanena vā – Śaṅkara’s commentary on Vedānta-sūtra 1.1.4.
 This is Kumārila’s definition. Kumārila-bhaṭṭa, a seventh century CE philosopher wrote a gloss (sub-commentary) called Tantra-vārtika on Śabara’s commentary on the Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra
 In the Vīra-mitrodaya, a 17th century law digest by Mitramiśra
 Ete garbhādhānādayaḥ saṃskārāḥ śarīraṃ saṃskurvantaḥ sarveṣu adrṣṭārtheṣu karmasu yogyatātiśayaṃ kurvanti. Phalātiśayo yogyatātiśaye ca. – Rudraskanda’s commentary on Khādira-gṛhya-sūtra 2.3.33
 The word ‘saṃskāra’ rarely appears in the Gṛhya-sūtras (the Vaikhānasa-smārta-sūtra being an exception). It occurs more frequently in the Dharma-sūtras; see for example, Gautama-dharma-sūtra 8.8, Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 220.127.116.11, and Vasiṣṭha-dharma-sūtra 4.1
 HDS, p. 193
Earlier, Dr. Kane points out (HDS, p. 190) that the word saṃskāra stands for ‘upanayana’ in Jaiminī’s Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra 6.1.35 (Saṃskārasya tadarthatvādvidyāyāṃ puruṣaśrutiḥ) thus indicating the importance of this particular saṃskāra