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The first millennium witnessed changes and continuities in religious beliefs and practices, some of which are gendered. The Brahmanical tradition was paralleled by the non-Vedic Shramana movement. The Buddha was a member of this movement. Shramana also gave rise to Jainism, yoga, the concept of the cycle of birth and death, the concept of samskara, and the concept of liberation. The Brahmanical ashrama system of life was an attempt to institutionalize Shramana ideals within the Brahmanical social structure. The Shramana movement also influenced the Aranyakas and Upanishads in the Brahmanical tradition. Buddhism was promoted by Asoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire, who unified the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BCE. After 200 CE several schools of thought were formally codified in Indian philosophy, including Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, PurvaMimamsa and Vedanta. Charvaka, the founder of an atheistic materialist school, came to the fore in North India in the sixth century BCE. Sanskritic culture went into decline after the end of the Gupta period. The early medieval Puranas helped establish a religious mainstream among the pre-literate tribal societies undergoing acculturation. The tenets of Brahmanic Hinduism and of the Dharmashastras underwent a radical transformation at the hands of the Purana composers, resulting in the rise of a mainstream "Hinduism" that overshadowed all earlier traditions. In eighth century royal circles, the Buddha started to be replaced by Hindu gods in pujas. This also was the same period of time the Buddha was made into an avatar of Vishnu. Within the Brahmanical tradition, Vedic rituals seem to have been increasingly confined to especially spectacular occasions, such as the asvamedha, performed by Samudragupta (c. 4th century AD), and commemorated on his coins, where the presence of the queen is particularly noteworthy. Vedic learning continued to be a marker of identity for Brahmanas. This is documented in inscriptions, where donees who received land grants were frequently identified in terms of the schools of Vedic learning to which they were affiliated. Prof. A. L, Basham writes in his famous book, ―The wonder that was India‖ that Indian religious texts were written by Brahmins and from the brahmanical point of view and represent conditions as the Brahmins would have liked them to be. Thus it is not surprising that they claim the utmost honour for the priestly class and exalt it above measure. Such boastful additions in religious texts ensured that ―The Brahmin was a great divinity in human form. His spiritual power was such that he could instantly destroy the king and his army if they attempted to infringe his rights. In law he claimed great privileges and in every respect he demanded precedence, honour and worship.‖
The individual‘s efforts in ancient Indian society were directed to achieve in his life fourfold aims. These aims were called Purusharthas. The word ‗Purushartha‘ means the object of human life. The object of life was considered to be the final fusion of self in God. To attain this ideal, one had to pursue Purushartha e.g., Dharma, Artha, Kam, and Moksha.
The 1st Pururshartha, i.e., Dharma means the things to be adopted by humans. It relates to the application of laws that are the basis of the society. These are the principles on which man and society base their activity. Dharma, as such, means Duty and Good Work. The Vedas, Truthful Conduct and what elevates the Soul are Dharma. The ancient thinkers believe that Dharma not only elevates the man and society but also the nation and everyone should pursue Dharma. It is dharma which ensures that an individual lives a life of virtues and does not adopt immoral and unjust means to achieve the goals of Artha and Kama. An unbridled pursuit of Artha and Kama without caring for Dharma results in the downfall of a man and he cannot achieve salvation.
The 2nd purushartha, i.e., Artha signifies things of material, welfare, and pleasure. It is the symbol of man‘s power and prosperity. It is related to Varta and Dand Niti and relates to material prosperity. The necessities of life are fulfilled by Artha. The thinkers opined that one should earn his livelihood through honest means and work for physical betterment. As one of the purusharthas, it stands for material well being. Artha according to the epic Shantiparva consisted in acquisition and preservation of wealth. Agriculture, trade, cattle breeding and handicrafts constituted artha which could be had with the help of action. Without it, both dharma and kama could not be attained. Artha is considered a purushartha not only because humans naturally want to acquire wealth but because, in the absence of artha, a Hindu cannot perform his religious duties such as the performance of rites and rituals, feeding renounces, and engaging in charitable activities, which are all obligations for people in the householder stage of life. To live a happy and purposeful life a man requires and possesses material resources and means in quantity sufficient to enable him to live such a life. Thus Artha means acquisition of wealth and power to ensure one‘s happiness and prosperity.
Kama the third aim of individual‘s life does not mean fulfilment of individual‘s sexual desires only. It is an all comprehensive term. The fulfilment of all the desires and sensuous pleasures is covered by it. Like all living beings a man has to propagate his species and has to satisfy the desires of his senses. The striving for this is Kama. Kama relates to the attainment
of pleasure and it is a natural tendency. It occupied an important place in Hindu scheme of life because married house holder‘s life was considered as the most important stage in life.
The 4th purushartha, i.e., Moksha is the ultimate goal of individual‘s life. It is the full development of soul. It is the realization of the true self by a person. The first three purusharthas serve as means to achieve this goal. Salvation or Moksha means attainment to bliss in life after death. It also signifies that an individual‘s soul is no longer subjected to vicious cycles of rebirths. The Moksha could be achieved only when an individual has fulfilled his duties towards the different sections of the society, towards some persons and also towards the gods. The synthesis of all the four gives the Purushartha. Dharma (life duty), Artha (wealth), and Kama (sex) relate to objects of this world. These are called triverga. Dharma signifies ethical ideal, Artha signifies physical means and Kama signifies vital desires of man. Dharma and Artha are the sources and regarded as the ends meant for corporate activities. To be free of Karma is real Moksha. Moksha is the last Purushartha. All the work has to be performed keeping in view the last Purushartha – the Moksha – which is equally important for man.
The ancient Hindu pattern of social organisation aimed at the values of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha by the individual through his physical, psychological and social evolution. This evolution was calculated to be effected through the process of the Varnashrama system. The varnashrama Dharma refers to the institutionalization of the stratification in society in terms of Varna and the four stages of life. It reflects a broad set of personal duties and social responsibilities. Varna literally means colour, which later on with distinctive division of labour and diversification of socio – economic activities was identified with birth and solidified into caste system. Ashramas were idealistic division of an individual‘s life for the performance of all socially acceptable actions one should perform. Bhagavad Gita emphasise the importance of fulfilling varnashrama dharma. It is supposed that human life has a span of about one hundred years. Ashrama system divides the span of human life into four stages or Ashramas namely Brahmacharya or the period of training and learning Garhasthya or the period of work for the world as a householder and of enjoying married life Vanprasthya or the period of retreat for loosening of social bonds Sannyasa or the period of renunciation and expectant waiting of freedom or moksha. Prof. A. L. Basham commenting on this system writes, ―This scheme, of course, represents the ideal rather than the real. Many young men never passed through the first stage of life in the form laid down, while only a few went beyond the second. Many of the hermits and ascetics of ancient India were evidently not old men, and had either shortened or omitted the
stage of householder. The series of four stages is evidently an idealization of the facts, and an artificial attempt to find room for the conflicting claims of study, family life, and asceticism in a single life. It is possible that the system of Ashramas was evolved partly as a counterblast to the Unorthodox sects such as Buddhism and Jainism, which encouraged young men to take up asceticism, and by-pass family life altogether, a practice which did not receive the approval of the orthodox, though in later times provision was made for it.‖ In the post-Mauryan period, Ashoka was being referred to as a Chakkavatti in Buddhist texts, and he was certainly not the role model for the Gupta Kings. Those Gupta kings who took the title of paramabhattaraka were Vaishnavas, and claimed to be protectors of the dharma. This was the varnashrama dharma – the defense of the normative – rather than the dharma of the Buddhists and the Jainas. The Satavahana, or Andhra, Kingdom was considerably influenced by the Mauryan political model, although power was decentralized in the hands of local chieftains, who used the symbols of Vedic religion and upheld the varnashrama dharma. The maintenance of the varnashrama dharma was an important royal duty according to the Gupta inscriptions.
The Samskaras or sacraments form an important section of the karma-kanda, because they are believed to reform and sanctify the person for whom they are performed, marking various occasions of his life from conception in the mother‘s womb to the cremation of the body at death; they have influence even beyond death as they determine the course of the soul. These originated in the Vedic society. They were followed by all members as their social duty. The Samskaras are the domestic rites. These rites took place in the household and were performed according to rules laid down for their performance. It was by performing these rites that an individual underlines and celebrates the most important stages or turning points in his life. The first systematic and detailed discussion of these Samskaras is found in Brihadaranyakopanishad. The different texts have given different number of Samskaras. The general consensus is that they are sixteen in number and therefore, are known as Shodash Samskaras.
SCOPE AND NUMBER OF SAMSKARAS
The first systematic attempt at describing the samskaras is found in the Grikasurras. But they do not use the term samskara in its proper and peculiar sense, as they include the samskara proper in the list of the domestic sacrifices. In these Sutras there seems to be no dear distinction drawn between sacrifices in general and the samskaras performed to sanctify the body and perfect the personality. It is in the Vaikhanasasutras that a clear distinction between the samskaras relating to the body and sacrifices in general is met. The twenty two sacrifices separately mentioned are also included there in the list of the bodily samskaras, but which are, really speaking, daily and occasional sacrifices. The Grihyasutras generally deal with the bodily samskaras beginning with vivaha (marriage) and ending in samavarrana (graduation). The majority of them omit anoysti (funeral), perhaps
because of impurity and inauspiciousness attached to the dead body; the Grihyasurras of Paraskara, Asvalayana, and Baudhayana have sections dealing with it. The number of samskaras in the Grihyastaras fluctuates between twelve and eighteen. In course of time sixteen became the classical number comprising the following: Garbhadhana (conception) Pumsavana (engendering a male issue) Simantonnayana (parting the hair) fatakarman (natal rites) Namakarana (naming) Nishkramana (first outing) Annaprasana (first feeding with boiled rice) Chudakarana (tonsure) Kantavedha (piercing the ear lobes) Vidyarambha or akshararambha (learning the alphabet) Upanayana (holy thread ceremony) Vedarambha (first study of the Vedas) Kesanta (cutting the hair) Santavartana (graduation) Livaha (marriage) Antyest (funeral).
PURPOSE OF SAMSKARAS
The samskaras are first of all based on the simple unquestioned faith of the unsophisticated mind; and so they have a popular import. The Hindus of early times believed that they were surrounded by superhuman influences, good or evil; and they sought to remove the evil influences by the various means they devised for the purpose, and they invoked the beneficial ones for affording them timely help. Among the means adopted for the removal of evil influences, the first was propitiation. When the unfavourable power was propitiated, it turned away without injuring the person purified by the samskara. The second means was deception. The evil influences were diverted either by hiding the person exposed to them or by offering his substitute. The third means was to resort to threat and direct attack—when the above two methods failed—either by the person himself or by anyone officiating or administering authority. The gods were also invoked to prevent the evil influences reaching the recipient of the samskara.
There is a popular correspondence between the four purusharthas or stages of life and the four primary castes or strata of society. This, however, has not been traced to any primary source in early Sanskrit literature.
Samskaras have a great importance from the viewpoint of social ethics. The whole system of samskara points out that some new responsibilities are being put on man for social and individual good and it is his major duty to respect them. Marriage and other sanskaras are not only for individual good, they also represent one‘s responsibility to society. Thus, the balance and harmony of the individual and society is maintained and both progress simultaneously.
A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India – Upinder Singh Culture India – Mahendra Kulasrestha The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 – Romila Thapar A Social History of Early India – B. Chattopadhyaya
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