According to Hinduism, a human being is purified and refined by under-going certain rites, generally called saṁskāras. (See SAṀSKĀRAS.)
The most widely accepted number of such saṁskāras is ṣoḍaśa or sixteen. Hence the name ṣoḍaśa-saṁskāras.
The Hindu scriptures do not consider birth as the starting point of life. It goes farther back, as it is conditioned by heredity, parentage and environment. Keeping this in mind, the saṁskāras start with conception.
The following is a brief description of these sixteen saṁskāras:
This is mainly concerned with the purification of the seed and the womb so that the progeny will be endowed with good health and intelligence.
This is performed with the specific desire of getting a male offspring. The pregnant woman is made to undergo this during the third or the fourth month of pregnancy.
This consists in the parting of the hair above the forehead ceremonially. It is said to protect the baby in the womb.
This is performed immediately after the baby is born and before the umbilical cord is cut.
This is the naming ceremony. It is generally performed on the eleventh or the twelfth day after birth.
During the fourth month, the baby is brought out of the house (for the first time) where it was born and is blessed by the relatives and friends.
Performed after the sixth month, this sacrament of feeding the baby with solid food is primarily meant to wean it away from breast-feeding and gradually get used to normal food.
This is the first hair-cutting ceremony for the male child performed generally during the third year (and before the seventh). A śikhā (tuft of hair) is to be kept.
Vidyārambha or the beginning of primary education by teaching the alphabet is a subsidiary rite.
This is of primary importance in the life of a dvija (the twice-born). Investiture with the yajñopavīta (sacred thread) and imparting the Gāyatrī-mantra are the most important steps.
A brahmacārin had to undergo four Vedavratas: mahānamnī, mahāvrata, upaniṣadvrata and godānavrata.
They were to be observed after the Upanayana ceremony and for a period of one year each.
Gradually they went out of use and were substituted by other saṁskāras as described later under 16.
This signifies the return of the brahmacārin, after the completion of his studenthood—he is now called a snātaka—to his house.
Through vivāha or marriage, the snātaka enters into the second stage of life viz., gārhasthya (life of the householder). This stage is considered all-important, since the householder is the prop of the whole society.
This stands for all the post-death ceremonies performed by the survivors of the dead-person for his future welfare.
In later dharmaśāstra literature, the four Vedavratas were omitted and the following four were added: karṇavedha (piercing the ear-lobes); vidyārambha (same as akṣarābhyāsa, learning the alphabet); vedārambha (first study of the Vedas); keśānta (cutting the hair or shaving the beard).
See under each title for details.