As a hindu born and brought up in a different culture and religion, I have always admired the way that in Sanatana Dharma everything is so naturally spiritualized. Life itself is sacred, so spiritualizing it is just uncovering the veils of darkness to see that sacredness.
So happens with the samskaras, that is a sanskrit word with different meanings. It would be understood in western terminology and in this context as sacraments. But its real meaning here is to perfect, to polish. They should be seen as a constant guidance throughout the whole life of a hindu for our mind be focused on leading our life for the highest purpose: uniting with Ishwara and discovering our true divine nature.
The codification of the Samskaras is given in the Grhyasutras.
The sixteen Samskaras to be performed on an individual during his life cycle are:
1). Garbhadhana: The rite of insemination.
2). Pumsavana: Bringing about a male child.
3). Simantonnayana: Ritual Parting of the Wife’s Hair by the Husband.
4). Jatakarma: Birth ceremonies.
5). Namakarna: Ceremony of Naming the Child.
6). Nishkramana: The child’s first outing.
7). Annaprashana: The first feeding of the child with solid foods.
8). Chudakarana: The child’s first haircut.
9). Karnavedha: Piercing of the child’s ears.
10). Vidya-arambha: Beginning of the child’s studies.
11). Upanayana: The wearing of the sacred thread.
12). Veda-arambha: Start of Vedic studies.
13). Keshanta: First shaving of the beard.
14). Samavartana: Taking leave of one’s teacher.
15). Vivaha: Marriage.
16). Antyeshti: Last Rites.
I focus on this samskara because it always attracted my admiration that from the very conception of a child there is a reminder of our divinity acknowledged in the shastras. We can find in the shastras what is called as Garbhadhana samskara. in the Vedic period and afterwards this samskara was followed religiously. Nowadays it is minoritarily followed.
Garbhadhana literally means “attaining the wealth of the womb”, and the aim of this samskara is to conceive virtuous children.
It is believed that the state of the parent’s mind during conception affects the well-being and ‘quality’ of the offspring. Thus says the Narada Purana:
‘The state of mind during the placing of the seed into the womb determines the type of child to be born.’ (2.27.29-30)
This is confirmed by medical texts:
‘The quality of diet, actions etc of the man and woman lead to an offspring with similar qualities.’ (Sushruta Samhita Sharira Sthana 2.46)
The obvious time for Garbhadhana, the placing of one’s seed inside the wife, is when she is physically prepared to conceive. This is known in the scriptures as Ritu-Kala, or the period of fertility. The proper time of conception is from the fourth to the sixteenth night after the monthly periods begin. However, the following restrictions apply:
1). Physical contact between man and wife should take place only in the nights, and never in the daytime (Prashna Upanishad 1.13). This is a strict no-no, and anyone indulging in it becomes liable for ‘Prayashchitta’ (atonement). The reason given for it was that the vital airs of one, who cohabits with his wife in the day time, leap our; one approaching his wife in the night time is still a Brahmachari; one should avoid coition in the day time, because from it unlucky, weak and short-lived children are born. Exceptions to this rule however, were recognized. But they were meant for only those who generally lived abroad, separated from their wives, or when their wives were intensely desirous of cohabitaion. The idea underlying the second exception was that women should be satisfied and protected by every means, so that they should not go astray.
2). Physical contact is to be avoided on all festivals or days of fasting (Manu Smriti 3.45; Yajnavalakya Smrti 1.79)
3). Certain days of the lunar month are also restricted. The eight and fourteenth of the lunar month and the full-moon (Purnima) and no moon (Amavasya) days.
4). Also the eleventh and thirteenth nights after the advent of the periods. (Manu Smriti 3.47).
Traditionally, male progeny has been preferred, as the continuity of the family is maintained through male lineage, and sons are required to perform the necessary rituals that guarantee a safe sojourn for the father and mother after they leave this world. Another reason is that traditionally the girl when grown up and married, goes to live with her husband and her in-laws, leaving the nest empty, while a boy when grown up, is suppossed to continue with his family the whole life. There is a completely different viewpoint in the Hindu tradition in which the welfare of the family and the whole society at large, it is preferred to the so apparently extolled individuality in the West. However in a deeper look, the real profound individuality is also extoled in the indian tradition, as members of the same family, for instance, can choose their own spiritual path of their preference and their own Istha Devata. This should not be judged but understood in its proper context and with the proper lens.
A western lens will see one life only, that has to be “fully enjoyed”, because there is only one opportunity. Either enjoy it to its best in its atheist version, or comply with the Christian doctrine to get to go to heaven after death.
In a traditional indian/hindu lens there is no such impatience, because it will see that life is only one in million of previous and afterwards lives and the deep meaning of it is to attune it to Dharma for letting the jiva progress towards its final aim of Moksha. But I would never get tired of saying that the the moment that one starts learning to attune to Dharma, is the moment one starts to experiencing the real happiness in life. Far from the egoistic western concept of misunderstood “freedom to do whatever one wants“, that leads finally to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
After this disgression, I would like to add regarding the Garbhadhana samskara that however, daughters are also welcome and desired in addition to sons, as is evident in various texts such as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4.17) which advises that “a man who wishes to have ‘a learned daughter who will life out her full life span’ should ask his wife to “cook a special meal of rice and ghee. The couple thus becomes capable of begetting such a daughter.”
The purpose of the Garbhadhana Samskara
The Garbhadhana Samskara makes us realize that the physical contact between man and wife is not a fulfillment of an animal need, but rather a yajna (an offering to the Gods). When husband and wife, bedecked in the shower of auspicious mantras (chanted by the husband), indulge in the actual physical act of creating an offspring, they indeed give rise to a child of superior disposition.
The whole purpose of the Garbhadhana Samskara is to invoke the gods to participate in the act of procreation, the human counterpart of divine creation. That the human act of procreation is of divine origin is clearly mentioned in the scriptures:
‘It was Lord Prajapati the creator who first established his seed in the lower part of a woman. A man should do the same because it is the way of the world to follow in the footsteps of those superior to us.’ (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.2)
In comparing the married couple to the earth and the sky, the Vedas recognize the inherent nature and necessity of this union in accordance with the cosmic laws of procreation.
However, those who do not recognize the essential sacredness of the act of procreation are headed for disaster. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘Many Brahmins lost all their merit (punya) because they indulged in this act without knowing that it is but a yajna.’ (6.4.4)