Tradition (Part 1)

Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati

The essence of all tradition is continuity. It is this factor alone that gives birth to tradition. In order to under-stand this all we need to do is observe nature. Some of the best examples of tradition can be drawn from it. The planets, the seasons, the plant, animal, mineral and human kingdoms are all governed by their own set of rules. Nature has bestowed these in the form of tradition. These rules never change. Have you ever woken to find that the sun has not risen or that the moon does not shine at night? No, not at all! There are countless such examples to demonstrate the total and absolute continuity in nature's traditions.

The purpose of tradition is to pass on useful knowledge. All that we know today about ourselves and the world we live in is through the traditions formulated throughout the ages by different civilizations. Thus we see a variety of traditions existent in the world today. These vary from social traditions, to cultural, religious, educational, spiritual, economic, as well as traditions in warfare. On account of these traditions modern man has a head start over his ancestor, the primitive man, because he already has a vast mine of information which he can delve into. This saves time and effort and leads to quicker progress in every facet of life. Very often, important clues are found in these traditions that provide a breakthrough in solving difficult problems for which we have no answer.

Traditions lend stability to life. Through stability, growth ensues. Society evolves. Cultures flourish. New discoveries are made and difficult tasks accomplished. This stability is exemplified in the traditions of nature. How impossible it would have been for man to reach his present level of achievement if nature was erratic and whimsical in its traditions.

The Sanskrit word for tradition is parampara. This word also lays emphasis on continuity. Literally it means that which was present yesterday, is there today and will exist tomorrow. The key to forming a tradition thus lies in homogeneity. If there is a break, it ceases to be a tradition.

Break in tradition

A break in tradition can be caused by many factors. Many of these are circumstantial such as invasion and conquest. New rulers bring new traditions to replace the old ones. Acceptance of these new traditions is more often than not imposed through strict measures. There is little choice but to follow them. Migration is another important circumstantial factor for a break in tradition. New horizons bring instability and change in lifestyle. Often due to a non-conducive environment old traditions have to be left behind and forgotten. Future generations born and brought up in alien surroundings adopt the traditions they are born into as a part of their natural heritage. These breaks are caused by accidents in history. Breaks are also caused when a tradition has an inherent defect, which cannot be rectified. It is not perfect. It does not prove useful for all times to come. It is relevant only for a short period of time in a given situation. When that situation ceases, the tradition becomes irrelevant.

Where a break in tradition is due to an accident in history, the tradition can be revived at any time when the situation is congenial for its revival. But if the tradition is imperfect it is lost forever and cannot be rejuvenated. For it is only natural to retain what is beneficial and meaningful and to discard all that is useless and imperfect.

Essential ingredients – vision and foresight

Apart from homogeneity there is yet another vital aspect on which the life of a tradition depends. That is foresight. Tradition-makers are not ordinary people like you and me. They are born into greatness and when they die they leave behind a parampara. They have the ability to envisage the distant future and know how a particular tradition will shape itself as society evolves. Society is not static. There is always change and movement within it. Who knows which way the wind will blow, say two hundred years from now. How relevant will a tradition formulated hundreds and thousands of years ago be then? Will it degenerate, will it be discarded or will it just die?

This is why older traditions are more sound and stable. Their antiquity lends them depth. They become time-tested, perfect and efficacious. Having withstood the onslaught of age and the ravages of history, they attain siddhi, or perfection. They become sanatan, or eternal. In this modern age it is this sanatan traditions that deserve special attention, because they have been built for the preservation of life. Men of profound vision and clear insight into the future created these traditions. It is their gift for the unbroken and continuous evolution of mankind.

Traditions should apply to all mankind

To earn this status of being eternal it is necessary that a tradition should not be sectarian. It should not apply to just one or two groups of people but to all mankind. Life is universal. The nature of problems and situations that man faces in his journey of life are the same throughout the world. Love, anger, hatred, anxiety, restlessness, pleasure, sorrow are universal qualities. They exist in all of us. Is there any difference in the anger of a Russian from that of an Indian. No, not at all. Human qualities are the same everywhere, no matter to which country, class, creed or religion you belong. Is there anything known as Christian pain or Hindu pleasure? Pain is pain and pleasure is pleasure. No matter who feels it, or in whichever part of the world it is felt.

A tradition based on the knowledge of life has the ability to adjust, adapt and reorient itself according to the changing times. It does not allow rigidity to set in. It does not stagnate like a pond. Rather it flows with the current like a river bringing fresh and new water in the form of ideas and thoughts. To imagine that a tradition cannot be altered or readapted once it is formed is not correct. Good traditions always have the scope to evolve and absorb any new ideas that will make them more perfect and suitable for man. Rigidity is another cause of the break and irrevocable death of a tradition.

Tradition for survival of civilizations

Tradition is important for us because it is synonymous with survival. Civilizations that maintain and uphold time bound traditions also meet with a time bound destiny. Where are the great civilizations of the past? Obliterated and forgotten. If they exist it is only on the pages of history. The true test of a tradition is that it should be self-sustaining. It should have the potency to survive only because it is so precious that to lose it would mean losing knowledge about life.

Each civilization has its own unique dhara, or flow of thought, through which we can trace the traditions it has upheld through the ages. These traditions give civilizations their own peculiar mental ethos which characterizes and sets them apart from others. Some civilizations have a warrior bent of mind. They think of nothing but invasion and conquest. Some are by nature traders and think only of profit and loss. Others are explorers, always in search of new horizons and discoveries of every kind. Some are terrorists in thought, word and deed and view life only through the barrel of a gun. Some are gypsies, always on the move with no permanent place to call their own. Some are philosophical by nature. They view life from every angle, not just the life that is apparent but that which is insinuated as well. It is this bent of mind that influences the traditions it adopts and thereby determines the behaviour, reactions, responses and subsequently the longevity of each civilization.

Traditions of Bharatavarsha, the original India

What makes this land called Bharatavarsha unique is that here not just one or two tribes or people practise and have knowledge of the most ancient traditions known and handed down to man. They are vibrant and alive in each and every home. Even in the present day, having travelled so far down the line, these traditions are virtually practised and known to each and every family.

Who thought of these traditions? Who preserved and transferred them to us? We certainly owe a lot to them, for these traditions are about life and living. They apply to all men. They are not sectarian, nor are they religious. They are scientific as well as philosophical. The philosophy they impart is how to live life to its zenith, and yet keep in mind the true purpose of birth. The science they promulgate is the manner and method to propel mankind towards this achievement.

Rishis and munis – founders of the great vedic traditions

It is the ancient seers, the rishis and munis of the Vedas, to whom we owe this debt. By observing nature, the greatest tradition maker of all time, they realized that continuity is the most important factor for the preserving of tradition. They must have also known that this continuity could not be maintained through race or civilizations, as they are subject to time cycles. But an idea or thought has no barriers and once it is born can survive all times to come if it is carefully preserved. To transfer their ideas they created the most valuable and precious tradition known to man, the guru parampara. This tradition is the most unique and wonderful gem in the treasury of the land known as Bharatavarsha. It is this unparalleled tradition that is responsible for the safe and unbroken continuity of the living experiences of the vedic seers. It is the guru parampara or tradition that has closely safeguarded the traditions and handed them down to succeeding ages despite the violent upheavals in the history of this land. They are the true custodians of the traditions based on the most supreme knowledge that was realized by the vedic seers in deep states of meditation.

Atma – the basis of vedic traditions

The uniqueness of the vedic tradition is that the subject of its scrutiny was not matter but spirit. Even when matter was analyzed it was seen as an evolute of spirit and not as an independent entity in itself. Realizing the impermanence of matter, they turned their attention to that which survives after matter decays. Thus right from the beginning vedic traditions evolved with the purpose of influencing not just life but after life as well.

The meditative experiences of the rishis and munis revealed that after the body dies and decays there is something in each one of us that lives on. Throughout life it remains a witness, inspiring us and at times giving us a glimpse of itself. But this glimpse is fragmented, and does not appear as the constant unbroken and effulgent awareness that it is. This means within us is a doer and a witness of what the doer does. That witness is called chetana, consciousness or awareness, or one might say conscious awareness.

To have a safe flight after this awareness has left the body, we will have to build a deep and abiding link with it when alive. We should be able to identify with our awareness just as much as we identify with our body and mind. When the body dies and the mind is extinguished, this awareness continues to experience itself in different dimensions of existence. What makes human life more special than other forms of life is that as a human one can know and experience this awareness in this body itself, without dying. To know awareness is the ultimate existence.

This means that after death the awareness that we carry with us throughout life becomes disembodied and moves around as pure awareness, pulsating with energy. But it has no form. As it is not restricted by the physical attributes, it can move into different realms that exist in a different time and space and beyond time and space as well. These spheres of existence are known as lokas. They are seven in number: bhu-loka (earthly plane), bhuvar-loka (intermediate plane), suvar-loka (divine plane), maha-loka (plane of saints and siddhas), jana-loka (plane of rishis and munis), tapo-loka (plane of liberated souls) and satya-loka (plane of ultimate truth). This it does only if it has acquired gati, or momentum, through deeds performed during the course of life. Naturally, certain deeds accelerate the momentum of awareness while others retard it. These deeds can be loosely classified into virtuous and sinful, but in order to understand virtue and sin we will have to redefine our understanding of these two concepts. There is one concept that society imposes on us, and we all know what society has classified as virtue and sin. But, strangely, when it comes to the momentum of awareness there is a completely different set of rules that define it. This definition is a more scientific classification as opposed to the moral and religious overtones of society's concepts. This set of rules is known as dharma.

Sanatan dharma – a tradition of Bharatavarsha

Dharma is eternal. It never changes; therefore it is known as sanatan. It is one of nature's best traditions. It teaches us the principles that hold the world together. The dictionary defines it as right conduct. Instead it should be defined as the values that complement the laws of nature. The entire creation is made up of three gunas or qualities known as sattwa, rajas and tamas. The interplay of these three qualities gives birth to the manifest world. They are present in each and every speck of life in varying proportions. Sattwa is luminosity, rajas is turbulent activity and tamas is inertia.

Acts of dharma generate a sattwic vibration that creates soothing, stable and life-promoting energy circuits. Anything that obstructs the smooth flow of this sattwic energy is thus termed a sin. Acts that promote sattwic energy are acts of virtue. You may well say that when the tenets of sanatan dharma decay and vanish from our lives then pralaya, or the end of the world, is near. It is dharma that sustains the world. Without it the world would degenerate. Any thought word or deed that is sattwic in nature aids dharma in upholding the world. This universe and all that is born in it lives and breathes only on account of sattwa. Rajasic vibrations dissipate the homogeneity of the universe and tamas induces darkness. Meditation is a sattwic deed. So too is prayer. In fact any creativity is sattwic in nature.

Sattwa – the basis of sanatan dharma

This sattwic energy that comes into prominence through dharmic deeds helps the individual by making his life harmonious and thus more creative and prosperous. And it prepares him for after life as well. The state of embodied awareness after death can be compared to a football lying idle on the field until a player comes along and with a good kick gives it gati or momentum. The awareness too remains in a state of inertia and hovers in different planes according to the momentum it has gained due to past deeds. It is the sattwic deeds alone that generate the required momentum to propel the awareness to higher planes.

Although death eradicates the physical body, it cannot destroy this awareness. It is therefore correct to surmise that for us awareness is more important than the body and mind. It outlives both. When the body and mind cease to be, then it is this disembodied awareness alone that carries the jiva forward. If you have not cared to awaken this awareness while living, then the momentum that it needs to propel itself forward is not there and it will remain dull and inert in lower planes of existence. The force that propels the jiva forward, backward or keeps it lying idle is known as karma. Karma is action. Some karmas are conducive to the awakening of awareness and some are a hindrance. Yet others do not influence it in any way. The karmas we perform are in turn influenced by samskaras.

Through science we know that there are inferior and superior forms of life, such as plants, birds, minerals, vegetables, animals, and so on. But within the human race itself there are inferior and superior forms of birth. These categories are delineated not by external paraphernalia such as beauty, wealth, name and fame, but by the inner samskaras which guide the behaviour, thought patterns, responses and reactions to the varied situations and circumstances of life.

Samskara – a process of purification

The word samskara has no real equivalent in English. It has often been described as a religious rite, ritual or ceremony. That is a superficial explanation. Of course it is a rite, but to merely say that is not enough. It would be more accurate to say samskara is a rite which, through a process of purification, makes a certain thing or person fit for a certain purpose. This it accomplishes in two ways. First, by removing obstacles and blemishes and then by generating fresh qualities within the person. Suffice it to say that it educates, trains, refines, perfects, polishes, moulds and decorates the entire personality of man so that he may develop human qualities and not remain at the level of instinct, as animals do.

Until and unless this happens man is no better than an animal, although he may have inherited a human body. The four basic instincts of sleep, hunger, fear and procreation that govern animals govern man too. But if he wishes to be called a fully-fledged man in the true sense of the word then he has to rise above the instinctive level. Nature has been generous to man. It has given him the priceless power to do so. But how is he to do this?

It is for this purpose and solely for this aim that the vedic seers revealed the most precious tradition of initiating him into samskaras at specific moments of his life, from conception to death. This knowledge has been handed down through the guru parampara or tradition. It is important to realize that the tradition of samskaras was not a religious concept, nor was it social or cultural. It was a metaphysical concept that was so deftly woven into the social, cultural and religious fabric of man's life that he was compelled to implement it, just as he is compelled to receive secular knowledge today in order to earn a living.

Our ancient rishis and munis realized that life was primarily a mystical journey rather than a material one. Despite all his material achievements, at the end of the day man has to come to terms with himself. He has to face himself squarely. His material gains will not come to his rescue there. For that he has to build a different sort of bank balance. They knew too that in the mad race for material comforts man is bound to ignore the necessity of building this reserve. So they introduced these rites in such a way that they became essential for his coexistence in society. In that way he was bound to incorporate them into his life. Moreover, they linked these rites with the most basic stages of life such as conception, birth, adolescence, marriage and subsequently death – all those events that forever remain a mystery to man and over which he has no control.

Vedic traditions – oral or written?

These samskaras were initially handed down by oral tradition. Thus it is impossible to set a day and time when they were first practised. Definitely it was before the written word was born, or else why was it passed on orally? This gives a clear indication of their antiquity. The first written evidence of these samskaras is found in the earliest written treatise known to man, the Vedas. Later they were conclusively discussed in the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads, and systematically laid down in the Sutras such as the Grhyasutras, Dharmasutras and Srautasutras. The smritis, which deal mainly with the social conduct of men rather than rituals, also found it necessary to include these samskaras while defining achara (behaviour), vyvahara (relating to events and people) and prayaschitta (atonement). By then these purificatory rites known as samskaras had become so entwined in day to day life that they even found their way into the Samhitas, or epics, and Puranas, which are unique historical records of creation and annihilation of the universe from a very, very long time ago.

This process of implanting samskaras is not an intellectual and rational process. Although there are many good explanations for them, if you try to understand them logically you may fail to do so. To obtain their effect it is not necessary to know, understand or even believe in them. The fact that they are happening to you is enough for them to influence your awareness. Many of the samskaras are given at birth to a newborn child and some even before birth in embryo or seed form. There is no intellect there to grasp them. Yet their influence is total.

Classification of samskaras

Originally the samskaras were several. Later they were divided and further classified into manushya samskaras (for human beings who are ruled by the mind) and daivi samskaras (for enlightened beings who have transcended the mind). Out of the original number of forty-eight samskaras, sixteen were chosen for mankind and the wonder of it is that all these sixteen are practised in every home even today.

No tradition could survive that long if it did not have the eternal values suited to all mankind. Bharatavarsha is a land of unity in diversity. Many races, many tribes and powerful civilizations came to this land and found it very congenial to stay here. They mingled and merged to become the present day Indian. A medley of diverse cultures, differing dialects and food habits, varied dress conducts, skin tones ranging from very, very dark to extremely light, hair and eyes of all colours, their roots and ancestries evident. But they are all united in the tradition of initiating a new life into sixteen samskaras. This is unanimously accepted even though they come from diverse cultures. These vedic rites coexist with their own cultural traditions. There is a peaceful and coherent amalgamation of the two.

Garbhadhana – entering the womb

The first samskara is given when life enters the womb and conception takes place. It is known as garbhadana, which strangely enough means 'to enter the womb'. It is the first ceremonial occasion and preliminary purification conducted for the new life or jiva. In a sense it is also to propitiate and at the same time rejoice for the life that is being created. This is a very interesting and unique concept. It is a sort of invitation for a soul of your choice to enter the womb and take birth in this world. This samskara is very crucial for it is here that the destiny of the new life is being made. In scientific parlance you may say his DNA is being codified, and in philosophical language his prarabdha is being determined and defined. What is decided now goes with him throughout his life. His physical, mental, emotional and spiritual attributes take shape here.

In the very first samskara itself you can see how the animalistic instinct of procreation is purified and refined into an act whereby a male and a female unite not for pleasure but to enact a very important tradition of Nature, creation. Their union is performed with discipline in a congenial and pure atmosphere, while both the husband and wife chant specific mantras to invite a soul of their choice to enter the womb.

Through this samskara the sex of the new life can be influenced and also his personality. Whether he should be an intellectual or a warrior, a criminal or a saint, intelligent or idiotic. Whether he will amass wealth and fame as well as bear good and beautiful children. Even life can be prolonged by it. In finest detail many different ways are described to achieve all of this and much more through this first samskara.

Pumsavana – a stir in the womb

The second samskara, pumsavana, is generally performed in the third month when the foetus first moves in the womb. Here again mantras are recited with the belief that the new life listens to them with attention and recollects past lives. Once again the jiva is given a direction and foundation on which his future rests. Here too the parents have an opportunity to choose the kind of progeny they wish to inherit.

Simantonnayana – birth of the mind

The third samskara is simantonnayana, which is performed in the fifth month at the crucial moment when the mental formations of the foetus begin to arrange themselves. This samskara is conducted to emphasize that at this juncture the female bearing the unborn child should be kept in the most pleasant and conducive environment in order to prevent any physical or mental shock to the foetus. It is a time for rejoicing, song, mirth and laughter. Ballads are recited of brave, famous, handsome and dashing heroes as well as of great spiritual luminaries. Epics are narrated and mantras are chanted in order to educate the foetus, because it is believed that learning begins here with the birth of the mind. It is said that if you want your child to remember something for the rest of his life you should sing it to him at this time. It is the time for making a sankalpa for the prosperity of the unborn child.

Jata karma – establishing an identity

After these three prenatal samskaras, the next samskara is given at the time of birth, seconds before the ties are severed from the mother who bore the garbha for nine long months. This is known as jata karma, the precise moment when birth takes place and breath or prana is infused into the new life. This is a very important moment for the child. Prana is vital for life. Until now the foetus had shared the prana of the mother, but at this juncture he receives his own and all his organs swing into action. Medical science too has acknowledged this moment to be critical for the quality of life the new born will enjoy. If there is the slightest delay between the moment when the umbilical chord is cut and the first inhalation, the brain and other vital organs can be irreparably damaged.

It is also a time of extreme emotion for the mother. The extremity of emotion directly influences the awakening of intellect in the newborn. Heightened emotion is conducive to the production and growth of higher intellect. Great importance should be given to this samskara, as the quality of intellect is very vital for the decisions he takes in his life, those decisions which make or break a man. In addition, his creative capacity is also heightened by the extreme emotion the mother experiences during childbirth.

After the cord is cut, the mother sees the child for the first time and repeats mantras into his ear. The position of the planets and constellations at the exact time of birth are also fixed and astrological predictions are made, in order to acquaint his kith and kin about him. He is then swaddled in a piece of unstitched cloth and placed near the mother's breast. Thus begins his grand entry into this world. It is strange but true that most infants cry and wail loudly at this moment. When all around him are rejoicing, the jiva cries in confusion. This ceremony is conducted in front of the sacrificial fire, or agni, who bears witness to the event as well as purifying the mother and child.

Namkarana – the naming ceremony

Namkarana, or the naming ceremony, follows jata karma. This is the first samskara of social significance. Until this moment the child was a private individual not known to any other apart from his parents and immediate relatives. Now his is introduced to society for the first time. Friends and relatives are invited to this ceremony and sumptuous meals are fed to guests and family members. The poor are given alms and the rich gifts. Havans are performed. Sacrificial fires are lit and oblations offered into it to make his journey auspicious and his relationships fruitful. The ceremony is performed on the tenth day after both mother and son have undergone purificatory rites prior to emerging in public. It is the moment of glory for mother and child after long months of labour.

Nishkarmana – introduction to the world

The next samskara, nishkarmana, follows soon after the twelfth day when the child is introduced first to the family deity and then to the different forms of nature. It is his first outing. The air, wind, sun, moon, light, darkness, plants, animals, birds are shown to the child. For the first time he perceives his new destination, the home where he is going to live for the next hundred years. Although barely a few days old and unable to speak, walk or crawl, through the faculty of touch, sight and sound he creates many impressions in his deeper mind, which he does not forget through his life. That first touch, that unique taste, the sounds and the smells that he registers at this time linger with him forever. At this juncture the child receives every kind of protection, as it is a vulnerable time of transition when he is stepping into the future without fully forgetting the past.

Annaprasana – the first morsel

The samskara known as annaprasana follows next. It is the first feed apart from mother's milk that the infant receives. Conducted when he is six months old amidst the chanting of mantras, its object is to propitiate speech. Anna means grain and this first morsel to enter his body is a mixture of well-cooked grains. On swallowing it his digestive fire is kindled and the juices and secretions which aid digestion begin to flow. Soon after he utters his first syllable, “Maa”, which he addresses to his creator and first guru, his mother, she who has borne him for nine long months, nourished him and ushered him safely into the world.

Food is the first gross matter to enter the body of the child. No doubt it strengthens his organs and facilitates his growth. But more than that the effect of the food he consumes is transferred to the subtle realms of the mind, emotions and spirit as well. It is a well known fact that the food you eat has a direct and immediate bearing on your thoughts, actions, emotions and responses.

As explained in yoga, the annamaya kosha is the first covering or sheath of the physical body. It is made up of the food we eat and intimately connected to the other four koshas known as pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya. Any influence on annamaya kosha is immediately transferred to the other four koshas that constitute the vital energy or prana, the mental patterns or mind, the intellect, or vijnana, and pure bliss, or anandamaya.

During the course of life we accumulate a lot of dross in the annamaya kosha on account of faulty food intake. But the annamaya kosha of a newborn infant is pure and any wrong food input would send shock waves through all the five koshas.

Annaprasana is a way of gradually adapting his system to all kinds of food that he will be required to eat later on in life. It is wonderful to note that even the everyday act of eating was introduced to the child as an initiation. This impresses on him the importance of eating the right food that can stimulate his vital energy, as well as be assimilated by all the koshas.

Chudakarana – shaving of the head

The samskara of chudakarana is conducted at the end of the first year. It is a simple ceremony in which the head of the infant is shaved, leaving a small tuft at the top back portion of the head where a vital energy centre know as bindu is located. The main purpose of this samskara is to induce longevity in the infant. Hair and nails are toxic emissions of the body. They contain the impurities that the body has expelled. Thus removing them adds strength, vitality, vigour and longevity to his body. This can be repeated many times in the life of the child to induce the same results. This is a good practice to adopt for good health and long life. Although the prescribed age for chudakarana is one year, it can also be conducted any time between the first and seventh year. Many even combine it with the next samskara known as upanayana, which is performed in the seventh year.

(Part 2 of this article will appear in the March issue.)