In order to qualify oneself to become a fit person to worship Vishnu, one is required to go through the prescribed initiation ceremony to be conducted by a qualified preceptor. The sacrament known as pancha samskara comprises five simple ceremonies: (1) tapa, or wearing the mark of the conch and discus, the two weapons of Vishnu, on the left and right shoulder blades of the initiate; (2) pundra or applying on the forehead the mark in the shape of Vishnu's feet; (3) nama or naming the initiate as Vishnu dasa; (4) mantra or imparting the esoteric Vaishnava mantras, and (5) ijya or formal instruction of the mode of worship of God.
A small section of Vaishnavas who are the followers of the Vaikhanasa sutras, which is another branch of the Agamas, does not observe the formal practice of pancha samskara because it is not prescribed in their treatises. They, however, believe that a child during the eighth month of pregnancy of the mother, gets marked with the conch and discus by Lord Narayana Himself and in view of it no separate ritual need be observed. The followers of the Pancharatra system scrupulously go through this initiation ceremony, as otherwise they are deemed to be disqualified to offer worship to God. The practice of pancha samskara has been made an obligatory rite for all Vaishnavas and is being followed since Ramanuja's time as an essential purificatory sacrament.
Tapa is the most important among the five ceremonies because in the absence of it, an individual will not become a qualified Vaishnava. Only after the initiation of this ceremony will an individual acquire the right to recite the esoteric mantras and perform the formal worship of Vishnu (Vishnu puja), which is an obligatory daily religious duty of a Vaishnava. The word tapa means heating and as a samskara or sacrament it implies the branding on the two shoulder blades, the mark of Vishnu's conch and discus by using the heated pieces of metal (made of either silver or copper) engraved with conch and discus. There are certain preliminary rituals in the form of homas to be performed in the consecrated fire by the preceptor or his representative. The purpose of this ritual is to purify the body and mind of the individual who, in token of his having become a Vishnu devotee, should bear permanently on his body the symbol of Vishnu's satikha and chakra. The reason for choosing these two symbols of Vishnu is that the conch represents the auspiciousness, whereas the discus stands for the spiritual energy that wards off evil. This apart, there are numerous scriptural texts as well as the statements of Pancharatra Sanhitas and Puranas which enjoin the wearing of the marks of these two symbols.
According to the Mahopanisad, 'The Brahmin should bear the discus on the right arm and the conch on the left.' The Baskala Samhita of the Rig Veda also points out that the learned (Vaishnava) must wear the mark of the sanctifying conch and discus on the upper part of the arms in order to cross the ocean of bondage. Many other scriptural texts are quoted by Vedanta Desika in support of this ancient practice. There are numerous statements in the Indian Puranas too advocating this practice. The Mahabharata which refers to the Pancharatra system known by the name of Satvata Vidhi mentions explicitly that God is to be worshipped by persons of all castes who have obtained the marks of identity, such as, chakra. The Pancharatra Samhitas too emphasise the necessity of bearing the marks of Vishnu's chakra and safikha as an essential requirement in performing the worship of God. Based on such authoritative sources, Vaishnavism has advocated the observance of the sacrament of tapa.
The next important ceremony as a part of the fivefold sacrament is pundra. Pundra which is an abbreviated form of the word urdhva-pundra, means the wearing on the forehead the symbolic mark in the shape of the feet of Vishnu with white clay. Though it is a common practice among the Vaishnavas including those who are not initiated, to wear the creed mark as a daily routine, the formal ceremony of applying it on the face and other selected parts of the body, twelve in all, is observed at the time of the initiation.
An orthodox Vaishnava is expected to wear the dvadasa (twelve) pundras with the chanting of the names of the twelve incarnations of Vyuhas. The significance of wearing the urdhva pundra with the chanting of the names of Bhagavan is to purify the body. There is no unanimity among the Vaishnavas in the manner in which the creed mark is put on. In fact, this religious custom which is of little philosophical significance has led to some conflict between the two primary sects of Vaishnavas - the Vadakalais and Tenkalais. The former group wear the pundra in the shape of a single foot of Vishnu in the 'U' shape with a curve formed at the bottom of the forehead right above the nose. The latter group put on the mark in the 'Y' shape symbolizing two feet of Vishnu with a separate mark on the nose symbolizing the pedestal for the feet to rest. Both the sects, as followers of Ramanuja, use the soft white clay selected from select places considered holy. It is drawn vertically in two parallel columns leaving some space in between and at the centre a red or yellow vertical line is drawn with the powder made of turmeric.
There is no historical evidence to prove when this distinction of wearing the pundra in two different ways arose, though the followers of the two sects trace its origin to the time of Ramanuja. According to the scriptural and Smriti texts and in particular, the Pancharatra treatises, urdhva-pundra is to be put on by every devotee soon after a bath in the morning. The Smriti texts mention in general terms that it should be in the shape of a flame, (varti dipakrti) the leaf of the bamboo (venu patrakrti), a flower bud or shape of Vishnu's feet (Hari padakrti). It is difficult to say in which particular shape Ramanuja and his immediate followers were wearing the pundra. While introducing the observance of pancha samskara as an obligatory rite for a Vaishnava, Ramanuja must have emphasised the practice of wearing a pundra by every Vaishnava to prove his allegiance to Vaishnava sampradaya. Presumably, at a later period when the rift between the two sects became increasingly pronounced on the basis of certain doctrinal differences the changes in wearing the pundra in two different styles would have come into vogue for identifying the respective followers. The sectarian bias was unfortunately manifested by marking the pundra even on the idols, the temple walls and towers, the vehicles and the mounts of the images.
As has been said earlier, the shape of the urdhva pundra has really no philosophic significance. In conformity to the scriptural and Smriti injunctions it is to be put on by every devoted Vaishnava since the religious ceremony performed without it is not considered fruitful. In recent years due to the influence of modern way of life, the practice of wearing it has practically disappeared, particularly among the younger generation. However, an orthodox Vaishnava should necessarily put on the pundra as otherwise; he would not be qualified on religious ground to perform the divine worship and any other religious ceremony.
Nama means giving a name to the disciple and it is the third part of the fivefold samskara. This is a simple and formal symbolic ritual. The disciple is named as Vishnu dasa (servant of Vishnu) to signify the fact that with his initiation into Vaishnava-hood he is made to realize that he is subservient to Vishnu. It is also customary to name the initiate as Ramanuja-dasa to emphasise the fact that he has become a follower of Ramanuja. Another justification for naming the initiate as Vishnu-dasa is that a devotee of Vishnu is not to be addressed by either the name of his birthplace or the family surname but, on the contrary, he is to be identified as a Vishnu-dasa. Thus, it is customary even today among the orthodox Vaishnavas to introduce oneself to another Vaishnava as a dasa and not by his real name.
An esoteric mantra which is preserved as a secret treasure is to be orally transmitted by the preceptor to a deserving disciple. In the ancient days, a mantra was never put in writing. It was kept secret and orally imparted from a teacher to a pupil. The mantras containing a few mystic syllables or words are spiritual in character pregnant with philosophical implications. The chanting of such mantras associated with the names of Lord Narayana, Vishnu, Vasudeva etc., are supposed to secure the grace of God, through which one's sins are removed and thereby liberation of the soul from bondage is secured. In view of the spiritual value of the mantras, the initiation ceremony is adopted for the purpose of imparting them to the deserving disciple by a qualified acharya. This custom is strictly followed by the Vaishnavas even to this day.
The last part of the pancha samskara, i.e., the ijya is also similar in character to the imparting of the mantra and intended to serve the same purpose. In ijya, which is also called as yoga, the essentials of the mode of actual worship of God in the form of an icon or salagrama (a kind of stone obtained from Gandak river in Nepal in which it is believed that the Divine Being is ever present) are taught. The daily worship of God is an obligatory religious duty of a Vaishnava and it is but proper that a disciple is initiated to it by formal instruction by an acharya.
Thus, all the five ceremonies of initiation are interlinked. Without tapa, urdhva-pundra and the eligibility to recite the sacred mantras, a Vaishnava is not qualified to conduct the formal worship of God either at home or in the temple. Pancha samskara, therefore, occupies an important place in Vaishnavism.
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