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Panca Samskara: The Process of Initiation

By Bhaktivinoda Thakura

Translation by Shukavak dasa
ISKCON Journal, Vol.1, No.1, 1990. No copyright notice.

The following discourse is a translation of an article written in Bengali, entitled Panca-samskara, by Thakura Bhaktivinoda. The article was originally published in his journal, Sajjana Tosani (vol. 2/1) in 1885. I have added portions, indicated by square brackets, from a supplementary article of the same title also from Sajjana Tosani (vol. 4/1) published in 1892. I present this translation with the hope that it will encourage a deeper understanding of the initiation process by both teacher and student within our Vaisnava tradition. - Shukavak Das

The sastras explain that a person who receives panca-samskara can practice two kinds of devotion (1) and gain permanent happiness in the eternal abode of Sri Hari:

avapta-panca-samskaro labdhva-dvi-vidha-bhaktikah
saksat krtya harim tasya dhamni nityam pramodate

Persons who read this instruction with faith will want to understand the meaning of the expression panca-samskara. In order to help them, we will first explain the conventional understanding of the term and then give its deeper significance.

The smrti sastras explain panca-samskara in the following manner:

tapah pundram tatha nama mantro yagas ca pancamah
ami hi panca-samskarah paramaikanti-hetavah

"Tapa, pundra, nama, mantra, and yaga - these five items comprise panca-samskara. They are the cause of intense devotion to Lord Hari." (3)

When a faithful person learns about panca-samskara, he approaches a religious teacher and humbly requests him for initiation, or diksa. After considering the student's sincerity, the teacher mercifully gives tapa and pundra to the student in order to sanctify his body. Some religious groups give tapa by marking the student's body in various places with the symbols of Lord Vishnu's conch, disc, club and lotus using hot iron brands. Other religious groups imprint the name of Hari with clay using a sandalwood stamp. [In reference to tapa the smrti sastras further state:

hari-namaksarair gatram ankayet candanadina
sa loka-pavano bhutva tasya lokam avapnuyat

"One who marks his body with the syllables of Hari's name using sandal paste purifies the world and after death attains the kingdom of God."

In the Sri Sampradaya of Ramanuja tapa is given by branding the body with the symbols of conch and disc, but Sri Chaitanyadeva has instructed that we mark the body with Harinama using sandal paste etc. instead of brands. This rule is a blessing for the souls of Kali-yuga.]

Pundra, or tilaka marks, are vertical lines drawn on the body. The sastras interpret these vertical marks either as symbols representing the Temple of Hari, or as His footprints. Accordingly each religious group has its own prescription for pundra which is universally accepted within that particular group. (5)

Nama or name is the third samskara. Mercifully the teacher utters the name of Hari into the ear of the faithful student. This name is to be recited daily by the student. [Receiving name means that one understands one's self to be a servant of Hari. During initiation the teacher also gives a personal name to the student which indicates devotion to Hari. In the Sri Sampradaya of Ramanuja, names like Rama Krishna Dasa, Narayana Dasa, Ramanuja Dasa etc. are given. In the Gaudiya Sampradaya names such as Sri Govinda Dasa, Sri Nityananda Dasa, Sri Chaitanya Dasa etc. are used. Since the time of Sriman Mahaprabhu names like Ratnabahu, Kavikarnapura, Premanidhi etc. have been used. Subsequently even names such as Bhagavatabhusana, Gitabhusana, Bhaktibhusana etc. are employed.]

The fourth samskara is mantra. Out of his mercy the teacher gives an 18 syllable mantra to his beloved student. [Mantra is the recitation of a short prayer which corresponds to the particular deity one worships. In the worship of Krishna an 18 syllable mantra is given.]

The fifth and final samskara is yaga or deity worship. Using the mantra which he has received from his teacher, the student begins the worship of salagrama sila or sri murti, the Deity of Vishnu. This is known as yaga. By receiving panca-samskara, the five sacraments, a faithful person enters into bhajana-kriya or the personal worship of God, which eventually leads to pure love for Sri Hari.

When we analyze the stages that lead to love of God, we understand that faith or sraddha is the first stage. Without sraddha, there is no way to obtain love of God. From faith, one seeks saintly association which is called sadhu-sanga. This leads to shelter at the feet of a spiritual teacher. Thereafter, panca-samskara or initiation follows. Panca-samskara gives rise to bhajana-kriya or the personal worship of God.

Bhajana-kriya leads to anartha-nivrtti, which is the stage where one clears up unwanted things from his heart. After anartha-nivrtti one's faith can develop and enters the stage called nistha or mature faith. From nistha, taste or ruci develops. This leads to the stage of asakti or deep attachment. From asakti spiritual emotions called bhava spring forth. This eventually ripens into the stage called love of God, prema. Therefore, everyone should seek shelter at the feet of a spiritual teacher and receive panca-samskara, which is the source of bhajana. Without panca-samskara, bhajana is not spontaneous. Instead, it is performed with difficulty.

Some people think that prema or love of God can be obtained without panca-samskara. This is incorrect. The conditioned soul in this world has become hostile to the Divine, and consequently his original spiritual nature has become distorted. As a result he must sanctify himself before that true spiritual nature can develop. And what is the means to attain this pure state? The best way is through samskara or sanctification. Without samskara how can his distorted nature be given up? If we see someone whose nature is not distorted then we think that in a previous birth, through the mercy of a spiritual teacher, he must have received samskara, and on the strength of that samskara he has attained his true spiritual nature wherein prema or love of God has arisen. Otherwise we think that this person has been imperceptibly sanctified by the inconceivable mercy of the Lord Himself. No matter how you look at it, samskara is always there.

On the other hand, samskara is not necessary for liberated persons because their nature is not distorted. Distortion of the soul's original spiritual nature is the cause of his bondage in this world. For this reason, without samskara the life of the conditioned soul is impure. Even if a person has attained prema on account of previous samskara, still in his present life he again receives samskara in order to set a proper example for the good of all.

Samskaras exist in all religions and in all countries. The purer a particular religion is, the more its samskaras are sacred and complete. Although we have not had the opportunity to thoroughly study the samskaras of all religions, we at least can say that the samskaras of the Aryan religion appear to be of a higher order than the samskaras of other religions. In particular, the samskaras of Vaisnava culture are the best part of the Aryan religion. No other practise is as sacred and complete.

The question arises, "if the practise of samskara found in Vaisnava culture is so good, then why are those who practise it still bound by distorted natures?" The answer is that Vaisnava samskara is the best, but at the present time (6) it is practised in name only. Both the spiritual teacher and the student block their own spiritual advancement by being content with the external aspects of samskara alone, as I've just described.

Today, the deeper significance of samskaras is not understood at all. When the student submits himself to the teacher, the teacher gives panca-samskara and then abandons him. What good can come from panca-samskara of this type?

Externally the student looks good, but internally there is nothing. The symbols of divine conch, disc and the name of Hari mark the body. The tongue utters the name of Hari and worship of salagrama sila or sri murti with mantra is performed, but the student is addicted to endless sinful practises. At night, he takes intoxicants and practises debauchery!

Oh good teacher, how have you benefited your student? What is the difference in him before and after diksa? In fact, he is worse. He is a hypocrite. There is no remorse, "I am sinful. It is my fault. How can my sin be given up?" These days no one thinks like this when they take shelter of a spiritual teacher. Sinful activities are performed without the slightest concern. What misfortune!!

Why is this? The reason is that the wrong kind of relationship exists between teacher and student. The sastra gives rules to guide this relationship, but they are not followed. The student who is burning in the fire of material life, who analyses his predicament and concludes, "My relationship with material nature is not permanent, therefore I must take shelter of a spiritual teacher in order to obtain the feet of God" has reached the stage of faith and is qualified to take shelter of a spiritual teacher. The teacher should study the student for one year and observe his atonement. This is called tapa.

During this examination period the student is encouraged to atone even more and when the teacher is satisfied, he brands the student with the symbols of conch and disc. These marks are permanent and they symbolize the purity that the student must maintain for the rest of his life. This is tapa, the faithful soul's first samskara. In English we define the word tapa as "repentance, atonement, and the permanent impression of higher sentiment on the soul." Tapa applies not only to the body, but also to the mind and the soul. If it is only physical, in the form of branding or stamping, then tapa has not actually taken place and religious practise becomes hypocritical. At the present time this kind of hypocrisy has weakened Vaisnava culture. Without tapa or inner repentance, the soul cannot live as a Vaisnava. Without tapa, the whole process becomes useless. Without tapa the heart remains impure. Therefore, good friends, seek atonement without delay!

When the teacher sees that the student has received tapa properly (in other words, genuine atonement has occurred), then out of his mercy, the teacher gives him urdhva-pundra. What is urdhva-pundra? It is effulgence! It is also known as urdhva-gati, the path of advancement. After receiving tapa the student voluntarily accepts a suitable amount of renunciation from worldly activities. This is the path of advancement. However, if the student accepts no renunciation then his tapa or atonement is useless. So much trouble! So much asceticism! So much renunciation of one's happiness! So much work to control lust, anger and greed, but it is all useless labor if one does not perform these austerities in order to obtain Vaikuntha, the kingdom of God.

In other words, by taking shelter of Sat Cit Ananda Lord Hari, a soul follows the path of advancement, urdhva-gati. The illumination of the soul, the mind and the body is called urdhva-pundra. Aversion to material life and attachment to the Supreme Lord is called tapa and pundra, and these two ornaments are absolutely necessary for the conditioned soul.

Without urdhva-pundra the body is as good as dead. Realizing this we must bathe in atonement. Without urdhva-pundra the mind drifts and becomes attached to lowly sense objects and then wastes its time discussing the lowest subjects. O repentant soul! Do not delay, mark the body, mind and soul with urdhva-pundra and follow the path of advancement which leads to the kingdom of God. Without urdhva-pundra the soul's real nature is extinguished. Therefore adopt urdhva-pundra.

Seeing the beloved student shining with tapa and urdhva-pundra, the teacher gladly gives nama, the holy name of God which awakens the soul's eternal nature. The eternal nature of the soul is servitude to the Lord, and by tasting the nectar of the Lord's holy name the soul is carried to the supreme abode. Then he says, "I am Hari Dasa. I am not the enjoyer of this world. Even Maya herself is eternally connected to Krishna and I must utilize her in the service to Krishna." The eternal soul is then enchanted by singing the name of Hari. By taking shelter in the nectar of the Lord's holy name, the soul becomes aware of his own spiritual nature. Intelligent men, always sing the name of Hari! Let the mind always remember the name of Hari. May the soul always be adorned with the name of Hari.

Out of affection, teacher next gives a mantra that allows his student to easily experience the nectar of the Lord's holy name. A mantra is a kind of prayer that contains the name of God that is inflected grammatically in the dative case. (7) The mantra also includes certain adjectives that qualify the name of God and allows it to express a particular mood or taste. By giving a mantra the teacher helps his student taste the holy name by selecting a suitable 'flavor' for him. When we say "namah", obeisance to Hari, we employ the 4th or the dative case ending. The dative case expresses the proper relationship between the worshiper, the worshiped and the worship that allows the taste of the holy name to be easily experienced.

There is no end to the happiness of a person who has received a mantra. Those who analyze the meaning of the 18 syllable mantra, generally used in the worship of Sri Krishna, know that it is a condensed sampling of the taste available from the Lord. (8) The same also applies to the 24 syllable gayatri and other mantras that are used to worship the Lord. (9) Those who have not received a mantra can only speculate about the taste of the holy name, but unfortunately most of their considerations are useless. Therefore you must receive a mantra. Those who have received it consider it to be a most important samskara.

There are those who are aware of these principles and yet are not firmly fixed in the matter of worship because they have not received tapa, pundra, nama, and mantra from a qualified teacher. Every subject has its rules and regulations and those who reject the rules and regulations of worship often experience difficulty. Therefore it is said:

sruti-smrti-puranadi-pancaratra-vidhim vina
atyantiki harer bhaktir utpatayaiva kalpate

"Devotional service of the Lord that ignores the authorized Vedic literature like the Upanisads, Puranas and Narada-pancaratra is simply an unnecessary disturbance in society." (10)

Therefore my friends! With logic and pure reasoning receive tapa, pundra, nama and mantra from a qualified teacher. Not only will you become happy, but by establishing this divine link with God you will benefit all the people around you.

Out of love the teacher next explains the procedure of yaga or Deity worship to his student. Without Deity worship the conditioned soul cannot advance properly. Even though one has received tapa, pundra, nama, and mantra the soul's material condition has not fully abated. Only when one has pleased Lord Hari is the soul freed from this material world at the time of death. Therefore, until the end of life, yaga is necessary even for those who have received mantra. Even though one lives in this world without attachment to matter, still there is danger from matter. Therefore, yaga, or the path of Deity worship, is the proper way to deal with matter. Yaga is the procedure of worshiping the Lord by employing all the physical and mental faculties of seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking, discriminating and acting.

Utilizing each of these faculties in the worship of salagrama, for example, is a good way to cultivate love of God. Service of Sri Vigraha, the Deity, is called Vaisnava yaga. No matter what our situation, we must live in this world by working. Therefore a person who has received mantra has the duty to spend his life worshiping God with devotion following the rules of Deity worship. By teaching yaga the compassionate teacher rescues his student from the ocean of material existence.

Yaga is the fifth and final samskara. A person without yaga has no life and he is forced to accept the results of his karma. Therefore, one should live in this world as Vaisnava and engage in Deity worship. A detailed explanation of the principles of Deity worship is offered in the book Sri Chaitanya-siksamrta in the discussion under vaidhi-bhakti. (11)

I have now explained both the conventional understanding and the inner significance of the expression panca-samskara. But still one question arises. "Why do teachers not give this kind of instructions to their students today?" The answer is that due to the degenerative effects of time, man's understanding about the role of spiritual teacher has become extremely corrupt. Today people take instruction from kula-gurus, hereditary family teachers or similar such persons and therefore they are unable to take shelter of a qualified teacher. It is said in the sastras that the seriously inquisitive student must approach a spiritual teacher who has attained shelter and faith in the Vedas and God, and surrender to Him.

tasmad gurum prapadyeta jijnasuh sreya uttamam
sabde pare ca nisnatam brahmany upasamasrayam

When one surrenders in this way, the material ocean diminishes to the size of a calf's hoofprint. However, if that surrenders is in name only, then it is pointless. At the present time most people do not want the shelter of a genuine teacher because very few want to solve the problems of life. However, it is the responsibility of the living soul in this world to search for a teacher and solve these problems. The Lord reveals Himself to the serious student in the form of a teacher who can rescue him. It is good to have a strong desire for a teacher, but it is wrong to accept just any person simply to satisfy one's desires. A genuine teacher will come to one who is sincerely searching, but before the student accepts that teacher he should also examine him for one year. Without examination the teacher - student relationship is only a disturbance.

After close study we conclude that without proper acceptance of panca-samskara the conditioned soul cannot develop intense devotion to Sri Hari. Therefore panca-samskara is extremely necessary.


(1) Devotion is of two kinds, namely vidhi-bhakti, devotional service performed according to rules and regulations and raganuga-bhakti, devotional service performed by following the moods of Krishna's Vrindavan associates.

(2) Prameya Ratnavali (Baladeva Vidyabhusana) 8.5

(3) Prameya Ratnavali 8.6

(4) Prameya Ratnavali 8.6

(5) For more information about tilaka see A.W. Entwistle's work, Vaisnava Tilakas, published in the International Association of the Vrindavan Research Institute's bulletin, number 11 and 12, 1981-2.

(6) The late 19th century, Bengal.

(7) Such as Krishnaya or Ramaya.

(8) The 18 syllable Gopal mantra is one example.

(9) The kama-gayatri, used by Gaudiyas, is one example.

(10) Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.2.101.

(11) The original text of this article used the future tense, indicating that the book Sri Chaitanya-siksamrta had not yet been published.

(12) Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.3.21.

[Jan: One reference to pancasamskara is e.g. Padma Purana 6.255.103-106:
tad viSNoH paramaM dhAmam anyato gata samzayAH
tApAdi paJca samskArair anviSThaH zubhavetasaH
, or Narada Pancaratra 4.11.9-10 mentioning that "if any Brahmana dies in the burning ground with conchshell and discus marks, he attains the same goal that is obtained by dying at the holy place Prayaga." Twice-mentioned one year observation period from HBV 1.73-75 the author also repeats in Sajjana-tosani 4/1: "Does an acarya give initiation without any consideration? The worshipable, qualified acaryas should give initiation to the qualified candidates. Although in Sri Hari-bhakti-vilsa the method for testing each other is recommended, it is often not practiced. That is why the fall of both the spiritual master and the disciple, as well as pollution of the sampradya, become inevitable."]

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