Garbha Sanskara: Parenting Begins Before Birth

By Gudrun Willcocks

When Manali Patel became pregnant, she knew she would have to give up watching Blacklist and Quantico. They were her favorite programs but the racy and occasionally, violent storylines were inappropriate for a baby she thought; particularly, one growing inside her. What if her child grew up to become a violent adult? She would never forgive herself. Patel decided to give up watching television altogether. Better safe than sorry.

Patel was not suffering from a hormone imbalance. She was practicing garbha sanskara, a sacred Hindu custom that rests on the belief that karma may be nurtured in an unborn child through divinely led actions practiced by the mother during pregnancy. Through etiquette, diet, daily activity and spiritual practice such as prayer, chanting and listening to or reading scriptures, it is believed that positive moral conduct known as “sanskar,” can be developed in a baby from the moment the child is planned.

“If the mother is happy and delightful, the baby is happy and delightful,” Patel explained on a balmy evening in March from the home she shares with her husband, husband’s parents and grandparents in the Navrangpura area of Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. “If the mother cries, the baby cries too.”

Patel has cupid’s lips, long dark hair and almond eyes. She has a “lucky gap,” between her front teeth that according to Hindu astrology denotes a creative, intelligent person with enthusiasm for life and their endeavors. As an engineer, Patel was indeed a hard-worker and often clocked 45 hours in the office and 30 hours of household chores plus work at the mandir, but as a mother she is devoted.

On the day Patel found out she was pregnant, responsibility swelled in her like a flower about to bloom and after a modest prayer “God be with me,” she devised a garbha sanskara plan that she felt was sustainable and nourishing: no television, no food to be eaten outside the home, only “cheerful thoughts,” and four hours of listening to Swaminarayan scriptures a day. She also decided that it was ok to listen to old Bollywood music but not new Bollywood music.

“Before I became pregnant, I was religious. But after I became pregnant, I was really religious,” Patel said over skype recently. Patel is a Hindu but more specifically, a member of the BAPS group within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, a popular, bhakti sect that is characterized by adherence to strict vegetarianism (no onions and garlic), no alcohol, seva or service at their communities, and a belief that through the guru followers can access God.


Lord Swaminarayan is the central figure in the Swaminarayan movement and born in 1781, he is believed by followers to be a manifestation of God; the later gurus within the movement are considered his successors. At a gold shrine the size of a large doll’s house in Patels’ home, Patel prays twice a day for 15 minutes to Lord Swaminarayan. In the morning, she repeats his name 108 times and in the evening, she practices arti, a fire ritual with a candle that is circled around images of Lord Swaminarayan and Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth successor to Swaminarayan.

When she was with child, she would cover her hands over the flame in the customary fashion and after tapping her head, would touch her tummy. The fire is an offering to deities, but the significance of the fire is to remove darkness.

"Everything is crying right now,” Patel told me on one particular sitting. “Why not teach the baby good values when it is in the womb?” she asked. “Bad things will be learnt easily when it is in this world.”

From Sanskrit, garbha sanskar means “education of the womb,” and historically, the custom can be traced back to the Vedic scriptures, the Rig Veda, which proposed a child’s mental development begins from the moment of planning for a child and that spiritual acts performed during this period until birth lead to positive “sanskar.”

Often in Hindu philosophy and mythology anecdote is used to illustrate moral ideas much like a fairytale and in one particular tale, Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana is described as a committed devotee of Lord Shiva. During pregnancy, she eats a sanctified dessert (rice pudding) or prasad, believed to produce divine children and Lord Hanuman is born with celestial powers as an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

In India today however, the term garbha sanskara become an over-arching phrase used to denote pregnancy health and there are books, websites, blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to the how and why of the process. Mother’s may choose from mantras specifically geared towards improving sanskar, there are songs to download believed to psychologically connect with the child and some doctor’s post advice on how best to observe the ritual.

“Read and see things that make you happy,” advises the website “Communicate with your baby and perform puja and eat healthily.”

“You can shape your babies first impressions by listening to good music, visualizing, massaging gently, meditating and of course, with the help of positive thinking,” counsels

“A pregnant mother must never watch horror movies,” wrote the blogger Ajit Vadakayil.

As a Hindu, Manali believes in karma. She believes that as humans, we are open to positive and negative influence and that these polarities pollute and purify the soul and mind accordingly. If one behaves in a manner that is right or righteous, good or virtuous then, it follows that one’s state of mind or karma improves and vice versa. The same goes for an embryo, except that its karma, at least in part, is beholden to the mother.

Patel focused on the oratory aspects of garbha sanskar. “I just switched on my I-pad and started listening to Swaminaryan discourses,” she said with the ease of a Millennial. She also practiced parayan, delivering a sermon to a group.

At 7am on a Wednesday morning in March, the BAPS mandir in Shahibaug quietly shoehorned over 6000 people into the dome like space for darshan. Males and females sat facing forward, ardently waiting to watch the Mahant Swami Maharaj, the current successor to Lord Swaminaryan according to BAPS philosophy, perform morning pujas. It was a peaceful moment and the increasingly popular mandir.

At seven months pregnant, Patel delivered parayan on the scripture, bhaktchintamani to a group of eighty-something women at the Navrangpura mandir. Friends told her she wouldn’t be able to sit on the podium for that length of time comfortably, but Patel was characteristically resolute. “I said for sure I’m going to do it,” she said, and before crossing her legs, Patel patted her stomach and said to her baby “please don’t kick me and give me strength.” They were doing it together.

On October 16th, 2016, Akshar Patel was born after two days of Labor. Although, it was a difficult time, Patel saw the birthday as “a beautiful coincidence,” because it was Sharad Purnima, an auspicious day in the Hindu Calendar, and coincidentally the same day as Gunatitanand Swami, Swaminaryan’s second successor was born.According to Patel, if you want to attain enlightenment, you need to follow Gunatitanand Swami’s actions. And its the same day Patel and her husband Anand met for the first time. Though she wouldn’t say it, one can’t help but think perhaps, it is an auspicious start.

“He is very very special to me,” she said, before reminding me that garbha sanskar is not just a ritual, but a responsible manner of parenting and that science has caught up to the Vedic idea that parenting starts in the womb.

Daily Dispatch 5: Waking up to Holi in Vrindavan

VRINDAVAN – There may be no better place on earth to spend the night of Holi than in an ashram in the center of Vrindavan, the city where Hindus believe Lord Krishna was born. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn (where we had stayed in Delhi) but it did have features that few accommodations can match, like the early-morning sound of monks chanting the Bhagavan Ghuran in Sanskrit. Our host for the night was Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj, the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan.

Holi may best be known for its use of color – vast quantities of pigment powder is thrown by revelers into the air and at each other – but at its core it is a celebration of the love between deity Lord Krishna and his supreme wife, Radha. It is also marked by bonfires lit along highways and in the front of temples, symbolizing the burning off of hatred or vices.

A small group of students emerged from the Ashram early this morning to document pilgrims bathing in the Yamuna River and welcoming in the day with offerings or “puja,” small boats of orange and yellow carnations centered around a wick, that were pushed out into the river.

A particularly beautiful sight was a group of women with their long hair loose, slowly venturing into the river in saris and submerging under water. “You can tell they are from Bengal by the way they bathe,” Paresh Ji said, nodding to group. The fact that the Yamuna is polluted beyond purity did not seem to bother these devotees. For them this is the river famed as the playground of Krishna and Rhada. Another sight (and Vrindavan is a kaleidoscope of sights and sites) was the line of medicants, easy to discern by their orange dress, seated along the banks of the river with silver prayerful pots in front of them. They wore bright smiles. These men and women are devout Hindus and have chosen to denounce worldly desires and goods and they are as integral to the Vindravan landscape as the colorful boats on the river, the bathers and temples, which number over 1,000.

Daily Dispatch: Day 5
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In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.

Part of our personal privilege as J-school students was sitting with Guru Goswami, a joyful-looking man with a round face, kind eyes and a choti, or ponytail at the back of his shaved head. While he began with the love story that is behind Holi, the conversation soon turned to something else on his mind: the devastation of the Yamuna River which runs through the town. “It is a stream of sewerage,” Goswami said. Every year, Vindrandan welcomes over 500,000 pilgrims to the town, which has limited septic structures. While some may claim that religion is the cause of the pollution, Goswami rejected that notion. “It is not about religion, it is about awareness,” he said.

And then we were off to Rishikesh! But not before a monkey pinched Nicole’s glasses off her face and scampered up a tree with them in his paws. A crowd gathered and various on-lookers offered solutions. One piece of fruit and then another and then a third was tossed to the monkey in the hope that he would drop the glasses. When that didn’t work, a youth with a stick followed the monkey to the roof of a temple and managed to retrieve the stolen item. The incident gave new meaning to the phrase “it takes a village.” It all happened very quickly and Nicole, glasses in hand, was much relieved.

We finally boarded our bus and headed north to Rishikesh. Some seven hours later we arrived in the village on the banks of another holy river, the Ganges. Hot showers were welcomed.


Photo by Ana Singh