All religions teach people to be loving, to be truthful and to be free from jealousy, desire and greed. But our religion goes further by imposing on us the performance of various samskaras to acquire these qualities in practical life. There is no use in merely preaching, in asking people to be like this or that. A man must be kept bound to a system consisting of such works as would help him in practice to acquire the noble qualities expected of them. Our religion alone does this.
Other religions, it is claimed, teach love and desirelessness. But Hinduism, it is alleged, does not give any importance to such qualities and is, besides, ritual-ridden. This view is totally erroneous. In fact, our religion does more than others: while laying emphasis on the eight qualities, it imparts lessons to take people beyond them, to a state that transcends these very qualities. It also believes that merely talking about the qualities will serve no purpose. After all, we know, don't we, that we have to be virtuous, truthful, loving and so on? Still we find it difficult to live according to these ideals. What purpose is served if our canonical texts merely keep urging us again and again to acquire noble qualities? That is why, unlike other faiths which contain a great deal of ethical and moral instruction, our religion teaches ethics and morality only to the extent needed. But is that all? Without stopping with mere precept it tells us how we may- in actual practice- cultivate and acquire them. This it does first by telling us stories through the Puranas of virtuous people who obtained fame and of evil-doers who got ill fame. But it recognises that such examples are not enough to provide the necessary inspiration, so it lays down a number of samskaras for the purpose of obtaining inner purity. Ours is the only religion that gives practical training in making people virtuous and in acquiring moral excellence. Instead of being proud of this fact, is it right to feel that there is something lacking in our religion?
The first of the eight qualities is love which is the chief teaching of Jesus and the last of them is desirelessness which is the cardinal teaching of the Buddha.
Is it enough to give oral instruction about the qualities? In other words, is it enough merely to preach them? It is man's nature to be engaged in some work or other. And, after all, if you want to accomplish something you will have to work for it. Gandhiji taught truth and non-violence, spoke about them all his life. In his asrama he was all the time not only doing some work or other himself, he was also urging others to do the same. His followers called him a hard taskmaster. He asked them to keep turning the charka and expected them to clean their toilets themselves.
The dharmasastras have prescribed rites to make us inwardly pure and impart us the eight qualities. In this context the sutras of Apastamba and Gautama have a dominant place. Among the Smrtis Manu's is the most important.
Apastamba and Gautama deal with the dharmas common to all people. The former lays down the duties and samskaras separately for the different castes also. Gautama deals with the forty samskaras and the eight Atmagunas. These forty-eight are the means to take a man to Brahmaloka on his death. He goes before the presence of Isvara, which is like going to a great jnanin. He can remain quiescent in bliss. When Isvara, who conducts the world himself becomes formless, he too [the man who attains Brahmaloka] will be dissolved in him. Until then he resides in the world of Isvara (saloka) and later attains sayujya, that is becomes one with him. "Yasyaite catvarimsat samskarah astavatmagunah sa Brahmanah sayujyam salokatam jayati", so it is said.
The body is involved in various ways in performing the forty samskaras. When you work in an office you use your hands and feet and mouth, don't you? So is the case with the samskaras. He who performs them and cultivates the eight Atmagunas goes directly to the Brahmaloka in which world there is neither sorrow nor happiness. When are you without sorrow and happiness? When you are with the One who creates them.
The Atmic qualities are described as "Atmasakti". This term has recently come into use in newspaper language. In the old Sanskrit and Tamil texts we do not see the term "Atmasakti" used, only "Atmagunas".
For a general background, please see here