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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Upanayana – A beautiful ceremony brings back memories of a knowledge-centered civilization

There is nothing more touching than being 10,000 miles away from one’s motherland and still preserving her ancient rituals with dedication. I was invited to the Upanayana ceremony of a young boy whose parents hail from the Indian state of Karnataka. I had met him on a couple of occasions but not really noticed him. Today, at the completion of all the rituals, I saw a glow on his face that made me realize yet again, why the ceremony is regarded as the second birth in Hindu traditions and the child becomes a Dwija or twice-born.

Ancient Bharat had many rites of passage called Samskara and one of the important ones which mark a child’s entry into education is called Upanayana. It was typically performed for children between the ages of 8 and 12. After this ceremony, a child would set out to study under a Guru (or many Gurus) for several years in order to gain mastery over a variety of subjects and return home only after passing the final examination. The child who embarks on such a period of study is called Vatu. For more details about the educational heritage of Bharat and how it impacted the world, please look up my book here if you live in Bharat and here if you live in America. The book is also available on the Amazon websites of other countries.

One of the most touching rituals in the Upanayana is the Matrubhojana in which the child sits on his mother’s lap while his mother feeds him from her own banana leaf for the last time before he leaves the house to enter the rigorous life of a Brahmachari (student of higher learning). It signifies the end of the pampering of a child and the beginning of a responsible, disciplined life. In ancient times, this must have been an emotional ritual followed by a painful parting at a tender age. Today, it is largely symbolic.

As I have described in my book:

The rigorous life of a student in his Guru’s Ashrama prepared him to develop enormous stamina, patience, dedication to service, concentration, and the ability to tolerate physical hardships. It laid the basis for a sound character. Even princes slept on the floor during their Brahmachari days. Thus, a student was required to be up at the crack of dawn before his Guru awoke and to go to bed only after his Guru retired for the night. Eating heavy meals or sleeping in the afternoon was not allowed. In fact, students were required to be light sleepers in general. Maintaining decorum in front of the Guru was important. Talking loudly or yawning in front of the Guru was regarded as inappropriate behaviour. And yet, despite all the rules, it was not like a prison for a student because the Guru ensured there were opportunities for fun, enjoyment, and challenges.

At the ceremony I witnessed today at the Krishna Vrundavana temple in Houston, when the Vatu changed to yellow garments to signify he was ready for initiation, there was controlled excitement on his face. Scores of friends had assembled to watch as he wore the sacred thread called Yajnopavita, which consisted of 3 strands — the first to remind him of the debt owed to his teachers, the second to the debt owed to his parents and ancestors, and lastly the debt owed to Bhagwan. A lifetime would be spent in discharging these beautiful debts.

This ceremony could typically be performed by the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas who were keen for their children to gain a higher education. Not everyone in society was keen to become a Dwija and follow strict discipline and austerities. The Shudras were usually engaged in a variety of professions including engineering, construction, metallurgy, carpentry, and others which did not really require initiation into esoteric subjects that needed deep reflection on Brahman. However, they were happy to support the ecosystem of learning by contributing to the building of temples and funding of scholars. Yet, there are examples of Shudras who decided to take the path of higher learning and enlightenment for which they were ready to face every obstacle, and eventually, they too were revered for their learning.

I had a quick word with the priest to find out why some rice had been spread on the floor for the boy to stand on while giving him the Yajnopavita. The priest told me that in order to signify the second birth, there has to be the imagery of being in a womb and surrounded by the nutrients needed for nourishment.

A belt made of the sacred darbha grass is tied around the waist of the boy to give protection. It is the same kind of belt that is tied around a bride during the wedding rituals. Many are the powers attributed to the darbha including protection from radioactivity.

The young boy was carried by his Mama (maternal uncle) and placed on the rice then he was completely enveloped with a white cloth. The darbha belt was tied and in the midst of reverberating chants of sacred mantras, the upper cloth called Uttariya as well as the Yajnopavita thread were placed over the left arm and under the right arm of the boy.

As the sound vibrations created a sense of momentousness, suddenly the white sheet was removed, and out emerged the face of the Vatu Brahmachari with eyes closed and a beautiful aura around him. In unison with all the elders, I too showered grains of rice called mantrakshata in order to bless the young seeker.

Suddenly, I found tears rolling out of my eyes as I remembered the sacrifices made by scholars for thousands of years in keeping alive our oral traditions of preserving knowledge that could lead humans to understand the Supreme Consciousness, and to liberation from a desire-torn, conflicted world. They had survived the murderous onslaughts of monotheistic barbarians who destroyed our temples of learning, they had weathered the Christian-Colonial destruction of our own understanding of the universe.

Only in one place, Bharat, remained the vestiges of a nature-affirming civilization that had created an unparalleled ecosystem of learning. In the face of the young boy, I saw the faces of the ancient scholars who prepared for the rigorous entrance tests to gain admission into higher institutions of learning, I saw the faces of scholars who fled with their manuscripts to escape from marauding mobs who wished to desecrate the texts and kill those who studied them, and I remembered the scholars who died in abject poverty as their knowledge was no longer honored in a modern world.

One of the rituals in the Upanayana involves shaving the head of the student leaving behind just a small tuft at the crown known as Adhipati Marma, in order to protect that sensitive region. It is also close to the Sahasrara Chakra, a cardinal energy center in the subtle body according to Bharatiya knowledge systems. In modern times, most people do not like to shave their heads and instead, cut a little hair symbolically. I was astonished to note that the newly minted Brahmachari I watched today had gladly let his hair be shaved and that too in America where people would be aghast at this custom. Typically, in Bharat, the shaving is done during the ceremony but because this is America, a little shortcut was adopted for the sake of convenience and it was done a few days in advance.

When I caught him alone after the Upanayana, I asked the Vatu if he was not worried about being mocked in school for his shaved head.

“They will mock for a few days and then they will get used to it,” he said with astonishing maturity. Also, he pointed out that this ceremony was not going to be performed again and again as it was just once in a lifetime. It struck me that this extraordinary confidence had emerged from extraordinary parenting. This could not be an overnight development. The aura around the parents told me the story.

The Vatu was taken outdoors for a while to gaze at the Sun — the Surya Devata from which all energy flowed into us and whose fiery light illuminated our being. As every Hindu knows, our day is required to start with Surya Namaskara — a salutation to the Sun — and even modern science acknowledges the benefits of serotonin which is boosted by sunlight.

An important role of the father in the Upanayana ceremony is to pass on the message of the Brahmopadesha — the ultimate mantra which carries immense significance when chanted with the right intonation and breathing. It is popularly called the Gayatri Mantra but it is said to take years of chanting correctly and meditation in order to feel its power. According to spiritual masters, it is said to have negative effects when chanted wrongly. It is also believed by many to adversely impact the physiology of women of the reproductive age because of its powerful vibrations which can affect the endocrine glands.

The ritual involves the covering of both father and child in a shawl while the Brahmopadesha is whispered by the father into the ears of the son. This is an indication that the knowledge is an esoteric one that is only to be given by the one who has the Adhikara to share it, and by one who has been prepared to receive it. The concept of Adhikara is a deep one and I have dwelled on it briefly in my book.

In Vedic times, girls were also undergoing Upanayana. Education was as important for women as it was for men. There were women scholars called Brahmavadinis who devoted their entire lives to learning and never married. As we know, Sarasvati, the Devi of learning is herself a form of the Divine Feminine. The oldest text of the Hindus, Rig Veda contains many verses composed by women which are chanted to this day. Women scholars took part in debates, taught students at Ashramas, and were proficient in a variety of skills.

The freedoms of women in Bharat got progressively curtailed due to foreign invasions, especially from the 10th century onwards, when society was in turmoil. Restrictions were put on women’s freedoms by their families in order to protect them from rapes, kidnappings, and conversions, which had become rampant. Women were the easiest targets to inflict humiliation on entire communities. The natural tendency in such situations is for male members of families to cast a protective net around the females. Despite all this, it was always understood in Hinduism that male and female were entities that complemented and completed each other. In recent times, many parents have successfully conducted Upanayana for their daughters.

There remained yet another beautiful ritual— the tying of a jhola or a bag to the young Vatu, the handing of a wooden staff to him as he symbolically set out to ask for Bhiksha first from his mother and then from other women. The giving and taking of Bhiksha which is wrongly translated to alms is an important aspect of ancient Bharatiya education. As I have explained in my book, students in Ancient Bharat were required to request for food “with utmost humility and society was duty-bound to support seekers of learning”. Even students from rich families who had never needed to ask for anything in their pre-student days had to let go of their ego and subsist on whatever was given to them by the households they visited.

I saw the little boy receiving rice and gifts along with an outpouring of heartfelt wishes. He set out symbolically on a long journey like the young students of a bygone era. From this day onwards, the Vatu is required to perform the Sandhyavandana every day, which includes rituals of self-purification and chanting the Gayatri Mantra, leading to liberation from the shallow sorrows and pleasures of the world. Not many people are able to keep up with the daily rituals but those who do will tell you about how beneficial it has been for them.

And so must people have given to young students in ancient Bharat as they made their arduous journey to institutions of learning such as Kashi, Takshashila, Vallabhi, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Kanthallor Shala, Kanchi, and others. Modern education is missing out on an important aspect of character building by omitting the spirit of Brahmacharya that pervaded ancient times.

A typical Upanayana ceremony costs a great deal of money to organize — it is almost as grand a scale as a Vivaha (wedding) in terms of guests to be invited and the feast to be provided. This is why many people are postponing the ceremony in order to hold it as a part of the Vivaha itself since the groom cannot enter the portal of marriage without first having got initiated by an Upanayana. It is sad because holding an Upanayana so late in life along with the Vivaha defeats the very purpose of the ceremony. When performed at the right age, the rituals might help to inculcate values of critical importance. I applaud the parents who go the extra mile to organize this ceremony at the right age, get the blessings of the larger community for their child, and use this as a “teaching moment” for the child.

Many gems are waiting to be re-discovered amongst Bharat’s ancient traditions which can invigorate us and make life more meaningful. It is time to explore our past with a curious mind.

(The story was published on medium.com/@sahana.singhcom on March 30, 2022 and has been reproduced her with modified headline and minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide.)

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