This week the Faith Column is devoted to Rites of Passage with a member of a different religion describing how they initiate young people. Today we look at Hinduism
The Upanayana and investiture of the sacred thread (Yagnopvit or Janeu) are of profound importance to all Hindus regardless of birth or gender and marks the samskara (sacrament) that initiates a young person in to society.
Just as a child receives education thereby achieving mental development, similarly in the Hindu tradition the atman (spiritual entity) is cultivated through the samskaras. The authoritative and ancient Hindu scriptures, the Shastras, verify this–
‘At birth the soul is at a primitive level of development, it is only through the sacraments (samskaras) that it becomes ‘reborn’ and thereby elevated.’
Without sacraments, including Upanayana, Hindus consider that an individual would not be able to achieve his or her full potential and advance in life.
The very word ‘Upanayana’ alludes to ‘coming nearer’ or ‘initiation’ and welcomes a young Hindu into society not dissimilar to the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah or Christian children celebrating their first holy communion. In fact, the Zoroastrian ritual of ‘Naujat’, (The New Birth- similar to the Sanskrit, ‘Dwitiya Janma’) by which children receive religious initiation illustrates the antiquity of the Upanayana. These common practices originated at a time when the Indo-Aryans and Persians coexisted.
Perpetuation of Hinduism is through the observance of its beliefs and practices and historically, the Upanayana has been pivotal to this. The custom of Upanayana known as ‘Mekhal’ to Kashmiri Hindus ensured that the Hindu Faith survived among its adherents, despite prevailing forced conversion to Islam by Mughal dictators like Aurangzeb.
The Upanayana is a universal sacrament promoting cohesion in Hindu communities. Among the Sindhi Hindus, which constitute the majority of small number of Hindus in Pakistan, ‘Janiya’ or the practice of Upanayana is celebrated by all and perhaps accounts for the solidarity and durability of Sindhi Hinduism, in a predominantly Islamic society. Contrary to popular belief, this sacrament is not exclusive to the priestly Brahmin caste; the reason why perhaps only some Brahmins observe the rite nowadays is that they have a tradition of Vedic erudition and piety, being accustomed to the somewhat austere guidelines for initiates including celibacy before marriage.
Along with this rite of passage comes greater accountability and prospective initiates are interviewed by the spiritual teacher (archarya) prior to undertaking this commitment. Further to fulfilling various criteria, stipulated in the Shastras, only then do they receive the sacred thread, and instruction in primarily, Vedic practices including recitation of mantras and daily rituals, breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation.
The sacred thread (Yagnopvit) is actually a substitute for the upper garment “upavastra” worn during Vedic rituals and is a vestige of this item of clothing. Females are generally exempt from wearing the thread for anatomical reasons; nevertheless, they may wish to wear it as a necklace (kanthi) and still undergo the rite usually receiving an upper garment or ‘uttariya’.
As an immigrant community, Hindus have integrated well within the UK yet in line with their ethos, have resisted the pitfalls of ‘homogenisation’ and inevitable loss of cultural identity. They have incorporated the qualities of both their parent culture and that of the western host community and the Upanayana gives Hindu youth a sense of belonging and self-respect that is instrumental in facilitating their academic and social progress invariably precluding the kind of isolation from society as seen in other adolescents.