Hindu coming of age

This week the Faith Column is devoted to Rites of Passage with a member of a different religion desc

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.

Dr Raj Pandit Sharma is a third generation British Indian based in the UK. He currently heads the Hindu Priest Association UK and is a senior Minister of the Hindu Faith. He is also a member of the National Executive of the Hindu Council UK. Dr Sharma also participates in discussions on Hinduism for the BBC as a panellist on the BBC1 Sunday morning programme, ‘The Big Questions.’
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear