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.’
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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