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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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.