What Is Rites of Passage?

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Rites of passage describe the ceremonies that are associated with certain transitional moments in an individual’s life (Cunningham 74). In Hinduism there are samskaras. These are Hindu rites of passage.

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They are not just formalities or ceremonies to celebrate periods of transition in a Hindu individual’s life. They serve to purify the soul at critical junctions in life’s journey, (Rites of Passage). The word samskara means mental impression, these ceremonies create a positive feeling about moving from one phase of life into the next. There are various samskaras all throughout the different stages of life (Rites of Passage). One of these samskaras is called upanayana. This rite of passage is the beginning of the acceptance of a student by a guru. It marks an individual’s entrance to a school in Hinduism (Rites of Passage).

        The age varies, while it is usually children between the ages of eight and sixteen years of age (Upanayana: a Hindu Rite of Passage), another source says the ceremony can be performed between the ages of five and twenty-four (Britannica). This is because the three upper classes of the Hindu caste system, Brahmans which are priests and teachers, Kshatriyas who are warriors and rulers, and Vaishyas known as merchants and tradesmen, have different educational requirements (Britannica). During this event the child, usually a boy but can be a girl, is given a sacred thread called janeu. They must wear this thread for the rest of their life (Upanayana: a Hindu Rite of Passage). The thread has a loop made of three knotted and twisted strands of cotton cord. The knots are symbolical. The thread is replaced regularly so that the wearer can have it throughout their life time. It is normally worn over the left shoulder and diagonally across the hip. This shows the wearer is divija or twice born. The second birth having taken place when the guru shared the knowledge of the Gayati mantra to the student and wearer of the thread (Britannica).

The person going through upanayana is taught the secret of life through brahmopadesam or revealing the nature of Brahman, the ultimate reality. This is otherwise known as the Gayatri mantra (Upanayana: a Hindu Rite of Passage). The ceremony ends when the student kindles the sacrificial fire and pleads for alms. This represents his dependence on others during his brahmacharin period (as a child he cannot fully depend on himself yet) (Britannica). Upanayana itself means taking somebody near knowledge. This expresses the simplest meaning for what the ceremony is all about. A child entering their education.  A second meaning of the word is that which is above. Meaning the thread that is worn above the shoulder after this ceremony.

Elaborating on the symbolism of the thread, the thread is usually ninety-six times breadth of four fingers of a man. This is believed to be equal to a man’s height. The four fingers represent one of the four states that the soul of a man goes through. These are waking, dreaming, sleeping without dreaming, and knowledge of the absolute. The three threads themselves represent three Goddesses. The Goddess Gayatri of the mind, the Goddes Saraswati of the word, and the Godddess Savitri of deed. It is saying that anyone who wears the sacred thread should be pure in thought, word, and deed. It is a reminder to the wearer that they should live their life in a good way with purity. A reminder that life is not lived for oneself but for others and that a debt is owed to the guru, the parents, and the society. Another important aspect of the thread is the knot in the center. This represents Brahman, the pure form of energy which is in everything and makes up everything (Upanayana).

The ceremony can vary between regions and customs. In an upanayana ceremony based on traditional Mithila Brahman customs there are multiple days to the ceremony. Mithila is a region of the ancient Videha Kingdom and is heavily influenced by the Goddess Durga. There is the day of Shagun. All the female family members will apply haldi or turmeric oil and dub grass to the child’s foreheads, arms, stomach, and legs. This is called ubtan and it is done to preserve the symbolic meaning of rebirth. They are not allowed to wash it off until the end of the ceremony. After this family members invite the deity they worship into the ceremony. Once this is done the upanayana officially starts. The next day is the Mandap Puja. Here all the family members have arrived, and they make an animal sacrifice to their deity as an offering. These do not occur in all villages though, again it varies from region to region. The animal is cooked and served to all the guests. There are large celebratory dances.

There is the day of Puja. It begins with prayer and offering to ancestors and more dancing and singing. The series of rites begins and the children entering the ceremony are given special garments for their period of learning under the gurus. This is when they receive the Gayatri mantra that was mentioned above. They then go to their mothers and ask for bhiksha or alsm and blessings. Next, they go to the temples, where their hair is cut. This symbolizes the beginning of a new life. The children participating will then go where eleven male brahmins (priests and teachers or the guru) stand while reciting the Gayatri mantra. This is where they receive their sacred thread or jeanu. They wear it over the left shoulder and under the right arms. Each one is then made to stand on a stone slab. Which symbolizes how strong the resolve is that accompanies a life of learning. Once more they go to family members, mainly female, and ask for gifts. The gifts normally consist of gold, jewelry, and clothing. To finish out the event the family celebrates once more with song and dance. The main part of upanayana has ended.

As new brahmins, these students are expected to be committed to education for as long as they live. They are to live with honor and duty and to avoid impurity, dirtiness, and immoral behavior. The threads very meanings support this. Those who go through the rite of passage that is upanayana are expected to carry on the Vedic tradition and to ensure that it’s teachings and reflections are applied to all Hindu society (Upanayana: a Hindu Rite of Passage)

This ceremony marks the transition from childhood to the growth towards adulthood and knowledge. It is celebratory and represents the awe of people surrounding growth in general and the progression of life. Upanayana can also be considered a rite of initiation. As it initiates a child into a student. Hinduism has so many different and important rites of passage. Upanayana is only one of the many important samskaras.

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