Monday, June 5, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )
The biggest loss of Modern generation is their complete severance from the experience of catharsis and growth - by way of actualizing timeless myths in the form of rituals and initiatory rites in our daily lives. Traditional rites of initiation, which played a huge role in shaping individuals to fit into society, have become more of a formality completed without any understanding of what they mean, why they are enacted, and what are they supposed to achieve. After all, the age of modernity for all its talk of progress is one riddled with fear. We enact inherited rituals, visit temples, try to follow social traditions - not because we know why; but because we are afraid what would happen if we dont do so. We may argue and talk intellectually about the non-existence of God or an afterlife or argue about traditions, but deep down we are unsure, and would like to keep our personal gods appeased, in case there is need for hypothetical intervention later on. Our attitude towards myths and rituals are mechanical; more out of sense of professional and social duty than a meaningful exposition and enactment of it. Neither the performer, sponsors of the performance, or the beneficiaries of the performance know the reasons and meaning behind the social act and mythological rituals. This attitude is not specific to one society or religious sect in particular. It is a fact of every society . From Christian catechisms, to Muslim namaz, to Hindu rites of passage, to Jewish mitzvah - there is a strange confusion and a mechanized approach to traditions stripped of all its meaning and relevance. What we observe is the shell, the kernel is missing ,lost, or in my opinion - ignored.
The Human child is not equipped naturally to grow up psychologically into an adult. Physically, body grows, but unless society intervenes to educate and channelize his energies, he will forever remain a muted child in the garb of an adult, or worse ambiguous about his own self.. He therefore has to be taught, transformed, made to find his own bearings, and then let loose in the world. It is for the community in which he is born and bought up to prepare and pave the way for that kind of transformation. From the dawn of Human civilization, we find records of innumerable traditions and rituals from such transformatory rites. Scholars who spend a life time studying mythology are astounded to find the same underlying stories, similar rituals and drama, exact representations of Local Gods and Goddesses in different ages and cultures permeating through specific initiatory rites, even though it is geographically impossible for them to have cross fertilized each other. Elaborate rituals from birth to death were found necessary to gracefully, or sometimes forcefully, change the human child from one stage of existence to another. After suckling at his mothers breast for years, and living in her embrace and love , not knowing the travails and complexities that await him; the young boy or girl needs to be ceremonially pulled away from maternal and paternal care, transformed into an adult to fulfill the social need and position. It cannot be done overnight or by mere dialogue. It has to be community event with elaborate rituals and incantations to invoke an breathless atmosphere of change. Fires are started, blood flows sometimes, totems are raised, ablutions are poured, costumes and masks are changed, rechristening of names happen- and many more such props and acts are required to make that transition. Some initiation go on for months, some for few days to hours.The length of time doesn't matter; but the intent, purpose and atmosphere does.
In the Hindu Brahmanic tradition, young boys at the age of seven or eight are initiated into a period of deep introspective study. Brahmins are indicative of those individuals in society whose social duty it was to keep rest of community anchored to the truth about oneself without getting lost in the roles they play. In order to do that, they must know, understand and experience the truth for themselves firsthand. The rite of passage for this inward journey is called “Upanayanam”. A beautiful Sanskrit term , which means “ Seeing something very near” . In Hindu mystical tradition, the closest to you is your own sense of being, or atman or God. Hence Upanayanam is turning the young boy, who has just learned how to read and write, to turn his gaze inward. It is extraordinary why boys have to go through this process so very young. If you think of it, the greatest impediment to knowing oneself is our own fragmented ideas about who we are, which we gather over years through books, dialogues, family, social positions and hearsay. However, at the age of seven, the boy’s brain is virgin territory, and with his new found skill of reading and writing, he can use words are quick symbols to reality and not get lost in words about words. The more one knows, the more unlearning is required. Also, at seven the intimations of sexuality is very minimum which makes it easy to focus energy without any real context for dissipation. That is why the tradition catches them young. Its a three day rite filled with meaning and purpose. The boy is gently taken away away from his parents and turned into a mendicant devoted to learning for twelve years. He is given a sacred thread worn from left to right with three cotton threads, indicative of three states of consciousness - waking, dream and sleep, and later on when he goes back to society, gets married, the symbol is changed to six threads - adding three more to inform the world he has a lawful wife now, and she shares in his passion and commitment to serve as torchbearers of inner life and living. During “Upanayanam” numerous esoteric phrases are fed in secrecy into the young boys ears, both from the parents and the Guru, the teacher. It is unlikely the boy will understand anything at all. But it doesn't matter, like a piece of chemical which can act as a catalyst when the environment is right, these words will help coagulate the chattering brain into singular quietude when the moment is ripe. It is not a guarantee, but an invitation. A communal hall is chosen for this rite of initiation. Almost everyone in the community is invited to witness the transformation of the young child into a student. His status changes dramatically. When the ceremony begins, he is welcomed into the hall as a child, but when he goes out of it , he is a seeker in search of truth along with his guru. A beautiful moment - tearful parents bid farewell to the kid they so dearly loved and cuddled, and at the same time they are proud he is embarking on a journey so profound and deep. When he comes back after his tutelage, he will ready to serve his role in society.
I have condensed a scientific and meaningful ritual into a single paragraph. But in its actual execution , there are many nuances to it which create an aura of sacredness indispensable for such an undertaking. Even today, in brahmin communities Upanayanam is a mandatory ritual. But like everything else, it is just a formality and nothing more. Its become more of an an occasion for a family get together, or a tradition that is grudgingly fulfilled. Nothing wrong, but to call it “Upanayanam” in sense it was intended to mean is to dilute thousands of years of refinement and thought. But, as some would say, something is better than nothing. When roots are cut, whatever remains will continue to sprout in its own little way.
In many forums over the years, I have heard Rituals being laughed at, or spoken of as formality to be completed, or worse still derided. Personally, I don't participate in rituals anymore, because I dont see the sanctity and intent in the performance of it. But I am deeply convinced that each ritual is well thought out, orchestrated, controlled expression of a cosmic necessity couched as myth; and in their enactment the human psyche, if one has the capacity to sufficiently, truthfully and meaningfully immerse in it, can take an individual from one level of understanding to another.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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