Today I got my upanayanam ceremony done, which in north India is just called janeu, even though the janeu is just a small part of the upanayanam ceremony. Anyways I will try to explain a little bit about what it means, because there’s a huge significance to it. Most people are not aware as to what it is, disregarding it as an important part of life, but it is in fact one of the biggest steps one takes in his growing phase of life. So here is an explanation…
(These are kind of my notes on the subject from one class session, so if it is not as clear as you would like it to be, please feel free to email me.)
The upanayanam ceremony itself is a set of rituals and prayers geared towards bringing about the eligibility of a student to pursue Vedic study. If you think about this statement, it means that before the ceremony, the person was not eligible, but is eligible after the ceremony. This ceremony brings about this eligibility, acting as a springboard for the person going towards the spiritual world. But how? The ceremony itself has a lot of powerful mantras used to invoke the spiritual self in the person, and of course it would not be possible without the faith of the person who it is being done for. This way, the seed is sown for spiritual growth, but now it is up to the person to make it grow, by practicing the guidelines outlined within the ceremony. A set of qualities is being removed and a set of new qualities is being invoked in the person. Now, what are the qualities being removed, and what are the qualities being invoked? And why do I want these new qualities?
Humans are born into this world with basic natural instincts – curiosity, gaining recognition and sex, and the instinct for satisfaction. In our scriptures, there is an outline for the progress of life: the first 25 years of life are for learning; the next 25 years are to share, care, and earn; and the next 25 years are the period of satisfaction after the previous 25 years. The first 25 years are known as brahmacharya ashrama, then the next are grihasta ashrama, and the next are vaanaprastha ashrama (why? Because he is so satisfied with his first 50 years that he can leave all that to focus on that ultimate supreme Truth… “my duty in this world has been completed, now I can turn my attention towards the ultimate. This is the practical application of the theory I studied in my brahmacharya ashrama”).
As a child grows, these natural instincts grow – curiosity, etc. If these three things do not get controlled and given a right flow, they grow unstoppable. They are called kaamachaara, kaamavaada, and kaamabhaksha. Kaamachaara means lust to act – this means to do whatever I like to do and not what I have to do or what I should do. I neglect what is right for what I want. Kaamavaada means to blabber or to talk without giving attention to what should be said or when it should be said. Kaamabhaksha means lust to eat, without giving importance to one’s own limitations, surroundings, etc. He takes care of his tongue and fashion, etc. but not of his body. As the child grows, so do these three instincts. If the parents do not provide proper education for the child, it is harmful to the child! It becomes hard for the guru to channel the energy flow. This is what is happening in the modern world. The curiosity to learn is being chopped off, because of lack of attention from the parents, and lack of understanding, etc. but in the Vedic Age, parental education was ultimate – after which the upanayanam was performed at the age of 8, so that the child could start to grow spiritually, and was then sent to the gurukulam. There the guru would focus the child’s energy towards the right path.
The upanayanam has a second task too. Not just to control these three roguish qualities, but to also turn the child towards three ideal qualities. To be an ideal student of a gurukulam, you must have three things – shraddha, medha, prajna. Shraddha means faith in the higher power, faith that there is more to life than that which can be perceived by the senses, faith that your guru is taking you on the right path. Next is medha, which is the power of intellect, or vigor of intelligence. It means that you are converting your mind’s tendency to wander into an ability to focus. Finally, prajna, which means the readiness of your mind to accept the Truth. These are really only the basics for spiritual study, but they are essential.
Before starting a project, in the same way that the modus operandi is prepared, the child is being prepared by practical deeds (rituals). This is known as the upanayanam ceremony. The thread we wear from our left shoulder to right hip symbolizes the replacement of kaamachaara, kaamavaada, and kaamabhaksha with shraddha, medha, and prajna. So needless to say, my mind is changing every day… and it’s awesome.