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Meaning Of Upakarma

Kumar Nochur

About 200 members of the Hindu community took part in the Upakarma function held at the Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland on 29th August. The changing of the yajnopaveetam (sacred thread) and related rites were done in four batches, each lasting about one hour. Participants were guided in doing the rituals by priest Sri Krishna Bhatta, who was aided by other priests and volunteers. At the end of the fourth batch, a homam was conducted to conclude the ceremony.

For those of our readers who are perhaps not familiar with the meaning and purpose of this ceremony, I will briefly explain here the main elements of Upakarma.

Traditionally, Brahmins were charged with the study, teaching, and chanting of the Vedas as their main vocation. Brahmacharis -- boys who had undergone their spiritual “second birth” with the yajnopaveetam and initiation into the Gaayatri mantra -- would typically spend eight years learning a particular Veda from their guru in a school called paatasala. Upakarma literally means “acts/work (karma) to be done before (upa).” It comprises the preparatory acts done before starting Vedic studies every year. For students of the Yajur Veda, Upakarma falls on the full moon day in the month of Aavani, hence it is also called Aavani Avittam. For Rig Vedis, it is the day prior to the full moon day, and for Sama Vedis it is on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi. The rituals done on Upakarma day are for starting the next year’s Vedic studies on an auspicious note by atoning for various shortcomings or wrongdoings, seeking blessings from the rishis and gods, and by charging up the Brahmachari’s spiritual batteries for fruitful learning in his new semester.

With the onset of British rule and the spread of secular education over the last three centuries in India, the Vedic learning tradition has all but disappeared, but we still do the Upakarma rituals in memory of that tradition and to atone for our improper acts of commission (unethical acts and deeds) and omission (not doing Sandhya Vandanam daily, especially not chanting the Gaayatri mantra, and other ordained religious acts that were not done) in the previous year. The main rites, and their significance, are as follows:

Ø Kamokaarsheet Manyurakaarsheet Japam: Kaama (desire) and manyu (anger) are the root causes of all our sorrows. This japam is chanted 108 times to submit all our misdeeds deriving from these demons to be burnt up by the deities of kaama and manyu.

Ø Brahma Yajnam: The first few mantras of each of the four Vedas are chanted to symbolically mark the beginning of the new Vedic school year.

Ø Maha Sankalpam: This is a long invocation that identifies the participants in terms of their lineage and spatial and temporal coordinates in the Hindu cosmos, specifies the syllabus of studies they wish to undertake, purifies them ritually, and expresses their resolve (sankalpam) to learn and teach the Vedas properly.

Ø Yajnopaveeta Dhaaranam: The sacred thread, yajnopaveetam, symbolizes our oneness with Brahman, the ultimate reality. The three strands in the original yajnopaveetam which is vested during Upanayanam (the Gaayatri mantra initiation ceremony) represent various triads that are very important in Hinduism – Brahma, Vishu, and Shiva; the letters A, U, and M of the most potent Vedic sound OM; the ida, pingala, and sushumna nadis through which the Kundalini shakti has to be properly channeled for spiritual advancement; the three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas; etc. It is also a visible symbol of the authority and competence of the person wearing it for carrying out his Vedic duties. A new yajnopaveetam is worn (dhaaranam), with mantras asking for it to impart spiritual effulgence (Brahma tejas). The old thread is then removed and discarded.

Ø Kaandarishi Tharpanam: The Vedas were “seen” in the meditative trances of our ancestral rishis (seers), who codified them into various sections, called kaandas. Obeisance with water offering (tharpanam) is given to them in this ritual, asking for their blessings before commencing new learning.

Ø Sravana Homam: Agni, the Vedic deity of fire, is the divine carrier of our oblations and invocations to all the gods. During this homam (fire ceremony), the students ask to be blessed for their learning to proceed without obstacles and then chant and hear (sravana) sample sections from the four Vedas, and also from auxiliary scriptures called Vedangas, as a token of commencing their studies. The teacher declares that their studies have formally begun. The students offer their dakshina to the teacher and partake of the prasaadam before disbursing.

Ø Gaayatri Japam: This is done the morning of the day following the Upakarma ceremony. Traditionally, all Brahmins are supposed to chant the Gaayatri mantra 108 times during the three sandhyas (the Sun’s transition periods – dawn, noon, and twilight) each day. The Gaayatri mantra – Om, bhur bhuvah suvaha, tat savitur varenyam, bhargo devasya dheemahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayat – is the most powerful and sacred of all Vedic mantras. Its meaning is: Om is verily this world, the mid-region, and heaven (the three spheres of the cosmos); We meditate on the divine effulgence of that adorable Sun (Savitar) of spiritual consciousness; May He stimulate our power of spiritual insight. As a mantra, it has great potency if it is chanted properly, even if its meaning is not understood, though meditating silently with complete awareness of its meaning has greater benefits. The Gaayatri mantra is the quintessence of the Vedas and it has the power to bestow protection, health, longevity, prosperity, creativity, spiritual radiance, and ultimately moksha -- liberation via self-realization of our oneness with Brahman. It is chanted 1,008 times on the day following Upakarma to make up for not chanting it regularly during the previous year.

In this day and age, most of us are almost completely disconnected from the Vedic scriptures and the hoary traditions that underlie their learning, teaching, and practice. We do not know the real meaning or symbolism of many of the rituals we do, and so they become mechanical practices that we do merely in the name of tradition, or discontinue altogether because of our ignorance. If the inner significance of the mantras and the rituals that accompany them are understood, we can practice them with greater awareness and appreciation. Even if we do not learn the Vedas any more, the essence of their potency is still available to us in the Gaayatri mantra, endowed to us by rishi Visvamitra. We can easily find the time to chant it at least 11 times twice a day, ideally at dawn and dusk. By meditating on its inner meaning regularly, all of us can experience its awesome power and realize personally how it guides, inspires, and benefits us in all aspects of life – physical, mental, material, and spiritual.

The Upakarma ceremony is thus an annual reminder of our Vedic heritage and helps to reconnect us with its ultimate crest jewel – the Gaayatri mantra. Those who participate in this ceremony with this awareness can partake of all the blessings our Vedic lineage bestows on us.

Om shantih, shantih, shantihi

I wish to acknowledge the help of materials published by Major (Retd.) H. Subramanian of Bangalore in writing this article.

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