It could be called the "Hindu Bar Mitzvah"--the coming-of-age ceremony for a boy when his parents believe he is mature enough to learn our sacred scriptures. This ritual, known as the Sacred Thread ceremony (the Upanayanam in Sanskrit), can take place during any odd-numbered year in a boy's life, usually when he is seven, nine, or 11 years old. There is a solemn religious rite that inducts the little boy into youth, followed by an exchange of gifts among family members, and finally a sumptuous feast.
I was seven years old when I first saw a Sacred Thread ceremony. As a girl, I was jealous of the attention and numerous gifts that were being showered upon my nine-year-old brother. What bothered me most was that my brother got to learn the Gayathri Mantra--the supreme and most sacred of all Hindu mantras, which is the basis of all other mantras and the essence of the Vedas (a Hindu scripture).
I didn't get to learn the mantra.
This mantra, traditionally passed down from father to son, was not meant for a little girl like me, my parents laughingly told me, and it took me many years for me to forgive them for this display of partiality (as I liked to call it). The father teaches his son the Gayathri Mantra under a dhoti, which is spread out like a tent. It’s whispered by the father into his son’s ears. To my brother, the mantra was an opportunity to tease his little sister. Each time I asked him what they had told him, he would give me a mischievous smile and tell me “a secret.”
Even though I had watched my brother perform the rituals associated with this ceremony, I never understood what it was all about. I was too young to appreciate the depth, meaning, and significance of this touching and profound ceremony. A couple of decades later, during a recent trip to India, I attended another Sacred Thread ceremony and found the experience of watching another nine-year-old boy being inducted into the Hindu scriptures to be moving and spiritually fulfilling.
The ceremony is held over a two- to three-day period, including the pre-event rituals. All rituals are primarily said in the Sanskrit language. The gods and the ancestral spirits are invoked to bless the boy before he receives the Sacred Thread. After receiving blessings from his parents and other elders in the family, and a few other rituals, he puts on the thread. In the climax of the ceremony, called the Brahmopadesam, the boy’s father becomes his guru/teacher, and under the cover of a white cloth, called a veshti in southern India and dhoti in the north (and usually worn around a man’s waist), the father whispers the powerful Gayathri Mantra into his son's ears.
After these rituals, the young lad is now declared a brahmachari (one who observes chastity or celibacy and must control all his senses) and is officially ready to learn the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. After the ceremony the youth has several responsibilities. One of the most important is doing the Sandhya Vandanam every day at sunrise and sunset. This involves chanting certain mantras, including the Gayathri Mantra, and performing some yogic breathing exercises called pranayamam.
Putting on the Sacred Thread (Yajñopavtam) itself is the highlight of the ceremony. The thread is white in color and circular, being tied end-to-end. It is supported on the left shoulder and wrapped around the body, falling underneath the right arm. The thread is actually three threads, each consisting of three strands. It is said that they represent the goddess Gayathri (goddess of thoughts), the goddess Saraswati (goddess of words), and the goddess Savitri (goddess of deeds).
The Sacred Thread is thus a reminder that the one who wears it should be pure in thought, word, and deed. As a Brahmachari, the youth should direct his entire attention solely to study and the acquiring of such knowledge as will enable him to become a worthy member of society.
The Sacred Thread is supposed to be worn for the rest of one's life. Each year, the youth (or man) puts on a new thread and discards the old thread in a ceremony held on a date set by the Hindu lunar calendar. This day, like the day he first puts on the thread, is celebrated with the chanting of the Gayathri Mantra and a sumptuous meal that is first offered to the gods.
After the Sacred Thread ritual, there is a "fun side"--or as some would say, a materialistic side--to the ceremony evident in the lavish feasts and the gifts on which a lot of money can be spent. In this respect the ceremony is very similar to a Jewish bar mitzvah.
Depending on how wealthy the family is, the ceremony can be performed on a very large scale, almost like a wedding. Families often employ professional planners, much like wedding planners, to help with the preparations. Those preparations typically begin several months before the ceremony itself, which takes place in a large wedding hall where a stage is beautifully decorated with flowers. The guests arrive dressed in all their finery and are treated to a sumptuous breakfast and then a lunch, since the auspicious time to perform a Sacred Thread ritual is always before noon.
After the ceremony the boy is showered with gifts and cash by friends and relatives. The boy's family buys him new clothes for the occasion, silver and sometimes gold utensils for his daily prayers and meals, and jewelry that might include a watch, gold chain, a ring, a bracelet, and so forth. The number and lavishness of the gifts and the elaborateness of the ceremony is directly proportional to the family’s wealth.
In most cases the relatives and friends receive gifts from the boy's family, like silk saris or silver utensils. The breakfast and lunch are catered and are served on banana leaves, as in traditional South Indian weddings. The lunch is at least a three-course meal with several delicacies that are specially prepared for the occasion. Some ceremonies even include concerts by popular musicians to entertain the guests.
I sometimes wonder whether the families who stage such lavish functions take the time to understand the depth and intense meaning behind this ceremony that has been performed for several thousand years.I find it hard to believe that the material aspects--the fancy food and expensive gifts--were part of the Sacred Thread ceremony when it first began. For some Hindu families, peer pressure forces them to spend excessively, losing track of the important religious nature of this ceremony. Other families, however, simply associate fun and festivity with a young boy's coming of age and yet do not lose sight of the Sacred Thread's religious nature.
For me, attending a recent Sacred Thread ceremony in India was a tremendous learning experience. It was an awakening of sorts that reminded me of the complexity of my religion and its associated rituals. When my son grows older and is ready for his own Sacred Thread ceremony, will my husband and I overlook the material side of the rite and focus only on the religious side? Or will we succumb to peer pressure and do what everyone else does?
Right now, I simply rejoice in the knowledge that this important ritual continues to be significant in the lives of many Hindus, wherever they may live in the world. I can only hope and pray that future generations of Hindus recognize and celebrate the event and its meaning for years to come.