Relevance of Upaakarma Ceremony as Special Religious Event in Hindu Temples
(Compilation for a discourse by N.R. Srinivasan, Nashville, TN, USA, September 2016)
The significance of Upaakarma Day which falls on Sravan Poornima Day is that Lord Vishnu took the form of a horse (Hayagrieva Avatar) and restored the Veda that was stolen from Lord Brahma by the demons Madhu and Kaitabha. It is a day to pay our reverence to Vedas and also start their studies (Vedaadhyayana).
Upākarma Day marked as the "Beginning" of Srauta rituals for the Season also called Āvaṇi Aviṭṭam (Tamil), Janivārada Huṇṇime (Kannada) and Gamha Purnima(in Odiya) is a ritual dictated by Hindu Srauta scriptures to be observed by the Brahmin caste that claim their title by birth-right and not necessarily by performance as seen in Vedic culture. This ritual is also practiced by the Kshatriya and Vaisya communities, who are entitled to be Dvijas (twice born) and therefore acquire the rights to do Sandhyavandanam, the daily ablution ritual. Sudras are exempted from this ritual as they are service oriented to the other three castes and are busy with their profession in the fields. They also do not wear Sacred Threads. Sandhyaavandana Mantras originate from Mahanarayana Upanishad (MNU) but are not restricted to any one group or caste of Hindus. Later Srauta Sutras made them restrictive to Dwijas. Vedas also do not mention about Upanayana Samskara.
‘Avani Avittam’ - ‘avittam’ asterism day in the Tamil month of ‘Avani’ - is the day when every year the sacred thread, is changed by those who have undergone Upanayana Samskara. More accurately, the ceremony is performed on the Poornima day in the month of Sravana, or Tamil ‘avani’ (or of ‘aadi’ in some years), and is called ‘upaakarma’. In the Mahasankalpam part of the ceremony, we say ‘Adyayana upaakrama karma karishye’, or, ‘I start learning of Vedas’. Why starting to learn every year when one has to start the same at the time of Upanayanam and hopefully continue thereafter?
In Vedas there is no specific mention of sacred thread ceremony which is today considered as the exclusive privilege of Brahmins, as a religious resolution day to start the study of Vedas under a Guru living with him and leaving parents for long years. Even when later this sacrament was enforced by Vedic culture by Srauta and Smarta sutras on Aryan society this was still not the prerogative of those who claimed to be Brahmims by birth. Sri Rama, a Kshatriya, and Sri Krishna, brought up as a Yadav, Sri Hanuman, Ganesha and others are all seen with sacred threads in their icons in Hindus worship. In the case of Brahmins, its significance should be viewed in the context of their occupations as Vedic professionals: they were the original custodians of Vedic knowledge-professionals, which no longer holds true.
In the modern world, we know that professions, like those of a doctor, lawyer, or chartered accountant, have to meet at least three important criteria.
- First, one gets into the profession, only after a long and intense period of study and apprenticeship. It is about knowledge and skill, theory and practice, both, and, therefore one has to be initiated into it and trained by someone already in the profession.
- Second, profession is about practice. You become a lawyer so that you can practice it in your chambers and in the courts of law.
- Third, a professional has to constantly update and enhance his or her professional skills: you do not want a doctor to just practice what he or she did study when they qualified, but, use contemporary diagnosis and therapy. Equally, they have to contribute to professional development, chiefly, by taking apprentices and training future professionals. In USA doctors are subjected to periodic qualifying test to continue practice.
The three essentials of a profession are, thus, intense initial learning and apprenticeship, sustained practice and continued professional development.
Vedic culture provided a similar structure to Vedic professionals. First, they spent several years, 15 or 20 years, as a disciple to a Guru, doing Veda Adhyayanam, learning Veda from their Gurus called Acharyas. Thereafter, every year, part of the year, they only practiced what they had already learnt or Veda Paarayanam, and learnt other Sastras. Thirdly, for the balance part of the year, they taught and trained future professionals and also learned more of Veda for themselves. Upaakarma is the day every year when they started the annual phase of learning and teaching. About six months later, on Poornima day in the Tamil month of Thai, they did a Visarjanam, or suspended teaching and learning of Vedas as per later sastric injunctions. They waited for the next Upaakarma, when they started once again the annual cycle beginning with study of Vedas.
Upaakarma consists of a number of ceremonies starting with Kamokarishi Japa, Sankalpa, Satveeka Tyaaga which includes change of threads, Navakandarishi Tarpana, Adyayan Homa, Navakaandarishi Homa, Jayaadi Homa and Upasthaana closing ceremony for the day followed by Gayatri Japam the next day. Then the regular study of Vedas start for the season. These have been described at length in my discourse on Upakarma.
Today these have no practical significance the way Hindus who claim to be Brahmins by birth lead their lives. Those who study Vedas and turn out to be Pundits or Gurus are few and far between. Only a handful study Sanskrit language and few among them study Vedas. Temple priests are expected to have some proficiency in Vedic studies but it is more often not a prerequisite. It has become a family profession with some parrot chanting of mantras learnt by heart and professionally trained by father or a senior member of the family to conduct worship of icons. Even among Brahmins all of them do not undergo Sacred Thread Ceremony (Upanayanam) today at the right age but and postpone it to the day of their wedding. As a routine preliminary thread ceremony is conducted to all boys before starting the actual wedding ceremony. In the case of partners where only one partner is a Brahmin this pre-conditional thread ceremony is left to the discretion of the Pundit who conducts the wedding ceremony. In Inter-faith marriages this is almost a rarity though marriage ritual codes warrant it. It is interesting to note that Kalyanotsava or divine wedding ceremony starts with Yajnopaveeta dhaaranam or investiture with holy thread to the male deity.
Hindu Temple priests are salaried workers hired by the temple authorities to perform ritualistic worship. The Priests duty is to perform worship rituals on behalf of the temple or the owners of the temple. Temple priests are often called as Poojaris who are not to be confused with community religious guides called Purohits (Vadhyaras or Gurus or Sastris or Pundits) hired by householders to conduct sacraments, rituals and worship at home. They are called Purohits because they work for the welfare of the citizens (pura+hita).
In India Upaakarma is not a Special Religious Events Day in Hindu Temples. It is more or less a family affair. An individual goes through the religious ceremony himself or with the help of a practicing Purohit who is not a temple priest. A Purohit may work as a part-time temple priest also and not the other way round normally. My father being the only Brahmin in the village was also obliged to conduct sacraments for the entire Village Caste-Hindus. Out-castes neither visited temples nor were duty bound to be admitted to Hindu sacraments. Also in migrant countries the temple priest mostly renders additional duties as Purohit or Vaideeka (a person proficient in Hindu scriptures to conduct Hindu Samskaras and rituals). Consequently the temple makes Upaakarma, a Special Religious Events Day in Temples and guides the participants whose relevancy is questionable as Temple Tradition. It is a make-shift tradition. Brahmins gather in the temple to perform Upaakarma rites under the guidance of the temple priest.
There is a wrong notion that Supreme Will created four castes quoting Gita “Chaturvarnyam maya srishtam”. Here Gita mention Chaturvarnyam and not Chaturvarnaah meaning thereby four characteristics of spiritual knowledge, dharmic muscle power, dharmic trade transactions and devoted service were established by Supreme Will and not people with these characteristics as their birth right. People also misquote Purushasooktam decrying that Supreme Will differentiated these four castes pushing Sudra to the lowest category as Sudra is born from the feet of Virat Purusha while Brahmin from the face. To get a true picture one should go by the statement of Manu who says “Janmanaa jayate Sudrah”--Everybody is born as a Sudra to begin with along with the details given in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BAU)
“In the beginning there was Brahman alone. Being all alone it did not flourish. It created Kshatriya of an excellent form. Those who are Kshatriyas among gods are Indra, Varuna, Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, and Isana. Therefore there is none higher than Kshatriyas. Hence the Brahmana honors Kshatriya from a lower seat in the Rajasuya sacrifice--(An act of mutual respect for each other) He imparts glory to the Kshatriya. The Brahmana is the source of the Kshatriya. Therefore the king attains supremacy in the sacrifice, at the end of it he resorts to Brahmana, his source. He who slights Brahmana strikes at his own source. By doing so he becomes a sinner as one who slights one’s superior. Even after creating Kshatriya gods, Brahman did not flourish. So, he created the Vaisya class—those species of gods now are designated as groups as the Vasus, Rudras, Adityas, the Visvedevas and Maruts. Still Brahman did not flourish. He created Sudra Varna—Pushan. Indeed this (Earth) is Pushan for it nourishes all that exists. Yet he did not flourish. He created Dharma or righteousness. The righteousness is the controller of Kshatriya (who rules over all Varnas)” Purusha sukta says Earrth emerged fro the feet of Virat Purusha.
Brahma vaa idamagraaseedekameva | Tadekam sanna vyabhavat | tacchreyoroopamatyasrijata kshatram yaanyetaani devatraa kshatreaaneendro varunahy somo rudrah parjanyo yamo mrityureesaana iti | tasmaatkshataat param mnasti |tasmaad brahmanah kshatriyamadhastaadupaasate raajasuye | kshatria eva tadriso dadhaati | saishaa kshatrasya yoniryat brahma | tasmaadyadyapi raajaa paramataam gacchati brahmaivaantata upanisrayati svaam yoni ya u enam hinasti sva sa yonimricchati | sa paapeeyaanbhavati sreyaamsa himsitvaa || 1-4-11
Sa naiva vyabhavat | sa visamasrijata yaanyetaani devajaataani aakhyaayante vasavbo rudraa aadityaa visvedxevaa maruta iti || 1-4-12
Sa naiva vyabhavat | saa sudram varnamasrijata pushanamiyam vai npusaheya heedasarvampushyati yadidam kincha || 1-4-13
Sa naiva vyabhavat | sah tacchre yo roopamatsrijata dharmam | 1-4-14
Thus it can be seen various controllers of Brahman (mentioned often as 33 Devatas in Vedic culture) were created bound by Varna dharma. It is also described earlier that Brahmana Varna was created from the mouth and the palms of the Purusha as Agni. Later this classification of Devatas by Brahman was adopted as a role model to manage the society with peace harmony and all-round happiness creating four Varnas based on their professional ability and disposition to govern the society with Dharma. This was based on skills individuals developed after being born as Sudras or Pushans (children of Pushan or Earth) and not based on birth-right. All Pushans are born to serve and belong to Service (Sudra) Varna. This has nothing to do with the modern multiple caste-Jati system brought into Hinduism claimed by or condemned due to birth-right.
I often wondered why this day is called Upaakarama and not Upakarma (like Upanishad) ? Upaakarma consists of two words Upa+Akarma meaning additional bad deed. Vedic scholars ought to have suspended studies as per saastric injunctions in the Tamil month of Thai or on Makara Sankranti Day. Studies have to be commenced again after Upaakarma Day. Because so much of Veda had to be studied, in the past, often times, they continued Vedic studies beyond that date breaking the discipline due to incompetence to finish studies in time. This may be due to incompetence and diversities. This japam is to atone for this sin and indeed for not having performed other Vedic acts. So this is an extra sin committed unintentionally. This is an expiation for the additional (upa) sin committed. As you all know even in Sandhayavandana rituals such provisions are made in prescribing additional water oblation beyond the prescribed three as expiation(mamopaatta-durita prayaschittartham). Vedic scholars can’t think of any other reason than anger and lust for such negligence. Lust and anger are at the root of all our misdeeds and the japam focuses on just these two. The japam is done first thing in the morning of Upaakarma day, after morning Sandhyavandanam. But why obeisance to Lust and anger in the Mantra for meditation: “Kaamokaarsheen manyurakarsheen namonnamah”?
For this we have to divert our attention to Mahanarayana Upanishad
‘Kaamoekaarsheet’ in Sanskrit means ‘those acts that are out of desire’. ‘Manyurakaarsheet’ means “those acts that are committed out of anger”. The general practice of uttering ‘namoh namah’ after this mantra appears to be not appropriate as this Japam is done with a sense of contrition according to some. However if one goes back to the full Mantra as given in Mahanarayana Upanishad it will be clear why adding “Namoh Namah” is stipulated. Some- times it is not advisable to resort to just word-by-word meaning of mantras. Also full Mantra chanting makes sense and enhances spiritual value. Every mantra has a rishi, a devata(god) and Chandas (prosody). If mantra is modified or partly chanted for convenience it loses its power. The mantera nin MNU runs as follows:
“Kamoe-akarsheen namoh namah | Kamo-akarsheet-kaamah karoti naaham karomi kaamah kartaa naaham kartaa kaamah kaarayitaa naaham kaarayitaa eshaa te kaama kaamaaya swaahaa ||
Manyu-rakaarsheer-nnamo namah | manyu-rakaarsheen-manyuh karoti naaham karomi manyuh karta naaham kartaa manyuh kaarayitaa naaham kaarayitaa eshaa te manyoe manyave Swaaha || (61—62, Mantrapushpam, Narayanopanishad, Ramakrishna Math).
The translation of the mantras runs as follows:
Salutations are to the Gods. Desire performed the act. Desire did the act. Desire is doing the act, not I (Self). Desire is the agent not I. Desire causes the doer to act not I. O Desire, fascinating in form, let this oblation be offered to thee, Hail!
Salutations are to the Gods. Anger performed the act. Anger did the act. Anger is doing the act; not I. Anger is the agent; not I. Anger causes the doer to act; not I. O Anger, let this oblation be offered to thee. Hail!
We do not have the authority to alter the mantras of Vedas for our convenience or condense them. It is therefore essential we chant the full mantra 108 or 1008 times as per convenience. Since the word Swaahaa comes at the end of these mantras, these are mantras meant for Homa (sacrifice) for annual self-atonement like the one we recite in daily prayers for self-atonement (prayaschittaa)—“Sooryascha maamanyuscha…..paapebhyo rakshantaam” and “Agnischa maamanyuscha….paapebhyo rakshantam”. Sandhyavandana mantras are made exclusive to the dwijas to pray for atonement of their sins committed during the day. Does it mean others do not commit sins or they do not need atonement every day?
Lord Narayana, to whom this apology is submitted, is sure to bear the acts of our omissions and commissions with regard to Saastras.
Kamokaarsheet Mantras appear in the Andhra version of Mahanarayana Upanishad (MNU) in section 61 and 62. Prior to them section 61 contains a mantra as follows:
“Yadvo devaaschakrima jihvayaa guru manaso vaa prayutee devahedanam | araavaa yoe noe abhi ducchunaayate tasmin tadenoe vasavoe nidhetana swaahaa ||
O Gods, O Vasus, that serious god-offending sin which we committed by our tongues, by our understanding, and by our actions, place that in those who come near and act in an evil way towards us (provoke us). Hail (Swaahaa)!
These are Homa mantras for self-purification as They all end with the Vedic sacrifice (yajna) term “Swaha” a term used in offering oblations to fire. The two mantras described above as Kamokarsheet manyurakarsheet mantras only elaborate what is mentioned in section 61. Therefore the above mantras are all meant for Homa which are also employed for Japa (repeated recitation) during Upaakarma. Probably Grihyasutras later adopted these Vedic mantras condensing them while prescribing Upaakarma ritual procedures. It is therefore advisable to use the full Vedic mantras instead of condensing them to hurry up the Japas. Their full version is convenient for Japa and is not too long. It is therefore fitting and proper to chant kamokarsheet manyurakarsheet mantras contained in sections 61 and 62 in full as given above and not what is given in Upaakarma ritual manuals.
Saayana, brilliant commentator of Vijayanagara Samrajya has gone deep into the meaning of these Vedic mantras which clearly indicates these mantras are meant for all and not restricted to Dwijas that too restricting to males alone and tailor made to Upaakarma rituals. Desire is personified as a deity in Vedas. Nasadeeyasookta announces that Kaama or God’s will in the form of desire to create the world existed at a time when this universe did not come into being. Yadyaddi kurute jantuh tattat kaamasya cheshtitam || says Manusmriti II.4--whatever activity is found in a creature it is all due to the movement of desire. Bhagavadgeetaa says Desire, Aversion, Pleasure, Pain, Body, Intelligence and Patience constitute Kshetra or field of the divine (Kshetrajna)—Icchaa dveshah sukham dukham sanghaataschetanaa dhritih | etat kshetram samaasena savikaaramudaahritam ||
Spiritual codes declare that the five universal elements and resident deities and one’s own heart witness the thoughts and actions of a man even though they are concealed from others. Worshipper here is represented as offering repeated obeisance to the gods who witness the inside of all men and arraign them to the bar of divine justice. He pleads not guilty and deposes that he, the Self in man, did not do any act or it is an agent. Desire, charming to all in appearance, is the agent that did acts and doing them. Therefore, in order to propitiate the Deity of Desire, so that the worshiper may be left in his pure nature, as a resent of all the withdrawal of all harmful desires, an oblation is offered into the consecrated fire. You therefore see why it is necessary to chant mantra in full and not just “Kamokarsheet namo namah”. We worship Lord Ganesha as Lord of Obstacles, Vighneswara based on similar thoughts to remove all obstacles coming in our way. Saayana says that Kaama in this context means Iswara-kaama or the desire of the Lord. Hence we pay our obeisance. Lakshmi was born along with Alakshmi from the Ocean of Milk and Hindus propitiate both.
According to Saayana Manyu is not rage in the negative value sense but rage towards the internal and external enemy. Vedas often refer to manyu as longing fervor and not anger or rage in the negative sense. In Taittareeya Brahmana manyu is eulogized as Bhaga and Varuna and also supplicated not to damage penance by intrusion. Here Manyu appears with Kaama or desire. It is therefore anger personified. Obstructed desire is source of anger. Thus anger is another trait of the physical and psychological equipment of man from which his true Self stands aloof. Therefore the mantra says Anger is responsible and not the Self in him.
Today Brahmin Varna or more appropriately Brahmin community are the first degree violators of Varna Dharma which scriptures refer as Manava Dharma. I specifically mention Brahmin Varna because there is innumerable number of Castes or Jatis within this community. It is therefore necessary for them to wake up, study Vedas and propagate them and practice Vedic Dhramas suitably adapted to modern needs and serve the society if they are still serious to hold on to their titles. The other three Varnas have consolidated themselves under one group calling themselves as Non-Brahmins but at the same time isolated themselves from rest of the Hindu Lower Society which has considerable representation. Here too they are not paying attention to the spiritual progress thinking that Vedic study is not meant for them. This is far from truth if we go deep into Vedas. It is clear that all should concentrate on self-purification and meditation on Brahman as ordained in Vedas. It is not the privilege of any one class. It is universal.
Today a good number of Westerners are studying Vedas, practicing Yoga and meditation, fed up with their own faith based religions and in search of spiritual progress. Some of them are renowned Vedic Scholars. Even in the past Western world produced great many Vedic scholars who propagated the Message of Vedas. They left behind vast research material of theirs and translation of Vedas into English and other foreign languages which are often referred by all of us and quoted authoritatively. It may be a surprise for all of you that the first recording by HMV Gramaphone Company was the first Vedic Mantra of Rigveda:
“Agnimeele purohitam| yajnasya deva mritvijam | Hotaara(ga)m ratnadhaatamam| Harih Om
It is clear that today undergoing Upanayana Samskara and observing Upaakarma ceremony mechanically based on birth-right claims as a mere formality with no proper study of Vedas is redundant and purposeless. Many Hindu Americans and their children do not undergo Upanayana Samskara until the day of getting married. This is even more complicated when we look at the life-style of Hindu Americans and similar migrants settled in the lands of other major cultures. It also makes no sense Hindu American Temples to call this day “A Special Religious Day” with no proper focus.
Kamokarsheet Japam and Mahasankalpam start with a review of the past that let us go in our mind over what we did not or did do and atone for our sins, but, more importantly, set out our objectives. The schedule of Naimittika Karmas and Nitya Karmas, provide us with a framework for performance. These are codes of conduct. Upaveetham (wearing a sacred thread) is a symbol of sanctity to constantly remind us of what we need to do and help us in our karmas. I wonder whether all Vedic Rishis wore these Sacred threads though we see icons with them? Upanayana Samskara is not described in Vedas which was made a Srauta Ritual later absorbing many Veda Mantras contained in MNU. Even Mangalyam (to remind one as dharma-patni) is a later invention as we have seen. There were male as well female rishis in Vedic culture. At a later date even girls underwent Upanayana Ceremony. This custom can be seen even today among some Naboodari Brahmin families in Kerala today. Gayatri Japam is the first and a rather substantial step in following the discipline in execution.
Sravan Purnima Day is a very important day, the day on which many celebrations take place and rituals are performed all over India. It is a National Holiday under different names as described in my discourse on the subject. Hindu Temples in America offer facilities and guidance to Brahmins to change the sacred thread and help perform prescribed rituals to Dwijas (twice born). Thus it is confined to a particular caste even overseas where caste system is almost extinct but traditions of different castes as in India continue with families. Hindu migrants continue with their surnames which more often than not reveal their birth caste identity. In the light of the above detailed discussion it would be fitting and proper to make this day a special sacred day of significance for all by Making it: 1) annual day for atoning for sins by conducting Kamokarsheet and Manyurakarsheet Homa (Expiation Day); 2) A sacred day for Conducting Navakanda Rishi Tarpana and Homa for all; 3) a sacred day for listening to Vedaparayana or Vedpath Day like Ramayan Path, Gita path etc. and 4) a day for Mass Pranayama and Gayatri Japa Meditation 5) a day celebrating Hayagrieva (who restored Vedas and Incarnation of Vishnu) Jayanti and rebirth of Vedas. These would benefit all traditions and all caste backgrounds. Otherwise it presents a narrow-outlook as promoting and caring only for privileged class of Brahmins on this sacred day in “One Temple for all Traditions”.
Hindu Temples in India could also make this day very significant for all traditions and caste-backgrounds. But being conservative, sectarian and Caste-dominated, and Purohit and priest controlled Hindu society influenced by sectarian Mathadipatis it is almost impossible to introduce any change however good it may sound. Old prejudices and preferences continue however wrong they may be. But to make it a significant Mass Worship Religious Day in Hindu Temples overseas suiting all traditions including inter-faith couples and children should not be difficult and is highly commendable.
1) Swami Dev Ananda. Mahanarayana Upanishad, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
2) Dr. Ananta Rangacharya, Brihadarnyaka Upanishad, Bengaluru, India
3) Krishnamachar S.M., Sri Vaishanva Dinachar, Sanatana Dharma Sabha, Saraguru, Karnataka, India.
4) Srinivasan N.R., Compilation for a Discourse, Hindu Reflections: <nrsrini.blogspot.com> Postings, Month and Year:
a) Upanayana Samskaaram, September 2011.
b) Upakarma Kamokarsheet Expiation Homa Ritual is for All, August 2014.
c) Prologue on Upakarma Rites, September 2011.
d) Sravan Poornima is ideal for Mass worship by All Aug 2015.
[This discourse material is a compilation from the reference above as well as other sources for a prepared lecture for delivering at Vedanta Class of Sri Ganesha Temple which is gratefully acknowledged. I do not claim anything as original though I have included my explanations and comments elaborately suitably editing. Anybody is free to download partly or fully this discourse, modify and redistribute this as well as other discourses from the blog Hindu Reflections <nrsrini.blogspot.com> duly acknowledging for spreading the wisdom of Vedas and scriptures further. These lectures are posted on the blog for the benefit of those who are not able to attend my lectures personally due to personal reasons or due to not living in Nashville or able to go through the various sources as I have done-- http://nrsrini.blogspot.com/2015/03/classified-discourses-posted-on-blog.html ]