Bound by the same thread

Ramya Gopal wants to extend Upanayanam ceremony to women

Upanyanam. My first response, as an American Born Confused Desi was "What the heck?". That was the was same response I got when I asked my Indian girl friends about their knowledge of Upanyanam.

Another two words: thread ceremony? Oh, I think I know what that is. As ABCD girls, we are lost on the topic of Upanyanam, a ritual for males to be spiritually reborn. We've seen some of our friends' dads or our dads wear the thread, but that's the limit of our exposure to this holy sacrament.

Upanyanam is an ancient samskara, or ceremony, where boys of the divja castes are lead through, at different ages depending on their individual caste: 8 for Brahmins, 11 for Kshatriays, and 14 for a Vaishya. In ancient times both male and females were able to participate. People of the Shudra caste were not and still are not permitted to take part in the ceremony, because the belief prevails that only the upper 3 castes were Sanskrit-knowing Hindus and that the Shudras are ignorant laborers that have no need to be twice born.

Tying the thread symbolized being twice-born, or being spiritually re-born, entering the status of Brahmacharya, or asceticism. Over the years, Upanyanam has lost its some of its original Vedic significance and now only means to be spiritually reborn. This caused the initiation age to be raised to the mid-twenties or usually before marriage, as the boys did not follow through the religious duties required of students in their childhood. These include Vedic studies, memorizing certain shlokas and performing other rituals. The ceremony leads the boys into the first step to the final goal which is 'Realization of Brahman', the ultimate truth. Shudras, women and so-called untouchables are the only Hindus excluded from the ceremony.

Though this ceremony is spiritually important in Hinduism, unfortunately it is limited to only a certain section of society, not unlike the old voting rights that were limited in America. But instead of white American men, Upanyanam is confined to the upper caste, young Hindu boys. This leaves out the lower caste and women who were stopped from taking part in the ritual. I asked Professor Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at St. Olaf's college, Minnesota, if there was any reason why women were not allowed to take part in the ceremony. He replied, "The reasons why women were/are excluded from Vedic study are complex. At some point women were equated with Shudras and debarred. It may have to do with beliefs about so-called "female pollution" during the events of menstruation and child-birth."

I believe that these condemnations are irrational because these reasons do not apply in the contemporary age.

Initiation processes for both genders is seen in other religions such as Christianity and Judaism-- communion for the Christians, and Bar and Bat-Mitzvahs for the Jews. Like in Hinduism, Judaism traditionally had an initiation ceremony for only boys, but unlike us they changed their customs, leaving Hinduism the only religion yet to modify our religious practices with time.

Women, over the years, have proved they have the ability to do anything as well as men, so why do we still cling to antiquated beliefs that restrict our society just because it says so in the Shastras, when the rest of the world has moved on? The only objection is that women cannot wear the thread as men do. A possible alternative is wearing a three thread bangle, for men and women, or any other symbol of the ceremony, as Professor V. V. Raman, Professor Emeritus Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, suggested in a private exchange.

Upanyanam is an ancient yet still important ritual in Hinduism that has been and continues to remain restricted to a small sect of society like many other privileges were restricted in other societies before. Unlike other societies, however, we haven't moved on to change with times, and those who want to learn to Vedas and do not fit in the allotted section are forced to break the traditional rules.

Can we then call ourselves hypocrites, saying that we are one yet insist that there is enough of a difference that some cannot go through this ritual? As Professor Vasudha Naryanan, Professor of Religion at the University of Florida, writes in her article Women and Vedas, "Our women are well aware of western culture and even western religion--can we not open the doors of our own scripture and our own tradition to our women? Sometimes, we even praise western scholars who study our Vedas; yet we do not want to share it with our women".

Let us start modifying our traditions as seen fit without destroying the essence, beginning with allowing women and all Hindus to take part in Upanyanam and feel equal in this manner. Hari Om.

This article appeared in Jan 23, 2004 issue of India Abroad


Letters (India Abroad February 13, 2004)

Vedic Tradition

Ramya Gopal's Bound by the same thread (January 24) was thoughtful, relevant and extremely well-written.

Gopal dealt with the important and potentially divisive issue with sensitivity and objectivity. I hope that as she continues to explore the Vedic tradition she will be pleased to discover several progressive and open-minded spiritual groups which extend the Upanayanam initiation rite to anyone willing to undertake devotional study and practice---regardless of gender, race, religion or caste.

I hope India abroad continues to print articles about how second generation explores, embraces and sometimes questions India's great spiritual heritage.

If this heritage has to grow, it is vital the second generation plays a role in freeing it from sectarianism and politicization.

Vineet Chander
Hindu Chaplain
George Washington University