Monday, August 11, 2014

Upakarma: A Harmless Hindu Festival

Yesterday was a day of threads for  Hindus.

It's the Purnima or full moon day in the month of Shravana for most Hindus. Hindus who are keeping the tradition of wearing a sacred thread of commitment (yajnopaveetam), wear a new one on this day. Now a days mostly Brahmins and Vaishyas follow this. The overall number is quite small compared to the total population of Hindus. And Hindus who are keeping the tradition of sisters tying a thread for commitment to the wrist of their brothers (or brother like other men), tie rakhi on this day. Yes, you can call this sacred thread day for these two reasons.

But as you can expect around any Hindu festival, "secularism" creeps in.
Dainik Bhaskar, a big Hindi newspaper started "Main Rakhi nahin baandhungi" campaign. It essentially was for a girl to say "I won't tie rakhi".. unless....

Their theme was to generate "respect for women", but as always, such campaigns are only targeting Hindu festivals. Just a week back imagine if they had started a campaign that "I won't celebrate Eid.. unless...".

Hindus went in full force on the social media against this campaign. Finally Dainik Bhaskar had to suck up and remove this from their website right in time for Rakhi morning.

And then came the day of Upakarma morning. Promptly, another prominent media house's Editor started attacking this Hindu festival on Twitter.
Of course, if you follow the responses, most tried to educate her, and a few tried to dare her attack other religions similarly. Not surprisingly, this Editor of a big Indian news paper started focus on only the favourite points all communists are taught to follow.

Her point 1: Women in Hinduism (particularly Brahmin women) are discriminated and are there only to "assist" a male in Hindu rituals.

Her point 2: Please don't attack Islam or others, irrespective of how discriminatory their practices might be. "Secularism" means, as Editors of big news papers we have guts only to attack Hindus on Hindu festival days. We don't dare to do any such preaching or "conduct discussion" on Islamic or Christian festival days.

Let me focus on the Upakarma part more here as most already convinced the anti Rakhi campaign to end before the festival itself.

First of all, is Hindu Dharma (not a religion per say) anti women?

The reality is that it is not. By and far, Hindu women have been accorded the best status that any religious society offered anywhere in the world. Hindu women have been queens, goddesses, have been revealed sacred verses, have authored plenty of bhakti movement songs/bhajans, have been dancing queens, have enjoyed supreme status when it comes to respect.
  • Hindus (and some non-Hindu Bharatiyas) scream "Bharat Mata ki jai".. Not "Bharat pita ki jai"!
  • Hindus worship Devi Lakshmi for wealth.. the most important aspect for livelihood. 
  • Hindus worship Devi Saraswati for knowledge.. the most important aspect to start any livelihood.
  • Hindus worship Devi Durga for strength.. the most important aspect for any survival or warfare. Female Durga is so powerful that she even steps over the dominant male Shiva's chest at her fiercest moment!
  • Hindus teach their kids "Maatru Devo bhava" before Pitru, Acharya or Atithi..
  • Hindus (yes those "evil" Brahmins in particular) chant Gayatri mantra as the most supreme mantra, dedicated to a female shakti. 
  • Hindus often cite "Janani Janmabhumi cha, swargat api gariyasi" giving mother and mother land the greatest status, even above paradise (if it exists)!
  • Hindus teach at a young age, "yatra naryastu pujyate, ramante tatra devatah", drilling the point that where women are well respected, only there the gods will enjoy (meaning reside). 
  • While almost all religions of the world are for men, by men, to men, Hindu Vedas stand out tall as an exception (yes, the same Vedas chanted by "discriminatory" Brahmins today). Ghosha, Lopamudra, Maitreyi, Gargi and others made women proud by being a part of compilation of sacred Vedas! 
In fact, there are many women poojaris (priests) across India today. They are not in significant numbers, but they exist. I visit a Shani Mahatma temple in south Bengaluru, where the main poojari is a woman in her 50s. Just last year, a famous mainstream temple in Karnataka, the Kudroli Shree Gokarnanatheshwara temple, got two widows as the key poojaris! It didn't last long for other personal reasons from their side, but Hindus by and far welcomed and didn't have any demonstrations against widows becoming main priests of a very famous temple.

I have seen women funeral priests, woman marriage purohit, women conducting yajnas and much more.

So it's silly to come out in public to say that Hinduism is against women. I am focusing beyond the tweets of Malini P, as there are plenty of such women who relish the idea of bashing Hindu men and Hindu ideology itself. I am sure the same "intellectual" women would hide if we start asking to show some women Moulivis or women Bishops in India from other religions.

If you have to sum up in 2 lines, the core essence of Hindu philosophy of an "educated man", this one propagated by Swami Vivekananda, stands out.

It's not that Hindus don't have women beaters, rapists, eve teasers, murderers and much worse. But they are NOT justified by Hindus by any means, quoting some scripture. They in fact many would demand that such men should be punished the same way Rama punished Ravana, or Bhima punished Keechaka.  But hey.. it's possible to convince those with an open mind and not those brainwashed by communist ideology. You can only place the facts on the table and expect them to introspect some day.. yes some day! They live only in the topics such as Sati (which have ceased to exist since centuries), Sabarimala temple (which is one temple, with a unique reason), Sita's agni pariksha and a few other pet topics that they use to beat up Hindus, particularly on their festival days.

Are Hindu women not allowed to wear any sacred thread?

Quick answer is, Hindu women are very much wearing sacred threads. There's no restriction. Keeping in mind practical limitations, they wear different types of threads. Threads over the wrists, around the neck and around the ankle are common ones.

Now the longer answer:

Brahmins, Vaishyas and Kshatriyas mostly follow the sacred thread ceremony (that is worn around the torso from neck to waist). In some cases, many other castes, traditionally considered outside of these three, also follow. In Karnataka, Devanga, Goldsmith and dozens of other castes also follow this. But mostly Brahmins keep the thread throughout the year. The basic essence is that the sacred thread gives the right to perform vedic yajnas and other rituals. (Not merely wearing thread, but also knowing what they are performing). For those who were not doing Yajnas, this was not a part of custom. There were many yesterday who openly were showing their thread on social media. It's only 3 Rupees for a pair of threads, so in no way this is "elite" who prefer not to wear.

The basic idea is that the human body is sacred and the 3 strands represent Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara. By wearing the thread, one would remind about the divinity inside himself, and keep the body clean (physically, spiritually and otherwise). A man is expected to change the thread if there is "impurity" such as blood on the body, death in the family and many more. And there's always a yearly ceremony where as a group that community changes thread.

Since 20th century and 21st century customs don't have the main thread for women (they have other threads), a married man also wears his wife's part of the thread over himself. The second thread (with 3 strands) that he wears is for Grihasta ashrama. Every time he prays Gayatri or performs other pooja, the reward is automatically shared with his wife. Those who teach Vedas usually wear more sets, but that's more complicated. Just like festivals where women pray for their husbands, here the man not only conducts yajna (fire sacrifice) for himself and his wife, but also for his entire family and society.

For married women, mangala sutra is the main thread (now in the form of gold thread) in 20th and 21st century. Other threads like those tied on wrists are immensely popular for girls and most wear. For instance, Bheemana Amavasya in Karnataka (south Indian equivalent of Kadva Chauth) sees lakhs of girls wearing thread on their wrists after a vrata.

They are kept and disposed off as sacredly as a man would wear and dispose off old threads. So the contemporary tradition is that mangala sutra is the main thread for a woman, and Yajnopaveetam is the main thread for men. A married man has the second set of strands and a married woman has the mangal sutra. That way, society can identify the wedded aspect easily, in places where threads are made visible.

In some communities like Lingayats in Karnataka, women wear threads across their body (like cross bar) just like men or around the neck. There would be a Shiva Linga tied to the thread.

For Hindus, every thread over the body is sacred. There's nothing like one thread is more sacred than others.

What do Hindu men do in Upakarma? Is this ritual anti women? Is it against "lower" castes? 

That is termed in Sanskrit as Upa Karma (upa meaning near, and karma is duty). It's also known as Avani Attam in Tamil, Janivarada habba in Kannada, Gamha purnima in Odiya and so on. Usually a "dwija" or born again Hindu performs this.

The procedure differs from region to region, and from veda to veda. Here are some steps for the Yajurveda Upakarma.
  1. Ganapati puja praying for obstacle removal. 
  2. Invoking Gayatri for shakti into the sacred thread. 
  3. Worshiping ancient Hindu sages who have guided us with knowledge all along. 
  4. Wearing the thread. One for wife also in case of married men.
  5. Rishi tarpana (offering prayers to the ancient rishis or sages who guided us). Kaanda Rishi tarpana is performed with the help of head priest or Brahma seat occupier.
  6. Deva tarpana (offering prayers to all the gods who protect and guide us).
  7. Pitru tarpana (offering prayers to the ancestors from both father and mother's side who enabled us to be living on this planet today).
  8. Brahmacharis or bachelors perform a special agni karya or fire ritual.
  9. Full fledged fire ritual and fire sacrifice called Upakarma Yajna (no, no blood involved. Not that kind of sacrifice). 
  10. Among many other steps, the key is that prayashchittha (atonement) for all the mistakes and sins our families might have committed during the past year. 
  11. Lastly, there is a long set of mantras or prayers for better rain, peace in the society, guidance to walk in the path of dharma, and much more. 

There is NOTHING in the Upakarma that preaches discrimination towards other castes (not present there) or gender bias. There is no cursing or preaching against "enemies" of a particular ideology. There is no sermon making people fear the "all powerful". There are a series of shanti mantras for betterment of everyone on the planet! There is in fact a particular phase where not just the current family, but also women like matamahi are paid tributes, going 3 generations up to women of the family.

The only catch here is that these fire rituals that involve vedic mantras, must be performed by only those who have been initiated into the rituals. The initiation called Brahma Upadesha is usually a step to make the boy or man aware of why's, what's and when's. Otherwise it won't make sense for the person participating. That's why mostly you will find Brahmin men today performing these on behalf of everyone in the society. If someone who has not been initiated wants to participate, there are 1000s of outlets in temples and mathas, where initiation can be obtained and they can join irrespective of their caste, creed or religion. The best part is, one does not even have to "convert" to Hinduism. Read this to get a glimpse of European and African origin Hindus who follow Hindu rituals. I have personally seen European origin men actively participating in Hindu fire rituals after wearing sacred threads, and even getting married in proper Vedic manner.

All they need is a vow for restrictions on food, and advice on puja and homa that a thread wearing person is expected to follow.

In fact, the most *hated* Hindutva man Veer Savarkar ("seculars" chide him as hindu supremacist), presided over a Yajnopaveetam ceremony for former Hindu untouchables (Dalits) in 1929 at Malwan. This was a historic step in correcting the course of Hinduism which had steered off due to mistakes by some Hindus.

The complete step by step  of what's performed in Upakarma is listed in this PDF.

In summary:
  1. Hinduism has probably bestowed the best status for women among any traditional religions or similar setup. 
  2. There's no restriction for women becoming priests or wearing sacred threads. In fact there are many festivals like Varamahalakshmi, which are specially for Hindu women, involving sacred thread. 
  3. There's no restriction for women to perform Hindu rituals. Many are doing it actively. 
  4. There's nothing against women being performed during the "male festival" Upakarma. Similarly there is nothng against men performed in "female fesivals" like Lakshmi pujas. 
  5. As it is practiced today, Upakarma is essentially for "upper" caste males, but that does not make it against anyone else. Everyone is free to join them during 21st century, if they feel a need to perform Vedic rituals for self and for the society. Hindus have tried their best to remove the historic barriers.
  6. There's absolutely nothing against any caste, religion or "non believers" being said or done during a Hindu festival like Upakarma. 
When will the self-styled "intellectual" Editors wake up to the reality?
And when will they develop "balance" to criticize ALL religions' festivals on the day of those festivals?

Images taken from: Facebook, Twitter,,,,,, kgbyoga.wordpress, anandsp1.wordpress and bharathgyanblog.wordpress, resurgencehinduism.blogspot, agniveerfan.wordpress. Thanks!


  1. Great article - very informative and comprehensive.

  2. What would Malini know the true essence of a culture, when she is not ready to fully embrace it. If she being a Brahmin herself cannot decipher the fact that "Brahminical Rituals, consider a man incomplete without his wife and render him unfit to perform any coveted rituals, w/o his wife accompanying him" in itself , suggests her extremely poor and misunderstood state of mind! Maybe, she has taken her home-bound-issues and has misconstrued them, to be a "Religion based issue".

    Husband w/o wife and vice-versa, is/are incomplete and cannot be considered fit for performing religious ceremonies is the greatest testament of equality in a religion; can she come up with a couple of examples where there are other religions that allow such parity between the sexes! It is always easy to shun your religion-culture-rituals and call them out-of-time, but thats just a reflection of how incomplete & poor one's own understanding is! And people like her take religion lightly and make such comments, because she knows very well that she can get away, after saying something like that by passing it off as her personal thoughts. If she is a public figure(At least thats what she calls herself on her FB Page) then she needs to measure her words carefully. In an other part of the world > w.r.t another religion/culture, such a statement, by now, would have had her fleeing for her life!

    And there are quite a few like her, who, after this 2-20yr US/Overseas stint feel that all that we do in the name of rituals is pish-posh. They would have held the cow sacred and performed their rituals, for the first 12months(max) overseas and now their fav. dish is a T-bone steak & fav. festival is the Christmas; its less cumbersome that way, as it fits in with their life style. And these are the ones, who will take the "Religious High Ground" and preach and speak how deplorable our religion/culture/rituals are; joke about them; sigh relief that they are out of reach from their parents and grand parents who still continue to perform such rituals and how intolerant their kids are towards such customs! Buch of wanna-bes'; they will fit it no culture/religion, they are the true "Trinshankus: of our World.

    But its not her to be blamed, quite honestly; its the so-called "Up-holders of Religion & Culture" that need to be questioned. All they do, is put-on a dress and address a crowd of sinners, who believe that listening to that man on the podium will help them wash away the accumulated load of sins, so that, they get another leash of life! My sincere advise to everyone who has a little bit of faith left in one's religion/culture/rituals > Pick a Guru, question him, seek answers till you are satisfied and convinced > Spread the knowledge. You don't have to put on a colored dress and sit on a podium with large posters of "Hindu Gods & Godesses" in the background and have the strong backing of Hindu Political Activists/Parties to be heard. All you need is to find answers and when have them, speak with conviction and confidence, to uphold, what you believe is true.

    People like Malini, will always be there; they are necessary, for everytime, someone like her blurts out something, she presents an opportunity for the ones with true understanding to stand-up and show the right path. I am not saying that my religion/caste/customs/rituals is/are perfect and the best amongst others; it just has the potential to be, for it is - Sanatana Dharma. Cheers!

  3. very good and sensible points explained

  4. Thank you so much for your brilliant article!