Poonal, or upaveedam as it is called in Sanskrit, is not the exclusive privilege of Brahmins. It is a pavitram - a symbol of sanctity so as to remind oneself to do the right things. The two most widely worshipped Gods on an all-India basis, Lord Rama born as a kshatriya and Lord Krishna brought up as a vysya, both wore the poonal. Niether is poonal an ornament: it is upaveedam for yagna, i.e., meant to facilitate performance of yagnas or various auspicious karmas.
In the olden days, for those who were in the knowledge-profession, which is what brahmins were, the code of conduct was similar to that of any modern profession like medicine, law, accounting or engineering. You entered it after appropriate study and apprenticeship. Thereafter you did three things: practise; continue to learn; teach and contribute to development of profession and professionals. For this purpose, they followed a semester system: about 6 or 7 months for teaching and learning, and, the rest of the year, only for practice.
At the beginning of the vedic teaching (and learning) semester each year, veda aarambam in Sanskrit, one performed Upakarma. Upa-karma means, prior to karma, or what you do at the beginning of the annual cycle of karmas. Upakarma of course is in the context of the vedas one learnt. For those who belong to Yajur Veda, it is yajur upakarma. If you belonged to Rig veda, it is called Rig Upakarma.
Upakarma was done on the poornima or full moon day in Sravana month, probably for a very practical reason that it was just after the peak summer and after the initial burst of rains in most parts of India so that ambience was cool. In the Tamil calendar this usually corresponds to the ‘Avittam’ nakshatram in the Aavani month – hence ‘aavani avittam’.
Vedic teaching and formal learning were suspended in February (Tamil month of Thai). From then on till the next Veda aarambam one recited what one had already learnt, reflected on it and of course studied other subjects or sastras.
There are several parts to the Upakarma ceremony.
- Kamokarsheet Japam
This is simply to atone for the fact that often even the most sincere ones do not do all the karmas: in particular, vedic teachers did not always suspend learning in February, as they were greedy to learn more. This brief ceremony therefore atones for all the failures, importantly for not having stopped the formal learning on the required date, by chanting ‘kamokarsheet manyurakarsheet’ 1008 times. Literally it means, I atone for my lust (or greed) and anger, as these are at the root of most of our misdeeds. Incidentally, in daily sandyavandana japam also, one says ‘kamokarsheet manyarakarsheet Namo namah’.
Sankalpam literally means a statement of objectives: something we do at the beginning of any ceremony - setting out what we plan do to, in honour or praise of whom, for what purpose etc., Mahasankalpam means 'great' sankalpam (like Maha atma for Gandhi), because it is sankalpam for veda aarambam, or the most important function of the year. A large part of the mantras is a list of sins one may have committed and seeking forgiveness for them. Usually this is done in public along with others and as an act of purification, one follows it with a bath in a holy river. Even today one will find many people doing this ceremony on the banks of Cauvery in places like Kumbakonam, Mayiladuthurai and Trichy.
- Yagyopaveeda Dharanam
Literally this means dharanam, or wearing, of upaveedam, or poonal, for performing various yagnas.
The mantra, a short one, is a powerful one and one reminds oneself of Gita. Parameswara preethyartham - refers to bhakti yoga of Geeta; nithya karmanushtana yogyatha (enabling me do daily karmas or duties) refers to karma yoga; and, brahmatejo abhivarthathyam - refers to gyana yogam.
Incidentally, children sometimes ask: 'is it because the old one is dirty'? Exactly that is what is said - 'kasmala dhushitam' - I am throwing away the old one because it is dirty!
- Kandarishi tharpanam
This is a short tharpanam or propitiation of the various rishis who have been instrumental in our having these vedas. In essence it is to ask that by their grace one actually understands the vedas. The thing with vedas is they are so profound that every time you read or recite them, the deeper you get into these and more you understand them.
- Gayathri Japam
This is done the next day. The principle is, may be, even as we atoned for things we did not do the previous year, it does not hurt to bank something right at the beginning!
Hara Hara Sankara, Jaya Jaya Sankara
Jaya Jaya Sankara, Hara Hara Sankara