Upakarma

‘Avani Avittam’ - ‘avittam’ star day in the Tamil month of ‘Avani’ - is the day when every year the sacred thread, or poonal, is changed. 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 ‘upakarma’.

What does ‘upkarma’ mean? In the Mahasankalpam part of the ceremony, we say ‘Adyayana upakrama karma karishye’, or, ‘I start learning of Vedas’. ‘Yajur upakarma’ means starting to learn Yajur Veda, or Yajur veda aarambam. One might ask: ‘Why starting to learn every year? After all, does one not start it at the time of upanayanam and hopefully continue thereafter?’

The sacred thread or poonal was not meant to be, and is not, the exclusive preserve of Brahmins, but a symbol of sacredness for all. Sri Rama, a Kshatriya, and Sri Krishna, brought up as a Yadav, Sri Hanuman, all have sacred threads. In case of Brahmins, its meaning is in the context of their occupation as Vedic professionals: they were the original knowledge-professionals, as veda itself means knowledge.

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 practise 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 practise what he or 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.

The three essentials of a profession are, thus, intense initial learning and apprenticeship, sustained practice and continued professional development.

Our tradition provided a similar structure to Vedic professionals. First, they spent several years, 15 or 20 years, as a sisya to a guru, doing veda adyayanam, learning veda from their acharyas. Thereafter, every year, part of the year, they only practised what they had already learnt, veda paarayanam, and learn other sastras. Thirdly, for the balance part of the year, they taught and trained future professionals and also learn more of veda for themselves. Upakarma is the day every year when they started the annual phase of learning and teaching. About six months later, poornima day in the Tamil month of Thai, they did a visarjanam, or suspended teaching and learning of vedas. And, come the day of upakarma, they started once again the annual cycle with veda aarambam. For about six months of the year they did veda adyayanam, and for the rest of the year, they did veda paarayanam.

Upakarma consists of a number of ceremonies and the more important ones are explained here.

Kamokarsheet Japam

Upakarma starts with Kamokarsheet japam. Very succinctly, and with a great deal of contrition, we say: ‘Adyayana utsarjan akarana prayaschitartham’ - as an atonement for not having suspended adyayana; ‘kamokarsheet manyarakarsheet, ashtothara satha sankya, karishye’ - I repeat 108 times, ‘I did it because of kamam, or lust, and I did it because of anger’.

Although Vedic scholars ought to have suspended adyayanam in the Tamil month of Thai, because so much of veda had to be studied, in the past, often times, they continued adyayanam beyond that date. This japam is to atone for this sin and indeed for not having performed other vedic karyams. 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 upakarma day, after morning sandhyavandanam.

Maha sankalpam

A ‘sankalpam’ is done at the beginning of any ceremony: maha sankalpam is a big one done at the beginning of a ceremony that sets in motion the annual cycle of veda learning and chanting.

Why do we do any sankalpam? It is a statement of intention and determination, setting out, when, where, what we intend doing, in praise of whom, for what purpose etc. The Upanishads explain the significance of sankalpam: ‘out of sankalpam, comes focus, then clarity and akshara suddam, leading to congruence of mind, manthra and action’.

In any sankalpa, we typically say ‘mama upaktha, samastha duridakshaydwara’: mama – my; upaktha – attached to me, whether as a result of my own actions, or otherwise; samastha - all; duritha – sins; kshayadwara – remove; essentially, asking that all my sins be written off! And, then, we add, for good measure, ‘parameswara preethyartham’, for pleasing the ultimate God.

As upakarma is for the all-important veda aarambam, we do a maha sankalpam, or big sankalpam. It is performed around mid day after performaing madyannikam.

At the beginning, we say, ‘manasam, vaachikam, karmana papam’. This order is important, because, we commit most sins in mind; in what we say, we are more careful and filter them down; in what we actually do, we further restrain ourselves to what we can get away with. While atoning, therefore, we start with the mind where we commit most sins, then words and finally action. As an atonement, we say, ‘Sriramasmaraneiva vyapohathi na samsaya’ - by uttering the name of Sri Rama, we hope the sins are washed away. So, to be trebly certain, we say Rama thrice: ‘Sri Rama, Rama, Rama’. Incidentally, we do the same thing in Vishnu Sahasranamam: ‘Sri Rama Rama Ramethi, Rame Raame, Varaname; Sahasra nama sathulyam, Sri Rama nama Varaname’. Uttering the name of Sri Rama is the ultimate ‘get-out’ clause for our sins!

Then, in the Maha sankalpam, we produce a long list of sins or papams. One sentence is very significant. In modern performance management, we accept mistakes will be committed, but one is expected to learn from them and not repeat them. Mahasankalpam sets out this principle starkly: ‘gyanathaha sakrith krithanam, agyanathaha asakrih krithanam’: sins committed, unknowingly many times, but, knowingly only once!

We end the Mahasankalpam by saying that as a prayaschitam for all the sins, we perform the ‘adyaya upakrama’ or upakarma. Usually Mahasankalpam is done in group, in public, followed by a bath in a river like Kaveri: ‘suddodaka snanam karishye’!

Yagyopaveeda Dharanam

This is the core ceremony, wherein we change the poonal: dharanam means adorning. Poonal is not an ornament: it is ‘yagna upaveedam’, to help us perform yagna, or, various prescribed karmas. It is a symbol of purity and ultimate sacredness: ‘paramam pavitram’. It is a constant reminder to us to stay the course in pursuit of all three yogas prescribed in Bhagavat Gita: ‘Parameswara preetyartham’, highlighting bakthi yogam; ‘nithya karmana yogyatha siddaryartham’, enabling us and entitling us to perform all karmas; and, ‘brahma tejo abhivarthathyam’, or gyana yogam.

The first thing we do with the new poonal is ‘kandarishi’ tharpanam: offering our thanks and salutations to various kandarishis, those that helped in our veda being revealed to us and also seeking their blessings for a deep understanding of the vedas even as we do adyayanam.

Gayathri Japam

This is performed the next day. We recite Gayathri 1008 times, as if to say, that we start the veda adyayana period with a huge entry on the credit side.

Success in any endeavour, be it studies, or, in a job, we know comprises three things. First we need to have clarity on our objectives. Second, we need a framework for delivering. Third, we need to execute, for which discipline is most important.

Kamokarsheet Japam and mahasankalpam start with a review of the past and 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 karmas, nithya karmas, provides us with a framework for performance. Upaveedam is a symbol of sanctity to constantly remind us of what we need to do and help us in our karmas. Gayathri japam is the first and a rather substantial step in following the discipline in execution.

Let us remind ourselves: all we have done on the Upakarma day is veda aarambam, or, ‘pillayar suzhi’! It needs to be followed by an intense period of veda paarayanam and veda adyayanam!!

ॐ सह नाववतु । सह नौ भुनक्तु । सह वीर्यं करवावहै ।
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Om Saha Nau-Avatu | Saha Nau Bhunaktu | Saha Viiryam Karava-Avahai |
Tejasvi Nau-Adhii-Tam-Astu Maa Vidviss-Aavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Om, May God protect us both, the teacher and the taught, by revealing Knowledge;
May He nourish us both; May we work together with Energy and Vigour;
May our study be enlightening and invigorating, and, not giving rise to hostility.
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.

(The article is based on a speech delivered at the South Indian Society satsang held on 4th August, 2012.)