An Upanayana at 26 by Vishal
An Upanayana at 26
How my catholic fiancee and her family helped me rediscover my Hindu past.
I was Hindu by birth I suppose. My parents were a similar minded pair. Both doctors, they chose to believe purely in science, and chose to ignore any traditions and ceremonies or practices of Hindus. Finding families too questioning, they chose to immigrate from India and moved to the USA in 1994. I was 2 then.
I grew up as an American atheist child, with the perfectionist desires of Indian parents. I had to be amongst the highest scorers in school, had to have educational extra curricular activities. At 21 when I graduated with a degree in economics and a job offer from a bank, I was emotionally starved and mentally exhausted. I had no connect with family beyond my parents and my elder brother, also a doctor. I had no connect with my roots.
3 years ago I moved out of home, using the excuse to be closer to work. I met a beautiful girl - She’s American, and we fell in love and are engaged to be married. Her parents are closer to me than mine ever was. Jen inspired me to look at life with joy again, and not just as something to achieve. A year ago, I came across a reigniting of looking at my Hindu life also. Again encouraged by Jen, she convinced me to connect with our neighbourhood temple and start learning about our faith in detail.
After learning the stories which every hindu child grew up with, I started learning about our ceremonies of faith. Ceremonies which celebrate the joy of growing up Hindu. My parents in their search for scientific practicality had chosen to ignore all of them. Of all of them the one which seemed to hurt the most was my Upananyana, the ceremony which instilled on me the mark of being a twice born, one of the key tenets of my faith. Giving me the right to learn and study to achieve my personal understanding.
March of this year, I spoke to my parents about why they had chosen not to do the ceremony, to which I received stony silence and scientific proof. My brother was also indifferent. I was crushed. I had not been given a choice to accept or deny. The decision was taken away from me. My soul was denied what it could get.
Coming back to Boston from New York, the anger I felt with my parents had me shaking as I got into the car. As soon as the door closed and Jen started driving, I broke down into tears. This was more than just being denied an opportunity to understand my culture. This was actually 23 years of frustration and the realisation, that I had nothing in common with my parents and my immediate family, and that in a sense the relationship was over.
When we got home, I fell asleep in Jen’s arms and then fell into the routine of work over the next few weeks. I had cheered up on the outside, and was continuing to spend some time at temple, and spend time with Jen and her parents, but there was a significant sense of loss which I was suppressing.
A few weeks ago, Jen asked if she could come to the temple with me. I happily agreed, she had done this a couple of times before, and with the positive curiosity of a child, and yet with the utmost respectfulness for everything that temple rituals entailed. We had celebrated Diwali and Christmas with equal vigour.
However that Saturday as I drew into the parking lot, I felt something was different. I felt a sudden happiness I could not explain. We walked in together, and as we stood in the main worship hall, Jen stood to one side with a gentle smile on her face as I paid obeisance and prayed. When I got up 5 minutes later, I turned and saw her busy in conversation with Acharya Siddhinand, the temple head and principle teacher. It was he who had introduced me to my world again.
As I walked up to them with a quizzical look on my face, both of them turned and smiled at me. Then Jen burst out - We want to talk to you about something right now. And the Acharya turned and led us into the small office plus consoling room. We sat down, me thoroughly confused, and the Acharya turned to Jen and said, I think you have the right to explain.
Jen told me that she had come to the temple alone a couple of weeks ago, and met with the Acharya. She had told him about the frustration of my childhood and the disappointment that I did not experience the ceremony and rituals of growing up. She had asked him for advise and he had suggested that if I so willed, I could go through the ceremony of the Upananyana now. Jen had then spoken to her parents and taken their advise too. The trip today was to tell me that in consultation with the Acharya, she had also made a few of the necessary preparations. All she wanted to ask today, was if I wanted to go through with it or not.
I was stunned. I couldn’t speak for 5 minutes and I just sat there holding her hand. Acharya spoke, explaining to me what the ceremony entailed, explaining what it meant. I just listened. And then as Jen squeezed my hand, I squeezed back and said - Yes, I want to do this.
A time was chosen, a Sunday two weeks from now and we walked out. Those two weeks were a blur for me, time went by very quickly for me. Jen had decided she will do all the preparations herself, and she took help from her mother. The Saturday before the event, Jen came home with a lot of shopping. I didnt have a clue what was going on, but she seemed to have bought all the needs of a Hindu ceremony. She had also managed to find two sets of traditional Kurta Pajama outfits for me. I laughed at her shopping, and I was scolded, and told that tomorrow I had to wear specific things. The next morning, I was woken up at 6 and was told to get ready. Jen was already ready and seemed to be getting stuff done.
I had a shower and got out of the bathroom, and Jen had laid out the clothes I was to wear. It felt strange, in a good way. I had butterflies in my stomach. I went out from the bedroom, and Jen and her parents were there they had setup everything. Jen had even invited some of my closest friends and to top it off she was a wearing a sari. I went up to her and hugged her, she had done so much already.
I followed Jen into the Kitchen and thanked her for everything so far, she looked a little sad, and I asked her why. She had called and requested my parents and brother to come too, but they had refused. She had felt taken aback. I was saddened for a minute and then decided, that it was their loss. They had decided not to be a part of my life.
Acharya arrived and we sat down for the ceremony. Jen was sitting next to me, somehow comfortably in a sari she had never work before. I wasn’t too comfortable in my traditional clothes, having never work something like this too often.
With the Acharya explaining everything step by step, we did the first invocation. It was then he mentioned that one of the ceremonies in the Upananyana was the shaving of the head, however it was just as possible to do this, by just cutting a lock of the hair symbolically, but he would give me the choice. I looked at Jen, from her face, it was evident she knew about this, just that she had clearly left it my decision. I was somewhat embarrassed to do this in front of about 15 people but I just looked at Jen and made my decision - Please do it the proper way. Jen smiled and took my hand. The Acharya smiled and pulled out a straight razor. This I was not expecting.
I was sitting facing everyone in the room, Jen was holding my hand, squeezing it softly. She was my courage I think. Acharya took my head gently and pushed it down a bit. He poured a little water on my head and rubbed it in, wetting my hair. Small rivulets of water went down my face, and fell onto the white of the kurta where they formed little drops. As I looked at them, some tears formed in the corner of my eyes. Jen could see them, but she made no motion to wipe them, just squeezed my hand a bit more.
Gently, the blade started scraping from the top of my head, and slowly, locks of hair started falling on to my lap. I closed my eyes, concentrating on the motion of the razor and Jen’s hand. I had gone into another world, I was at peace. I could feel my head being shifted, to the left, to the right, up a bit, always gently, with care. The motion of the blade was sure and precise. To me it felt like a peaceful eternity. I later learned it took 8 minutes.I opened my eyes, and there was a pile of hair in front of me.
The Acharya, then formed the holy thread and put it around my neck and chest. He whispered the words of precious mantra’s in my ears, formalising my learning and putting me on the path which I so desired for myself.
That night Jen and I decided our wedding date.