The sacred thread ceremony was a natural next step after my name-giving
By Keshav Fulbrook
As i stepped onto the flight to india from my home in Montana, I was elated. I had dreamt of this since age 19, and finally at 26 I had the opportunity to visit India for a full academic year. My university had offered Hindi courses since 2015, and I started college at age 24 largely in order to pursue my linguistic passions. After studying Hindi while pursuing my degree in political science for three years, I was accepted into an immersive Hindi language program taking place in Jaipur during the 2018-2019 academic year. Also accepted was my friend in the language program and next-door neighbor Krish.
During that year, I was able to go on many yatras, including Kashi Vishwanath and Mahakaleshwar in the north and Sri Padmanabhaswamy, Meenakshi Amman and Thiruvannamalai in the south. All were personally significant and incredibly memorable, but one of the biggest milestones was my upanayanam in Rishikesh.
The upanayanam is one of 16 samskaras, traditional Hindu rites of passage. While not everyone does them all, some of the primary samskaras Hindus will undergo include the namakarana or name giving ceremony, the upanayanam or the conferral of a sacred thread and initiation into Vedic study, vivaha or marriage and antyeshti or one’s funerary rites. Generally, the namakarana and upanayanam are performed during childhood.
By age 13 I had decided to leave Christianity and was looking into subjects like Vedanta, At 19 I formally decided to enter Hinduism. At 22 I had my namakarana at the Hindu temple in my hometown of Las Vegas. I was given the name Keshav by the pandita. Most consider the namakarana an official “ritual of conversion” into Hindu dharma for those who are not hereditary Hindus, and at the very least it is a powerful affirmation to oneself and to the world at large of one’s commitment. The upanayanam is a furthering and deepening of this commitment.
Krish came along for the ceremony. We took off from the Jaipur bus station. It was November—not as cold as at home, but cold enough. I drank one last chai before boarding the sleeper to Rishikesh. This was my first trip outside of Jaipur since arriving. Not being a seasoned traveler in India, I did not get much sleep. My friend Sankar traveled by train all the way from Kerala to join me, having booked us both at the Swami Sivananda Ashram. My friend Krish, slightly less an ascetic, opted for a nearby hotel.
During the upanayanam, one is initiated into following one of four Vedas. Sankar brought his Malayalam-language copy of the sandhyavandanam procedure for the Yajurveda, and went through each step and the mantras in detail to prepare me for post-upanayanam responsibilities. After initiation, one is to perform the sandhyavandanam, a set of mantras and procedures including Gayatri, for the rest of one’s life three times daily.
While not in the ashram, I spent time on the Ganga river ghats, wandering to and fro over Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, bridges connecting both sides of Rishikesh. The landscape reminded me of Missoula with its mountains, frosty air, and the river running directly through town. In a strange way, I was in both places at once. There were many cafes, shops selling dharmic goods, and restaurants around Rishikesh which I could have explored for days. The impact of international yoga tourism was ubiquitous. Advertisements for yoga teacher training were seen near coffee shops with menus that would seem at home in any California bistro, and Western kirtan artists’ bhajans blared over loudspeakers.
I preferred Madras Café, drawn by my love for South Indian cuisine and Tamil filter coffee. While sitting, I was surprised to hear someone ask “Keshav?” from across the room. Swami Bodhichitananda Saraswati and Swami Yatidharmananda Saraswati, long-time Facebook friends whom I had not yet met in person, were seated across from me. They introduced me to people who were visiting them, and we remarked at how it’s a small world after all.
We held the ceremony on the full moon day, Krittika Purnima. We gathered with the panditas of the Swami Dayananda Ashram on the banks of the Ganga. The atmosphere was surreal. The years of commitment leading up to this moment played through my mind. Not all hereditary Hindus themselves undergo the upanayanam, which today is mostly pursued by people born into families of hereditary priests. The concept of hereditary practices and who is eligible to pursue them is contentious, but I and my teachers hold that one’s commitment and inner disposition outweigh factors of birth when it comes to Vedic study, performance of pujas and yajnas and so forth, and that this view is scripturally supported as well. I had begun studying Vedanta with teachers associated with Arsha Vidya Gurukulam around 2014, but never imagined then that I would be at one of the main centers established by Swami Dayananda of Arsha Vidya now.
I joined in chanting Ganapati Atharvasheersham and many of the other mantras and suktams I had learned over the years as they were recited over the fire. During one part of the ceremony, I was to bathe in the Ganga. I immersed myself into the frigid water and dunked three times reciting mantras. As the water passed over me, the cold drowned out any thoughts, and everything I was mentally reciting receded to silence.
I dried off, wore a new dhoti, and returned to conclude the ritual. My left hand placed on the pancapatram, cup filled with Ganga water, and the right hand upraised with the sacred thread between them, I placed the thread over my chest. At the end, ashram residents who were observing congratulated me. We took our midday meal in silence as is customary in the ashram. I was overwhelmed with gratitude over having the opportunity I had striven years for. I packed my bags the next day with a new silver pancapatram, a ritual cup used during sandhyavandanam gifted to me by Sankar, and returned to Jaipur from one of many yatras I would take that year.
Keshav Fulbrook, 28, is a soon-to-be political science graduate and has pursued Sanatana Dharma from the age of 19. He is currently affiliated with Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org