Monday, 17 August 2015

A recruit in God's army - the 1965 Upanayana story_ PART 1

Good news in the offing

The New Year in 1965 had just been ushered in and a little lad in Bangalore, Balasubramanya, looked forward to the completion of the 9th grade in High School. Being the youngest among six siblings in a lower middle class family, he was the only one left to complete his education. His eldest sibling, Nagaraj, was 19 years older to him and was more like a father-figure than a brother. Nagaraj walked into the house holding the latest issue of the Sanathana Sarathi.

“Swami is performing the Upanayana ceremony for all eligible Brahmin boys. Why don’t we apply for our Balu’s (Balasubramanya’s home-name) thread-ceremony there?” Nagaraj asked his father.

He held out the monthly magazine from Prasanthi Nilayam which carried the announcement.



On 25-2-65, Magha Bahula Dashami Thursday between 7-40 A M. and 9-34 A M. (Moola) Mesha Lagna, Upanayana of Brahmin boys will be celebrated free at the Prasanthi Nilayam by Baba Himself. Parents who seek to share in this great opportunity are requested to write to the Editor, Sanathana Sarathi to reach not later than 15-2-65.


{This is the story of my father, Balasubramanya's Upanayana ceremony. I was so amazed with the details of his narration that I felt it would be wonderful to share the same with everyone!}

The family belonged to the tradition linked to the Sringeri Sharada Peetham (or Sringeri Mutt). The majority of the members of Smartha community follow the Advaita philosophy of Adi Shankara. The Sringeri Sharada monastery founded by Shankara in Karnataka is the centre of the Smarta sect. Sureshwaracharya was installed here as the successor of Shankaracharya before the latter resumed his tour to found his three Peethas at Puri, Dwaraka and Badrinath.The Sringeri Mutt records its tradition from the 8th century onwards and Subbarao, Balu’s father, was keen not to break it.
“God knows if the ceremony will be performed in injunction with the Shastras (sacred texts) and in keeping with our traditions...” he said with a great deal of doubt in his voice.

“Father, I have seen and experienced Swami’s divinity. I feel this is the best thing that can happen to Balu. Let us post our application immediately”, was Nagaraj’s prompt reply.
“Fine, as you wish my son.”

The letter was addressed to Sri N.Kasturi (who is the biographer of Baba) and the family at Malleshwaram received a reply instantly.
“The Upanayana ceremony will be held on the 25th of February (1965)”, it said, “Please be in Prasanthi Nilayam at least a day before the same.”

A picture of a child undergoing the Upanayana as a Vatu in South India. 
Credit: "Upanayanam" by Nagesh Rao 
The Upanayana Ceremony

Upanayana is one of the traditional saṃskāras (rites of passage) that marked the acceptance of a student by a Guru (teacher) and an individual's entrance to a school in Hinduism. The tradition is widely discussed in ancient Sanskrit texts of India, and varies regionally. Upanayana (Sanskrit: उपनयन) literally means "the act of leading to or near". It is a ceremony in which a Guru (teacher) accepts and draws a boy towards knowledge and initiates the second birth that is of the young mind and spirit.

The question that possibly might arise here is why this ceremony is done only for boys?

It is interesting to note that in olden times, girls also had the Upanayana. As stated in the Wikipedia article,
“Girls who decided to become a student underwent the Upanayana rite of passage, at the age of 8, and thereafter called Brahmavadini. They wore a thread or upper garment over their left shoulder. Those girls who chose not to go to a Gurukul were called Sadyovadhu (literally, one who marries straight). However, the Sadyovadhu too underwent a step during the wedding rituals, where she would complete Upanayana, and thereafter wear her upper garment (Saree) over her left shoulder.”

It is also interesting that such “Upanayana-like” traditions are seen even among the Jews, the Christians and the Zorastrians. Those that are keen to read more should go through this exclusive blog on Upanayana.

Journey to God

Thus, Balu with his parents, two brothers and a few other family members set out at 8:00 am for Puttaparthi through Penukonda via the Secunderabad Express on the 23rd of February. They were at Penukonda at 1:30 pm. A bus from Penukonda delivered them to Bukkapatnam at 3:30pm. They had to hire a cart to take them across the huge semi-dried bed of the Bukkapatnam lake and the Chitravati river. They finally reached Puttaparthi at 4:30 pm.

The only mode of transportation to cover the final few kilometres to Prasanthi Nilayam was a bullock cart like this across
the Bukkapatnam tank and the river Chitravati.

The common entry point into the Nilayam was through the impressive northern gate, the main gate (called Gopuram gate today). The family joined hundreds of other families that had settled in the grounds surrounding the mandir. They selected the shade of a large tree to the east of the mandir and put down all their belongings. They were told that by some people who were settled under the same tree that Swami was in the interview room. He would come out again for another darshan round.
Within a few minutes, Swami was out in the grounds. He was ambling gently on the warm sands as the gathered hundreds seemed to drink in His beautiful form. He almost appeared to be floating. This was the family’s first experience of darshan. Swami came close to where the family was seated and beckoned to the father. Subbarao did not know what to do. He got up and started to walk towards Swami. Swami pointed towards the interview room and walked on. Wow! Interview during the first darshan itself!

In the next five minutes, the entire family found itself huddled in the little interview room along with several others who had also been called. Waving His right palm in circles, Swami created vibhuti which He gave to the father and mother. He then applied it to the foreheads of all the others in the room, in between their eyebrows. Then Swami parted a small curtain to the southeast corner of the interview room and it revealed a small space in which was a spiral staircase leading upstairs (to Swami’s room). This was to serve as a personal-interview room. A few people were taken in and Swami walked in finally, closing the curtain behind Him. Another five minutes elapsed and the family outside could barely hear what was going on the other side of the curtain. Then, the curtain parted again and they were called in. Swami asked only for the father, mother and Balu to step in.

The parents stood on the second and third step of the spiral staircase while Balu stood on the first step. Swami was standing on the small landing immediately before the first step.
Yenu Samachara (What news)?” Swami asked in Kannada.
“Swami, we want to perform the Munji (thread ceremony)
“What were you asking your elder son at home ? -  ‘Will the ceremonies be conducted in injunction with the Shastras?’  - Why do you get worried?”
The father’s eyes were already wet now! He was beaming a big smile and folding his hands, unable to say anything.
“You just watch the Vaibhava (grandeur and glory) of the ceremony and experience it yourself.”

Little Balu felt a tremendous joy surging within. Swami looked into his eyes, smiled at him and blessed him with a pat on the head. The trio took padanamaskar and soon, the personal interview was complete. They were ushered out and the next group of people went in. The family sat in the interview room for about 20 minutes after which, Swami opened the interview room door and let everyone out. As the family walked back to their spot under the tree, they saw that Swami was going for another round of darshan picking up people for interviews. It was amazing how a single ‘person’ could maintain such discipline, order, peace and sanctity through His mere presence among the hundreds gathered .

The Prasanthi Mandir which was built in 1950 was the one that greeted Balu and his family on arrival in 1965. This is a
rare file photo of the inauguration of the mandir on 23rd November 1950. One can see Swami on top of the building
unfurling the flag!
Come to Prasanthi if you seek only spirituality

It was 6:00 pm when Swami went into the interview room all alone and shut the door.
“Swami has gone up to His room”, was what everyone said.
Balu’s father was eager to meet Sri Kasturi who had been instrumental in granting their family this blessing. Apart from that, Kasturi had also been his teacher at Banumaiya School. He was delighted when his teacher recognised him as the “footballer at Banumaiya”. He also advised him that it was his great good fortune to be present for the ceremony.

The family continued to sit under the tree. Apparently there was nothing else to do in Prasanthi Nilayam. Swami was the sole centre of focus and there was no other distraction. Anyone who came to Puttaparthi with any other goal in mind would surely be disappointed because there were absolutely no comforts or amenities. Nothing that Swami does is without reason. Probably it was the Divine plan that only those seeking spiritual riches arrive at His doorstep in Prasanthi Nilayam. It is the abode of Supreme Peace - nothing less can be obtained here! It was a deterrent for those arriving here with a mind-load of desires. However, those that sought Swami got an abundance of Him as He arrived down for bhajans at 7:00 pm!

Everyone became alert and many of the people also went into the bhajan hall for the hour long session. It was 8:00 pm when Swami received Aarthi and finally retired for the day.

Everyone immediately seemed to get ready to retire themselves. The darshan next morning would be at 6:00 am when Swami would walk across the first floor balcony of the building to the room across, on the eastern end. So, one would have to rise at 4:00 am to complete the morning ablutions at the Chitravati river. The call of nature was answered amidst nature in the most natural of manners! Such was the primitiveness of facilities. But Balu didn’t mind it a bit. He was standing on the sands of Prasanthi eager to drink in the early morning darshan. Even before the orange sun could rise in the east, the orange-robed Lord with the beautiful halo of jet-black hair rose from His room in the west. It was a sight that brought goosebumps of divine joy to everyone.

Once Swami went to the ‘writing room’ (which is the birthplace of all the Vahini series of books we have today), many devotees would go out to the few public bathrooms available for a hot water bath. Then, having breakfast, all would return to the darshan grounds. The morning session would conclude with bhajan and Aarthi from 11 am to 12 pm!

Thus life was fully and only about Swami and  nothing else.

Instructions to the vatus

In the evening, all those lads who had come for their Upanayana were made to gather in the portico of the mandir. Balu noticed that there were more than 400 boys (Vatu) who had gathered. Thankfully, he had come early and occupied a place in the front. These Vatus were then directed into the bhajan hall. Soon, Swami walked in. Though 400-odd teenaged boys were seated in a hall, there was a pin drop silence. That is the magic of His presence.

A rare photograph of Swami standing beside His chair in the old bhajan hall at Prasanthi Nilayam. It was here that
Balu and the other vatus assembled for the instructions from Bhagawan before the D-Day. 

Swami began to distribute materials needed for the ceremony next day. Each Vatu walked up to Swami, received the yellow-orange clothes that had to be worn the next day and returned to his place after taking padanamaskar. Swami then told them to assemble in the same place by 6 am the next morning wearing the dress that had been given.

The session went on for nearly two hours and Swami ensured that each boy received the dress from His divine hands. As a result, there were no interviews that evening and Swami directly attended the bhajan from 7 pm onwards. Balu enjoyed the bhajan session and was in a very happy frame of mind. An hour passed like fifteen minutes and Swami retired after receiving Aarthi.

A second birth

The caste system (Jaati system) in India is often misunderstood because what was an excellent method of division and specialization of labour got changed into a birth-based segregation. Just like there is nothing bad about dividing people into teachers, ministers, businessmen and workers, the caste system segregates people into Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya and Shudra. Since this division is based on one’s aptitude and leanings, a new-born baby has no caste. Depending on what it does with its life, its caste gets determined. Those that wish to dedicate their entire life to seeking the Ultimate Truth or Brahman become brahmins. Once the Guru is convinced that the child has the aptitude to be a Brahmin, the Guru initiates it into such a life. The thread ceremony or the Upanayana is that passage-rite. After the ceremony, the Vatu is considered to have taken a second birth - a birth meant to seek the Lord alone. That is why, a Brahmin is also called a Dwija (twice born).

It is not true that only Brahmins undergo Upanayana. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are also eligible to go through this ritual. Now one may ask why this discrimination against Shudras?

Hardly do we know that Jaati or caste is different from the Varna (literally translates into “colour”). Varna is a native's true ‘colour’ or true nature that is decided not just by birth but essentially by the karma he chooses to adapt to in his life. We do things that are in accord with our likes and dislikes which stand as benchmarks to decide our true nature. Shudra is basically a very loose term picked to identify a human with less divinity and more animal instincts i.e lust, greed, hatred etc. In the scriptures and many puranas, you find occasions where in brahmins who give up spiritual instincts are described to have fallen from their race to "become" shudra. This "becoming a shudra" despite being born as a brahmin is to be noted in bold letters because it explains the quote,

Janmana Jayate Sudrah Karmana Jayate Dvijah  - which means,
"By birth one is a Shudra, by the karmas (actions) he becomes a twice born".

One may be born into a shudra's family, but if he/she strives for the knowledge of brahman (God), he becomes a brahmin, there is no need to have a trace of doubt in this. I am not stating it out of my own mind but the shastras also have prescribed Upanayna procedure for such extreme cases also, which is not known to the common crowd.

The Chitravati river was the place for morning ablutions. In this beautiful
picture, one can see the water-supply tank atop the hill with the
Kalpavriksha to its left. Notice how bare the hill was in those years.
25th February 1965

The D-Day dawned finally.Balu was ready after his bath and, along with his father, reported at the bhajan hall well before 6:00 am. In fact, he was ready by 4:00 am itself. 

He was woken up by the holy notes of the Nadaswaram that began to play shortly after 4:00 am. What was amazing was the fact that he actually had darshan at such early hours of the Brahma Muhurtam. How that happened is a lovely little story in itself. That shall be told in Part 2 of this story. It can be said that Balu had no idea that this ceremony would change the direction, focus and goal of not only his life, but of his future generations as well.

To read the second part of this story, rush to the link below:

A recruit in God's army - the 1965 Upanayana story_ PART 2

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  1. Sairam Aravind bro....I saw in a video that Gopuram was inaugurated in 1975 during the 50th birthday celebrations of Swami. Was there a gopuram even before that, as mentioned in the write up? Kindly clarify.

    1. YOu are absolutely right. The Gopuram was inaugurated in 1975. But there was a gate in the place of where the Gopuram stands today. That was the main entrance gate in fact. (There was no Ganesh gate or even the Ganesha temple). Thank you for pointing out to the words in the article that confuse. I have changed them to reflect this. :)

  2. Excellent Sairam. Waiting for the second part.

    1. Within the next couple of days certainly... :)

      Thank you for the eager anticipation...

  3. Sairam Aravind for this beautiful article, Blessed at that young age, drinking divine bliss from then onwards made you what you are today. Best wishes....

    1. Thank you for your kind words uncle... My only prayer is that I should forever remain grateful to Him for everything in life...

  4. Excellent! Waiting for Part 2!

  5. Sundararajan Mohan18 August 2015 at 10:23

    Dear Arvind .. Sairam.. What a lovely reminiscence .. awaiting the next part .. Love God Bless Sairam

  6. Satram dear Aravind. Grateful as always for your sharing Swami's mahima as His prasad for all. I have created a seperate folder for the pics in this article also. Waiting for the next. Love & gratitude. BU

    1. Thank you uncle... Being a photographer yourself, it is natural that you admire photographs... :)

  7. Sai Ram Aravind, our caste system gives me a great headache since I don't know where I fit in. My ancestors .were farmers as far back as I know, my dad was a business man and I worked as a nurse. You wrote ' Shudra is basically a very loose term picked to identify a human with less divinity and more animal instincts i.e lust, greed, hatred etc '. The majority of human beings has this to some extent. My parents were born in India but my mum and dad left after marriage. My dad died in the 70's and didn't know Swami. I know my mum can't explain it to me but I have been left wondering after reading your explanation if I should have asked Swami about the thread ceremony for my son when he was a young boy. There was never a need to know before. Thank you, Chandanben.

    1. Sairam
      The caste system has been mis-understood and mis-interpreted to the maximum extent resulting in a lot of exploitation. I feel Swamy has come down to show us the correct path.
      Swamy says that the word 'Sudra' refers to the working class and nothing else.
      Anyone who is truthful and devoted is a Brahmana.

  8. Thank you so much Dear Brother for gifting us so much Love. This reminds me how much blessed are our entire lineage. Thank you, Deva


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