By Nithin Sridhar
“Upakarma” is one of very important festivals observed by those who still live their life adhering to traditional Vedic way of life. “Upakarma” basically means “beginning” and it refers to the day in a year on which the people who practice Veda-adhyayana (the study of Vedas) would change their yajnopavita (sacred thread) and re-start their study of Vedas.
In the olden days, many used to study Vedas only during six months of the year from August to January and for the rest of the six months, they would study other branches of knowledge, depending upon their interest. Hence, every year, on the full moon of Sravana month, i.e. during August, they would do Upakarma that denoted the beginning of the Vedic study and then at the end of six months, usually in January, they would perform an “Utsarjana” ritual marking the end of the Vedic study for the year.
Even though many people in the present time observe the day only for changing their yajnopavita (sacred text), the day actually marks the beginning of the Vedic study and changing of Yajnopavita is done to mark this beginning, to reinforce the vows to be followed during the study of Vedas. There is a mantra that says “yajnopavitam paramam pavitram” which means the “sacred thread is very purifying”. Hence, changing of sacred thread denotes, a person’scommitment to purity in thoughts, speech and actions.
Further, the three strands of sacred-thread may represent the three karmic debts that a person owes to the rishis (seers), teachers and to the forefathers. Therefore, by doing rituals associated with Upakarma each year, a person is reviving and re-stating his commitment to purity and fulfillment of all his duties during the period of study of Vedas.
Hence, though a large section of people who observe Upakarma do not actually study the Vedas, yet the changing of Yajnopavitam helps them to reinforcing their vows regarding purity and duties and helps them to practice Vedic life to the best of their ability.
There is a deeper significance in the celebration of Upakarma on the full moon of Sravana month. The day is also celebrated as Hayagriva jayanti i.e. the day on which Lord Vishnu had incarnated as Lord Haragriva or Lord who has a horse head. Regarding the incarnation of Lord Hayagriva, Srimad Bhagavatam (5.18.6) says: “At the end of the millennium, ignorance personified assumed the form of a demon, stole all the Vedas and took them down to the planet of Rasatala.
The Supreme Lord, however, in his form of Hayagriva retrieved the Vedas and returned them to Lord Brahmaa when he begged for them. “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, whose determination never fails.” Elsewhere, this demon has been identified as Madhu Kaitaba.
Hence, Upakarma, the yearly beginning of the Vedic study is observed on the day when Lord Vishnu as Lord Hayagriva killed the demons Madhu and Kaitaba and restored Vedas to Brahmaa. This cosmic event has a deep connection with Upakarma and its significance to its Vedic practitioners.
Vedas literally means “Knowledge” and in essence it represents “Ultimate Transcendent Knowledge” that is called as “Brahma-Jnana” or “Atma Jnana”. Vedas are scriptures whose ultimate purpose is to grant Moksha or Liberation. Lord Brahmaa who is the first born and who further manifests the Universe as if extending his own body, represents the whole manifested Universe.
Now, the stealing of Vedas by Madhu Kaitaba represents stealing of Vedic Knowledge-the ultimate Knowledge about Moksha, from the Universe. P. V. R. Narasimha Rao, a well-known Sanskrit scholar and a Vedic Astrologer, explains that “Madhu Kaitaba” means “of belonging to honey bees”. That is, the demon Madhu Kaitaba can be understood as a “personification of a characteristic trait of honey bee.”
The unique trait of Honey bees is that they are very hard workers, but they care about only one thing: collecting honey. Similarly, Madhu Kaitaba represents that aspect of human nature which makes a person completely materialistic and mundane while he completely forgets about Dharma and Moksha.
On the other hand, Lord Vishnu is the personification of Sattva (purity and equanimity). This materialistic attitude which makes people forget that the ultimate goal of life is Moksha is what the cosmic event of Madhu Kaitaba stealing away of Vedas represents. These materialistic tendencies are rooted in Tamas or ignorance.
The incarnation of Hayagriva and his killing of the demon and restoring of Vedas denotes, how by practicing Sattva, by involving in various spiritual practices like study of Vedas etc., one can overcome materialistic tendencies and ultimately attain Moksha (liberation).
Therefore, Upakarma marks a day on which the spiritual practitioner vows to fight his internal demons of passion and ignorance that creates desires for material pleasures by practicing purity, duty, and studying Vedas. The study of Vedas and the practice of Gayatri mantra, leads to purification of mind which then makes one competent to attain Moksha.