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Hamilton College

Publication Date

Spring 2009

Program Name

India: Culture and Development


On April 27, 2009, the Saryu Parin Brahmin Parishad (SPBP) Society, through the help of member donations as well as the participation of 53 young men, carried out a mass yagyopaveet, or upanayana ceremony, to initiate young men into the Brahmin caste. This ceremony is what the society’s president Chandza Bhushan Dhar Dwivedi, as well as numerous other scholars of Vedic texts calls the second birth of the Brahmin—boy. The ceremony, according to Mr. Dwivedi, marks the Brahmin’s first step toward becoming a divine being, before this ceremony “he is no different from an animal,” and it is only through this initial process of “refinement” that he starts his journey to become a properly practicing Hindu, as well a true human being. According to the Veda, human beings are not only born with animal natures, like Mr. Dwivedi states, but as a result of this are also born socially low as well, every man is said to be born a “sudras” (Smith, 68). It is only by undergoing the correct rituals at the right stages of life that an individual can become a proper human being, transitioning out of his/her animal state into a divine or semi-divine being. Natural birth—the birth that a person undergoes from his/her mother by this logic, and in many instances in practice—from this belief, therefore—and because of numerous other beliefs that hold certain bodily functions/states as impure as well—, is viewed as imperfect and polluting. The birthing process that is undergone from the time that a woman conceives a child to the time at which she delivers a child is viewed as a state from which a person has to transition out of. And the polluting nature of the mother-birth is held to be so powerful that not only do the mother and child have to undergo numerous purification rites and ceremonies in order to be (re)integrated back into society, but their family, friends, and other individuals who come in contact with them have to follow certain precautions in order to not be polluted as well. My project, focusing on this notion of impurity, as well as the ceremonies that are performed in order to initiate/(re)integrate the mother, child, and their family into society after the “polluting” process of birth, explores the conception of the mother role/identity within Hindu society. Working from the idea that by Vedic textual tradition birth by a woman is viewed not only as insufficient for producing a proper human being, but polluting as well, I explored the value system that is set in place when rituals are performed in the early stages of a child’s life. More specifically, I explored Hindu women’s perceptions of these rituals, as well as the types of mother-identities/roles that they felt they possessed within their society. While traditional, and older, women viewed these rituals as necessary and in some cases crucial to the well being and development of their family, “modern,” educated and younger women often saw these rituals as binding or oppressive. Despite this difference in viewpoints, however, all of the women that I spoke to performed some early-life ceremony for their child in one form or another, which in itself reflects the continuity of Hindu traditions despite changing social beliefs and customs. Consequently, these views, as well as the degree to which traditional ceremonies/early-life rituals are strictly, or not so strictly, performed greatly reflected the different conceptions of the mother-identity and role within Hindu society. The practice and views that the women in my study revealed clearly illustrated the different ways in which mothers are viewed both by themselves and by others within their community: forming three distinct, but often overlapping categories that ranged from a purely physical function-driven being, a socially significant figure, to an internally independent and invaluable presence within herself, her family, and her society as a whole.


Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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