The Srivaishnava Sacrament of Initiation
The formal process by which one performs śaranagati or takes refuge is known as samāśrayanam and is a sine qua non for all members of the Srīvaiṣṇava community. It is similar to confirmation of the Christians or Bar-mitzvah of the Jews, and one is not accepted as a fully fledged member of the community until the ceremony has been performed.
The prospective Prapanna (aspirant for refuge) approaches an acharya and requests to be initiated as a Vaiṣṇava. The acharya after satisfying himself as to the sincerity of the aspirant, sets a time for the ceremony of the Five Sacraments (pañca-samskāra).
According to the Scriptures these sacraments should be conferred upon all who sincerely request them, and the supplicant should not be examined too closely for faults since in fact there are strictly no qualifications for taking
Striyaḥ śūdras ca anulomaḥ kalyāṇa guṇa samyutaḥ | yadi tāni śiśyatve grhṇiyat krpayā guruḥ ||
If a woman, or Sudra or outcaste applies for initiation and is possessed of good qualities, then he/she should gladly be accepted by the guru.
(Vishvamitra Samhita 3:27.)
Program of Initiation
1. Udaka Shanti- Sanctification & Empowerment
In this ceremony a jar of water is placed upon an altar and various cosmic forces are invoked for their blessings. The rite is preceded by the invocation and worship of Viśvaksena for the removal of all obstacles to the achievement of success in ones spiritual endeavours. Various passages from the Vedas are chanted by the priests invoking the cosmic forces. The presiding deity of the mind (Indra) is invoked to protect the spiritual aspirant on the arduous spiritual path and to give him/her the power to combat the enemies of spiritual advancement - selfish desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy, pride etc. The cosmic witness (Varuna) is invoked to watch the progress of the aspirant and to goad him/her on to success. Agni (the presiding deity of fire) is invoked to purify the aspirant from all previous sins and to offer protection and guidance. The forces of wisdom are invoked to bestow learning and the ability to understand the teachings. Thus the spiritual aspirants are absolved of all their previous sins and offences and empowered to accept the teachings and to practice them.
Once the water has been sanctified through these Vedic chants the aspirants are bathed and don new garments indicative of their re-birth.
2. Punyaha Vachanam
Another brief sanctification ceremony which can be done as part of the Udaka Shanti or instead. It is done in order to purify all the accessories of the ritual and the other participants. Prayers are offered for the removal of all negative mental states which hinder the dawning of wisdom.
3. Raksha Bandhanam
A rite of protection is done and a blessed thread is tied around the wrist of each participant in order to protect them from all negativity that may be directed at them during the actual initiation ceremony by opposing forces.
4. Pradhana Homa
The fire representing wisdom is kindled and sanctified and then offerings are made by the officiating priests reciting various Vedic hymns to Vishnu — the Supreme Person. All oblations are made with the exclamation Svāhā which means — I am offering myself as an oblation for the welfare of all sentient beings. The purpose of this Pañcarātric initiation ceremony is to qualify and empower one for the worship of the Supreme Being and for serving all the creation which is His external manifestation. All sentient beings are moving temples of the divine and the spiritual aspirant will practice mindfulness of this principle and act accordingly to enhance the joy of all other sentient beings - even sacrificing ones own happiness for that of others.
After the conclusion of the fire ceremony the first sacrament is conferred.
The sacrament of branding the aspirant with the symbols of the conch and discus is done as penance for past sins and as a sign of one’s complete self-dedication to the spiritual path. This in turn brings about a reformation of the self and the bearing of the marks of the conch and discus upon the shoulders remind one that he/she is an eternal servant of the Lord. The discus Sudarsana reminds the devotees that they are not subjected to the laws of time and fortune, and that they should be free from the fear of being crushed by the false charges that are brought against them by their enemies.
The following prayer is recited by the postulant prior to accepting the Discus Brand:
"O refulgent Sudarshana, as bright as an hundred thousand suns, lead me from the darkness of ignorance and guide me on the Path of the Supreme Godhead."
Before receiving the brand of the conch the supplication is recited:
"O holy conch Panchajanya, your sound vibration (AUM) destroys the heap of sins that have been accumulated by me through my previous births. Save me who am drowning in the ocean of Samsara from the attentions of the wicked."
The second of the five sacraments is now performed.
The second sacrament guarantees protection against temptation. The body is considered to be the temple of the Lord and so through the application of the sacred markings one sacralises one's physical being. The forehead is the seat of Kesava, which means that He is thought of as protecting the mind from negative thoughts. The belly is the seat of Narayana the breast that of Mādhava, the throat is that of Govinda or 'the giver of delight'; the right side is the seat of Viṣṇu, the 'all-pervading-lord'; the right arm is the seat of Madhusūdana, and the right shoulder that of Trivikrama, the Mighty Lord who with His three strides measured the universe; the left side is that of Vāmana; the left arm is that of Śrīdhara, and the left shoulder that of Hṛṣikeśa, the Lord and guide of the senses and the mind. The back is the seat of Padmanābha - the original fountainhead of creative power. The neck is the seat of Lord Damodara, the all independent Lord, who is always dependant upon His devotees. And finally the head is thought to be the seat of Vāsudeva or the-one-who-dwells-everywhere.
Many Sacred texts enjoin this custom and further stress that no religious work yields merit if the performer is devoid of the sacred marks.
The pundram that is worn on the forehead and body has three lines — two vertical white ones with a red line in the middle. These lines represent the Holy Feet of the Lord, with the goddess of mercy between them. The projecting line running down the nose, represents the First Principle — Parabrahman, the rootless root.
7. Dasya nama
The third sacrament is that of the Nāmakaraṇa or name-giving. It is the noble ambition of the penitent person to earn a name worthy of a true servant of the Lord - "a dāsya nāma". In Tamil the word Tiru is added before the word nama to signify, that the person who has received such a name has become the object of Divine favour in as much as he or she has been favoured by the spiritual master by giving a name other than the one by which one is ordinarily known by all and sundry. Such a name preserves the moral integrity, and acts as a powerful protection against temptation by reminding one constantly, that the servitude of God and the devotees, is the very essence of one's being and the goal of one's existence.
8. Mantra upadesha
The fourth sacrament is the bestowal of the sacred mantras — the three jewels. Mantra is so called because it protects the mind and redeems one from Samsāra or cycle of birth and death. The Postulants are now instructed in the recitation and meaning of these three sacred texts.
The fifth sacrament is that of complete self-surrender to the Supreme Lod Sriman Narayana and the acceptance of the governance of ones life by the sacred canons of the Pañcarātra. This means following a sacred routine of life as laid down in the canons of the Tantric texts, known as 'aradhana-viddhi', or the method-of-divine-servitude. A sacred routine of life means, a routine that is calculated to sanctify one's life. Life consists of a series of actions which may be mental, verbal or physical, and these actions can become sacred when a routine is followed which transforms one's thoughts, actions and aspirations. The routine must be planned in such a way as to leave no room for indulgence in anything unworthy and undesirable. The prapanna undertakes the division of the daily programme into five parts; abhigamana, upadāna, ijya, svadhyāya & yoga.
Abhigamana - briefly means the daily visit to the temple of the Lord in order to worship the iconic manifestation. In the present circumstances because this is physically not possible it refers to the recollection and contemplation upon the four main Vaiṣṇava Shrines — Srirangam, Tirupati, Kanchi and Melkote.
The second part is the upadāna, which consists of collecting all the articles of worship such as flowers, fruit darbha grass, tulasi leaves etc. All the articles offered to God must have been acquired by honest and fair means.
The third part is called ījya which includes such activities as the daily worship of the Lord in ones home, and the performance of the pañca-maha-yajñas or the five-great-sacrifices enjoined in the Scriptures. Every person is under obligation throughout his/her life to repay five debts ; to the deities by making offerings, to the manes by performing sraddha rites, to the rishis by religious studies, and to society by feeding guests and strangers, and finally to the birds and the beasts by food offerings.
Before beginning to eat, the food should first be offered to the Lord in the form of offerings to the five vital breaths (pranahuti). Having partaken of food, one should then in the evening engage in svādhyāya — the study of the Sacred texts such as the hymns of the Alvars, Itihasas, Puranas and other sacred literature, and expound the mysteries of the sacred mantras to others who are willing to listen.
Then before retiring to bed one should perform yoga — meditation upon the divine form of the Lord with all His excellent attributes, the remembrance of which removes all mental impurities. The mind which is difficult to restrain, is brought under control by steady mindfulness, contemplation, controlling of the senses and speech. And then finally one should retire to bed with the thought that one is safe at the feet of the Lord.
In this manner not a moment of the day is wasted in idle pursuits. Such an ideal sacred routine of life can be followed only be the grace of the Supreme and All-merciful Lord. Indeed fortunate are those that can lead such a life, they are truly the favourites of the Lord, and are worthy to be followed by others.
Thus in brief is given the description of the five purificatory rites which sanctify and empower one to follow the path of the Pañcarātra, to achieve perfection and to practice a life-style through which life's mission is fulfilled.