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Introduction
Religions included in project
Aims

 

Initiation Rites

It is common in many cultures, religious or otherwise, to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood by some ceremony. The importance of these ceremonies is two-fold. Firstly, it acts as a watershed for the individual concerned and secondly it gives the community an opportunity to acknowledge the changing status of the young.

Methodology

Buddhist
Judaism
Sikh
Christian
Hindu
Islam
Secular

 

Buddhist Initiation Rites

Initiation rites in Buddhism take the form of initiation into the monkhod; that is, ordination. Ordination gives the opportunity of education and preparation for adulthood. Every Buddhist male intends to become a monk at some time in his life. In Thailand the most popular time to enter the monkhood is before the rainy season (Vassa). During this time the Buddha ruled that all monks should stay in their shelters and study the doctrine. The ordination ceremonies cannot take place during Vassa, but are allowed at any other time. The time spent in the monkhood is not fixed, but usually those who enter the monastery prefer to stay for about three months i.e. the duration of the rainy season. However, some monks stay for several years and others devote the rest of their lives to the Sangha. A monk who breaks serious vows will be expelled from the order.

On the day of the ordination the monk is brought to the monastery in joyous procession. A musical band and group of dancers usually lead the procession while the young man is followed by relatives and friends bearing ordination gifts. When the procession reaches the monastery the ceremony begins with the ordinand bowing down to his perception and other senior monks, then chanting a request to be ordained. He then change his white clothes for yellow robes, takes ten vows and is ordained a novice. The next part of the ceremony involves the novice being questioned by two monks who examine his qualifications, ensure that he is in good health and has received permission from his parents and so on. When these queries have been satisfactorily answered, the novice will be accepted as a monk and will then take 227 vows.

The new monk then presents his preceptor and other monks with flowers and gifts, while he himself will receive ordination presents from his family and friends. These usually consist of a monk's basic necessities: yellow robes, alms bowl, medicines, candles, incense sticks, sandals, umbrella, tea, mat, toiletries, Buddhist literature etc. At the end of the ceremony the monk will go to his new lodgings in the monastery.

This initiation ceremony is typical of those that take place in Thailand, but the ceremonies differ from country to country. In Burma, a particularly interesting and descriptive initiation rite is performed. The ceremony, known as shimbyu, is a re-enactment of the story of Buddha. Each boy will start the rite by playing the role of Buddha when he was still a royal prince, pampered and living in closeted ignorance of the existence of suffering. The role play then moves through the sights of sickness, old age, death and the monk; all this forced the suffering world to the attention of the prince. The ceremony continues through to the Buddha's enlightenment and ends with the boy being admitted into the Sangha and putting on the saffron robes of the monk. In this way each person discovers for himself the story and the teachings of the Buddha.

Initiation Rites in Judaism

The Jewish ceremony which marks the transition to manhood is called Bar Mitzvah, 'bar' meaning 'son' and 'mitzvah' meaning 'commandment'. On the Sabbath (Saturday) immediately after his thirteenth birthday, the Bar Mitzvah boy is 'called up' to the synagogue to read a portion of the Torah (the Jewish holy scriptures). The boy will have practised reading the particular passage for some months before the ceremony, as the Torah scrolls are handwritten in Hebrew. Before he begins to read, the boy recites a special Bar Mitzvah prayer during which he promises God to 'keep Thy commandments, and undertake and bear the responsibility of mine actions towards Thee'. At his Bar Mitzvah the boy will probably wear his tallit (prayer shawl) for the first time.

When the Torah scroll has been read and returned to the Ark (where the scrolls are kept), the Bar Mitzvah boy listens to a sermon from the Rabbi. The sermon will contain general advice for the boy's future as an adult Jew. The Rabbi ends his address with a blessing on the boy.

After the service, a chides is said (a blessing over wine) and often a light buffet is served in the synagogue. There may also be a celebratory lunch or dinner during the weekend, and the guests will give the young man gifts that will serve him well in the future, such as books of scripture, prayer or Jewish law, pens, briefcases and money.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony established itself in Judaism in the Middle Ages. The Bat Mitzvah (Daughter of the Commandment) ceremony, however, is a recent development. It takes place on the first Sunday after a girl's twelfth birthday, in the synagogue, and consists of a recitation of a Bat Mitzvah prayer by the girl. In some Reform synagogues the Bat Mitzvah ceremony may be more like the Bar Mitzvah in content and in its taking place on the Sabbath.

Sikh Initiation Rites

The most important rite in the life of the Sikh is initiation into the Khalsa, or brotherhood. The present ceremony was instituted by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1699. At this time, Sikhs were in danger from attacks and total destruction, and he felt that a brotherhood of Sikhs was needed to fight for the defence of justice and the Sikh religion.

Those who wish to be initiated into the Khalsa, both men and women, should have reached an age of responsibility (usually 14-16), must be in possession of the five Ks (kesh - uncut hair, kangha - comb, kirpan - sword, kaccha - short trousers, kara - steel bracelet) and should be attempting to follow the Sikh way of life.

The initiation ceremony, known as Amrit Sanskar, Pahul or Amrit Parchar, usually takes place in the gurdwara (Sikh Temple) but may be performed anywhere as long as the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, is present. The ceremony itself is conducted by five members of the Khalsa, who may be male or female, but must be devout Sikhs in possession of the five k's and physically well.

The initiation ceremony begins with the opening of the Guru Granth Sahib, then one of the five presiding over the ceremony outlines the principles of the Sikh faith to the candidates and asks if they are willing to accept them. Amrit, the baptism nectar made from a mixture of water and sugar pellets, is then prepared. Each of the candidates says 'Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, sri Wahegur ji ki Fateh' which means 'The Khalsa is of God, the victory is to God', then drinks a handful of the amrit. It is also sprinkled on their eyes and hair, and each of these acts is repeated five times. The Mool Mantra, a sacred chant composed by Guru Nanak which summarises the basic beliefs of Sikhism is then read, and the initiates are told they are now, as members of the Khalsa, children of Gobind Singh and his wife Mata Sahib Kaur.

The ceremony ends with the offering of Ardas, a general prayer used at the conclusion of services and the distribution of karah parshad, which is sweet food made from flour, sugar and gee. Its distribution to all present at the end of every Sikh service symbolism universal brotherhood.

Christian Initiation Rites

Growing up within a faith is no guarantee that one understands or agrees with the beliefs of that faith. That is why in Christianity, all major churches place considerable emphasis on individuals making their own explicit commitment. The initiation rite in any Christian churches is called 'Confirmation' - it is the act of confirming the beliefs and commitments initially made on a child's behalf by its parents and/or sponsors. In some churches, such as the Baptist Church, a profession or confession of faith usually precedes the act of adult baptism which is thus an initiation rite.

In all instances, what is happening is a declaration of personal faith followed by an act of acceptance and welcome by the church congregation and wider community.

For a Roman Catholic, initiation starts around the age of six or seven when the child is prepared for First Confession and First Communion. Later, between the ages of eleven and fourteen, the child will come forward for Confirmation.

In the Anglican church, confirmation comes between the ages of eleven and sixteen and the person receives Holy Communion only after this ceremony. Often the ceremony of confirmation includes the First Communion.

In both communities the Bishop, on behalf of the wider church community, asks the candidates to affirm their faith in the main teachings of the Church. Then, naming them each, the Bishop confirms their affirmations and welcomes them into the full fellowship of the Church by the act of laying on of hands. This has a double significance. Firstly it is seen as bestowing the power of the Holy Spirit, the third element of the Trinity, upon the individual who is thus empowered to be and live as a Christian. Secondly, through the generations of Bishops, all of whom have been confirmed and ordained by the laying on of hands, an unbroken chain is seen stretching back to the fist Apostles, and thus to the very roots of Christianity itself.

After the ceremony, the candidates and their families usually have a party to celebrate. It is quite common for gifts to be given, which in themselves speak of the adult world which the child is now deemed to be entering - a bank account in his/her own name; a briefcase, expensive pen and so on.

Hindu Initiation Rites

In his life a Hindu is said to pass through sixteen stages, or to take sixteen steps and each one is dedicated to God by a ritual called samskara. The series of samskaras begins with conception and ends with cremation.

The first nine samskaras are concerned with birth, but the tenth and most important in a Hindu's religious life is the 'sacred thread' investiture ceremony which takes place between the ages of eight and twelve years. It is considered particularly important because when a boy is initiated with the sacred thread, it means he is ready to receive religious instruction from his religious teacher or guru. This ceremony is only for boys and there is no comparable ceremony for girls.

Every Hindu is born into and remains a member of one of the ancient classes or castes of India; the Brahmins, the priests of traditional India, the kshatrivas, who were the warriors; the Vaishyas, the producers and the Shudra or servant class. The first three of these classes are said to be 'twice born' because the sacred thread ceremony is considered a spiritual second birth, but the Cheddar or servant class are not permitted this ceremony. This spiritual or second birth is symbolised by the shaving of the boy's head prior to the initiation.

The actual ceremony involves the placing of a thread containing three strands over the shoulder of the child, where it is worn across the body to the opposite hip. Different materials are used for the thread to signify the three different classes: a special grass for the Brahmin, a bow string for the Kshatriya and wool and hemp for the Vaishya. Many reasons have been given as to why the three strands are used. They may be to remind the Hindu that he must control mind, speech and body: they could represent the three states of wakefulness, dream and sleep or they could stand for the three major Hindu deities - Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The three strands are tied together by a knot known as the Brahma granthi, or spiritual knot.

After receiving the thread, the boy is wrapped in an antelope hide, according to ancient religious tradition. The family priest then hands the boy over to the guru, who teaches him ritual activities which he will be expected to perform in his daily worship. At this stage the boy is given a sacred staff which he will keep and which represents his new position in life as a religious student. He is then taught a hymn of praise to the sun, and he will make an offering to the sacrificial fire while the guru chants mantras or prayers. The boy honours hi guru by placing a garland of flowers round his neck The guru will then cover the boy and himself with a cloth and whisper a secret sacred mantra from one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. He will also teach him a set of hand movements known as mudras, which the boy should use when he recites from the scriptures.

The ceremony finally ends with a ritual bath to symbolise the boy's new role in life. He is now entitled to be known as snataka, literally meaning one who has bathed. Traditionally, the boy should now live and study with his guru for twelve years, doing domestic chores in return for his teaching but this custom as been modified to suit present day life and the by will stay at home. However, the old days are remembered by the boy saying goodbye to his mother, and setting off on a symbolic journey to join his guru, carrying his staff, only to return a short time later.

The sacred thread ceremony is now no longer universally enacted, but is still carried out by many, especially those in Brahmin families.

Initiation rites in Islam

There is no parallel in Islam of the initiation or puberty rites found in other religions such as Confirmation in Christianity and Bar Mitzvah in Judaism. In slam it is assumed that one belongs to the faith from birth, although it is accepted that on attaining the age of maturity one becomes responsible for making a decision, rather than any other act or confession, to become a full member of the Muslim community. Strictly speaking, minors are not therefore under any religious obligations until they reach the age of maturity when they become entirely independent of the beliefs of their parents. At this time they are expected to decide which path they wish to follow.

Secular Initiation Rites

Many people don't belong to any religious grouping but this does not mean that they have no ceremony to mark the move from childhood to adulthood. In the North Dublin National School Project all children take part in a graduation ceremony. This ceremony is of particular significance for many children and is the main ceremony marking their transition both from Primary to Secondary School and from childhood to puberty. The ceremony is attended by the whole school who decorate the gym hall with art work and posters that congratulate 6th class on reaching this stage of development. Parents also attend. Speeches are made by the Chairperson of the Executive Committee, representing the wider school community. The principal of the school also makes a speech. These speeches reflect on the time spent in the school by the children and also on their achievements and special projects.

The children are each presented with a graduation certificate and also a medal for participation in sport. They children make speeches and presentations following this. The class is presented with a cake which they share after the event. This ceremony takes place in June.

 

Acknowledgment: Much of the factual information on Initiation Rites in different religions was taken from a paper written by Martin Palmer, Sacred Trinity Church.

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This website has been designed by Jennifer O'Connell. Comments welcomed by email.

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