Upanayanam is one of the most important of the 40 Samskaras prescribed by Shastras for a Hindu. Upanayanam is a ceremony performed by upper caste Hindus inaugurating their first step towards becoming a Brahmachari which means student hood which is the first phase of life for a Hindu. Upanayanam is also known as “The Sacred thread ceremony” performed on Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya boys at the ages of seven, thirteen and seventeen respectively. This marks their descent into the fold of the dviga or twice-born. A popular belief is that every Hindu is born a Sudra but becomes a dviga only after the Upanayanam is performed. A male child is born once after he enters the world and is twice born after the Upanayanam to signify that he is now on his path to divine knowledge since he is now permitted to read the Vedas. Various rituals are performed preceding the day of the Upanayanam and these rituals are to be followed to complete the Upanayanam rightly.
Upanayanam literally means 'leading or taking near'. That is ‘introducing the novice to the stage of ‘student hood’. Upa means 'approaching towards, by the side of'. Nayanam means 'leading, directing, bringing'.
After the ceremony is performed the Brahmachari is exposed to the sacred knowledge contained in the Vedas. It is the right of the High Class of society to know the sacred knowledge of the Vedas because salvation from the wheel of karma is his birthright and Nirvana is his destiny. The path to true enlightenment is not easy, for the soul to be in ignorance brings suffering and for the soul to escape ‘maya’ one must sacrifice everything he holds dear. The Upanayanam reminds the Brahmachari that it was through great difficulty and many lives that he is now a ‘dviga’ and if he ignores his birthright then he will be in the sway of ignorance for many more lifetimes but now he must come to terms with his opportunity that his lifetimes of ‘dharma’ and ‘karma’ has offered him and this lifetime is different because now he has the opportunity to attain salvation, be liberated forever and to realize Brahman that he truly is.
Apart from the obvious spiritual implication of the Upanayanam there is also a very strong social relevance in today’s society. Some Brahmins believe that those who do not take the Upanayanam to heart is no different from a ‘Sudra’ for he is scorning the opportunity for his salvation, one person believes that if a Brahmin ignores his rights then his karma was not truly noble but deceptive and that is why he is being deceived to ignore the sacred offered to him. This division exists because of the influence of modernity clashing with the search of one’s true identity in a cosmopolitan society.
It is believed that the Upanayanam is an ancient ritual that precedes the arrival of the Aryans. A corresponding Parsi ceremony, Navjot, in which initiates are invested with a sacred thread called the kusti before a sacred fire, testifies to the fact that this rite developed when the two communities were one. References to the life of a religious student are found in the Rig-Veda where the Upanayanam is described as a simple ceremony.
The Upanayanam is rich in symbols similar to other ancient religious practices; the imagery has a lot to do with the religio-socio-cultural scenario during the time of the Vedas. The study of the Upanayanam can take us back to the ancient days.
The ceremony has a lot of intricate rituals that needs to be followed and the preparation for the ceremony starts much before the actual ceremony itself. This ceremony is extremely crucial because it changes the way one approaches life in the future.
The study of the Upanayanam is also very important and systematic study might be path-breaking because during the time in which it originated the caste system had an extremely powerful hold on Indian society. Another theory or assumption that can be deduced by this ceremony can be that this ceremony could be a display of ‘Caste Supremacy’ and hierarchy. This was because only the ‘dviga’ were allowed to be educated and of them the Brahmins were the only people who were allowed to study the ‘sacred texts’ and obtain knowledge from them. Another important fact that we should also bear in mind was during this time the only form of education available was hereditary, that is one can only study what his caste is permitted to. While the other castes learned to make pots, polish statues etc the Upper castes particularly the Brahmins were exposed to the highest of all knowledge, the knowledge that could bring salvation – The Vedas. Why should not they then show the world around them how superior their place in society and what better way than to use the symbolism of those times? The best way to assert one’s control over the soil is a public display of supremacy. This could be one important factor that led to the origin of the Upanayanam.
The study of the Upanayanam can be done systematically as follows:-
1. Selection of a muhurta
2. Symbolic Preparation before the ceremony
4. The Ceremony
5. The Gayathri Mantra
1. Selection of a muhurta
As per the Hindu Astrology, muhurta is an auspicious time selected for starting or performing an important event/action in life. In Sanskrit the word for a moment is “muhurta.” Specifically, a muhurta is a period of 48 minutes, and there are 30 such muhurtas in a day. These moments are sometimes compared to flowing water with ups and downs and ins and outs, and so there are certain moments when the flow of time is favorable and when the flow of time is unfavorable. It is, therefore, important to choose the right moment to begin a new project as this will affect the outcome of that endeavor. In fact, not only do each of the thirty 48 minute segments of time have their different moods, some auspicious and others inauspicious, different days of the week (varas), different lunar mansions (nakshatras), different lunar days (tithis), different phases of the moon (pakshas), the direction of the sun (ayana) and even whether it is night time or day time are all considered favorable or unfavorable for different endeavors. Therefore, when choosing a favorable time for any given event, all these factors have to be considered. This is what is meant by ‘choosing the moment” (muhurta) and it is the job of an expert priest or astrologer to select the proper time for the proper activity. It is a natural desire of every one important occasion or events in our life should be trouble free any unwanted, unpleasant or sorrowful incident should not take place during these important events or occasions. If these events or occasions are started on a shubha muhurta (auspicious time), these events are completed peacefully. Typically muhurta is selected for following important events/occasions in life:
• Marriage, Thread Ceremony, Jawal (Mundan), Annaprashan, Naming ceremony, Baby Shower etc…
• Pooja Vidhi, Religious Functions,
• buying a new house, land, other property, vehicle
• Starting a new business, signing work contracts, partnership deeds etc…
Therefore selecting a muhurta for the Upanayanam is very important for orthodox Hindus. They believe that ceremonies performed in inauspicious moments have the power to darken the ceremony. Upanayanam is recommended to be conducted in ‘Utharayana’. Generally, orthodox priests do not consider it a good idea to postpone the Upanayanam on excuses regarding the boy’s age being an odd number etc. It is believed to be against ‘dharmasasthra’ to say that the boy period is ‘ezharasani’ or ‘ahtamasani’. There is no relation between the time of conducting Upanayanam and the current position of planets.
Any position of the planet is considered to stand in the way of successfully conducting Upanayanam at the age of 8. Spiritual scholars believe that Upanayanam eliminates a boy’s bad period. ‘Sandhya Vandanam’ performed from a young age will bring him a bright future. Upanayanam is said to ward off the ill effects of planets.
2. Symbolic Preparation before the ceremony
Any Brahmin child seeking an education came to a guru, who took charge of him. The guru symbolically bore the child as an embryo within himself. He placed his hand on the child's right shoulder, by which he symbolically became pregnant with the child. After three nights, the child was considered reborn, or 'twice-born'. From this time onwards, his formal education began. The child spends the night before the actual ceremony in isolation and absolute silence, preparing for his second birth. The next morning, the mother and child eat together for the last time. If the Chudakarana (Chudakarana also called Chaula or Chudakarma, this is the ceremony in which a child's head is shaved for the first time, leaving a tuft on the crown. 'Chuda' refers to this tuft) has not already been performed, it is now done. The child is then bathed and, adorned in a loincloth, is taken to the guru. The guru accepts him and offers him a mantle to cover his upper body. Since every Hindu is required to cover his upper body during religious ceremonies, this symbolizes the beginning of a religious life for the child. The guru then ties a girdle around the waist of the student. This is supposed to support the loincloth, to protect his purity and chastity.
This ritual is important because in the times of old education was a Brahmin’s destiny and to be a successful student of his guru one must forget his days of old and all his vain affections. He must be born out of his household and be born into the household of the guru. This is similar to the Christian concept of ‘being born again’, being dead to the old life of sin and being born into the fellowship of the household of God. This symbolizes the death of one’s original sin and the new-birth into a life of reconciliation with God and the sacrament of water-baptism symbolizes this new birth.
In contrast with Hindu philosophy, the concept of salvation is completely different from the Judeao- Christian tradition. While the Judeao-Christian tradition emphasizes on justification by faith through the sacrament of water baptism as the symbol initiating the process of regeneration the Hindus believe in salvation through the knowledge contained in the Vedas and this path is inaugurated by the ceremony of the Upanayanam.
Hence we see a connection between the social aspects of both the faiths which both attest to the fact that for a person to attain salvation one must forgo his old ways and attitudes.
The hallmark of having gone through the Upanayana ceremony is the wearing of the Yajñopavītam (Sacred Thread) on the body. The thread is circular, being tied end-to-end (only one knot is permissible); it is normally supported on the left shoulder (savya) and wrapped around the body, falling underneath the right arm. The length of the thread is generally 96 times the breadth of four fingers of a man, which is believed to be equal to his height. Each of the four fingers represents one of the four states that the soul of a man experiences: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and knowledge of the absolute.
The knot in the middle represents the formless Brahman, the pure form of energy which pervades all. The three threads again represent the manifestation of Brahman as Srishti, Sthithi and Vinasa. The sacred thread illustrates the fact that everything in the universe emerges from and then merges with Brahman.
Yajñopavītam has three threads (actually only one thread, folded three times and tied together) each consisting of three strands. These threads represent
• Goddess Gayatri (Goddess of mind),
• Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of word) and
• Goddess Savitri (Goddess of deed).
It denotes that one who wears the sacred thread should be pure in his thought, word and deed. The sacred thread reminds a Brahmachari to lead a regulated life with purity in his thought, word and deed. These threads also represent the debt that is owed to the guru, parents and society.
The thread is spun by a virgin girl and consists of nine strands, which are three long threads, each folded thrice over. This is then knotted, with each knot marking a distinguished ancestor.
In some interpretations, these threads are intended to constantly remind the man of his worldly responsibilities. 3 original threads (each consisting of 3) make up 9 threads, to which 3 are added for wife and 1 for children, making a total of 13 individual threads in some communities.
Another interpretation of the three threads is that they denote the three qualities from which the universe evolved: passion, representing Brahma; reality, representing Vishnu ; and darkness, representing Shiva. The three folds in the thread also remind the wearer of the three debts he owes: to the gods, to the sages, and to his ancestors
This is a contemporary interpretation of the three sacred threads this clearly bears the mark of the latest theory of the Hindu ‘Trimurti’.
Ancient texts refer to the wearing of the Yajñopavītam in three forms:
One is 'Upavītam', where the Yajñopavītam is worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm. This is for Gods. Upavītam is also called savya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra &c.).
The Second is 'Nivītam', where the Yajñopavītam is worn around the neck and over the chest. Nivīta form is to be used during Rishi Tharpana, sexual intercourse, answering the calls of nature etc. (Shadvimsha Brahmana, Latyayana, etc.).
The third, 'Prachīnavītam' is where the Yajñopavītam is worn above the right shoulder and under the left arm. This is for Spirits. Prachīnavītam is also called apsavya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra, Manusmriti, &c.).The sacred thread has close and essential connection with the concept of pravaras related to Brahmin gotra system, which reflects the number of most excellent Vedic rishis belonging to that particular gotra to which the wearer of sacred thread belongs. Generally, there are either three or five pravaras. While tying the knots of sacred thread, an oath is taken in the name of these excellent sages. The full affiliation of a Vedic brāhamana consists of (1)gotra, (2)sutra (of Kalpa), (3)shakha, (4)pravaras. (Example) A brahmana named 'X' introduces himself as follows : I am 'X', of Shrivatsa gotra, of Āpastamba sutra, of Taittiriya shākha of Yajurveda, of five pravaras named Bhārgava, Chyāvana, Āpnavan, Aurva and Jāmdagnya .
The sacred thread is supposed to be worn for the rest of one's life after the ceremony has been performed. A new thread is worn and the old thread discarded every year; the change-over ceremony is held on a specific date calculated as per the Hindu lunar calendar. Among Brahmins, this date varies depending on which of four Vedic Shakhas one belongs to.
Once a student achieves a certain level of Brahma knowledge ("Brahma Vidya"), the guru adds 3 more strings signifying "Graduation" and the student goes on to study. In South Indian wedding ceremony, the addition of the 3 more string is followed by "Kashi Yatra". This signifies the Yatra student intends for advanced study. At this point, the father of the bride convinces the youth to get married and then go to Kashi (Varanasi) with his new bride. In modern days, the entire ceremony is packaged within the wedding ceremony.
4. The Ceremony
After bestowing the thread, the guru gives the pupil a staff, symbolizing the beginning of a long journey to perfection. With this, the student is fully equipped with the necessities of student life. Then the guru fills his cupped hands with water, which he sprinkles on the pupil, to cleanse and purify him Sanskara. He touches the heart of the student, symbolizing harmony, sympathy, and wholehearted communion between the two. The student then mounts a stone to imbibe its firmness. This is followed by a formal introduction between the guru and the student, where each tells the other about him. The student is fed yogurt as a sign that he should clear his mind and ingest what he is taught. Then, after circumambulating the sacrificial fire the student is shown the sun and explained that the quest for knowledge should be like the light of the sun, which permeates through all things.
The student then puts a piece of wood into the sacrificial fire. This signifies the beginning of his contribution to religious rites.
The most important part of the ceremony is the recitation of the Gayathri mantra. S. Radhakrishnan described the imparting of the Gayathri Mantra as the essence of the Upanayanam ceremony, which is sometimes called "Gayathri diksha" (initiation into the Gayathri Mantra)
5. The Gayathri Mantra
Gayatri Mantra is recited by the guru and repeated by the pupil, who memorizes it. It goes as follows:-
“Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ tat savitur vareṇyaṃ bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt”
This literally translates to
“May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the god so may he stimulate our prayers."
This is the climax of the ceremony and takes place with the guru, the student and his father huddled secretively under a cloth, to prevent unfit people from hearing the mantra. The teaching of the sacred Gayatri Mantra is called 'Brahmopadesham' (Brahma's counsel). It is only after learning the mantra that the student is accepted as 'twice-born'.
Literally, Gayathri means which protects him who chants it. She is the mother of all the mantras, and when chanted with devotion and single pointed concentration and purity, takes the chanter to the ultimate bliss - the knowledge of the Supreme Truth, called the Brahman. The Gayathri is a mantra praying for divine guidance to inspire and illumine the intellect so that the Jiva may know his real self - the Atman. Universal in its approach, it does not seek any personal benefit for the chanter. The venerable Bhisma, while extolling the greatness of the Gayathri from his bed of arrows declares - Where the Gayathri is chanted, ultimately deaths, involving the performance of obsequies for children by their elders will not occur. Thus it is a prayer for universal welfare which the Brahmin must perform as a sacred trust enjoined on him.
Earlier, the Brahmachari used to go out into the streets and beg for alms from various houses. This is called Bhikshakaranam and is done symbolically today. It is very difficult to practice Bhikshakaranam in today's world but we should at least keep in mind the virtues underlying this practice and try to cultivate them. Bhikshakaranam was done to make one humble and control the ego. It enables the young Vatu to control the senses, which is absolutely essential for receiving Vedic Knowledge.
The Upanayanam is rich in symbols, culture and tradition and still plays a great part in the Brahminic community even today. Modern Brahmins have a scientific apologetic approach towards the Upanayanam. The flaws of this sociological ceremony are as follows:-
• It is exclusive because it is only meant for the ‘twice born’ Hindus.
• It strengthens the identity one derives from one’s caste
• It emphasizes on ‘Brahminic Superiority’
• Women are not permitted to partake of the Upanayanam
Swami Vivekananda had a similar problem when it came to the Brahminic domination of the Upanayanam so he performed this ceremony on people from other castes and women too. Thus the Upanayanam may have a role in promoting caste equality although it is Brahminic in nature. For a Brahmin is not one who is born into a caste but a noble and a Godly man is truly a Brahmin.