Antiquity of Upanayana Samskara

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Upanayana or Maunjibandhana as it is called is an important Grhya samskara among the sixteen samskaras. This ancient process of investiture of the yajnopavita is found mentioned in some of the world's oldest recorded texts. While Vidyarambha is a more recently evolved samskara where writing the alphabet is done for the first time by a child, Upanayana has a hoary antiquity. Originally performed when a student commenced his Vedic studies, this samskara is said to have significantly contributed towards the maintenance of the oral tradition handed down through the ages.

While samskaras are generally purificatory in purpose, Upanayana is a unique samskara to bring about mental or intellectual purification and thus shaping the child's virtues and character.

In this context we trace the origin and development of this educational samskara through the various ancient Indian texts. Starting from the oldest text Rigveda we find references to Upanayana in the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Kalpa Vedangas, and later on extensively in the Dharmashastras. As to the origin of Grhyasamskaras, scholars generally opine that these might have originated even before the Vedic texts were compiled and edited as we see them today. The mantras of the Samhitas and the Brahmanas that are chanted during the vivaha and antyeshti samskaras can be explained only in the context of the Grhyasamskaras.[1]

Adityadarshana's commentary on Kathaka Grhyasutra (41.1) mentions that Upayana, Upanayana, Maunjibandhana, Batukarana, and Vratabandha are synonyms. The term Upayana is widely used in the Upanishads.

Upanayana in the Vedas

The antiquity of this ritual goes back to prehistoric times. Brahmacharya in student life was the most important characteristic aspect that was stressed upon of the Vedic times. While we do not see direct references to Upanayana in the Vedas mantras, the samhitas describe the disciplined life of student, his attire, the importance of the Acharya etc. Based on such evidences, scholars conclude that Upanayana as a process existed prior to even Vedic times.

In Rigveda

Upanayana was presupposed by the Rigveda. The term Brahmachari is mentioned clearly in mandalas three and ten.[2]

ब्रह्मचारी चरति वेविषद्विष: स देवानां भवत्येकमङ्गम् । (Rig. Veda. 10.109.5)

Meaning: 'O! Gods! he (Brhaspati), all pervading one, moves as a brahmachari pervading all (yajnas).[3] Rigveda mantra in the third mandala (8.4) clearly indicates that some of the characteristics of Upanayana described in the grhyasutras were well known even in those times. This mantra employed in Ashvalayana grhyasutra (1.19.8) and other grhyasutras also prescribe that the boy is to be adorned, is to wear new clothes and circumambulate.[3]

युवा सुवासा: परिवीत आगात् स उ श्रेयान् भवति जायमानः । तं धीरासः कवय उन्नयन्ति स्वाध्यो मनसा देवयन्त: ॥४॥ (Rig. Veda. 3.8.4)

Here the yupa or wooden post used in yajnas is praised as a young person, well dressed (the boy by his encircled mekhala and the post by its rashana); he when born (reborn after the samskara) attains eminence; wise sages with happy thoughts and devotion to deities raise him up. Here "unnayanti" has the same root as upanayana.[3]

Paraskara Grhyasutra (2.2) prescribes that this mantra is to be recited when tying the girdle around the boy's waist.[3]

In Atharvaveda Samhita

The Atharvaveda samhita has a sukta (11.5) devoted to brahmacharin, and his activities. This sukta covers the basic discipline of the first phase of life which is Brahmacharya. This is the period of preparation for life with dedication to Brahma, comprehensive knowledge of nature, human society and Divinity, and austere, not indulgent, discipline of living for the development of body, mind and spirit. Brahmacharya and education is necessary and indispensable for both men and women. However, Vedic tradition requires that schools for boys and girls should be separate.[4] A few activities of a Brahmachari and the intimate relationship of the Acharya with the student are best exemplified in the following mantras.

आचार्य उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भमन्तः । तं रात्रीस्तिस्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुमभिसंयन्ति देवाः ॥३॥ (Atha. Veda. 11.5.3)[5]

The teacher, Acharya, keeps the Brahmachari being admitted to the school close to him for three days and nights like a mother bearing the child in the womb, and when the Brahmachari emerges from that close observation, noble and brilliant people of the community come together to meet him.[4]

From this evidence it is clear that, Brahmanya (Brahminhood) is caused by Savitryopadesha and does not have a role in the rebirth or dvijatva of a student.[1]

We find that the practice of offering of samith by a student, and his attire including the mekhala are described.

इयं समित्पृथिवी द्यौर्द्वितीयोतान्तरिक्षं समिधा पृणाति । ब्रह्मचारी समिधा मेखलया श्रमेण लोकांस्तपसा पिपर्ति ॥४॥ (Atha. Veda. 11.5.4)[5]

The earth and earthly knowledge (Prthvi) is the Brahmachari’s first samit, fuel stick offered in the study called yajna. The heaven and divine knowledge (Dyuloka) is the second samit, and thus with the samits he studies in full the third region (Antariksha) of the middle space. Thus the Brahmachari, with the samit inputs into the yajna, with his determination symbolised by his girdle, his hard work and austere discipline covers all the three fields of his study with a sense of fulfilment all round.[5]

Atharvaveda emphasises on the final attainment of Brahman through austerity which is inspired and nurtured in a Brahmachari. On the other hand, the Veda also stresses that a Brahmachari has to enter the stage of social responsibilities, gathering assemblies of people (parishads), winning loud appluase, proclaiming the value of knowledge and its applications for a progressive community. We also find that Brahmacharya applies not to just a Brahmachari but even to the girls, Brahmavadinis, undertaking the Vedic studies. ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् ।...॥१८॥ (Atha. Veda. 11.5.18)[5] Only by Brahmacharya does a virgin maiden find a youth as husband.[4]

Upanayana in the Brahmanas

The Shatapatha Brahmana (Madhyandina shaka) has two brahmanas dealing entirely with the Upanayana and are named as उपनयनधर्माभिधायकं ब्राह्मणम्।Upanayana-dharmaabhidayaka brahmana(11.5.4)[6] and brahmachari-dharma-nirupaka brahmana (11.3.3) in some edited texts.

In the brahmana 11.5.4, we find details about the process of Upanayana, where the incumbent student expresses his desire to enter into Brahmacharya to the preceptor. The preceptor holds the hand of the student uttering the prescribed mantra. The text then explains the significance of this utterance. We find the narration of action with the utterances to be accompanied and their significance. This ritual is described in the context of a debate between Prachinayogya and Uddalaka Aruni regarding Agnihotra. Unaware of some details Prachinayogya seeks to be instructed on it by Uddalaka Aruni. He accepts him as his student.[1]

The Shatapatha Brahmana describes a student named Uddalaka approaching his preceptor with samiths, and requesting him to be accepted as a brahmachari for studying under him.

In the Taittriya Brahamana (3.10.11) there is a story of Bharadvaja who remained a brahmachari for three parts of his life and to whom Indra said that in all that long period of Brahmacharya he had mastered only an insignificant portion (three handfuls out of three mountains) of the Vedas. The Vedas as endless or Ananta.

भरद्वाजो ह त्रिभिरायुर्भिर्ब्रह्मचर्यमुवास । .... (Tait. Brah. 3.10.11)

Here we find not only the word Brahmacharya but regards the reading of the Vedas the highest object of it.[3]

In the Aitareya Brahmana we find the story of Nabhanedishta, the son of Manu, who was excluded from ancestral property at a partition made by his brothers. It is said that he resided with his teacher far away from his father's place as a Brahmachari.[7]

In Upanishads

The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad declares that a student should approach a teacher saying "I approach you as a student." Gautama approaches Maharaja Pravahana Jaibali addressing in this manner. Saying these Gautama lived as a student by merely announcing that he was at his service. So we find the verbal acceptance by the teacher was the earliest forms of Upanayana samskara.[8]

उपैम्यहं भवन्तमिति । वाचा ह स्मैव पूर्व उपयन्ति । स होपायनकीर्त्योवास || (Brhd. Upan.6.2.7)

For a long time the father acted as the teacher, a Guru to the child. This is again evidenced in Brhdaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.9 and 5.2.1). The word Brahmacharya occurs in the Katha, Mundaka, Chandogya and other Upanishads also.[7]

The Chandogya upanishad shows that the teacher Gautama, asked the pupil, Satyakama Jabala his gotra while accepting him as his student. Satyakama states that he is the son of Jabala and does not know the gotra. Gautama states that,[3]

नैतदब्राह्मणो विवक्तुमर्हति समिधꣳ सोम्याहरोप त्वा नेष्ये न सत्यादगा इति तमुपनीय ... (Chan. Upan. 4.4.5)

Haridrumata Gautama says "fetch the samidh, I shall initiate you. You have not swerved from the truth." Seeking bhiksha, sushrusha to the Acharya (service and obedience), tending to cattle and fire in the teachers home are also mentioned in this Upanishad.[3]

In Dharmasutras

Apastamba mentions that Upanayana is an initiation sacrament enjoined by the Vedas.

उपनयनं विद्यार्थस्य श्रुतितः संस्कारः ९ सर्वेभ्यो वेदेभ्यः सावित्र् यनूच्यत इति हि ब्राह्मणम् १० (Apas. Dhar. Sutr.,10)[9]

It is in the dharmasutras and smriti granthas followed by the nibandhas in recent centuries that we find the many rituals associated with Upanayana samskara. It is this time when the simple procedure of accepting a student became a bodily samskara with emphasis on the procedural part.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The Upanayana ritual in the Satapathabrahmana by Dr. N. K. Sundareswaran, University of Calicut
  2. Altekar, A. S. (1944) Education in Ancient India. Benares : Nand Kishore and Bros.,
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Kane, P. V. (1941) History of Dharmashastras, Volume 2, Part 1. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. (Pages 268-)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Dr. Tulsi Ram (2013) Atharvaveda, Vol 1. Delhi: Vijaykumar Govindram Hasanand. (Pages 68 - 80)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Atharvaveda (See Kanda 11 Sukta 5)
  6. Shatapatha Brahamana (Kanda 11 Adhyaya 4)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Murthy, Narasimha. H. V. (1997) A Critical Study of Upanayana Samskara. Mangalore: Canara College.
  8. Dr. N. S. Ananta Rangacharya (2004) Prinicipal Upanishads, Volume 3, Brhdaranyakopanishat. Text, English Translation and Brief notes according to Sri Ranga Ramanujamuni. Bangalore: Sri Rama Printers (Pages 377-378)
  9. Apastamba Dharmasutras