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Upanayana (Samskrit : उपनयनम्) literally means "taking near". It is implied that the boy is taken near Ācārya for instruction and learning Veda etc. The rite by which the boy is taken to Ācārya is called Upanayanam. Nayanam (नयनम्) also means "vision". Thus in an other meaning Upanayanam means taking one towards the vision (of Vedas).
Upanayanam is typically performed around the age of 7 years, the time when a child is ready to start his education. At that time, the father of the child conducts this ceremony and sends him to the Gurukula, to study under the guidance of a Guru. This samskara is called Brahmopadesha because the child is given the upadesha of Gayatri mantra which prepares him for the study of vedas, or in more modern terms the child enters the schooling phase of life (Brahmacharyashrama).
परिचय || Introduction
One of the important Samskaras, Upanayana signifies the transition of a child to a student. One who undergoes Upanayana is called Upaneeta and one who conducts the samskara is called Upanetr (father or Guru).
Brahmacārī: The boy who underwent this Saṃskāra is called Brahmacārī (Brahma means Veda, one who learns Veda is called Brahmacārī). A Brahmacārī would get eligibility to perform any Vedic rite.
Dvija: Upanayanam is a Saṃskāra to be performed on the boys of Dvijas, i.e. Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya and Vaiśya. People belonging to the above three varnas are called Dvijas, which literally means twice-born. The first birth is given by father and mother whereas, since Goddess Gāyatrī (whose Mantra is preached to the boy during Upanayanam) and the Ācārya (the teacher who performs the Upanayanam) are considered as mother and father during Upanayanam, the Upanayanasaṃskāra is considered as another birth. Thus the people of the first three castes are called Dvijas.
Ṛṣiṛṇam (the debt of sages): Taittirīyasaṃhitā (188.8.131.52) says the following:
जायमानो ह वै ब्राह्मणः त्रिभिः ऋणवान् जायते ब्रह्मचर्येण ऋषिभ्यः यज्ञेन देवेभ्यः प्रजया पितृभ्यः एष वा अनृणो यः पुत्री यज्वा ब्रह्मचारिवासी।
jāyamāno ha vai brāhmaṇaḥ tribhiḥ ṛṇavān jāyate brahmacaryeṇa ṛṣibhyaḥ yajñena devebhyaḥ prajayā pitṛbhyaḥ eṣa vā anṛṇo yaḥ putrī yajvā brahmacārivāsī।
Every Brāhmaṇa, when born is indebted in three debts related to Ṛṣis (sages), Devatas (deities) and Pitaraḥ (forefathers) in terms of Brahmacaryam (celibacy), Yajña (sacrifice) and Prajā (offspring), respectively. He can get rid of the above three debts by living with the teacher as a Brahmacārī, by performing a sacrifice and by being father of a son.
Brahmacārī and his conduct are beautifully lauded in Atharvaveda (11.7, 26). According to Taittirīyabrāhmaṇam (3.10.11) Bharadvāja took Brahmacaryam for three generations. Āśvalāyana, in his Gṛhyasūtram (22.3, 4) prescribes twelve years of Brahmacaryam for each Veda, i.e. forty eight years for four Vedas or till completion and its origin is in Gopathabrāhmaṇam (2.5) –
द्वादशवर्षाणि वेदब्रह्मचर्यम्। ग्रह्णान्तं वा। आश्वलायनगृह्यसूत्रम् ॥
dvādaśavarṣāṇi vedabrahmacaryam। grahṇāntaṃ vā।
Age for Upanayanam
Three different ages are prescribed for Dvijas, viz. Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas and Vaiśyas, in Gṛhyasūtras and Dharmaśāstras. Double the age is permitted for those, who, for some reason or the other could not perform at the right age –
गर्भाष्टमेषु ब्राह्मणमुपनयीत। गर्भैकादशेषु राजन्यं गर्भद्वादशेषु वैश्यम्। आपस्तम्बगृह्यसूत्रम् १॰. २, ३॥
garbhāṣṭameṣu brāhmaṇamupanayīta। garbhaikādaśeṣu rājanyaṃ garbhadvādaśeṣu vaiśyam। Āpastambagṛhyasūtram 10. 2, 3॥
Upanayanam for a Brāhmaṇa should be performed in sixth or seventh or eighth years from conception. Similarly it is ninth or tenth or eleventh years from conception for a Kṣatriya; and tenth or eleventh or twelfth years from conception for a Vaiśya. Gautama adds the following:
आषोडशात् ब्राह्मणस्य अपतिता सावित्री। द्वाविंशते राजन्यस्य द्व्यधिकाया वैश्यस्य। गौतमधर्मसूत्रम् १.१३, १४॥
āṣoḍaśāt brāhmaṇasya apatitā sāvitrī। dvāviṃśate rājanyasya dvyadhikāyā vaiśyasya। Gautamadharmasūtram 1.13, 14॥
The upper limit for performing Upanayana for a Brāhmaṇa is sixteen years. For Kṣatriya it is twenty years and for a Vaiśya it is twenty two years. Khadiragrhya sutras supports the above
अष्टमे वर्षे ब्राह्मणमुपनयेत् १ तस्या षोडशादनतीतः कालः २ एकादशे क्षत्रियम् ३ तस्या द्वाविंशात् ४ द्वादशे वैश्यम् ५ तस्या चतुर्विंशात् ६
Manusmṛti prescribes the age for Upanayanam depending on the purpose.
Seasons for Upanayanam
Different seasons are prescribed for different Varṇas (castes) for Upanayanam –
वसन्तो ग्रीष्मः शरदिति ऋतवो वर्णानुपूर्व्येण। आपस्तम्बगृह्यसूत्रम्, १॰.४॥
vasanto grīṣmaḥ śaraditi ṛtavo varṇānupūrvyeṇa।
It is Vasanta (Spring) for a Brāhmaṇa, Grīṣma (Summer) for a Kṣatriya and Śarat (Autumn) for a Vaiśya for performing Upanayanam.
Specific Nakṣatras (stars) and Tithis (dates) etc. are also prescribed by some Smṛtis. Upanayanam, according to Smṛtis and Jyotiṣam (Astrology / Astronomy) has to be performed during Uttarāyaṇa (six months from mid-January) and forenoon.
Yajñopavītam is the holy cord to be worn by a Dvija from the day of Upanayanam. It has got a lot of significance in the rites. Raising the boy's right arm, putting the head into he suspends the cord over his right shoulder in such a way that it hangs down on his right side. Thus he becomes Yajñopavītin (one who has got the Yajñopavīta). The Yajñopavītam would have three positions.
- Upavītam: The cord will be sitting on the left shoulder and hanging under the right hand. For all rites related to deities (Vedic) one should maintain Upavītam.
- Prācīnāvītam: This is opposite to Upavītam, i.e. the cord would sit on the right shoulder and hangs under the left hand. This position is to be used while performing any rite related to forefathers (Pitṛkarma).
- Nivītam / Saṃvītam: The cord simply hangs from the neck and this position is for any human activity such as sleeping, nature's calls, sexual intercourse etc.
Manufacturing the Yajñopavītam: The Yajñopavīta should have three threads of nine strands (tantus) well twisted for each thread. A Brahmacārī has to wear a single Yajñopavītam whereas a householder should wear two or three.
Women had Yajñopavītam: Saṃskāraprakāśa (pp. 402, 403) quotes Yama –
पुरा कल्पे कुमारीणां मौञ्जीबन्धनमिष्यते।
अध्यापनं च वेदानां सावित्रीवचनं तथा॥
purā kalpe kumārīṇāṃ mauñjībandhanamiṣyate।
adhyāpanaṃ ca vedānāṃ sāvitrīvacanaṃ tathā॥
During former ages, tying of girdle of muñja (i.e. Upanayana) was desired in the case of maidens, they were taught Vedas and made to recite Sāvitrī, i.e. Gāyatrīmantra.
Commentators are of the opinion that this practice belongs to earlier Yuga.
उपनयनप्रयोजनम् ॥ Purpose of Upanayana
Apastamba Dharmasutra clearly states the purpose of Upanayana samskara as follows
उपनयनं विद्यार्थस्य श्रुतितः संस्कारः ९ (Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.9)
विद्यया अर्थः प्रयोजनं यस्य स विद्यार्थः । तस्यायं श्रुतिविहितस्संस्कारः । उपनयनं नाम विद्यार्थस्येति वचनान्मूकादेर्न भवति। तथा च शङ्खलिखितौ नोन्मत्तमूकान्त्संस्कुर्यात्... (Haradatta Mishra Bhashya for Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.9)
One who wants to benefit from Vidya (education) is a Vidyartha. Shruti ordained samskara to such a Vidyartha is Upanayana. Shankalikhita (sutras) says "It is not performed for dumb and mentally ill" (mainly because study of Vedas require a person to utter the sounds appropriately which is not possible for a dumb person and the mentally sick).(Page 23 of Reference ) The study of Trayi (all the 3 Vedas, not just one Veda) follows from the Gayatri mantra adhyayana as said in Brahmanas (texts). For learning Atharva Veda one has to perform Upanayana separately.(Page 23 of Reference )
सर्वेभ्यो वै वेदेभ्यस्सावित्र्यनूच्यत इति हि ब्राह्मणम् । (Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.10)
Manu says in his Manusmrti thus
त्रिभ्य एव तु वेदेभ्यः पादं पादं अदूदुहत् । तदित्यृचोऽस्याः सावित्र्याः परमेष्ठी प्रजापतिः ॥ (Manu. Smrt. 2.77)
Meaning : Prajapati Brahma milked the three vedas and compiled the 3 padas of the Gayatri Mantra. Hence the adhikara (eligibility) to study of the three vedas comes from upadesa of Gayatri Mantra which is the purpose of Upanayana samskara.
This is the basic regular rite to be performed by all Dvijas. Those who ignore are not eligible to perform any (Vedic) rite. It is called Nityakarma (a regular rite). One has to perform this rite three times a day. Sandhyā means twilight. The rite performed during twilight is also called Sandhyā or Sandhyāvandanam (salute of Sandhyā). All the Dvijas (i.e. who have undergone Upanayanam) have to perform Sandhyā. For Śūdras and ladies the sight of rising and setting Sun itself is considered as Sandhyāvandanam.
After Upanayana, Brahmacharis have to perform Sandhyavandana (सन्ध्यावन्दनम्) and samidhadhana.
यग्नोपविथम् || The Significance of the Sacred Thread, Yagnopavitham
in the Sravana month the many Indians perform the thread changing ceremony. tpractice of wearing a sacred thread. On your Upanayanam, this thread is given to you as a sign of committing you to schooling, education. It is a way by which parents tell you that you are now entering a phase where you have to stay fully committed to learning, avoiding all distractions. The thread you wear acts as a constant reminder and helps you to make sure that you stay committed to the cause you have taken up and also to avoid all distractions, which may come in your wake. Also, during the upananayanam you would have received the first lesson, i.e., the Gayatri Mantra from your first guru, who is your father. This is the Brahma Upadesham, counsel on the cosmos, from the father. This Gayatri Mantra is to be recited at least twice a day, at dawn and dusk, the time windows in a day considered to be most conducive to learning. This mantra is powerful and the vibrations it causes in the body and in the surroundings rejuvenate the body and mind with positive energy keeping them in good health and thus protected.
This thread is like a school uniform and gives you a sense of identity. When you wear a school uniform, your mind automatically gets conditioned and constrained from indulging in acts that do not behoove school going children such as perhaps going to a bar, discotheque or movies with the uniform on, this thread also conditions the mind and keeps one focused in their mission. It is not only school uniform, any uniform be it that of a soldier, a policeman or a nurse, conditions one to conduct oneself in a manner specific to the category / institution they represent, when in that uniform. This thread is like that. In that vain of thought, this helps us to be centered to our commitment at hand. Similarly, when one gets married, there is an additional thread that gets added to the previous set. This is to condition one to stay on the path of societal norms of a married man who has to look after his family as well as support the community.
उपनयनम् || Upanayanam
The terms Yagnopavitham or Upakarman are also used for this ceremony. Yagna, besides worship, sacrifice, also denotes commitment to a focused act. So committed, that one sacrifices everything else to ensure this act is accomplished. Pavitham means to cleanse. Yagnopavitham means to cleanse, purify one’s mind as well as intention behind the Yagna, act of commitment – studying in the case of a student. Upakarman denotes preparation or that activity that aides the start, execution of any mission, it comes from Upa, beside and karman meaning activity.
Is this protection only for Brahmin boys?
No, in older times every child, irrespective of varna/jati (loosely translated as caste in present times) at the start of schooling underwent this ceremony and went to Gurukula to study basic Veda and other subjects in line with their family profession or aptitude. So this particular investiture is meant for all, not just Brahmins.
Did girls go through the Upanayanam ceremony?
Yes, girls too underwent such a ceremony. But post foreign invasion after the 12th century, when Bharat came under onslaughts, girls being physically vulnerable, were kept away from schools to protect them from the invaders. With that maybe the number of girls going to Gurukula reduced, thereby reducing the practice.
Why do we need two sets of thread!
The other set is to remind him that in life one is always a student and has to seek knowledge that can help one journey through the various phases of life with ease and relish. The thread is changed every year to renew our commitment . Further from the hygiene point of view as the thread is made from cotton yarn, it needs to be changed atleast once a year.