'leading or taking near'. It also means 'introducing the novice to the stage of
studenthood'. Upa means 'approaching towards, by the side of'. Nayanam means 'leading,
Upanayanam or the thread ceremony is the sanskara performed to mark the beginning of studenthood or Brahmacharya ashram for a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya boy, to formalise his eligibility to read and study the sacred books Varna Prior to the ceremony,
a child of any caste is considered 'once-born' or a Shudra. With the performance of the Upanayanam, he becomes 'twice-born'. Or dvija. This initiation rite marks his second, spiritual birth after his first physical one, for not only is he now admitted to the privileges of his caste and into society in general, but also embarks on adolescence.
A muhurta is selected for the performance of the ceremony. Different seasons are considered auspicious for different castes. For example, the Upanayanam of a Brahmin is performed in the spring, of a Kshatriya in the summer, and of a Vaishya in the autumn.
The child spends the night before the actual ceremony in isolation and absolute silence, preparing for his second birth. This is symbolic of being in the womb again. The next morning, the mother and child eat together for the last time. If the Chudakarana 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 symbolises 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.
Next is the investiture of the sacred thread, or Yagyopavitam, now considered the most The Yagyopavita or sacred thread is 96times the breadth of a man's four fingers. An important part of the ceremony. Initially, the guru made the thread during the course of the ceremony. Nowadays, however, it is usually made in advance. Then, while reciting mantras, the guru places the thread over the boy's neck, so that it hangs across his chest from his left shoulder.
Bestowing the sacred thread has not been mentioned in the Sutras at all. The concept is believed to have originated from the mantle and the girdle. 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. The length of the thread is 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 three folds of the thread represent 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.
The sacred thread is worn differently for different occasions. When performing an auspicious ritual, like the naming ceremony Namakarana or marriage Vivaha, the thread hangs across the chest from the left shoulder. For the funeral rites Antyeshti, the thread hangs across the chest from the right shoulder. When a man is engaged in physical activity, the thread hangs down from the neck like a garland. While bathing and defecating, the thread is looped up securely around the ear.
After bestowing the thread, the guru gives the pupil a staff, symbolising 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, symbolising 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 (see Agni), 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. Next the Gayatri Mantra is recited by the guru and repeated by the pupil, who memorises it.
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'.
The student then puts a piece of wood into the sacrificial fire. This signifies the beginning of his contribution to religious rites. The ceremony concludes with pradakshina. The pupil now collects alms for food, for as a student he must live on the town's charity and later repay his debt to society by giving alms himself to other students when he graduates to being a householder. Now, on his very first foray, he symbolically augurs his survival by begging first from his mother and aunts. His refrain is bhavati bhiksham dehi. (Literally "Whichever honorable person is present, please give alms").
According to the Grihyasutras (see Sutra), the Upanayanam for a Brahmin should be performed when the child is eight years old; for a Kshatriya at the age of 11; and for a Vaishya, at 12. This was so because Brahmin children did not have to leave their own homes, since their father became their guru. Kshatriya and Vaishya children, on the other hand, had to be older because they could live in their guru's home only when they were capable of looking after themselves. Another reason is that the Brahmins had to know the Vedas and other texts more thoroughly than the children of the other two castes, since this learning was the mainstay of their lives.
Later, when the Upanayanam became merely a means to being accepted as a 'twice-born' Hindu, the ages were extended. For a Brahmin, the Upanayanam could be performed any time until the age of 16; for a Kshatriya, until 22; and for a Vaishya, 24.
The Upanayanam is an ancient ceremony, preceding the Aryan arrival in India. 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 (see Veda), where the Upanayanam is described as a simple ceremony. Any 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.
Until the Sutra period, this ceremony was compulsory. Anyone who wanted an education was required to pass an elementary test given by the guru. In addition, the student was initiated anew each time he wanted to learn a new branch of the Vedas. The Upanayanam became fully established at the time of the Grihyasutras (see Sutra)
. At the time of the Upanishads (c. 600 - 400 BC), the Upanayanam became compulsory, probably because the importance of education was recognised by then. It became an insignia for an individual. Anyone who did not undergo the Upanayanam was not considered 'twice-born' and therefore could not participate in any social rituals. This belief continued to be held, and it is largely for this reason that the Upanayanam is performed even today. Without it, it is widely believed that a man cannot be married. Another reason that the ceremony became compulsory is that the Aryans wanted to maintain a separate identity from the Dasas. Since the Dasas were largely Shudras, who were forbidden the Upanayanam, this preserved the difference between the two and emphasized Aryan superiority.
According to the Haritadharmasutra (see Sutra), girls could also have their Upanayanam performed, with two options. They could have the complete ceremony performed, just as boys did. Or, if their Upanayanam was not performed in their youth, it could be done just before the marriage ceremony (see Vivaha). However, by the time of the Manusmriti, the Upanayanam became an exclusively male prerogative. By Manu's reckoning, caring for the home and husband were duties equivalent to those performed by a student for his guru (see Ashram). Therefore, women were not required to go through the ceremony. In time, the Upanayanam lost its original significance. Initially supposed to mark the beginning of a child's studenthood, it became a process of initiation into one's caste.
The investiture of the sacred thread, once a minor aspect, became the main purpose of the ceremony, as the thread was the identification of a 'twice-born' Hindu.
Today, the Upanayanam has become a mere formality for most Hindus. Once the sacred thread is bestowed and token alms collected, the modern 'twice-born' takes a short walk near the house, symbolising his journey to Benaras or any other holy city, dedicated to learning. His return to the house symbolises the end of his Vedic student life. The ceremony is now usually performed only for men, and takes place a few days before their marriage (see Vivaha).
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