Upanayanam

In the long list of rituals, I have participated in, clueless and totally ignorant about what and why I was being a part of it, Upanayanam tops the list!

The first I heard about Upanayanam was in the context of my marriage; my husband -to -be got the thread ceremony done a day before our wedding, because per him it was ‘licence to marriage’!  I found it illogical and hilarious, but with a missing spirit of inquiry, I gave no further thought to it; it was another of the never-ending rituals we have in our Religion.

A few years later, I was an active participant in the Upanayanam of my brother – in – law. This time around the reason was very contradictory; my brother was keen on pursuing the path of sanyasi. Upanayanam was imperative to enable him to join the tutelage of an able guru. The same ritual for two different reasons! This comes back to me now as I attempt to elucidate below the essence of this amazing ritual.

Upanayanam (Yajnopavita, sacred thread) is the 10th samskara (rites of passage) in the 16stages of life. It marks the acceptance of a pupil by a Guru; initiate the process of learning, dwell into the study of Vedanta and evolve. From the medieval Indian texts to the present day Upanayanam is restricted to the upper caste (varnas), namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishya varnas, and is performed only for the boys.  Whereas, the Vedic period texts show that Upanayanam was encouraged for all members of the society, even shudras and women. Everyone wore the thread to indicate their status in their household. Today, it is a worldly ritualistic festival of sorts, performed only for the elite Brahmin boys!

In Hindu traditions, a human being is born at least twice — once at physical birth and second at intellectual birth through teacher’s care. Verily, the sacred thread ceremony indicates that the person has started to learn the sacrifices (Yajnopavita). The pupil is given the primary set of instructions (Brahmopadesha) and the student is declared as Dvija (born again). Traditionally, this ceremony is solemnized at age 8 amongst Brahmins, 11 years amongst Kshatriyas and age 12 among Vaishyas (Apastamba Gryha, 1.1.1.27 states that the maximum age to complete this ceremony is 24), unlike my husband, who got his thread ceremony done a day before our marriage, where he was 28!  Luckily for him, Gautama Gryha Sutra and other ancient texts state that there is no age restriction and anyone of any age can undertake the Upanayanam. The Baudhayana Grihya sutra in verses 2.5.8 and 2.5.9 states the teacher to “let him initiate, to school through Upanayana; a Brahmin in spring, a Kshatriya in summer, a Vaishya in autumn, a Sudra in the rainy season; or all of them in the spring.”

Every state in India has a different name for this ritual. The ceremony is called Munja or Mounji-Bandhana (literally, tying of the munja, sacred thread) in the state of Maharashtra. This name finds its origin in the name of a grass called Saccharum munja (Bengal cane). This grass is used to make a girdle that is tied around the waist of the child. In Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and in several areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the sacred thread is known as the “Janoi” or “Janeva”. Many other names (varying by region and community), are Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar. The other Sanskrit term being Avyanga.

The “sacred thread” is a thin cord, composed of three cotton strands. The strands symbolize different things depending on the region. Like, in the Tamil Hindu community, each strand is for each of the three trinity of goddesses, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

As per the ancient Sanskrit texts the term Upavita was originally meant to be any upper garment (as stated in verse 2.2.4.22–2.2.4.23 of Apastamba Dharmasutra) or, if the wearer doesn’t want to wear a top, a thread would suffice.The proper manner of wearing the upper garment or thread, is from over the left shoulder and under the right arm.

The idea of wearing the upper garment or sacred thread, and its significance, extended to women.This is reflected in the traditional wearing of sari over the left shoulder, during formal occasions and the celebration of rites of passage such as Hindu weddings. It was also the norm if a girl undertakes the Upanayana ceremony and begins her Vedic studies as a Brahmavadini. They wore a thread or upper garment over their left shoulder. Those girls who chose not to go to a gurukul were called Sadyovadhu (literally meaning, one who marries straight). However, the Sadyovadhu, too, underwent a step during the wedding rituals, where she would complete Upanayana, and thereafter wear her upper garment (saree) over her left shoulder.

The invocation of tranquility, Udaka Shanti marks the beginning of Upanayanam. This is to invoke happiness and peace in the place. Invoking the blessings of ancestors is the second step. The blessings of the ancestors upto the Atman (the last 3 generations) and Brahman (beyond the 3 generations) are invoked to bless the sacred thread.

Preparations for learning marks the third step. The student is expected to learn to be simple in food, dress and learn to control his urges. Student should learn to submit as well as to seek, taking a solemn vow to learn and to acquire knowledge; this is the fourth step. The father (the first teacher) and the guru together whisper the Gayatri Mantra into the boy’s ear. This ritual is conducted carefully done, under the wraps, so that the boy pays total attention and not a single syllable is missed. This is the penultimate step.

The last step is explaining the significance of Upanayanam (second birth); concentrate on learning by seeking out and devote his entire time to build up his body and mind.

In Nepal, a slightly different ceremony is held which combines ‘चूड़ाकर्म‘ (choodakarma) (tonsure, shave the head) and Upanayana saṃskāra locally known as Bratabandhabrata meaning promise, bandhan meaning to be bound) It is held among the Bhramin and Kshytreya hill communities in Nepal.

Rajbali Pandey compares the Upanayana rite of passage to Baptism in Christianity where the person is born again unto spiritual knowledge, as the ceremony marked the initiation of the student for spiritual studies such as the Vedas.

Another veil lifted; every time I dive into our scriptures I am rendered nonplussed. Our predecessors seem to have lead the most modern lives yet stayed utterly simple and rooted to values and ethics. They understood the scriptures correctly and strived to live them, manasa, vacha, karma.

Sources:

http://creative.sulekha.com/upanayanam

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanayana