Upanayana

Upanayana, sometimes known outside India by the name, "sacred thread ceremony," is a Hindu rite-of-passage ritual. Traditionally, the ceremony was performed to mark the point at which male children began their formal education. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vysyas are called dvijas meaning "twice born." Once he is born in the womb of the mother and the next time when he learns Gayatri mantra.

In Hinduism, the ceremony is performed to young boys of at least seven years of age from the three twice-born varnas of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya. The youngster is taught during the ceremony the secret of life through Brahmopadesam (revealing the nature of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality) or the Gayatri mantra. He then becomes qualified for life as a student or Brahmacharya, as prescribed in the Manusmriti.

According to the appendix of Manusmriti, girls were allowed to study the Vedas in the previous Kalpa (Creation). Orthodox Hindus, however, do not accept this reference of previous Kalpa to be applicable for the present Kalpa, because no Hindu canonical text allows this ceremony for a girl in the present Kalpa. Some sects, such as the Arya Samaj perform this ceremony for girls also on the basis of this statement in the appendix of Manusmriti.

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Etymology

The word Upa+nayana means taking somebody near (upa) knowledge. In ancient times, after the ceremony was performed, the child was sent to the Guru's house (Gurukul) for education, where the child remained until completion of education. Even today, there are many Vedic Gurukulas (traditional Vedic schools) which follow this practice.

Upanayana has one other meaning, derived from Marathi words: Upa na (over/above)+yan am (it is), making for the meaning "that which is above (the shoulder)."

The "Sacred Thread" Ceremony

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 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.

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 twice-born Hindu 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 knot in the middle represent the formless Brahman, the pure form of energy which pervades all. The sacred thread illustrates the fact that everything in the universe emerge from and then merge with Brahman.

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.
  • 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.

In some communities, at the occasion of wedding, a further three threads are added to make for a six-thread bunch. In other communities, the custom exists of one thread more being added at the birth of every child. In some interpretations, these threads are intended to constantly remind the man of his worldly responsibilities.

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 (a school of the Vedas, or to the traditional texts followed by a school) to whom one belongs.

Both the sacred thread and the Upanayanam ceremony are known by different names in different languages.


# Language Name of the ceremony Word for "Sacred Thread"
1 Sanskrit Upanayanam Yajñopavītam
2 Malayalam Upanayanam Poonool (IAST: Pūnūl)
3 Tamil Poonal Poonal (IAST: Pūnūl)
4 Telugu Odugu Jandhyamu
5 Kannada Upanayana, also, colloquially Munji, Munjvi Janivaara
6 Hindi Janeu/Upanayam Janeu/Upanayam
7 Marathi Munja Zaanva
8 Konkani Munji Jannuvey
9 Bengali Poita/Upanayan Poita
10 Oriya Brata Ghara Poita
11 Nepali Bratabandha Janai
12 Kashmiri Mekhal Yonya
13 Assamese Lagundeoni Lagun
14 Tulu Upanayanam Janivaara
15 Gujarati Yagnopavit Janoi

Buddhism and Upanayanam

In Buddhism, the Upanayanam is referred to by the Pali term, "opanayiko" which is one of the six characteristics of the Dharma. It is related to refuge in the Triple Gem and practicing the Eightfold Path, which leads one through to the four stages of Enlightenment. In the Visuddhimagga, it is called "opanayiko" or "upanayanam" as the practice leads "onwards to Nirvana."

In Buddhism, a person of any age, sex or caste can obtain the Upanayanam through refuge in the Triple Gem and practicing the Eightfold Path.

References

  • Barua, Bharati. A Study of the Socio-Religious Ceremony of Upanayana Investiture with Sacred Thread in the Sutras and the Dharmasastra. Punthi Pustak, 1994. ISBN 978-8185094779
  • Bhaskarananda, Swami. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion, 2nd edition. Viveka Press, 2002. ISBN 978-1884852046
  • Karpātri, Swami. Vedārtha-Pārijata. Calcutta: Sri Rādhā Krishna Dhanuka Prakāshan Sansthan, 1979.
  • Prasad, R.C. Upanayana, 1st ed. edition. India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997. ISBN 978-8120812406

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