One of the most imperative components of the Hindu religion are the rites that believers take part in. The upanayana rite is fulfilled in a young man’s life around the age of puberty (Pandey 112). The upanayana, otherwise known as the sacred thread ceremony, entails presenting the young man with a sacred thread initiating him into society, and symbolizing the transfer of spiritual knowledge. This rite of passage, or samskara, as it is known in Hinduism, is one of about forty rites that are to be completed by individual Hindus. Samskaras began around the Vedic period and there are various motives to fulfill them, including popularity or cultural motives (Pandey 25). In Hinduism, the total number of rites suggested to be completed is very high, so quite often only the most popular sixteen are accomplished in one’s lifetime (Pandey 23). The upanayana rite is acknowledged as one of the most important rites in Hinduism. The significance of this rite can be observed as mainly a social transformation into adult society (Smith 65). This rite marks a rebirth of those classified as a twice-born, or dvija, in Hindu society (Pandey 112). The ceremony of receiving the sacred thread is a distinguishing act, as it gives entrance to the study of the Vedas, under supervision of a teacher (guru) (Smith 65).
A considerable number of people in the Hindu population are capable of completing samskaras, but distinct portions are denied. The Brahmin, Ksatriya, and Vaisya classes are the three highest ranked classes in Hindu society, and therefore are allowed the privilege of completing the upanayana rite, along with numerous other rites (Smith 65). There is a belief in Hinduism that all people are born in the Sudra class, and remain there until they complete the samskaras that are appropriate based on a person’s gender, age, and other qualifications (Olson 153). The two classes excluded from the initiation are the Sudras and the Untouchables, as they are not considered worthy of such a ceremony by Hindu standards (Orenstein 11). For the upanayana rite, there are also certain ages at which the rite should be performed. For Brahmins, the suggested age is eight, for Ksatriyas the age is eleven, and it is twelve for the Vaisyas (Smith 68). Scholars have also noted that the initiation tends to be performed at various times of the year depending on the seasons. The upanayana rite tends to be performed more often in the spring for the Brahmins, the summer for the Ksatriyas and the autumn for the Vaisyas (Smith 69). Each season is a representation of the nature and professions of the various classes, which hints towards the power they hold to auspiciousness (Pandey 127). Hindus take auspiciousness very seriously, and like any major rite performed, the most auspicious time of the year for each class was taken into consideration before the rite could be fulfilled (Pandey 127). While the class distinctions are necessary for deciding whether or not a person is to be denied completing this samskara, there is also the issue of gender. The Upanayana rite is exclusively for males, and often, the equivalent ceremony for females is the marriage rite, or vivaha (Pandey 158).
Traditionally, the day before the initiation tended to be reserved for trying to appease certain auspicious deities and gods. The young men have their bodies smeared with yellow substance that may be representative or symbolic of the Sudra class that everyone initially is born into in Hindu society (Olson 153). That evening, the individual is also ordered to stay silent for the entire night. The morning of the ceremony, the young man and mother eat a final meal together (Pandey 128). Throughout this meal, the child is fed as he rests on his mother’s lap, and this represents the last meal to be had by the hand of his mother. This symbolizes the entry into the student stage of life, where the mother and son would be separated for a length of time (Pandey 129). The last meal had by the hand of his mother is said to be symbolic of the child’s original birth and embryonic state, as he is entering the world through a second birth (Olson 154). Following the meal, the young men was to have his head shaved, as well as take part in a ceremonious bath; bathing in Hinduism is a spiritually purifying act that is fundamental to samskaras (Pandey 129).
The next important detail for the upanayana rite was ensuring the young men had the proper clothes and accessories for the ceremony. They were offered an “upper garment (uttariya), a lower garment (vasa), a girdle (mekhald), [and] a staff (danda)…” (Smith 70). Based on early literature, it is known that deerskin (a type of ajina) was initially utilized as the piece for the upper garment. Since the textile revolution, it has been more common to use a cotton cloth in the ceremony. Both the upper garment and the girdle were made of different materials for the various classes. The Brahmins quite often wore girdles made of Munja grass, the Ksatriyas wore girdles made of bow string, and the Vaisya of wool. While these materials may be used for the ceremony, soon after it is usually exchanged for a cotton girdle (Pandey 130-131). The girdle is representative of the upper three classes being dvijas, and allowed to participate in the rite (158 upanayana). The girdle is also meant to be a symbol of protection, strength and could be distinguished as symbolic of the student who is “reborn” (Smith 71).
The final and arguably most essential piece to the upanayana ceremony was the sacred thread. This sacred thread (yajnapavita) is often made of different materials depending on which class the young man belonged to. Quite often the yajnapavita was to be cotton for the Brahmins, hemp for the Ksatriyas, and wool for the Vaisyas (Prasad 115). There could also be variation in the colour of the thread worn by each class. Sometimes it was seen that the Brahmins wore white, Ksatriyas wore red and the Vaisyas wore yellow (Pandey 132). The young man wears the sacred thread over his right shoulder when presented it during the ceremony (Prasad 115).
During the ceremony the guru recites the Savitri mantra, which is in Gayatri verse to the new student (Olson 154). Following the learning of the Gayatri mantra, the individual has his first kindling of the sacred fire. This worship of the sacred fire begins at the upanayana and continues throughout the individual’s lifetime (Pandey 138). The fire lit at the rite was not to be put out at the end of the ceremony, but maintained through the marriage ceremony and further becoming the householder fire for the remainder of the young man’s life (Smith 81). Finally, when the young man is ready to begin his life in the student stage, he dawns his new ascetic clothing, staff and accessories (Olson 159). In doing so, he is informing everyone that he is ready to live the full adult life, and ready to be taught from the wisdom of the Vedas. Initially, the key rationale for undertaking the upanayana rite was for educational purposes. Sources concur that many young men completed the rite when they wanted to approach a guru for higher education. In more recent times, the rite has evolved to become more of a religious achievement rather than an educational one (Pandey 116).
Not participating in this rite entails the probable excommunication from the group, as well as exclusion from the opportunities and advantages that are offered upon completion of the upanayana rite (Pandey 112). Without the fulfillment of the rite, one is also denied the privilege of marrying an Aryan girl after reaching that stage of life. Not only are those who do not complete the upanayana rite excluded from society, there are also other negative implications, such as being detested by fellow Aryans (Olson 157).
The upanayana rite marks the end of one era, and the beginning of another. Gone is the childhood of a boy and replacing it is the future of a man, as well as preparation for a time as a student. The union between the teacher (guru) and the student upon entrance into this stage of life is marked by prayer, as well as the touching of the heart. This emphasizes the sacred relationship between student and teacher, and also the harmony required for the relationship (Pandey 136). While the upanayana rite can be considered symbolic in many ways, in Hinduism, the belief is that the boy is truly awakened into a man upon completion of the ceremony (Olson 162). Symbolism is a major part of Hindu beliefs and there is no shortage in the upanayana rite. During the initiation, the girdle represents chastity and obedience, as the young man is about to embark on a journey of education (Olson 158).
As one of the sixteen most commonly performed samskaras, the upanayana is one of a sequence of initiations ensuring the student is eligible to receive Vedic education (Smith 77). The upanayana rite is an important ceremony for Hindu tradition as it initiates study of the Vedas, participation in adult society, as well as the daily fire kindling sacrifice. In the past, this sacrament has been highly influential and significant in Hindu religion, and remains so to this day.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Olson, Carl (1977) “The Existence, Social, and Cosmic Significance of the Upanayana Rite.” Numen, XXIV (August), 152-160. Brill Publishing.
Orenstein, Henry (1965) “The Structure of Hindu Caste Values: A Preliminary Study of Hierarchy and Ritual Defilement.” Numen, IV (January), 1-15. Brill Publishing.
Pandey, Rajbali (1969) Hindu Samskaras: Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments. Delhi: Molital Banarsidass Publishers.
Prasad, Ramacandra C. (1997) “Upanayana.” The Upanayana: The Hindu Ceremonies of the Sacred Thread. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Smith, Brian K. (1986) “Ritual, Knowledge, and Being: Initiation and Veda Study in Ancient India.” Numen, XXXIII (June), 65-89. Brill Publishing.
Related Topics for Further Investigation:
Rite of Passage
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:
Article written by: Michelle Osborne (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.