UPANAYANA SAMSKAARAM (SACRED THREAD CEREMONY)
(By N.R.Srinivasan, Nashville)
Samskaarams or sacraments are rituals, by virtue of whose performances the life of the Hindu receives a higher sanctity. Samskaarams also create an awareness of the attainment of social status privileges for the individual. There are in all 40 samskaarams of which 16 are popularly performed at present.
Mahanaaraayana Upanishad says: Gayatree chaturvimsatyaksharaa tripadaa shatkukshih panchaseershah Upanayane viniyogah || The deity Gayateree has twenty-four syllables, comprised in three feet, six sheaths or cavities and five heads. It is employed in Upanayana, or initiation into Vedic studentship. This is the origin of Upanayana samskara. Gayatree is also known as Saavitree and Sarasvatee. The Supreme Being as the indweller and impeller of all Creation is known as Savitar and hence the passage in praise of him is called Saavitree. The Vedas are represented as a lake or Saras which gives the waters of life and hence Gaayatree as the essence of Vedas is called Sarsvatee. These two terms magnify Gaayatree as the object of worship.
Upanayanam is a samskaaram, in which the young boy is given the sacred thread and acquires the right to study Vedas. The young boy is initiated into Gaayatri Mantra. By this ritual, a young boy becomes eligible to begin the life of Brahmacharya, to reside in the Gurukulam away from his parents for a period of twelve years, and to study Vedas. Brahmacharya is the conduct by which one attains or reaches Brahman (Self-realization). It is a movement towards God-realization or Atman. Brahmacharya is meant for both males and females. In the Vedic society, n only boys but girls also were initiated to Brahmacharya through the Upanayana samskaaram. According to Haarita Samhita, girls studied the Vedas and were known as Brahmavadins, women well versed in Vedas. This is still practiced in Kerala by some Brahmin communities. Rigveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Gopatha Brahmana, Satapata Brahmana, Taittereya Aranyaka, Chandogya Upanishad, Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad contain references to Upanayana samskaara and mantras connected with the ceremony. All the Sandhyavandana mantras are contained in Mahaanarayan Upanishad including Pranahuti Mantras(mantras chanted during meals). The derivation of the word Upa-nayanam in samskrit language is "vedam gurum upa sameepam niyate yena karmana tat—those acts by which one is led near to the Veda and the teacher".
The Upanayana samskaaram includes receiving the sacred thread (yagnopaveeta dhaaranam), the last meal with the mother (pankti bhojanam), shaving the head as a symbol of giving up egos (vapanam), bachelorhood dress attiring (vatu vastra dhaaranam), initiation into the Gayatri Mantra (brahmoepadesam; Gayatri mantroepadesam), the teacher taking assurances from the student to perform duties of brahmacharya regularly with devotion (guroerupadesam and shishya vignaapanam), holy fire sacrifice (samidaadaanam; homam) etc. The ceremony ends with bhikshaatanam and the blessings of the elders (aaseervaadam). The student during his entire life of brahmacharya has to adequately raise the satvic food (food mild on stomach-vegetarian) through alms, as mendicants do, for him and his guru, just enough for the day. This is called Bhikshaatanam and the first bhiksha (giving alms) is by the mother at the Upanayana ceremony.
The boy is now called the DWIJA, twice born. While the first birth marks the arrival of the Jeeva (Life) into the world, the second birth is the young boy's initiation into a spiritual life of study as prescribed in the Vedas. For this second life Savitri is the mother and the teacher is the father.
After the ceremony the boy leads a life of Brahmachari, a student-bachelor for a period of twelve years, during which he completes his Vedic education under the guidance of the Guru, his teacher, away from home at the Vedic school called Gurukulam. The appropriate age for Upanayanam is eight, age appropriate to take up long education, but not later than sixteen.
Samavartanam is a samskaaram which marks the end of the brahmacharya life style. It is a samskaaram by which one comes back well educated. This is an optional samskaaram and is performed only if the person chooses to take the next stage of life, "Grihastaasrama", married life. Instead one may also become a sanyaasi, ascetic, observing life-long celibacy, naishtika brahmacharya, like Sankaracharya.
Om bhur-bhuvas-suvah, tat-savitur varenyam, bhargoe devasya dheemahi, dheeyoe yoe naha, prachoedayaat.
Oh Lord! Giver of life; Remover of sorrows; Benefactor of happiness and Creator of the Universe! Thou art most luminous and adorable. We meditate on Thee! May Thou inspire and guide our Intellect in the right direction.
MANTRA BEFORE TAKING MEALS (PARISHECHANA MANTRA)
Satyam tvartena parishinchaami--"Amritoepa-staranamasi"
Oh Immortal Lord! Thou art the 'upastarana' or the sheet spread for the food (You are my support).
This mantra is prescribed for sipping water before food. Vishnupuraana says that liquid substance should be taken at the beginning and at the end of the meal.
Then food is first swallowed in small bits without biting, offering to five vital Life-forces (pancha- praanaas) and to the Supreme (Brahman) through the medium of notional fire sacrifice to the fire-god in the stomach called 'Jatharaagni' with the mantra:
Om Praanaaya swaaha, Om Apaanaaya swaaha, Vyaanaaya swaaha, Udhaanaaya swaaha, Samaanaaya swaaha, Om Brahmani Aatma amritatvaaya Sri Govindaaya namah.
MANTRA AT THE END OF MEALS (UTTARAAPOESANA MANTRA)
You are the cover of the form of nectar. (You are my shelter. May I live under your protection)!
This mantra is chanted in sipping of water after taking food. It is to be chanted holding the water in the palm of the hand for uttaraapoesana (sipping water after food).
These mantras are from Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad.
"OM VISVAANI DEVA SAVITUR DURITAANI PARAASUVA
YAD BHADRAM TANNA AASUVA"
Oh Lord! Creator of the Universe and dispenser of true happiness! Remove all our miseries, vices and sorrows and give us whatever is good!
Whatever may be the details of worship after Upanayana, through the daily ritual of Sandhyavandana the Supreme is worshiped through the Gaayatree mantra. In support of this the following citation from Smriti may be recalled:
"Na bhinnaa pratpadyeta gaaayatree brahmanaa saha |
So ahamasmeet upaasaita vidhinaa yena kenachit ||
Gayatree chuintayed astu hritpadme samupasthitaam |
Dharma-adharma-vinir-muktih sa yaati paramaam gatim ||
The principal part of this devotion consists in the meditation of Gaaytree in the orb of Sun visualized in one's own heart as non-different from Paramaatman. The ritualistic details are secondary.
PROGRESSIVE STEPS OF THE UPANAYANAM RITUAL
- Invocation of Lord Ganesha (Ganesha pooja)
- Invoking holy waters to the pot (Kalasa pooja)
- Sanctification of the place and the assembly (Punyaahavachanam)
- Declaration of the purpose of the ritual (Sankalpa)
- Request the assembly to grant permission to conduct the ceremony
- Wearing ceremony of the nine-stranded sacred thread (Yagnoepaveeta dhaaranam)
- Tying the holy wrist band for the function (kankana bhandanam)
- Sprouting the grains in pots by the ladies (symbolic of environmental care)
- The last meal given by the mother before entering the school with relatives and friends (Pankti-bhoejanam)
- Shaving the head to enter into austere life (Vapanam-Mundan)
- Bathing ceremony with holy waters
- Preparation of the holy fire (Agnikunda pratishthaapanam)
- Stepping on the stone and dressing up with the attire of Brahmachari—Bachelorhood attire (Vastra dhaaranam)
- Blessing the boy with water by the Guru (Udakaanjali)
- Initiation to 11 mantras of 11 deities for protection against mishaps during vedic studies (Agni; Varuna; Soma; Savitr; Saraswati; Mritya; Yama; Gada; Antika; Oshadhi; Prithvi )
- Initiation by guru in privacy to Suprja mantra in the ears of the boy
- Main sacrifice to fire by the boy—11 sacrfices in all—eleven mantras of which two of them are chanted by the Guru
- Initiation to Gayatri Mantra (Brahmoepadesam)
- Looking at the Sun with Sun-mudra offering prayers to the Sun-god—"Tacchakshuh" mantra for longevity (Tacchakshuh-saradassatam)
- Fire sacrifice (homam; samidaa daanam)
- Smearing with vibhuti or naamam at specific spots in the body chanting mantras (Bhasma/naama dhaaranam)
- Assurances to Guru by the boy to perform Brahmacharya duties regularly and with devotion (Prativachanam)
- Going round for alms starting with the mother (Bhikshaatanam)
- Concluding ceremonies—blessing of the bachelor by the gathering—honoring guru and the gathering—Guru is honored by giving away the new clothe worn by the boy for the ceremony with reverence
- Waving of the vermillion and sacred grain containing water by the ladies (kumkuma akshata aarati)