Upanayanam is one of the traditional samskaras, or 'purificatory rites', that are prescribed in the Vedic way of life. These samskaras, sixteen of which are considered as the main ones, mark the turning points, where we enter a new stage of our life. The samskaras are said to make us eligible for attaining the highest good, in two ways: they remove the impurities we have acquired, and they bestow on us beneficial qualities. Most of these samskaras are not practiced regularly anymore these days, but some of them – even if not always in the traditional and proper manner – are still part of the daily lives of many, such as the ceremonies for birth, marriage and the death rites.
Upanayanam means 'moving closer'
Upanayanam is a Sanskrit word, that literally means 'moving closer'. Moving closer to what? To the knowledge, to the Master. The upanayana samskara marked the end of childhood, and the beginning of studies, for a child. As a child, there are no rules, and you can do whatever you want. However, upanayanam meant taking certain vows, following certain rules, and taking responsibility. For example, one will not sleep during the day, one will remain celibate during this time, and one will avoid certain types of food. The child should also perform the sandhya vandan, or repetition of gayatri mantra during the three sandhya times – sunrise, noon and sunset – every day.
Gayatri Upadesha: initiation into the Gayatri mantra
The upanayanam is also called gayatri upadesha or brahmopadesha, which mean 'initiation into the gayatri mantra' and 'initiation into the Brahman' respectively. This refers to one part of the ceremony, where the young child receives the gayatri mantra from the Guru. This mantra is said to be the essence of the Vedas, and to lead a faithful practitioner to realize the supreme consciousness (Brahman). The teaching of the gayatri mantra to the child in this ceremony, signifies the beginning of the Vedic studies that were to continue in the following years that the child would spend in the gurukul.
The meaning of the gayatri mantra is very beautifully explained in the ancient scriptures. It is defined as 'gayantam trayate iti gayatri', which means 'that which protects the one who sings it, or chants it, is called gayatri'. It is also described as 'prana vai gayastan trayati tasmat gayatri', which means 'that which saves, or protects, life, is gayatri'. This mantra was also said to bestow different benefits during different phases of one's life. Thus, it was said that the tejas, or 'radiance', of a brahmachari (student), lies in his gayatri japa (the repetition of the gayatri mantra); the support and prosperity of a grihastha (householder), lies in his gayatri japa; and the strenght and solace of a vanaprastha (someone who has handed over the responsibilities of the household to his children, and lives a more solitary life), lies in his gayatri japa.
Upanayana samskara is a 'second birth'
Another interesting thing is that those that have completed the upanayana samskara, are referred to as dvija, or 'twice-born'. This is because the upanayanam is considered as a second birth for the child, the first being through the mother and the father, and the second being through the gayatri mantra (mother) and the Master (father). The child is born again through the knowledge, and is now eligible to study the Vedas and to participate in the various rituals and ceremonies that are part of the Vedic life. As a part of the initiation, the child is given a sacred thread to wear, called the yajnopavita or janeo. This thread became one of the main characteristics by which the 'twice-borns' could be recognised.
The meaning of the sacred thread or yajnopavita
The yajnopavita or janeo, also called the 'sacred thread', is made up of three strands of thread, which are said to symbolize many things. One explanation given is that they stand for the three responsibilities that the child takes upon itself: responsibility towards the parents, responsibility towards the knowledge or the Master, and responsibility towards the society. This because each of these allows the child to undertake the studies. The parents have given birth to the child, raised it, and sent it to the gurukul, or 'house of the Master'. The Master takes the child in, and gives it a complete education, that will allow it to live a successful life as a worthy member of the society. The society feeds the child, whenever it goes on its begging rounds, and thus provides for its needs, while the child is studying. After completing their studies in this manner, children were ready to become a member of the society, fit to take up responsibilities and with the knowledge to lead a happy, healthy and successful life.
To make this beautiful knowledge available once more for the sincere seekers, we organize Samuhik (group) Upanayanas where anyone above 8 years old with a sincere desire to follow this tradition can be initiated into this beautiful and ancient tradition.
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