The Essence of the Vedas
The Gayatri mantra is one the most important and powerful mantras in the Vedic Tradition. It is said to contain the essence of the Vedas, and may lead a faithful practitioner to realize the supreme consciousness (Brahman). It can bestow liberation, and the learning and practice of this mantra prepares one and makes one eligible to study the Vedas and Vedic sciences. However, the only proper way to learn the Gayatri mantra is by being initiated in the correct manner, and that process is called Upanayanam.
Upanayanam is a Sanskrit word, that literally means ‘being led closer’ or coming nearer. Closer to what? To the knowledge, to the Master. 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.
The teaching of the Gayatri mantra to the child in this ceremony, signifies the beginning of Vedic studies that are to continue in the years the child would spend in the Gurukula or ‘house of the master’. And because it can only be given by the Guru or Acharya (teacher), it is also called the Guru mantra. The reason that the Gayatri, and any other deeksha mantra (one that requires initiation) needs to be received from a master, is that without that initiation it will not be (as) effective. When the mantra is received from someone with the mantra siddhi (perfection), that mantra is ‘alive’, and will bestow its benefits on you. It is somewhat like buying a prepaid phone without any balance on the simcard – the phone still works, but you cannot make any calls with it. Anyone can go online and google any mantra, but unless you have learned and received it in the proper manner, it will not yield its actual results and benefits.
Mantra that Protects Life
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)’.
The Gayatri mantra is 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 japa (the repetition of the mantra); the support and prosperity of a grihastha (householder), lies in his 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 japa of the Gayatri mantra.
Another interesting thing is that those who 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 Sacred Thread
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
- responsibility towards the society.
This is because each of these allows the child to undertake the studies. The parents have given birth, raised and sent the child to the Gurukula. The Master takes the child in, and passes on a complete education, that will allow the child to live a successful life as a worthy member of the society. The society feeds the child through the begging rounds, and thus provides material needs, while the child is studying. After completing their studies in this manner, children were ready to become members of the society, fit to take up responsibilities and with the knowledge of leading a happy, healthy and successful life.
The Purification Rites
Upanayanam is one of the traditional samskaras, or ‘purificatory rites’, that are prescribed in the Vedic tradition. These samskaras, sixteen of which are considered 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, that may be obstacles (badhak tattva) and they bestow on us beneficial qualities that will aid us on our journey (sadhak tattva). Most of these samskaras are not practiced regularly 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.
The Upanayanam is the ceremony that marked the end of childhood, and the beginning of studies, for a child. The Upanayanam meant taking certain vows, following certain rules, and taking responsibility. This included rules like remaining celibate during these years of studies, and maintaining purity, by avoiding certain types of food, like meat and intoxicants, for example. The child should also perform the sandhya vandana, or repetition of Gayatri mantra during the three sandhya times – sunrise, noon and sunset – every day.