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Upanayana(Sacred Thread ceremony) (lit. "near sight", pronounced upanayana in some languages), also called "sacred thread ceremony", is commonly known for being a Hindu Sanskara, rite of passage ritual, where the concept of Brahman is introduced to a young boy. Traditionally, the ceremony was performed to mark the point at which boys began their formal education.

In Hinduism, the ceremony is performed on boys of at least 7 years of age from the Brahmin varna, of at least 13 years from the Kshatriya varna, and of at least 17 years from the Vaishya varna. 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. The child then becomes qualified for life as a student or Brahmachari, as prescribed in the Manusmriti.

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

In Buddhism, which in its inception rebelled from any superficial show of ritualistic practices, relied on finding the true meaning of "upanayana" through meditative practices as outlined by Buddha. In Buddhism, the upanayanam is associated with the Triple Gem refuge and constant meditative and moral practices as outlined in the Eightfold Path. In Buddhism, this practice is universal and open to all regardless of age, caste lineage, race or sex.

Yajñopavītam - the "Sacred Thread"

Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are called dvijas meaning "twice born". A man of these castes is born once in the womb of his mother and again during the Upanayana when he learns the Gayatri Mantra.

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(savya) 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

It denotes that one who wear the sacred thread should be pure in his thought, word and deed. The sacred thread reminds a Brahmachari 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 three threads again represent the manifestation of Brahman as Srishti, Sthithi and Vinasa. 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. Upavītam is also called savya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra &c.).
  • 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 and is used by men when performing the death ceremonies of an elder. Prachīnavītam is also called apsavya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra, Manusmriti, etc.).

In some communities, later, at the occasion of wedding, a further three threads are added to make for a 6-thread bunch. In some 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. 3 original threads (each consisting of 3) make up 9 threads, to which 3 are added for wife and 1 for children, making a total of 13 individual threads in some communities.

Ancient Hindu texts specify an age for the Upanayana ceremony based on the caste (7 for Brahmins, 11 for Kshathriyas etc.) Upanayanam marks the start of learning of "Brahman" and Vedic texts. The age for Upanayanam supports this as Brahmins devote their life in pursuing the knowledge of "Brahman" and hence makes sense to start early and continue for a longer time. Kshathriyas on the other hand study additional skills and only go through "Brahman 101". In the communities where three threads are added at the time of wedding, there is another interpretation.

Once a student achieves a certain level of Brahma knowledge ("Brahma Vidya"), the guru adds 3 more strings signifying "Graduation" and the student goes on to study. In South Indian wedding ceremony, the addition of the 3 more string is followed by "Kashi Yatra". This signifies the Yatra student intends for advanced study. At this point, the father of the bride, convinces the youth to get married and then go to Kashi (Varanasi) with his new bride. In modern days, the entire ceremony is packaged within the wedding ceremony.

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 one belongs to.

The sacred thread has close and essential connection with the concept of pravaras related to brahmin gotra system, which reflects the number of most excellent Vedic rishis belonging to that particular gotra to which the wearer of sacred thread belongs. Generally, there are either three or five pravaras. While tying the knots of sacred thread, an oath is taken in the name of these excellent sages. The full affiliation of a Vedic brāhamana consists of (1) gotra, (2)sutra (of Kalpa), (3) shakha, (4) pravaras. (Example :) A brahmana named 'X' introduces himself as follows: I am 'X', of Shrivatsa gotra, of Āpastamba sutra, of Taittiriya shākha of Yajurveda, of five pravaras named Bhārgava, Chyāvana, Āpnavan, Aurva and Jāmdagnya (This example is based upon the example given by Pattābhirām Shastri in the introduction to Vedārtha-Pārijata, cf. ref.)

Regional variations

The ceremony is called Munja or Mounji-Bandhana (lit. Tieing of munja)in the state of Maharashtra. This name for the ceremony finds its origin in the name of a grass variety called Saccharum munja (English - Bengal Cane ) This grass is used to make a girdle which is then tied around the waist of the child. In Gujarat, the sacred thread is known as the "janoy."

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

# Language Name of the ceremony Word for "Sacred Thread"
1 Sanskrit Upanayanam
उपनयनम्
Yajñopavītam
यज्ञोपवीतम्
2 Malayalam Upanayanam
ഉപനയനം
Poonool
പൂണൂല്‍
3 Tamil Poonal
பூணல்
Poonal
பூணல்
4 Telugu Odugu,Upanayanamu
ఒడుగు,ఉపనయనము
Jandhyamu
జంధ్యము
5 Kannada Munji
ಮುಂಜಿ
Janivaara
ಜನಿವಾರ
6 Hindi Janeu
जनेऊ
Janeu
जनेऊ
7 Marathi Munja
मुंज
Jaanave
जानवे
8 Konkani Munj,Munji
मुंज,ಮುಂಜಿ
Janve,Jannuvey
जानवें,ಜಾನುವೆ
9 Bengali Uponayon
উপনয়ন
Poité
পৈতে
10 Oriya Brata Ghara
ବ୍ରତଘର
Poita
ପଇତା
11 Nepali Bratabandha
ब्रतबंध
Janai
जनई
12 Kashmiri Mekhal
معخل,मेखल
Yonya
يoنيآ,योनया
13 Assamese Lagundeoni
লগুনদেওনি
Lagun
লগুন
14 Tulu Upanayana
ಉಪನಯನ
Janivaara
ಜನಿವಾರ
15 Gujarati Yagnopavit
યજ્ઞોપવિત
Janoi
જનોઈ
16 Pahari Janeyu
जनेयु
Janeyu
जनेयु
17 Sindhi Janya
जानया
Janya
जानया

Modern Gurukulas

Upanayana also means taking somebody near 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 with and without government help, without taking any fees from students (who must be brahmacharis).

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": nibanam upaneti ti ariya maggo upaneyo...opanayiko,"It leads on to nibanna, thus the Eightfold Path is onward leading...so it is leading onwards."

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

  • Vedārtha-Pārijata by Swāmi Karpātri,Published by Sri Rādhā Krishna Dhanuka Prakāshan Sansthan,Calcutta,1979;(Sañchālakas : Vedasāstra Research Centre, Kedārghat, Vārānasi)
  • Shanti-kun, Haridwar:awgp.org;(Indian Scientific Religion basis)

See also

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