By Swami Harshananda
Upanayāna literally means ‘additional eye’.
Religion declares that mokṣa or liberation from the cycle of birth and death is the final goal of life. It is the same as God-realization, resulting in the enjoyment of eternal bliss. Whatever effort is put forth in that direction is called ‘sādhana’. Our body and our mind are the chief instruments in this endeavor. Sanskāra is nothing but the process of purifying and refining these instruments, making them fit for sādhanā.
The word ‘sanskāra’ literally means ‘to do well’. A block of stone when subjected to ‘saṅskāra’ by an expert sculptor becomes a lovely image. Similarly rice, sugar and milk get converted into a delicious pudding in the hands of an expert cook. Basic materials like the block of stone, or, rice, sugar and milk, are called ‘prakṛti’. When the stone-block is broken into pieces or rice becomes putrefied or milk gets sour, they become ‘vikṛti’, become useless. We want saṅskṛti and not vikṛti. We want ‘sanskāra’ which can convert ‘prakṛti’ into ‘sanskṛti’ and not its opposite, ‘vikāra’.
Sanskāras are called ‘sacraments’. These sacraments purify and refine a human being, making him fit for the life here and hereafter. There are sixteen such sacraments termed as Sodaśa-saṅskāras’. Among all the sacraments, upanayāna, vivāha and antyeṣṭi are the most important ones.
Meaning of the Word ‘Upanayāna’
‘Upanayāna’ means ‘leading’ the disciple to the guru or the Vedic teacher. It can also mean providing him with an ‘additional eye,’ the ‘eye of knowledge and wisdom’. In addition to the two physical eyes, he already has to give him a third eye of knowledge and wisdom, through proper education. Consequently, the sacrament of the beginning of formal education also has been called by the same name, i.e., ‘upanayāna’.
‘Mauñjībandhana’ and ‘Brahmopadeśa’
Mauñjībandhana and Brahmopadeśa are two other terms sometimes used to denote this sacrament. Since a girdle made of the muñja grass is tied round the waist of the boy undergoing the upanayāna ceremony to support the kaupīna or loin-cloth, the ceremony itself is termed ‘Mauñjībandhana’. The word ‘Brahma’ stands for the Vedas and also for the Gāyatrīmantra which contains their quintessence. Since, in this sanskāra, the Gāyatrīmantra is taught to the novice, the word ‘Brahmopadeśa’ is quite an appropriate expression for the rite also.
Important Steps of Upanayāna
The novice undergoing upanyāna is called ‘vaṭu’. The prescribed age-limit for the vaṭu is between 7 and 16 years. It is best to perform upanayāna in the spring season around March-April. There are quite a few injunctions and steps in the process of the upanayāna ceremony. A few of them or the more important ones may be set out here.
- On the day prior to the upanayāna, the parents of the vatu should perform the worship of Gaṇeśa and the family deity.
- On the day of the upanayāna, the vaṭu and his mother have to eat from the same leaf-plate. It is for the last time that they can eat like this. It signifies the end of the childhood days of the vatu and a life of unbridled conduct. Hereafter he cannot act and behave as he likes, but should subject himself to socio-religious norms of conduct.
- Then he has to get his head shaven, leaving a śikhā at the appropriate place, take bath and wear a new set of dress comprising kaupīna dhoti and valli.
- A girdle made of muñja grass also should be worn round the waist. It is this that is technically called mauñjībandhana. This indicates the beginning of a life of brahmacarya or self-control of which celibacy is the most important aspect.
- Next comes the wearing of the yajñopavīta or the sacred thread.
- The ācārya makes the vaṭu wear it with appropriate mantras so that it hangs from the left shoulder to the right loin.
- This sacred thread comprises three strands of strings and the knot resembles a cow in the sitting posture.
- At the time of the upanayāna a small piece of kṛṣṇājina is also tied to this sacred thread. In the ancient days people used to wear the skin of a black antelope or an upper cloth during yajñas or sacrifices.
- The yajñopavīta is a remnant of that practice. When the vaṭu wears it, he should think,
‘From today my life is like a yajña or sacrifice. I will dedicate it to the welfare and service of the society!’
- The three strands stand for the three Vedas thereby reminding him that he has to study them and incorporate their message in his life. They also represent purity and control of body, speech and mind, which should be dedicated to the service of the society.
- The next step is holding the daṇḍa or the staff made of palāśa wood. Actually the vatu is expected to keep it throughout his student-life as an inseparable companion.
- It stands for dama or control of the sense-organs at the psychological level.
- In his day-to-day life at the gurukula, it helps him to take care of the cows of the household and also comes in handy in times of dangers as a weapon for self-protection.
- After the vaṭu circum-ambulates the sacred fire and offers sacrificial fuel into it, the ācārya administers him certain vows. They are:
- Performing ācamana before any religious rite
- Control of speech
- Avoiding sleep during the day
- Offering fuel sticks into the sacred fire
- Then the ritual of ‘Sāvitrī Upadeśa’ is offered. It is the heart of the whole sacrament. It means imparting the Gāyatrīmantra. ‘Savitṛ’ or ‘Savitā’ means God the creator. He is identified with the sun. He is the Supreme Lord residing in the heart of the sun. Hence the real name of the mantra is ‘Sāvitrīmantra’. Since it was revealed to the sage Viśvāmitra, for the first time in the Vedic metre known as the Gāyatrī, the mantra itself has been identified with it and has popularly come to be known as the ‘Gāyatrīmantra’. The ācārya has to teach it to the vaṭu with proper intonation until he picks it up completely.
- Then the fuel sticks are offered into the duly consecrated fire that has already been prepared by the ācārya with proper mantras signifying prayers for long life, brilliance, intellectual acumen, general competence, name and fame and also good offspring.
- It is concluded by the begging of food by the vaṭu from his own mother and other elderly ladies of the family. Since he has to beg his food as long as he lives in the gurukula, this ritual begging is a trial. The food got by begging is to be offered to the ācārya first and consume only that given to him as his share.
Meaning of the Term
The junction between night and day and that between day and night are called ‘sandhyā’. This time slot is widely known as dawn and dusk respectively. The former is known as ‘prātassandhyā’ and the latter as ‘sāyamsandhyā’. The worship of Surya to be performed during these two periods is called ‘Sandhyā-vandana’. In addition one more is added, the ‘mādhyāhnika’, a rite that is to be performed during noon when the sun is right above our head.
The vaṭu who has undergone the upanayāna ceremony, as also the house-holders among the dvijas or those belonging to the first three castes, are expected to perform the sandhyā ritual three times a day as a sacred duty. These three times can be classified as:
- The prātassandhyā
- The mādhyāhnika
- The sāyamsandhyā
All these three have many steps in common. However, in practice, only the first and the last have survived. The scriptures have provided for this modification.
After taking bath and wearing the traditional religious dress one should apply the religious marks like the vibhuti or the urdhvapuṇḍra as per one’s family traditions on the forehead and sit on the seat.
Though there are differences in the procedure and the various steps to be followed as per differing traditions, the six steps common to all are delineated here. The detailed procedure has to be learnt from the family priest or the elders in the family. These six steps are:
Ācamana is the ceremonial sipping of water from the right hand cupped in the shape of the face of a cow, to the chanting of appropriate mantras like ‘Keśavāya svāhā’ and touching specified parts of the body for ritual purification. This ācamana is a general purification act that precedes every religious undertaking.
It is control of the prāṇic energy through the regulation of the breathing process as detailed in the works on yoga. It's three steps are:
- Puraka - inhalation
- Kumbhaka - retention
- Recaka - exhalation
The Gāyatrīmantra along with the vyāhṛtis is used in prāṇāyāma to keep time. Prāṇāyāma helps in the control of mind also.
‘Mārjana’ literally means cleansing or purifying. It consists of sprinkling of water on specified parts of the body with the mantra ‘āpo histhā ’. This process will make the body ceremonially pure and fit for the ritualistic act.
Any object fit for being offered in ritualistic worship is ‘arghya’. However, in a more technical sense, it is the offering of water taken in the two hands cupped together, by repeating the Gāyatrīmantra and addressing the Sun-god. This is just to show our gratitude to the Sun-god who is our primary life-support.
This is the most important part of the Sandhyā ritual. Its primary steps are:
‘Nyāsa’ means ‘to keep or to place’. It is aimed at filling the fingers of the hand and other limbs like the head and heart with the divine power of the deities. Dhyāna is meditation on the deity as per the detailed description given in the hymn called ‘dhyānaśloka’ while repeating it. The goddess Gāyatrī within the orb of the sun is the deity here. After dhyāna comes japa or repetition of the Gāyatrīmantra. While doing japa, dhyāna on the form of the goddess should be continued. It is better to repeat the mantra 1008 times or at least 108 times per sitting.
Repeating the prayer addressed to the deity Gāyatrī in the orb of the sun in the standing posture facing the sun is callled ‘suryopasthāna’. This is the last rite of bidding farewell to the goddess after having invoked her and satiated her through japa. Apart from the sun, the mountain Meru is sometimes described as her abode.
In the ancient days, the brahmacārins used to stay in the houses of their teachers and study the Vedas. After a few months of study and a short holiday, when they resumed their study, they were expected to perform a short ritual called ‘upākarma’. This ritual signifies the restarting of their studies. The word ‘upākarma’ means ‘upakrama’ or ‘prārambha’ or beginning. Now-a-days, it has remained just as an annual ritual. The procedure comprises the following steps:
- Saṅkalpa - religious resolve
- Worship of Gaṇapati
- Oblations to nine deities like Sāvitrī, Brahmā and Sraddhā
- Homa with a mixture of barley and curds with some specific mantras from the Rgveda
- Wearing of a new yajñopavīta and discarding the old one
- Preferably in the waters of a river or a tank
The same mantra and procedure for changing the yajñopavīta given here can be used during other times to discard a worn-out or a dirty or a broken one and wear a new one.
‘Gāyatrī’ protects one who chants it correctly as per the rules of Vedic intonation. This is the etymological definition of the word. It is also called ‘Sāvitrimantra’ since it is a prayer addressed to Savitṛ or God the creator. The Sun is also called Savitṛ or Savitā, because it is due to him or the power of God in him that the whole world and all of us are able to live. This mantra was revealed for the first time to the sage Viśvāmitra in a new meter called ‘Gāyatrī’. Hence the mantra itself came to be known as ‘Gāyatrīmantra’. It is also called ‘Sāvitrī-mantra’ since it concerns the deity Savitṛ.
The Mantra and Its Meaning
The first part of the mantra com¬prises the three vyāhṛtis:
Om bhur-bhuvas-suvah (Orin, bhuh, bhuvah, suvah).
When the Gāyatrī is used for prāṇāyāma, the number of vyāhṛtis increases from 3 to 7. Literally ‘vyāhṛti’ means ‘uttering’. Brahmā the creator, is said to have uttered these at the beginning of creation. Hence the appellation ‘vyāhṛtis’. The second part is the Sāvitrīmantra:
tat savitur-varenyam, bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhiyo yo nah pracodayāt II
Sometimes, a third part called ‘Gāyatrī-śiras’ is also added. Its use also is in the process of prāṇāyāma. It is:
Om āpo jyoti raso’mrtam brahma bhurbhuvassuvarom II
However, in the mantra used for japa, only the three vyāhṛtis and the Sāvitrī mantra are utilized.
A general summary of the mantra is:
- We meditate upon the divine effulgence of Savitā signified by the Praṇava or Oṅkāra.
- May he impel our intellects in the direction towards himself.
- Whatever we want to achieve in our life, the first and foremost requirement is that our intellect, our understanding, must be in an excellent form.
- Repetition of the Gāyatrīmantra with faith and reverence will help not only in cleansing the mind but also in achieving greater concentration.
The mode and method of its repetition must be learnt from a competent teacher.
Puraścaraṇa is the technical name given to a particular ceremonial mode of repeating the Gāyatrīmantra in order to secure certain special fruits or results. The following are the usual steps involved in it:
- Daily rituals like the Sandhyā-vandana
- Worship of the goddess Gāyatrī
- Japa of Gāyatrīmantra
- Homa - fire ritual
- Tarpaṇa - offering of water ceremonially
- Feeding of the brāhmaṇas
However, it should be undertaken under the guidance of experts.
- Vikṛti means ‘deformed’.
- Vikāra means distortion, deformation.
- Soḍaśa means 16.
- Vivāha means marriage.
- Antyeṣṭi means death-rites.
- Upa means near; nayana means leading, taking.
- Upa means additional, nayana means eye.
- Śikhā means tuft of hair.
- Kaupīna means loin-cloth.
- Valli means upper cloth.
- Ācārya means chief priest.
- Kṛṣṇājina means skin of a black antelope.
- Palāśa wood means Butea frondoza.
- Ācamana means ceremonial sipping of water with certain mantras.
- Surya means the sun.
- Sandhyā-vandana means ‘obeisance to the Sun-god during the periods of sandhyā’.
- The religious dress to be worn is dhoti and chadar or uttariya.
- This seat is kept aside and to be used only for such religious purposes.
- It is Savitā or God the creator, in the orb of the sun.
- Upasthāna means standing.
- Brahmacārins means Vedic students.
- Gāyatrī means trāyate.
- Person chanting the Gāyatrī mantra is called as gāyantam.
- Savitā means God, the creator of the three worlds, the earth, the heaven and the intervening space as indicated by the three vyāhṛtis.
- Praṇava or Oṅkāra means existing in the orb of the sun.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore