Upanayana in the Saṃhitās
Some of the characteristics of the upanayana described in the gṛhya-sūtras are seen in the Ṛgveda-saṃhitā itself. The sacrificial post (yūpa-stambha) is praised as a young person – “Here comes the youth, well-dressed and encircled (the boy by his mekhalā and the post by its rasana); he, when born, attains eminence; ṛṣis, full of devotion to the deities in their hearts and entertaining happy thoughts, raise him up.”
The word ‘brahmacarya’ is mentioned twice in the Ṛgveda-saṃhitā in the sense of the life of a religious student. There is also a reference to a student who has just performed his upanayana saṃskāra.
An entire sūkta in the Atharvaveda contains a larger-than-life praise of the brahmacārī and brahmacarya. We get from it several details about the upanayana saṃskāra. The Vedic student was called ‘brahmacārī’ and the teacher was called ‘ācārya.’ Here is a gist of the sūkta – “The brahmacārī incessantly covering (the world by his glory) roams in the two worlds; the gods have the same thoughts (of grace and favour about him; he fills his teacher by his austerities.” It then says, “The teacher leading (the boy) near him makes the brahmacārī like unto a foetus.” The next verse states that the heaven and the earth are the ‘samidh’ (the fuel stick) of the brahmacārī and that the brahmacārī by his samidh, mekhalā (girdle), and life of hard work fill the world with austerities. It further tells us that the brahmacārī wears the skin of a black antelope and has an unshaven face. The broad earth and the sky – these were believed to be first bought as bhikṣā (alms) by the brahmacārī. It goes on to say that the brahmacārī offers samidh into fire, (or if fire is no available) to the sun, to the moon, to the wind, or into waters. Dr. Kane says, “This hymn thus brings out most of the characteristic features of the brahmacārī and of upanayana (viz. ajina, mekhalā, offering of samidh, begging and a life of hard work and restraint).” Perhaps the upanayana was performed at an earlier age for the boy in the age of the Sūtras compared to that of the Saṃhitās.
Upanayana in the Brāhmaṇas
The Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa contains several details about the life of brahmacāris and they greatly resemble those explained in the later gṛhya-sūtras. Here is a brief summary: The boy goes to the ācārya and says, “I have come unto brahmacarya” and “let me be a brahmacārī.” The ācārya asks him, “What is your name?” Then the teacher takes him near (upanayati). He takes hold of the boy’s hand with the words: “You are the brahmacārī of Indra; Agni is your teacher, I am your teacher, O Rāghava!” Then he consigns the boy to the care of the elements. The ācārya tells him, “Drink water. Work in the guru’s house, put a samidh in the agni (sacred fire). Do not sleep during day-time.” He repeats the Sāvitrī (mantra sacred to Savitṛ). Formerly it was repeated a year after the boy came as a brahmacārī, then at the end of six months, twenty-four days, twelve days, three days; but one should repeat to the brāhmaṇa boy the verse at once (on the very day of upanayana); the teacher repeats it to him first each pada separately, then the half and then the whole. After the student was taught the Gāyatrī mantra, the teacher had to observe continence for three days.
When the brahmacārī enters student-hood, he gives a fourth part of himself to Agni, to Death, to the ācārya, and to himself. By offering samidh to agni, he secures freedom from the first. Through bhikṣā, he secures freedom from the second. By working in the ācārya’s house, he secures freedom from the third. The brahmacārin protects the ācārya, his house, and his cattle, with the idea that otherwise he might be taken away from them. After the brahmacārī finishes student-hood and upon the completion of samāvartana, he should not beg for alms.
Upanayana in the Upaniṣads
By the time of the Upaniṣads, the concept of the four āśramas was probably established and brahmacarya—the life of a student—became an institution. The importance of a teacher was recognized even for the highest wisdom. Even in this period, the upanayana often perhaps just meant going to a guru and seeking admission as a pupil. However, the admission was not open to all. The applicants had to fulfil certain prerequisites as laid down by the guru. A famous verse states that knowledge should not be imparted to the disbelieving, to the wicked, and to the vicious ones.
The brahmacārī lived and ate in the guru’s house possibly for free; and in exchange took care of the needs of the guru, like tending his cattle, looking after the agni, begging for food, etc. The guru was given the highest respect. Dedication and devotion to the guru was deemed necessary for the highest kind of knowledge.
Typically a student started his education when he was twelve and studied until he was twenty-four. However, based on the interest and the ability of the student, it could be shorter or longer. Every time a student approached a new guru, he had to perform upanayana again. This again indicates that the ritual must have been a simple affair during that period.
We learn from the Upaniṣads that the would-be student approached the ācārya with samidh in his hand and requested the teacher to take him into his fold. He sought entry into brahmacarya. He expressed his willingness to serve the guru. There were some ceremonies that were part of the upanayana even then. When Aśvapati Kekaya was approached by Prācīnaśāla Aupamanyava and four others who carried fuel in their hands (like young students) and who were grown-up householders and teachers of Veda, ‘he (Aśvapati) without submitting them to the rites of Upanayana began the discourse.’ When Satyakāma Jābāla tells the truth about his gotra (lineage) to Gautama Hāridrumata, the latter says “Dear boy, fetch the samidh, I shall initiate you! You have not swerved from the truth.”
Students in former ages approached the guru for brahmacarya only using words (i.e. without any further solemn rite or ceremony). In the most ancient times it is probable that the father himself always taught his son. However, from the times of the Taittirīya- saṃhitā itself the student went to a guru and stayed in his house. Uddālaka Āruṇi, a profound philosopher, sends his son Śvetaketu to a teacher to learn the Vedas. In fact, the āśrama of brahmacarya has been described as ‘living as a brahmacārī in the house of a guru, mortifying his body in the guru’s house till his end.’
We also learn from the upaniṣads that the guru enquired of the student’s gotra so that he may address the student by that name. Typically, the brahmacārī had to beg for food, look after the fire of his guru, and had to tend his guru’s cattle.
To be continued…
Thanks to Pradeep Chakravarthy for getting me to write this essay. Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna, who have always supported and encouraged me, were kind enough to go through the essay and give their detailed feedback. Shashi Kiran B N, a young scholar-poet went through the essay and offered valuable suggestions. Yet another scholar-poet, Arjun Bharadwaj, helped me with getting some of the reference books needed for this essay. My heartfelt gratitude to all of them.
Achari, Sri Rama Ramanuja. Saṁskāras: The Hindu Sacraments. Srimatham, 2015 <http://www.srimatham.com/uploads/5/5/4/9/5549439/hindu_samskaras.pdf>
Devuḍu. Mahādarśana. Bangalore: Devuḍu Pratiṣṭhāna, 2009
H H Sri Rangapriya Swami’s lecture on the Gāyatrī mantra
Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana: Sandhyāvandana and Gāyatrīmantrajapa. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
Harshananda, Swami. A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. R-Z. Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, 2008
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. Vol. II, Part I. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941
Pandey, Rajbali. Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1969
Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. Vol. 17. Ed. Rao, H. P. Venkata. Mysore: Sri Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamala, 1948-62
Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s seven-part lecture series in Kannada titled Ṣoḍaśa-saṃskāragaḻu at Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) in December 2005
The Sixteen Samskaras <http://cincinnatitemple.com/articles/SixteenSamskaras.pdf>
Āśvalāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 1.19.8—’Alaṅkṛtaṃ kumāraṃ...ahatena vāsasā saṃvītaṃ...’—prescribes that the boy should wear new clothes and should be adorned