Upanayana in the Sūtras and the Smṛtis

This article is part 7 of 10 in the series Upanayana

It was in the Sūtra period that the upanayana saṃskāra seems to have been fully established.[1] Most of the details of the ceremony are laid out in the gṛhya-sūtras. The Dharma-sūtras and Smṛtis have nothing new to say about the ritualistic aspects apart from what has already been said earlier; they primarily develop the social side of the saṃskāra. It was also perhaps during this period that the Upanayana became compulsory for men from the first three varṇas. There was a firm belief that this saṃskāra marked the second birth of the child, after which he was designated as a dvija, ‘twice-born.’ The idea of the second birth was, however, not particular to the Upanayana alone. It was also associated with the initiation performed before a yajña.[2]

During the Vedic period, the significance of being a dvija was spiritual and not social; and not all people of the first three varṇas performed the Upanayana. Perhaps it was a voluntary ceremony for those who wanted to get educated in the traditional way. The ‘upanayanasaṃskāra was perhaps confined to literary and ritualistic pursuits. In a celebrated verse, Āruṇi tells his son Śvetaketu that he should pass through the life of a student, because members of his family did not claim Brāhmaṇa-hood by birth.[3]

By the time of the Sūtra period, upanayana seems to have become mandatory. Education is an essential part of any society or civilization that is progressing.[4] The Upanayana was made compulsory to encourage universal education.[5] The mass of literature and learning was constantly increasing. Different branches of learning evolved. And so, in order to preserve the sacred literature, the services of the entire community were called upon by making the Upanayana compulsory.[6]

Here is a short summary[7] of the Upanayana saṃskāra[8]

The boy holds the teacher’s hand. The teacher offers a homa of ājya (clarified butter made from goat milk) in the agni. He sits facing east, with agni to his right side. The boy sits facing the teacher (i.e. he faces west). The teacher then fills the folded hands of both himself and of the boy with water, reciting the verse “We choose that of Savitṛ!”[9] The teacher drops down the water in his own folded hands on to the water in the folded hands of the boy. Having thus poured the water, he should seize with his hand the boy’s hand together with the thumb of the boy, uttering the verse “By the order of Savitṛ, with the arms of the two Aśvins, with the hands of Pūṣan, I seize your hand, O Rāghava!’[10] The teacher holds the boy’s hand a second time, with the words “Agni is your teacher, O Rāghava!” and then a third time.

The teacher makes the boy look at the sun and recites the mantra “O Savitṛ, the sun deity! This is your brahmacārī! Protect him. May he not die!”[11] The teacher then says, “Whose brahmacārī are you? You are the brahmacārī of Prāṇa. Who initiates you? I give[12] you to Ka (i.e. to Prajāpati).” With the half verse “The young man, well-attired and dressed, came here,”[13] the teacher makes him turn to the right. With his two hands placed over the boy’s shoulders, the teacher touches the boy’s heart and repeats the latter half of the verse.[14] Wiping the ground around the agni, the boy silently puts a samidh in the agni – it is said in the Vedas that ‘what belongs to Prajāpati is done silently,’ and the brahmacārī now belongs to Prajāpati. The samidh may also be offered with the mantra – “To Agni I have brought a samidh, to the great Jātavedas; may you increase O Agni by the samidh, and may we increase through brahman (prayer), svāha!”[15]

Then the boy touches the fire and wipes his face thrice with the words, “I anoint myself with lustre! May Agni bestow on me insight, offspring, and lustre! May Indra bestow on me insight, offspring, and vigour! May the sun bestow on me insight, offspring, and radiance! What your lustre is, O Agni, may I become lustrous by it. What your strength is, O Agni, may I attain strength by it. You’re your consuming power is Agni, may I acquire consuming power by it.”[16]

Having worshipped Agni with these mantras, the student should bend his knees, embrace the teacher’s feet, and request him, “Recite, sir, recite, sir, the Sāvitrī!” Seizing the student’s hands with the upper garment (of the student) and his own hands the teacher recites the Sāvitrī, first pāda by pāda, then hemistich by hemistich and finally the whole verse. The teacher should make the student recite the Gāyatrī mantra as much as it is possible for him.

The teacher places his fingers upturned on the student’s heart and says, “I place your heart[17] unto duty to me. May your mind follow my mind! May you attend on my words single-mindedly! May Bṛhaspati appoint you unto me!”

Having tied the mekhalā (girdle) around the student and having given him the daṇḍa (staff), the teacher instructs him about the rules and regulations of being a brahmacārī[18] – “You are a brahmacārī. Sip water, perform service, do not sleep by day, learn the Vedas by relying entirely on the guru.” The student should beg for food in the evening and the morning. He should put a samidh into the agni in the evening and the morning. He should announce what he has obtained as alms to the teacher. He should not sit down (but should be standing) for the rest of the day.[19]

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. Saskāras: 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 Saskāras: 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>



[1] HS, pp. 114-15

[2] Ajāto ha vai tāvatpuruṣo yāvanna yajate. – Jaiminī-upaniṣad-brāhmaṇa 3.14.8

[3] …Śvetaketo vasa brahmacaryaṃ na vai somyāsmatkulīno’nanūcya brahmabandhuriva bhavatīti. – Chāndogyopaniṣad 6.1.1

[4] HS, pp. 122-23

[5] Even today, many governments around the world push for a universal education policy.

[6] Altekar, A S. Education in Ancient India. Benares: Nand Kishore & Bros., 1944. pp. 11-12.

[7] HDS, pp. 281-83

[8] From the Āśvalāyana-gṛhya-sūtra

[9] Tat saviturvṛṇīmahe vayaṃ devasya bhojanam. Śreṣṭhaṃ sarvadhātamaṃ turambhagasya dhīmahi. – Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 5.82.1

[10] Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā 2.11, Taittirīya-saṃhitā

A similar verse occurs in Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.3.24 and 2.9.5, Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.11.17, Mānava-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.5, Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.28, and Kāṭhaka-gṛhya-sūtra 41.16

[11] Deva…mā mṛta. This mantra also occurs in the Ekāgni-kāṇḍa of Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.3.31 (Asāveṣa te deva sūryabrahmacārī tai goṃpāya sa mā mṛtaiṣa rta sūrya putrassudīrghāyussa mā mṛta) and in Mānava-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.5, Śāṅkhyāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.18.4 and others

[12] The words kasya…paridadāmi occur in Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.3.29, Mānava-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.5, and Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2 (with variations in all)

[13] Yuvā suvāsāḥ parivīta āgāt sa u śreyān bhavati jāyamānaḥ… – Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 3.8.4

[14]taṃ dhīrāsaḥ kavaya unnayanti svādhyo manasā devayantaḥ. – Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 3.8.4

[15] Agnaye samidhamāhārṣaṃ &c. – The first half occurs in Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.6.2, Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.4.3, Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.7.2, Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 2.10.46, and Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.8, all of which have a long latter half like ‘Yathā tvamagne samidhā samidhyase evaṃ māmāyuṣā...medhayā prajayā’ &c.

[16] Mayi medhāṃ &c. These mantras occur in Taittirīya-saṃhitā and; also in Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra, Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.62 &c.

[17] Mama vrate &c. Those words also occur in Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2, Mānava-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.10, Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra (where we have mama hṛdaye). These words also occur in the marriage ceremony (as addressed by the husband); see Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 1.8

[18] Brahmacāryasi &c. These words (with some additions and omissions) occur in Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.6.14, Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.3, Kāṭhaka-gṛhya-sūtra 41.17, and several others. These are based on the passage—Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa—quoted earlier. In some it is said simply ‘do not sleep’ and this is explained in Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra as ‘Atha yaḥ pūrvotthāyī jaghanyasaṃveśī tamāhurna svapitīti

[19] Anupravacanīya sacrifice is to be performed after a part of the Veda has been learnt; see Āśvalāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.10–16, Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 3.2.46–47




Hari is an author, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Hindu scriptures, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.