The Right Age for Conducting Upanayana
There are several varying rules and prescriptions about the age of the boy who is to undergo the upanayana (the boy is referred to as the ‘vaṭu’). What is interesting to note is that the age was counted from conception. From the earliest times we see in ancient India the notion that the age of a child must be counted.
It is prescribed for a brāhmaṇa boy to have his upanayana at age 8 (and not later than 16), a kṣatriya boy at age 11 (no later than 22), and a vaiśya boy at age 12 (no later than 24).
Since the primary occupation of the brāhmaṇas was the study of Vedas, they had to begin their education early on. Kṣatriyas focussed more on governance and vaiśyas on trade, so they started their academic education at a later age. In the latter case, Vedic learning was merely to obtain a wholesome education and not the primary focus. To take a modern example, this is comparable to the diploma students who join the engineering course directly in the second year. Their orientation is more towards practice as opposed to theory.
The age limit (instead of a fixed age) is a practical prescription since not every child will be receptive to learning at a particular age. What was important was that the child was ready to learn and was prepared to dedicate the following ten to twelve years to serious study.
Auspicious Time to Conduct the Upanayana
It was important to identify an auspicious time to perform the Upanayana. A propitious day was selected that did not clash with existing holidays or festive days. Different seasons were earmarked for members of different varṇas – Vasanta (spring) for brāhmaṇas, Grīṣma (summer) for kṣatriyas, and Śarad (autumn) for vaiśyas. The different seasons were perhaps symbolic of the temperament and occupation of members of the different varṇas.
Spring, being a mild season with temperatures that are neither too high nor too low, was symbolic of the moderate and balanced life of a brāhmaṇa.
Summer, being a forceful season with high temperatures, was symbolic of the activity and courage of the kṣatriyas; this was also the period when it wasn’t suitable to engage in outdoor activity like sports or martial training.
Autumn, a season that comes after monsoon was when the commercial life restarted, and thus was symbolic of the trade and the resulting wealth of the vaiśya.
The Upanayana was to be performed during the śukla-pakṣa (bright half of the lunar month) and on an auspicious nakṣatra (major constellation; there are twenty-seven of them), particularly under a nakṣatra the name of which is masculine.
The śukla-pakṣa was generally preferred for religious ceremonies since the ‘bright fortnight’ was symbolic of the brilliance of knowledge.
Selecting the Guru
Since the primary aim of the Upanayana was to gain knowledge and build character, the parents of the boy sought the best possible guru. If the guru himself was lacking in knowledge or was of bad character, how could he guide others?
We see from the writings of some of the law-makers the value they placed upon finding the right teacher:
“If an ignorant person initiates a student, he goes from darkness to darkness. Therefore, one should strive to find a guru who comes of a good family, who is learned, and who is self-controlled.”
“A brāhmaṇa who is learned, from a good family, of good character, and purified by tapas, should initiate a child.”
“One should not choose a guru who is unsteady in his character, for hands besmeared with fat cannot be purified with blood.”
“He alone is fit to be a teacher, who is a brāhmaṇa, totally devoted to the Vedas, who comes of a good family, whose profession is the performance of yajñas, who is pure, who is particular about the study of his own Vedic śākhā and who has no lethargy.”
“An ācārya should be honest, courageous, competent, compassionate towards all creatures, believer in the Supreme, firm in the study of the Vedas and pure in character.”
In the education system of yore, the guru was pivotal to learning. The core syllabus comprised the Vedas and the Vedāṅgas (auxiliary subjects that were studied in order to understand the Vedas correctly). The instructions were oral and had to be committed to memory. There was also a great deal of flexibility in the educational scheme.
The qualifications of the ācārya as well as the prerequisites of the boy who seeks to become a brahmacārī have been discussed in great detail in our dharma-śāstras.
Further, once the guru was selected and the guru accepted the brahmacārī, the parents had not much role to play in his education (unless of course the father himself was the guru). The complete responsibility of the child was taken by the guru.
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>
 HDS, pp. 274-76 and HS, pp. 117-20
 See Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 10.2, Śāṅkhyāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.1, Baudhyāna-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.2, Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1, Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 2.10.1, Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.14, and Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 126.96.36.199
 See Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2, Āśvalāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 1.19, Śāṅkhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.1, Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5, Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 11, Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 2.10, Manu-smṛti 2.36, and Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.11
 HDS, p. 276 and HS, pp. 127-28
 Vasante brāhmaṇamupanayati grīṣme rājanyaṃ śaradi vaiśyaṃ... – Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 11.5.6; also see Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 188.8.131.52 and Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1
Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1 says that upanayana can be conducted for everyone in Śiśira (winter)
 See Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra (1.1.5, Sacred Books of the East, Volume 30, p. 137) and Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1 (‘Āpūryamāṇapakṣe puṇye nakṣatre viśeṣeṇa puṃnāmadheye’)
 HS, pp. 125-26
 Tamaso vā eṣa tamaḥ praviśati yamavidvānupanayate yaścāvidvāniti hi brāhmaṇam. Tasminnabhijanavidyāsamudetaṃ samāhitaṃ saṃskartāramīpset. Tasmiṃścaiva vidyā karmāntamavipratipanne dharmebhyaḥ. – Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 184.108.40.206-13
 Kumārasyopanayanaṃ śrutābhijanavṛtavān. Tapasā dhūtaniḥśeṣapāpmā kuryāddvijottama. – Śaunaka
 Na yajayed vṛttihīna vṛṇuyācca na taṃ gurum. Nahi majjākarau digdhau rudhireṇa viśudhyataḥ. – Hārita
 Vedaikaniṣṭhaṃ dharmajñaṃ kulīnaṃ śrotriyaṃ śucam. Svaśākhāyāmanālasyaṃ vipraṃ kartāramīpsitam. – Vyāsa
 Satyavāk dhṛtimān dakṣaḥ sarvabhūtadayāparaḥ. Āstiko vedanirataḥ śucirācārya ucyate. Vedādhyāpanasampanno vṛttimān vijitendriyaḥ. Dakṣotsāhī yathāvṛtaḥ jīvanehastu vṛttimān. – Yama
 The six Vedāṅgas are – i. Sikṣa (phonetics, phonology), ii. Vyākaraṇa (grammar), iii. Chandas (prosody, poetic meter), iv. Nirukta (semantic etymology), v. Jyautiṣa (astrology, astronomy), and vi. Kalpa (rituals, liturgy, ethics, sociology, polity, traditions, worship, etc.)