Upanayana – A Gentle Introduction

This article is part 1 of 10 in the series Upanayana

You and I are constantly changing.

Throughout our lives, we change in many ways: at the level of the body, in the emotional sphere, in the mental realm, in our various relationships with people, the roles that we play in society, and in many other ways.

This change is continuous and unstoppable, yet we recognize certain ‘phases’ in our life. Let us consider education as an example. We learn new things every day but there are definite phases such as ‘primary school,’ ‘middle school,’ ‘high school,’ and so on. Transition from school to college is a defining moment, as is graduation, getting a job, or getting promoted in the ranks. If we consider our family life, the shift from being single to being married is a defining moment, as is the birth of a child.

When we see our life as a whole, we might divide it into phases such as ‘being a student,’ ‘working in a job,’ ‘getting married,’ ‘having children,’ ‘graduation of the children,’ ‘retirement from active social life,’ and so on. In the case of an artist, he might visualize his life with his numerous art-works as markers of the different phases. An athlete might see her life with her Olympic records as indicators of phases. The idea of identifying the defining moments of human life is an ancient one. We see this in many ancient cultures across the world.

The most ancient civilization in the world—as we know it—is that of Sanātana-dharma, a name that truly befits the ancient cultural heritage of India. Loosely translated, it means ‘the eternal way of life’ or the ‘timeless life-principle.’ For the sake of convenience, we may also choose to call it the Hindu civilization. The earliest work from this civilization that is available today is called the Ṛgveda-saṃhitā, which is also the oldest known treatise in the world. Portions of this work are more than six thousand years old!

Spread over three to four thousand years emerged a body of knowledge called the Vedas. These works were composed in the Sanskrit language by various ṛṣis (seer-poets) and ṛṣikās (seer-poetesses). The culmination of this Vedic knowledge is seen in the works known as the Upaniṣads, which form the concluding portion of the Vedic works. Apart from the Vedas, there is a whole body of knowledge encompassing various branches of study; this includes arthaśāstra (politics and economics), āyurveda (health and wellness), gāndharva-veda (arts), kāmaśāstra (enjoyment of life in an artistic way), sthāpatyaveda (architecture), śikṣā (phonetics), vyākaraṇa (grammar), chandas (prosody), nirukta (origin of words), kalpa (rituals, law, social rules, and cultural customs)[1], jyautiṣa (astrology and astronomy), itihāsa (history and epic literature), purāṇa (old episodes about families of deities, seers, and kings as well as creation; easily accessible wisdom), and darśana (schools of philosophy). While the Vedas were designated as śruti (that which was heard), the rest of the body of knowledge was designated as smṛti (that which was remembered).[2]

In the early days, it was quite a challenge to survive. There was so much uncertainty about even the basic necessities like food and shelter. This is the reason our ancient people valued life. Our great ṛṣis and ṛṣikās felt that every aspect of human life was sacred – and what better way to recognize this sanctity than to celebrate life! We must be joyful for what we have received without forgetting the various forces that combined to make it happen. This was the view of the ancient Indian seers.

Today we take for granted the ‘elements’ – earth, wind, water, and fire. For the ancients, the earth was not always cultivable or even habitable. Winds were uncertain, water was not always potable. The discovery of fire was a giant leap in the history of humans – to receive heat and light simultaneously was a boon to good living and long life. It must have taken millennia for the ancients to bring the elements under some control in order that they may be useful. It was, most certainly, a fight against nature. But the great ṛṣis and ṛṣikās of India did not make an enemy out of nature. They realized that if on the one hand nature was ferocious, on the other hand it was life-giving. They saw themselves as children of nature, as someone to be nourished and protected by nature and not as someone to conquer and overpower nature. As a result, they revered nature. It wasn’t just ‘fire’ but ‘agni,’ the sacred fire that is itself a deity and also the means to take our offerings to other deities. The sun became Savitṛ, the Sun deity. Wind was hailed as Mātariśva. A piece of firewood became the samidh, the fuel offered to agni. In this manner, every aspect of nature was deified, thus fulfilling a twofold purpose of expressing gratitude to nature and establishing a rich emotional connect with it. The Sun was their father and the rivers were their sisters; the earth was their mother and the winds, their brothers. The whole of life, with all its myriad connections, was transformed into a wonderful festival.

While the whole of life is sacred and ought to be celebrated, it might not be practical for everyone to have such a mindset. In the midst of desires, pain, sorrow, jealousy, and other limiting factors, it becomes difficult to even think about celebration. However, when there is a social and cultural prescription for a celebration to mark a significant point in one’s life, it creates the possibility of people coming together and joyfully participating in the growth of a loved one. Now, which are these significant points?

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.

Bibliography

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>

Footnotes

[1] The word ‘kalpa’ comes from ‘Kalpante vā anena vedāḥ’ – it helps us understand the Vedas correctly, it ensures that we execute the Vedas in the right manner. The treatises of Kalpa are typically composed in the sūtra style, which is typically aphoristic, unambiguous, and succinct. The four broad categories of Kalpa treatises are – i. Dharma-sūtra (rituals, duties, and responsibilities at a societal level), ii. Gṛhya-sūtra (household rituals and duties), iii. Śrauta-sūtra (rituals and worships of the Vedas), and iv. Śulba-sūtra (details of the construction of the altar for yajña, the Vedic fire ritual)

[2] In general, śruti refers to the Vedas and smṛti refers to the rest of the works, but in the domain of Kalpa, the word ‘smṛti’ is used to denote comprehensive works that deal with law, governance, society, tradition, etc. Smṛtis are digests that consolidate the Dharma and Gṛhya sections of Kalpa. There are close to forty smṛtis including Manu-smṛti, Yājñavalkya-smṛti, and Parāśara-smṛti

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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.