Upanayana – Definition of the Word

This article is part 4 of 15 in the series Upanayana

The word ‘upanayana’ means ‘leading closer’ or ‘taking nearer.’ It could mean ‘leading closer to wisdom’ or ‘taking near the ācārya for the sake of learning.’[1] Another meaning of the word ‘upanayana’ is ‘additional eye’ or ‘the eye of knowledge.’ It is variously called ‘upayana,’[2]brahmopadeśa,’ ‘upānaya,’ ‘mauñjī-bandhana,’ and ‘baṭu-karaṇa,’ ‘vrata-bandha.’[3] In any case, it refers to taking a young boy formally into student-hood.[4] The boy goes to the ācārya and says, “I have come unto brahmacarya. Initiate me unto it (literally, ‘lead me near it’). Let me be a student, impelled by Savitṛ (the Sun deity).”[5] Then he is formally designated as a brahmacārī, a student. From this moment onwards, he is to tread a path of discipline and sustained study in his chosen field.

In a broader sense, this is a ceremony that signifies a formal entry into school. While the Upanayana was the typical ritual for young boys who were embarking on the study of the Vedas, there were similar rites for young boys and girls commencing their education in different fields. For instance, a student of dance would offer worship to the anklets. Even today, in the Hindustani music tradition, there is the ritual of binding the gaṇḍa to the wrist of the student by the guru.[6]

The word ‘upanayana’ can be explained both as (a) taking the boy near the ācārya and (b) the ritual by means of which the boy is taken near the ācārya. The first sense appears to have been the original one and when an extensive ritual came to be associated with upanayana the second came to be the sense of the word.[7] Upanayana is defined as a saṃskāra that is ordained by revelation for a vidyārthi (one who wants to learn).[8] Alternatively, upanayana is defined as the saṃskāra that involves the teaching of the śruti—i.e. the Gāyatrī mantra—to a vidyārthi.

The Upanayana Saṃskāra[9]

In many cultures, a ceremony marks the entry of a child into adulthood. The youth is welcomed into the fold through a ritual that has spatio-temporal relevance to a given tribe or society. The primary aim of such a ritual is to initiate the youth into the community and make him/her an active citizen of the land.[10]

[caption id="attachment_13943" align="alignleft" width="333"] Image courtesy:- Google Image Search[/caption]

While the rite of passage in many of the primitive societies consisted merely of a physical exercise—be it a test of endurance or circumcision—the Hindu scheme of educating the youth marked a great advance in the history of civilization, moving from solely physical fitness to intellectual and cultural fitness as well in order to be a part of the community. Refinement of the individual at all levels – physical, mental, spiritual – was sought. It is to the credit of the ancient Hindus who made universal education the indispensable test and consequently an insignia in the community.[11] Our ancient ṛṣis believed that we are born pure—as children of immortal bliss[12]—but over time, we lose our native purity; in order to embark on serious study of the Vedas, it was necessary to be born again, and the rite of passage signified that second, spiritual birth.

The original purpose of the Upanayana saṃskāra was the enrolment of a child in school, which basically consisted of living in a guru’s house (gurukula) as part of his family, looking after his needs, learning from him, and spending time on rigorous study. The Upanayana was the saṃskāra of one who desires to learn.[13] At the start of every branch of the Veda, the Upanayana was performed.[14] In the early days, people underwent the Upanayana when approaching a guru for learning a new branch of philosophy.[15] One can imagine that the ritual during those days was quite straightforward and not as elaborate as it became in later years.

The study of the Vedas was seen as the greatest aim of the Upanayana. The guru, having initiated the śiṣya with the mahāvyāhṛtis (‘great utterances’), was expected to teach him Vedas and the rules of conduct.[16] Over time, the performance of the Upanayana ritual and the Vratādeśa (the orders to follow specific rules and regulations) became the primary focus and education was pushed to a secondary position. In modern times, only the ritualistic aspect has remained and much of the Vratādeśa is ignored.

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] Atharva-veda-saṃhitā 11.5.3—’Upanayamāno brahmacāriṇam’—uses the word ‘upanayana’ in the sense of ‘taking charge of a student’ (HS, p. 115)

[2] Kāṭhaka-gṛhya-sūtra 41.1

[3] Ādityadarśana in his commentary on Kāṭhaka-gṛhya-sūtra 41.1 says that ‘upānaya,’ ‘upanayana,’ ‘mauñjī-bandhana,’ ‘baṭu-karaṇa,’ and ‘vrata-bandha’ are synonyms (HDS, p. 268)

[4] Dr. Kane says that some of the gṛhya-sūtras bring out this sense clearly. For instance, see ‘Brahmacaryamāgāmiti vācayati brahmacāryasānīti ca’ – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.6; also see Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 2.10.21. The phrases ‘brahmacaryamāgām’ and ‘brahmacāryasāni’ occur in the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa; see Āpastamba-mantra-pāṭha 2.3.26 for ‘Brahmacarya...prasūtaḥ.’ Viśvarūpa on Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.14 remarks ‘Vedādhyayanāyācāryasamīpanayanamupanayanaṃ tadevopanāyanamityuktaṃ chandonusodhāt. Tadarthaṃ vā karma.’ See Mātṛdatta’s commentary on Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1.1 (HDS, p. 268)

[5] Athainamabhivyāhārayati. Brahmacaryamāgāmupa mā nayasva brahmacārī bhavāni devena savitrā prasūtaḥHiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.5.2

[6] To get an overall picture, a deeper study of folk culture is essential, as is the understanding of our cultural memory. Unfortunately, without going into the details and without understanding the nuances, several customs of Hinduism have been branded elitist and exclusivist

[7] HDS, p. 269

[8] Upanayanaṃ vidyārthasya śrutitassaṃskāraḥĀpastamba-dharma-sūtra

[9] HS, pp. 111-17

[10] In the third episode of the popular 1988 television series The Power of Myth (‘The First Storytellers’), mythologist Joseph Campbell discusses about the different rites of passage seen in various cultures. The transcript of the whole episode can be found here: http://billmoyers.com/content/ep-3-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth...

[11] HS, p. 112

[12]amṛtasya putrā… Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 10.13.1

[13] Upanayanaṃ vidyā.arthasya śrutitaḥ saṃskāraḥĀpastamba-dharma-sūtra

[14] Yacchākhīyaistu saṃskāraiḥ saṃskṛto brāhmaṇo bhavet. Tacchākhādhyayanaṃ kāryamevaṃ na patito bhavet – Vasiṣṭha quoted in Vīra-mitrodaya Saṃskāra-prakāśa, Vol. 1, p. 337

[15] Chāndogyopaniṣad 5.2.7 suggests this.

[16] Upanīya guruḥ śiṣyaṃ mahāvyāhṛtipūrvakam. Vedamadhyāpayedenaṃ śaucācārāṃśca śikṣayet. – Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.15



Hari is an author, translator, editor, designer, and violinist with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited some forty books, mostly related to Indian culture.

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