Before we embark on a study of our traditional literature—what we call śruti and smṛti—with our modern conception of history, seeking the absolute chronology of a certain treatise and the relative chronologies of a set of treatises, we must acquaint ourselves with both the Indian conception of history as well as the traditional accounts of our history.
The Indian view of history was to emphasize value over fact. Since the ancient Indians conceptualized a cyclical view of time, instead of fretting over who, when, and where they focussed on what and why. The earliest treatises of Sanātana-dharma are community texts; various ṛṣis and ṛṣikās contributed to the knowledge bank, which was codified only later. There was a huge gap between the thought and the documentation, unlike in the modern world.
While the Vedas are largely a result of this community consciousness, some of the sūtras and most of the smṛtis are compositions of individuals (like Manu, Yājñavalkya, and Parāśara). Tradition was the focal point of the ancient society and slowly that shifted to the individual. Knowledge production, which was a community endeavour, gradually became the enterprise of a brilliant individual.
The different sections of the Vedas—Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and Upaniṣads—have a great deal of overlap. When they started recording the wisdom, it was not strictly demarcated in this manner. The Īśavāsyopaniṣad is found entirely in the Saṃhitā text; we find Saṃhitā passages in the Upaniṣads; the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad is found in the concluding portion of the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa. Just as the contents are not watertight, even the chronology of composition is not strictly defined to the different sections. There are some sections of the Upaniṣads that are older than some sections of the Saṃhitās.
For the sake of convenience, we may designate certain ‘periods’ to represent the time when a significant portion of a text or a group of texts was composed – the Saṃhitā period, the Brāhmaṇa period, the Upaniṣad period, the Sūtra period, and the Smṛti period in order of relative chronology, the first being the oldest. However, one must remember that such historical divisions are merely for the sake of convenience and do not represent a distinct era. The Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas as well as the Sūtra and Smṛti literature were constantly growing and evolving through those years. By the time of the Buddha, all these treatises were more or less codified and so we can say that they have remained largely unchanged from about two and a half millennia. Given that the earliest portions of the Ṛgveda-saṃhitā can be dated to the fourth millennium BCE, there was a period of three and a half thousand years of intellectual activity in ancient India that produced much of the extant śruti and smṛti literature. Needless to say, several ancient works have been lost over the course of time.
Now let us look at the historical development of this saṃskāra. The upanayana seems to be an ancient practice—at least three thousand years old—given that we see similarities (sacred girdle and shirt) in the ancient Zoroastrian scriptures and that the word ‘brahmacārī’ appears in the Ṛgveda-saṃhitā itself.
During the Brāhmaṇa period and the Sūtra period, the upanayana saṃskāra merely connoted entry into school. By the time of the Smṛti period, the original idea of education was overshadowed by the idea of the second birth of the boy (by the learning of the Gāyatrī mantra), the first being the physical birth. We see this in some of the verses from that period:
“In the Vedic birth of the student, symbolized by wearing girdle made of Muñja-grass, Sāvitrī is the mother and the teacher is the father.”
“A man has three births – the first birth from his mother, the second birth is during the upanayana, and the third when he is initiated for a yajña.”
“The ācārya makes him (the boy to be initiated) to be born from vidyā (i.e. by imparting Vedic knowledge); that birth is superior since the parents only produce the body of the child.”
The definition of upanayana changed. It now meant the establishment of a connection between the student and Sāvitrī, performed by the ācārya. Then the word ‘upanayana’ was used merely in the physical sense of the parents taking the boy to the ācārya. The saṃskāra was for taking the child to the teacher. The emphasis gradually moved away from education when it was thought that the upanayana was the rite that initiated the boy into the vows of the guru, to the Vedas, the rules and regulations of continence, and worship of deities.
In its modern avatar, the educational sense is wholly detached from the saṃskāra. The boy is invested with a sacred thread, which itself seems to be a later development, used as a substitute for the upper garment. The sign of the second birth became the performance of a rite rather than commencing spiritual education.
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>
 Needless to say, they learnt this from nature; days and nights are cyclical, as are the lunar fortnights and the seasons
 HDS, pp. 268-74 and HS, pp. 112-15
 See Sacred Books of the East, Vol. V. Pahlavi Texts, Part 1: The Bundahis, Bahman Yast, and Shâyast Lâ-shâyast. Tr. West, E. W. Ed. Müller, Max. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1880. pp. 285-90
 Brahmacārī carati veviṣadviṣaḥ sa devānāṃ bhavatyekamaṅgam. Tena jāyāmanvavindad bṛhaspatiḥ somena nītāṃjuhvaṃ na devāḥ. – Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 10.109.5
O deities! Bṛhaspati, the all-pervading one, moves like a brahmacārī who pervades all yajñas; he is only one part of the deities – i.e. of yajñas; by his service to the deities Bṛhaspati secured a wife, me, Juhū, who was formerly under the care of Soma. (HDS, p. 268)
 See Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa 11.5.4
 While the notion of a second birth is seen in the Vedas itself, the focus was on education:
Ācārya upanayamāno brahmacāriṇaṃ kṛṇute garbhamantaḥ. Tam rātrīstisra udare bibharti taṃ jātaṃ draṣṭumabhisaṃyanti devāḥ. – Atharvaveda-saṃhitā 11.5.3
The ācārya, taking charge of him, makes the Vedic student an embryo within; he bears him in his belly for three nights; the deities gather unto him to see him when born! (HS, p. 113)
 Taddvitīyaṃ janma. Tadyasmātsa ācāryaḥ. Vedānuvacanācca. – Gautama-dharma-sūtra 1.8-10
 Tatra yad brahmajanmāsya mauñjībandhanacihnitam. Tatrāsya mātā sāvitrī pitā tvācārya ucyate. – Manu-smṛti 2.170
 Māturagre’dhijananaṃ dvitīyaṃ mauñjibandhane. Tṛtīyaṃ yajñadīkṣāyāṃ dvijasya śruticodanāt. – Manu-smṛti 2.169
 Sa hi vidyātastaṃ janayati. Tacchreṣṭhaṃ janma. Śarīrameva mātāpitarau janayataḥ. – Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 126.96.36.199-18 (HDS, p. 189)
 See Aparārka’s commentary on Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.14
 Upa samīpe ācāryādīnāṃ vaṭornītirnayanaṃ prāpaṇamupanayanam – Bhāruci quoted in Vīra-mitrodaya Saṃskāra-prakāśa Vol. 1, p. 334
 Gurorvratānāṃ vedasya yamasya niyamasya ca. Devatānāṃ samīpaṃ vā yenāsī nīyate’sau. – Abhiyukta quoted in Vīra-mitrodaya Saṃskāra-prakāśa, Vol. 1, p. 334
 Cf. Yajñopavītaṃ kurute sūtraṃ vastra kuśarajju vāte – Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 2.10; Tṛtīyamuttarīyāryī vastrā’lābhe tadiṣyate – Devala quoted in Vīra-mitrodaya Saṃskāra-prakāśa, Vol. 1, p. 415