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Upanayanam in a Tamil Iyer household

Upanayana is the initiation ritual by which initiates are invested with a sacred thread, to symbolize the transference of spiritual knowledge.


Significance of the Yajñopavītam


In Hinduism and Buddhism, a Yajñopavītam (Sanskrit: यज्ञोपवीतम्, yajñopavītam) is a thin consecrated cord, composed of distinct cotton strands, worn to symbolize coming of age. The sacred Yajñopavītam is known by many names (varying by region and community), such as Poita, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar. The other Sanskrit term for it is Avyanga. The sacred Upnayanam ceremony (Sanskrit: उपनयनम्, upanayanam) that invests the wearer with the sacred Yajñopavītam is often considered a socially and spiritually significant rite (or samskara). It has varying formats across Hindu-Buddhist communities and is also called by varying names, including Upanayana, Munj, Janeu rasm and Bratabandha. Among Hindus, the ceremony was once associated with the higher castes. Though far less common, it is also sometimes conducted for girls. In some regions of modern North India, the ceremony is often conducted as an immediate precursor to wedding ceremonies, instead of during adolescence, while in other regions it is almost always associated with adolescence.


Symbolism of the sacred thread

he strands of the sacred thread have symbolic meaning that varies by community and region. The sacred thread has three strands. A bachelor wears only one sacred thread where as a married man wears two of them making it six strands. If the man has married two or more women, he wears three, which makes it nine strands.

Three debts

The three strands sometimes symbolize three debts (ऋण, rin) that must never be forgotten:

  • the debt to one's teachers (गुरु ऋण, guru rin), i.e. those who have taught the wearer;
  • the debt to one's parents and ancestors (पितृ ऋण, pitr rin), i.e. those who have nurtured the wearer and made possible his existence;
  • the debt to the sages/scholars (ऋषि ऋण, rishi rin), i.e. those who discovered knowledge, both spiritual and secular, over the ages, which now enriches the wearer's life.

In some versions, the debt to the sages is replaced with debt to God (देव ऋण, dev rin). Upon marriage, sometimes the number of strands increases to six, because the man is expected to assume the debts of his wife as well.

Three devis

The three strands may symbolize:


The strands could represent purity in thought, word and deed expected from the wearer.

Three gems of Buddhism

In Buddhism, the sacred thread is associated with the Triple Gem refuge (त्रिरत्न, triratnas; Chinese: 三宝, sānbǎo; Japanese: 三宝, sambō) and constant meditative and moral practices as outlined in the Eightfold Path. The three jewels are:

A Tulu Madhwa Brahmin boy during his upanayana ritual. The thin, yellowed, Yajnopavita thread runs from left shoulder to waist. Note the munja grass girdle around the waist. The peepal tree twig in his right hand marks his entry into the Brahmacharya stage of life.

Upanayana (lit. "leading closer" to the Brahma) is a version of the sacred thread ceremony where the concept of Brahman is introduced to a young boy. Traditionally, the ceremony was performed to mark the point at which boys began their formal education. The ceremony is performed when the boy is seven years old (Gharbheshu ashtame varshe) in the Brahmin varna, at least 13 years in the Kshatriya varna. The youngster is taught during the ceremony the secret of life through Brahmopadesam (revealing the nature of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality) or the Gayatri mantra. The child then becomes qualified for life as a student or Brahmachari, as prescribed in the Manusmriti. According to an appendix of the Manusmriti, girls were allowed to study the Vedas in the previous kalpa (Creation). Orthodox Hindus, however, do not accept this reference, because no Hindu canonical text allows this ceremony for a girl in the present kalpa. However, some sects, especially Arya Samaj, perform this ceremony for girls as well on the basis of this statement.

In Buddhism, which in its inception rebelled from any superficial show of ritualistic practices, relied on finding the true meaning of "upanayana" through meditative practices as outlined by Buddha.

Yajñopavītam - Brahmins and Kshatriyas are called dvijas meaning "twice born". A man of these castes is born once in the womb of his mother and again during the Upanayana when he learns the Gayatri Mantra. The Upnayanam is practiced by the three higher castes in India.

The main point of having gone through the Upanayana ceremony is the wearing of the Yajñopavītam on the body. The Yajñopavītam is circular, being tied end-to-end (only one knot is permissible); it is normally supported on the left shoulder(savya) and wrapped around the body, falling underneath the right arm. The length of the Yajñopavītam is generally 96 times the breadth of four fingers of a man, which is believed to be equal to his height. Each of the four fingers represents one of the four states that the soul of a man experiences: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and knowledge of the absolute.

Yajñopavītam has each consisting of three strands. These represent:

It denotes that one who wear the sacred Yajñopavītam should be pure in his thought, word and deed. The sacred Yajñopavītam reminds a Brahmachari to lead a regulated life with purity in his thought, word and deed. This Yajñopavītam also represent the debt that is owed to the guru, parents and society.

The knot in the middle represent the formless Brahman, the pure form of energy which pervades all. The three strands of Yajñopavītam again represent the manifestation of Brahman as Srishti, Sthithi and Vinasa. The sacred strands of Yajñopavītam illustrates the fact that everything in the universe emerge from and then merge with Brahman.

Ancient texts refer to the wearing of the Yajñopavītam in three forms:

  • One is Upavītam, where the Yajñopavītam is worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm. This is for Gods. Upavītam is also called savya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra &c.).
  • The Second is Nivītam, where the Yajñopavītam is worn around the neck and over the chest. Nivīta form is to be used during Rishi Tharpana, sexual intercourse, answering the calls of nature etc. (-Shadvimsha Brahmana, Latyayana, etc.).
  • The third, Prachīnavītam is where the Yajñopavītam is worn above the right shoulder and under the left arm. This is for Spirits and is used by men when performing the death ceremonies of an elder. Prachīnavītam is also called apsavya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra, Manusmriti, &c.).

In some communities, later, at the occasion of wedding, a further three strands of Yajñopavītam are added to make for a 6-strands in a bunch. In some communities, the custom exists of one thread more being added at the birth of every child. In some interpretations, these strands of Yajñopavītam are intended to constantly remind the man of his worldly responsibilities. 3 original strands of Yajñopavītam (each consisting of 3) make up 9 strands of Yajñopavītam, to which 3 are added for wife and 1 for children, making a total of 13 individual strands of Yajñopavītam in some communities.

Ancient Hindu texts specify an age for the Upanayana ceremony based on the caste (8 for Brahmins, 11 for Kshathriyas, 12 for Vaishyas (Manu Smriti sloka 2:36)) Upanayanam marks the start of learning of "Brahman" and Vedic texts. The age for Upanayanam supports this as Brahmins devote their life in pursuing the knowledge of "Brahman" and hence makes sense to start early and continue for a longer time. Kshathriyas on the other hand study additional skills and only go through "Brahman 101". In the communities where three strands of Yajñopavītam are added at the time of wedding, there is another interpretation.

Once a student achieves a certain level of Brahma knowledge ("Brahma Vidya"), the guru adds three more strings signifying "Graduation" and the student goes on to study. In South Indian wedding ceremony, the addition of the three more string is followed by "Kashi Yatra". This signifies the Yatra student intends for advanced study. At this point, the father of the bride, convinces the youth to get married and then go to Kashi (Varanasi) with his new bride. In modern days, the entire ceremony is packaged within the wedding ceremony.

The sacred Yajñopavītam is supposed to be worn for the rest of one's life after the ceremony has been performed. A new Yajñopavītam is worn and the old Yajñopavītam discarded every year; the change-over ceremony is held on a specific date calculated as per the Hindu lunar calendar. Among Brahmins, this date varies depending on which of four Vedic Shakhas one belongs to.

The sacred Yajñopavītam has close and essential connection with the concept of pravaras related to brahmin gotra system, which reflects the number of most excellent Vedic rishis belonging to that particular gotra to which the wearer of sacred Yajñopavītam belongs. Generally, there are either three or five pravaras. While tying the knots of sacred strands of Yajñopavītam, an oath is taken in the name of these excellent sages. The full affiliation of a Vedic brāhamana consists of (1) gotra, (2)sutra (of Kalpa), (3) shakha, (4) pravaras. (Example :) A brahmana named 'X' introduces himself as follows: I am 'X', of Shrivatsa gotra, of Āpastamba sutra, of Taittiriya shākha of Yajurveda, of five pravaras named Bhārgava, Chyāvana, Āpnavan, Aurva and Jāmdagnya (This example is based upon the example given by Pattābhirām Shastri in the introduction to Vedārtha-Pārijata, cf. ref.)

Regional variations

The ceremony is called Munja or Mounji-Bandhana (lit. Tying of munja)in the state of Maharashtra. This name for the ceremony finds its origin in the name of a grass variety called Saccharum munja (English - Bengal Cane ). This grass is used to make a girdle which is then tied around the waist of the child. In Gujarat, the sacred thread is known as the "janoi."

Upanayana has one more meaning, derived from Sanskrit words: Upa (lesser)+nayanam (to lead), meaning "lesser leading along".

# Language Name of the ceremony Word for "Sacred Thread"
1 Sanskrit Upanayanam
2 Malayalam Upanayanam
Poonool (IAST: Pūnūl)
3 Tamil pūṇūl/Upanayanam
Pūnūl(IAST: Pūnūl)
4 Telugu Odugu,Upanayanamu
5 Kannada Upanayana, Munji
6 Hindi Janeu
7 Marathi Munja
8 Konkani Munji
9 Assamese Lagundeoni
10 Bengali Uponayon
Upabeet, Poité
উপবীত, পৈতে
11 Oriya Bratopanayan,Brata Ghara
ବ୍ରତୋପନୟନ, ବ୍ରତଘର
12 Nepali Bratabandha
जनई, जनै
13 Kashmiri Mekhal
14 Tulu Munji, Noola Madimme
ಮುಂಜಿ, ನೂಲ ಮದಿಮ್ಮೆ
15 Gujarati Yagnopavit
16 Pahari Janeyu
17 Sindhi Janya
18 Sourashtra Oduvam

Bratabandha in Nepal

At Upanayana ceremony of Nepalis

A ceremony which combines chuDAkarma and upanayana is called Bratabandha (Sanskrit brata-promise, bandhan-to be bound) among the hill communities in Nepal.

A religious ceremony is held where most of a boy's head is shaved(except the very top)by his maternal uncle and performs various rituals. It is a symbolic representation that a boy is mature enough to perform his duties as a brahmachari (that is to learn) and learn the traditional laws, ceremonial roles and rituals of their caste.

Red, white, yellow markings, Swasti, are made around a fire for protection and as an elaborate place setting, indicating where each god should sit when they join the ceremony. Offerings of fruit, money, cloth and rice, were made. Two Bhramin priests are required to perform the complex rituals of the ceremony.

Boys are given a secret mantra, which they are not to share with anyone. This mantra comes from the holy Hindu book, Ved. It is thought if the boys repeat the mantra every day they will be protected from misfortune.

Traditionally these boys were then sent to ashrams of gurus to learn in a Gurukul system of education. However today it is only represented symbolically by letting the boys beg with the relatives or friends (esp. elders) present at the occasion like the students in the Gurukul system in ashrams used to in homes). At this point, the boys who want to renounce family life and get to the gurus by running (though it is just pretended as doing so) is avoided by the mama (maternal uncle) who lures them to material world or grihastha by offering money. In that process the boy tries to run away by running towards the other side of the road. The boy promise to stay home and at the same time perform the karmas of a brahmachaari (studying, earning a living and performing religious rites). Thus after this ceremony the boys are considered men (though not physically). They are given the Janai (yagyopavita-the holy thread from yagya)and are expected to keep with the rules and norms of full-aged men. This promise, taken by wearing the janai, holds them in a bond. This gives its name Bratabhandha. From this point onward they are permitted to take an active part in religious ceremonies (pujas, last rituals, marriages, etc.). Non-veg is not allowed to the boy for a week or so (Depends) who has just gone through his Bratabandha.

The ceremony culminates with the wearing of the Janai, a sash made of strings. Brahmins are given six strings and taught the secret gayatri mantra which is not to be repeated aloud. Chettris are also given six strings except some caste like giri and puri who are given 3 strings.

== Modern Gurukulas ==

Upa+nayana also means taking somebody near (upain) knowledge. In ancient times, after the ceremony was performed, the child was sent to the Guru's house (Gurukul) for education, where the child remained until completion of education. Even today, there are many Vedic Gurukulas (traditional Vedic schools) which follow this practice with and without government help, without taking any fees from students (who must be brahmacharis).

Buddhism and Upanayanam

In Buddhism, the Upanayanam is referred to by the Pali term, "opanayiko" which is one of the six characteristics of the Dharma. It is related to refuge in the Triple Gem and practicing the Eightfold Path which leads one through to the Four stages of enlightenment. In the Visuddhimagga it is called "opanayiko" or "upanayanam" as the practice leads "onwards to Nirvana": nibanam upaneti ti ariya maggo upaneyo... opanayiko, "It leads on to nibanna, thus the Eightfold Path is onward leading... so it is leading onwards."

In Buddhism, a person of any age, sex or caste can obtain the Upanayanam through refuge in the Triple Gem and practicing the Eightfold Path.