Upanayana is the samskara, the ceremonial ritual by which the young boy is invested with the “sacred thread” and soon after initiated into the celebrated Gayatri Mantra. Gayatri is the holiest of all the mantras and is a priceless legacy handed down to us from our ancient sages. Only after the upanayana is performed, can the boy be eligible to study the Vedas. This samskara signifies a spiritual rebirth as it were. After the Upanayana is performed the young lad becomes a dvija i.e. twice born.
Etymologically speaking, the word upanayana means ‘taking near’ or ‘leading to’ or ‘initiating’. In the ancient days when the scripturally ordained modes of conduct were strictly followed, a father performed this ritual (upanayana) initiating his young son in the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra. This process is called as brahmopadesa. Soon after the Upanayana, the father would lead the young brahmachari to a chosen guru and leave him there under the care of the guru. This student from then on stayed in the gurukula, attending to all the needs of the acharya who taught him the Vedas and Upanishads and other scriptures. Thus the upanayana ceremony opens for the young brahmachari, a succession of gates leading to the ultimate goal of human existence — the realization of God. In the scheme of the four asramas prescribed in the scriptures for an individual, the upanayana ceremony signifies the youth’s entry into the first asrama — namely brahmacharya.
Ideally, this rite (samskara) is to be performed when the son is just past seven years of age. In any case the investiture with the sacred thread should not be delayed beyond the sixteenth year, i.e. he must be initiated into the chanting of the Gayatri mantra before the onset of adolescence.
Gayatri is a mantra praying for divine guidance to inspire and illumine the intellect so that the jiva may know his real self, the atma. The tenses in the Gayatri mantra indicate that we should meditate on the glory of the supreme Lord who is the embodiment of knowledge and light, who is the Remover of Ignorance. It is the mother of all the mantras, and when chanted with devotion and single-minded concentration and purity, takes the chanter to the ultimate bliss of the knowledge of the Supreme Truth, called the Brahman. Universal in its approach, it does not seek any personal benefit for the chanter.
The venerable Bhisma, while extolling the greatness of the Gayatri from his bed of arrows declares; “Where the Gayatri is chanted, untimely deaths involving the performance of obsequies for children by their elders will not occur”. Thus it is a prayer for universal welfare which the initiated must perform as a sacred trust enjoined upon him.
This Gayatri mantra must he chanted in the prescribed manner, thrice a day, as a part of the religious duty called Sandhyavandana, ordained for all dvijas. The Sandhyavandana is an excellent daily exercise quietening the mind and rendering it fit for meditation on the highest truth epitomized by the Gayatri. Because of its great importance as a spiritual practice, the sastras have proclaimed its primacy of place in unequivocal terms, to the extent that no exceptions are provided and no lapses permitted. It has to be definitely performed thrice daily throughout one’s life. All the good things a brahmin may do, are of no avail, if he fails to perform his sandhyavandana and Gayatri japa regularly. The scriptures are unanimous on this point. The immense benefit accruing from regular and assiduous practice of the sandhyavandana and chanting of the Gayatri is something that each individual can corroborate by his own experience. Regular chanting of Gayatri will prove beneficial to the chanter and to the society.
The sacred thread with which the boy is invested on the holy occasion of upanayana may be compared to an electric circuit. Even as any leakage point in an electric circuit will result in draining away precious electrical energy, objects like keys or rings tied to the sacred thread, serve as leakage points through which the carefully garnered spiritual power of Gayatri is frittered away. The sacred thread must therefore be kept free from association with any other object and must be worn at all times.
In the days of yore, the brahmachari went round in the streets calling out bhavati bikshaandehi’, ‘please give me alms’. During today’s upanayana this is done symbolically. It is true that under the present-day circumstances a brahmachari cannot practise begging for a living. This was prescribed as a means to inculcate in the mind of the young brahmachari a sense of humility and suppressing one’s ego. In the old days, the practice of seeking alms by a brahmachari in a gurukula made him humble, irrespective of his family status high or low, wealthy or poor. Above all, it was intended to enable the young brahmachari to cultivate restraint of the senses which is so very necessary for correctly imbibing the vedic knowledge.
It is to be understood that these samskaras are religious solemn ceremonies and are to be performed in accordance with set procedures. This practice is the rich heritage handed down the centuries by our forefathers and the sages. These rituals prepare the mind to assimilate not only the vedic knowledge but also make one a person of character. It may be argued that in the present day conditions it is not practicable to strictly perform sandhyavandana thrice a day as ordained by the scriptures nor is it possible to chant the Gayatri mantra strictly in the manner prescribed. While there may be some validity in such an argument, to the extent possible these samskaras must be practised including the regular chanting of the Gayatri mantras. In this context a brahmachari would do well to learn a lesson or two from others who even in these modern days, do not fail to perform their religious practices. May the Supreme Lord and Divine Mother in Her quintessential form as Gayatri bless us and inspire us to rediscover our extraordinary rich vedic legacy.