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dvija, upanayana and AchAryasya shikShA: some points to ponder

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Among the Hindus (Aryans) of ancient India, a country known to them as bhArata-varSham, shikShA--education, about the knowledge of the Vedas (and UpaniShads) with its aim on acquiring the yamas and niyamas--restraints and regulations, for the realization of the Self, was of great importance, and a must in life.

A dvija is one who is born a second time, when he seeks to have this shikShA--education, from a qualifed AchArya--teacher. The upanayana is the saMskAra--ceremony, that prepares him to receive this education. It was a must for the three varNas--BrAhmaNa, KShatriya and Vaishya (although only BrAhmaNas have it these days with scarcely any study of the Vedas). This initiation ceremony is performed on the student in the brahmachArya Ashrama--bachelorhood, of his life.

The dvija

A Vedic student, called brahmachArin, who becomes a dvija by virtue of his initiation, which is regarded as his second birth, has for his new parents, his AchArya--teacher, as the father and SAvitrI--Sun God, as his mother. Says the Atharva Veda:

आचार्यो उपनयमानो ब्रह्मचारिणं कृणुते गर्भमन्तः ।
तं रात्रीस्तिस्त्र उदरे बिभर्ति तं जातं द्रष्टुमभिसंयन्ति देवाः ॥ ११.५.३ ॥

AchAryo upanayamAno brahmachAriNaM kRuNute garbhamantaH |
taM rAtrIstistra udare bibharti taM jAtaM draShTumabhisaMyanti devAH || 11.5.3 ||

"The teacher, taking him in charge, makes the Vedic student an embryo within;
he bears him in his belly three nights; the gods gather unto him to see him when born."

The AchArya

To initiate s brahmachArin student into the knowledge of the Vedas and Self, an AchArya must be appropriately qualified, thus:

• He comes of a good family, is learned, and self-controlled. Says the Apastamba dharma sUtra, 1.1.1 11-13:

"From darkness to darkness he goes, whom an ignorant person initiates. Therefore, one should desire an initiator, who comes of a good family, who is learned and who is self-controlled."

and adds:

"A BrAhmaNa who is well-read, of good family, of good character, purified by penance, should initiate a child."

• VyAsa in his dharma shAstra recommends for a teacher, one "who is a BrAhmaNa, entirely devoted to the Vedas, who comes of a good family, whose profession is the performance of veda yajnas, who is pure, who is particular about the study of his own veda shAkhA--branch of the Vedas, and who has no lethargy."

• Yama adds some further qualifications: "An AchArya should be truthful, courageous, capable, merciful towards all creatures, believer in God, firm in the study of the Vedas and pure in character."

• Such considerations were binding or respected, when the upanayana was an educational saMskAra. When at later times, the ceremony became just a religious consecration and a cultural identity, they could be dispensed with, and the AchArya became, not a teacher, but a priest who performed only the ceremony with the recital of the Vedic verses, so anyone who was well-versed in the prayoga--recitation, could become an AchArya.

• Who took the brahmachArin boy to the AchArya? PitAmaha opines: "the father, the grand-father, an uncle and an elder brother are the rightful guardians of a boy, so in the absence of a former the latter took the boy to the teacher." In the absence of the natural guardians, an elderly member of the same varNa was also authorized to conduct the child to the AchArya. When there were none to do so, the brahmachArin himself went to the AchArya--cases of which are commonly found in the UpaniShads.

The upanayana: antiquity

The Hindu initiation by the upanayana ceremony is of a hoary antiquity, prevalent since the Vedic times.

• A similar Parsi rite, called Naujat (The New Birth), was probably derived from the upanayana, during the time when the Indo-Aryans and the Iranians were living together.

• The term brahmachArya is mentioned in the educational context and religious life of a student in the Rig Veda:

ब्रह्मचारी चरति वेविषद्विषः स देवानां भवत्येकमङ्गम् ।
तेन जायामन्वविन्दद्बृहस्पतिः सोमेन नीतां जुह्वं न देवाः ॥ १०.१०९.०५ ॥

brahmachArI charati veviShadviShaH (1), sa devAnAM bhavatyekama~ggam (2) |
tena jAyAmanvavindadbRuhaspatiH (3), somena nItAM (4), juhvaM na devAH (5)|| 10.109.05 ||

"10.109.05: The one (seeker) moving in mantra (brahma) moves entering (veviShad) the gods (1). He becomes a limb of the gods (2). BRhaspati sought (and found) his wife (3), brought by Soma (4), just as gods accept the offering (5). [brahmachAri--one who moves amidst brahma, the mantra]"--Tr. by R.L.Kashyap, SAKSI

Atharva Veda extols the Vedic student in two hymns and gives many details of the upanayana saMskAra found in the later day ceremonies. (quoted above under dvija).

"The Vedic student fills the worlds with girdle, samidha--fuel, toil and fervor. He goes kArShNa-vasana--clothing himself in the black antelopeskin, consecrated and dIrgha-shamashruH--long-bearded."--AV 11.5.6.

"This broad earth, and the sky, brahmachArI--the Vedic student, first brought as bhikShA--alms."--AV 11.5.9.

• A notable feature of the upanayana of the Vedic and other early times was that it was more of a devout, informal saMskAra than a religious ceremony, as the aim was only shikShA--education, of the student.

• The physical gestures with their symbolic meanings of the Vedic upanayana included the following:

‣ The word 'upanayana' in Atharva Veda means 'taking charge of a student': upanayamAno brahmachAriNaM (AV 11.5.3). In the physical sense it implied 'taking the pupil near the teacher'. In this sense, the word 'upanayanam' is related to the 'upaniShad' which means 'sitting by the teacher and learning the Vedas'.

‣ The dvitIya janma--second birth, of the brahmachArin--student, is marked, as mentioned under 'The dvija', by the AchArya becoming the pitA--father, SavitrI--Sun God, becoming the mAtA--mother, and the birth is symbolized by the brahmachArin wearing a kaTisUtram--girdle, made of munjja grass, and the AchArya teaching him the SAvitrI-vandanam mantra.

‣ The Vedic upanayana had no investiture of a yajnopavItaM--sacred thread. Possibly the wearing of the uttarIyam--upper garment, by the brahmachArin became the yajnopavItaM and the kaTi-sUtram--girdle, used to support the boy's kaupInam--loin cloth, became the practice of wearing the uttarIyam around the waist in Hindu worship.

‣ The Vedic upanayana was not a compulsory saMskAra that it later became. BrahmachArins who were desirous of knowledge sought their AchArya by offering him samidha--fuel, and the AchArya accepted him by asking questions about his birth and lineage.

The upanayana: age

There exists a differntiation between the three varNas as to the minimum and maximum age of initiation by upanayana.

• Typically, the minimum age (including the garbha-vAsam--residence in the womb) is eight for the BrAhmaNa, eleven for the KShatriya, and twelve for the Vaishya children. The maximum age for the three varNas is sixteen, twenty-two and twenty-four in the same order. In deserving cases, the minimum age for BrAhmaNa boys was relaxed to five.

• Although there are speculations about the supposed superiority of the BrAhmaNa varNa and the superior intellect of their children which became visible at an early age as the reasons for the differentiation, a plausible basis of differntiation can be found.

• In the early times, the father had always been the first teacher in the case of BrAhmaNa brahmachArins. The children of the KShatriya and Vaishya varna could not afford this privilege as their fathers had been busy in their work. Since the BrAhmaNa brahmachArin remained with his parents, his shikShA--education started at an early age; whereas the children of the other two varNas had to move out of their homes and reside in their AchArya's home, so it is logical that their shikShA commenced at a later age.

• We should also note that while the shikShA of the BrAhmaNa boys comprised learning and reciting the Vedas, the other boys had to become first familiar with the shikShA of their own varNas before taking up the study of the Vedas for a knowledge of the Self.

• The BrAhmaNa varNa has a responsibility to carry on the preservation of the Vedas by oral tradition, and this required early initiation by the father, who was himself a practitioner of the Vedas.

The upanayana: significance of some of the ceremonial features

As mentioned above, the father was the first teacher of the student, so the formalities of initiation were simple. BRuhadAranyaka UpaniShad 5.2.1 gives perhaps the earliest example of a father-teacher: "Three classes of Prajapati’s sons lived a life of continence with their father, Prajapati (Viraj) – the gods, men and Asuras."

• Instances of students studying under their fathers are also found in BrU 6.2.1, ChU v.3, 4.5.5, v.11.7 and MaitrAyaNI UpaniShad 1.2.12. Such parental simplicity is echoed in the UpaniShads, also in the cases of a brahmachArins seeking their AchAryas with samidha--fuel twigs, in hand; or an oral request from a student and its acceptance by the teacher who asked him about his birth and lineage.

• The AchArya was in all cases careful that the shikShA should be imparted only to a deserving student who could in turn become a guru and further the teaching, and practise it consistently in life.

• By the time of the Atharva Veda, the BrAhmaNas and the SUtras, the upanayana saMskAra became a rigid ceremony with elaborate details, a tradition carried on in the SmRtis to the present day.

The upanayana: Time

As with the age, the time of the upanayana saMskAra differed among the three varNas for valid reasons.

• Generally, upanayana was performed during the time of uttarAyaNa--summer solstice, but for the Vaishya children it was held in the dakShiNAyaNa period--winter solstice.

• The upanayana of a BrAhmaNa boy was performed in spring, of a KShatriya in summer, of a Vaishya in autumn and of a RathakAra--chariots-maker, in the rainy season.

• The seasons were symbolical of the termperament and occupation of the varNas: spring symbolized the moderate life of a BrAhmaNa; the summer heat indicated the fervour of a KShatriya; autumn, when the commercial life of ancient India reopened after the rainy season, the prosperity and wealth of the Vaishya; and the easy time of the rains was conducive for the RathakAra.

• This was the basis of the later Astrological works, which associated different merits for the months from MAgha to AsgAdha when the upanayana saMskAra was performed.

The upanayana: pankti bhojanam

When he was a child, the brahmachArin was fed by his mother and often shared a meal with her. Feeding her child is a sanctimonious act of love for a mother towards her child. Since with the upanayanam saMskAra, the child comes of age, a poignant ceremony of pakti (or mAtru) bhojanam symbolizing the last meal the son can have from the plate of his mother and the last time a mother can feed him with her hands is one of the principal rituals of upanayana.

The upanayana: kaupInam/maunji-bandhanam

After the bath, the boy wears a kaupInam--loin cloth. The AchArya offers him the clothes with the verse, "In the way in which BRhaspati put the garment of immortality on Indra, thus I put the garment on thee, for the sake of long life, of old age, of strength, of splendour."--PArAshara gRhya sUtra 2.2.10.

• Although the kaupInam is replaced these days with the symbolic maunji-bandhanam, which is a girdle of munji grass around the waist, in Kerala, BrAhmaNa brahmachArins study their Vedas as kaupIna-dhAri--wearing only the loin-cloth, even today (as KAnchi ParamAchArya mentioned on an occasion).

• Cloth material suggested by the GRhya-sUtras are: shaNa--hemp, for a BrAhmaNa boy, kShauma--silk, for a KShatriya, and kutapa--kusha grass for a Vaishya. Different colors were also used, but these days the practice is to use only yellow silk clothes for all varNas.

• The maunji-bandhanam--girdle, was originally used to support the kaupIna but later turned into religious symbolism. It was made of triple cord symbolizing the three Vedas. The girdle also informed the student that it was "a daughter of Faith and a sister of the sages, possessed the power of protecting his purity and chastity and would keep him away from evil." (AV 6.133.4)

The upanayana: yajnopavItaM--sacred thread

This is the most important item of the saMskAra today, although the Vedic upanayana did not have or mention it. Its prototype was perhaps the uttarIyam--upper garment, worn by the students in the ancient days.

• Although scriptures prescribe threads made of different materials (such as cotton for the BrAhmaNa, woolen for the kShatriya, and linen for the Vaishya) in different colors, the practice today is to use only cotton threads colored yellow/white.

• The yajnopavItaM was spun by a virgin BrAhmaNa girl and twisted upwards by a BrAhmaNa. It had as many knots as there were pravaras--gotra lineage, amongst the ancestors of the wearer. The composition of the yajnopavItaM is full of symbolism and significance.

• Its length is ninety-six times as the breadth of the four fingers of a man, which is equal to its height. The four fingers represent the four states of existence: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and turIya.

• The three folds of the cord represent the three guNas--sattva, rajas, tamas--and the upward twist indicates that sattva-guNa may prevail for him to attain his spiritual heights.

• The three cords remind the wear of his three debts--to the ancient RiShis, the ancestors and the gods.

• The three cords are tied together by a knot called brahma-granthi, which symbolizes BrahmA, ViShNu and Shiva. Extra knots indicate the paravaras of a specific family.

• A brahmachArin wears a single set of threads, a gRhastha--householder, wears two sets (one for him and one for his wife) and a kartA--doer, who has the adhikAra--right, towards pitru-karma--ancestoral rites, wears three sets.

• The mantra that the AchArya repeats while investing the student with the thread, asks for strength, long life and illumination of the boy:

yajnopavItaM paramaM pavitraM prajApateH yatsahajaM purastAt |
AyuShyamagraM pratimunjcha shubraM yajnopavItaM balamastu tejaH ||
--PArAshara gRhya sUtra 2.2.13a.

• The yajnopavItaM should be worn in upavItin--hanging from the left shoulder, during auspicious ceremonies, prAchInavitin--hanging from the right shoulder, during inauspicious ceremonies, and nivItin--hanging from the neck, for worshipping Rishis.

The upanayana: ajina--deer-skin and daNDa--staff

In the olden days, brahmachArins wore deer=skin and the AchArya provided them with a daNDa--staff, to tend his cattle and protect himself. The deer-skin was later used as Asana--seat, and for shayana--sleeping, when cotton clothes came into vogue. Scriptures lay down strict rules as to the type of wood and measurements of the staff. The deer-skin symbolizes the holy lustre and intellectual and spiritual pre-eminence. The staff gave the student self-confidence and self-reliance, as he wandered about the forest. It also indicated, that the student was a traveller in the path of knowledge.

The upanayana: other acts

In the ancient times, the AchArya, accepting the student and performing the upanayana, went through certain symbolic acts, chanting the appropriate mantras.

• He filled the student's joined hands with sacred water, thus purifying him for receiving the SAvitrI mantra. The student was asked to learn from the Sun the qualities of unswerving duty and discipline. AshvalAyana observes, "The Sun is a witness to all actions; he is the Lord of all vows, time, action and virtues; therefore, he should be properly worshipped."

• Then the AchArya touched the student's heart, reaching over his right shoulder, so their hearts may unite in harmony, in their study and work. (Compare the shAnti mantra 'sahana vavatu' verse--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanti_Mantra).

• Then the student was asked to mount a stone, so that he may be steadfast in his studies and have the adamantine of the stone in physique and character, and firmness and determination in his pursuits of excellence.

• Then the AchArya formally 'took charge' of the student, who went round the fire as the AchArya commanded him to take water, put fuel on the fire, and keep silence symbolizing work for illumination and meditation.

• Then the student was taught the SAvitrI mantra "tat savitur vareNyaM bhargo devasya dhImahi | dhiyo yo naH prachodayAd ||", in a metre that suited the varNa, which later on settled on the gAyatrI metre.


The upanayanam saMskAra, in the ancient days, signified an eligible brahmachArin student, the learning of the Vedas at the feet of his AchArya, and obtaining the jnAna--knowledge, of the UpaniShads that opened his upanayanam (upa--additional, so third; nayanam--eye).

(paraphrased from the book 'Hindu Samskaras' by Rajbali Pandey)
• The term brahmachArya is mentioned in the educational context and religious life of a student in the Rig Veda:

ब्रह्मचारी चरति वेविषद्विषः स देवानां भवत्येकमङ्गम् ।
तेन जायामन्वविन्दद्बृहस्पतिः सोमेन नीतां जुह्वं न देवाः ॥ १०.१०९.०५ ॥

brahmachArI charati veviShadviShaH (1), sa devAnAM bhavatyekama~ggam (2) |
tena jAyAmanvavindadbRuhaspatiH (3), somena nItAM (4), juhvaM na devAH (5)|| 10.109.05 ||

"10.109.05: The one (seeker) moving in mantra (brahma) moves entering (veviShad) the gods (1). He becomes a limb of the gods (2). BRhaspati sought (and found) his wife (3), brought by Soma (4), just as gods accept the offering (5). [brahmachAri--one who moves amidst brahma, the mantra]"--Tr. by R.L.Kashyap, SAKSI
(paraphrased from the book 'Hindu Samskaras' by Rajbali Pandey)
Dear Saideo,

You have cited Shri. T.L. Kashyap's translation for RV.X.109.5. as given in the book of Shri Rajbali Pandey. This Rik comes in (forms part of) ashTaka-8, adhyAya-6, vaRga-7 and the Rishi for this vaRga is brahmavAdinee juhu, dEvata being viSvEdEvA.

According to another tradition (I think it is based on sAyaNa bhAshya) this vaRga is based on the story of br^haspati forsaking his wife juhu and other dEvAs interceding and making him take her (juhu) back. In that context, the meaning of the above Rik is given as under:-

(जुहुः परॊक्षतया वदति)
हॆ दॆवाः ब्रह्म-चारी चरति - सः बृहस्पतिः जाया अभावॆन ब्रह्मचारि अभवत् (he, br^haspati became brahmachAri in the absence of wife)
(अत ऎव) विषः वॆविषत् - सर्वॆषु यज्ञॆषु व्याप्तवान् , दॆवान् स्तुतिभिर्हविर्भिश्च व्याप्नुवन् (therefore, he prayed to the dEvas who receive the yajnas)
दॆवानाम् ऎकम् अङ्गम् भवति - जायापती यज्ञस्य द्वॆ अङ्गॆ खलु (since husband and wife form the two angas of a yajna, brihaspati became one anga)
तॆन बृहस्पतिः जायाम् - दॆवानाम् परिचरणेन सः (by serving the dEvas thus)
सॊमॆन नीताम् जुह्वम् न - जुहूम् माम् यथा लब्धवान् तदानीम् तद्वदिदानीम् अपि (brihaspati then regained me, juhu, he gained me now also)
सः अनु अविन्दत् - लब्धवान्
In this version, therefore, there is no reference to a brahmachari in general but to brihaspati and an account of his regaining his wife juhu, only. Since more importance is given traditionally to sAyaNa bhAshya, I thought of pointing this out so that other learned members may give their opinions.

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