Upanayanam is the Samaskara or the ceremonial rite in which the young Brahmin boy is invested with the sacred thread and initiated into the Gayathri - the
Holiest of all mantras in the legacy of the Rishis.
After the Upanayanam is performed, the boy or the Vatu - as the young Brahmachari is called, becomes eligible to study the Vedas. As this Samaskara signifies a spiritual rebirth as it were, the boy becomes a Dvija or a "Twice Born" after the Upanayanam is performed. Etymologically speaking, the word means, taking (NAYANAM) near (UPA). In the ancient days when the scripturally ordained modes of conduct were strictly followed, the father took his son near the Gayathri Mantra, and there after near a Guru and left him under his care and tutelage soon after the Upanayanam was performed. The Guru took him near the Vedas (i.e.taught him to chant them in the traditional way) which in turn ultimately took him near God. Thus, the ceremony opens for the young Brahmachari, a succession of gates, leading to the ultimate goal of human existence - the realisation of God. In the scheme of the four ashramas prescribed for the individual, the Upanayanam Ceremony signifies the boy's entry into the ashrama namely Brahmacharya.
Ideally, this Samaskara is to be performed when the boy is just past seven. In any case, the investiture with the sacred thread should not be delayed beyond the sixteenth year. Before the onset of adolescence, and before the dormant primordial biological urges in an individual surface, he must be initiated into the Gayathri.
The Gayathri Mantra
Literally, Gayathri means which protects him who chants it. She is the mother of all the mantras, and when chanted with devotion and single pointed concentration and purity, takes the chanter to the ultimate bliss - the knowledge of the Supreme Truth, called the Brahman. The Gayathri is a mantra praying for divine guidance to inspire and illumine
the intellect so that the Jiva may know his real self - the Atman. Universal in its approach, it does not seek any personal benefit for the chanter. The venerable Bhisma, while extolling the greatness of the Gayathri from his bed of arrows declares - Where the Gayathri is chanted, ultimately deaths, involving the performance of obsequies for children by their elders will not occur. Thus it is a prayer for universal welfare which the brahmin must perform as a sacred trust enjoined on him.
Method to perform the Gayathri Mantra
The Gayathri, must be chanted in the prescribed manner, thrice a day, as a part of the religious duty called the Sandhyavandanam, ordained for all brahmins. The Sandhyavandanam is an excellent daily exercise in quitening the mind and rendering it fit for meditation on the highest truth epitomized by the Gayathri. 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. 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 Sandhyavandanam and Gayathri Japa regularly. The scriptures are unanimous on this point. The immense benefit accruing from regular and assiduous practice of the Sandhyavandanam and chanting of the Gayathri, is something that each individual can corroborate by his own experience.
The Sacred Thread
The sacred thread with which the Vatu is invested on the holy occasion of Upanayanam, may be compared to an electric circuit. Even as any leakage point in an electric circuit will result in a drain of precious electrical energy, any object, like key or coin, tied to the sacred thread, serve as leakage points through which the carefully garnered spiritual power of the Gayathri is frittered away. The sacred thread must therefore be kept free from association with any other object.
In the days to yore, the brahmachari went out into the streets to beg for alms from various houses - Bhikshakaranam. This is being done symbolically today. While it may be very difficult to practice Bhikshakaranam daily in today's conditions, we would do well at least keep in mind the spirit underlying the Bhikshakaranam and try to imbibe the virtues it inculcates. The practice of Bhikshakaranam will induce humility and quell the ego - it will root out all difference of high and low, wealthy and poor, as every brahmachari, regardless of his family's standing, has to practice it. Above all, it will enable the young Vatu to overcome the craving of the tongue, and induce the restraint of the senses so very necessary for properly imbibing the Vedic Knowledge.
The various lofty truths explained above are only illustrative, but by no means exhaustive of the innumerable nuggets of wisdom that lie embedded in our scriptures. It is for us to practice these observances in our daily life to the extent possible and direct measure, ennoble our lives.
May the Divine Vedic Mother in her quintessential form as Gayathri bless us and inspire us to rediscover our extraordinary rich Vedic legacy, on the occasion of the Upanayanam
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