The Upanayana ceremony in progress in Nepal. Traditionally, this ritual was for 7, 9, and 11 year olds in South Asia, but is now practiced for all ages as seen above.[1]

Upanayana (Sanskrit: उपनयन, romanizedupanayana, lit.'initiation') is a Hindu educational sacrament,[2] one of the traditional saṃskāras or rites of passage that marked the acceptance of a student by a preceptor, such as a guru or acharya, and an individual's initiation into a school in Hinduism. Some traditions consider the ceremony as a spiritual rebirth for the child or future dvija, twice born. It signifies the acquisition of the knowledge of and the start of a new and disciplined life as a brahmacharya. According to the given community and region, it is also known by numerous terms such as janai or janea, poita/paita, logun/nagun, yajnopavita, bratabandha, bratopanayan, and mekhal.[3] The Upanayanam ceremony is arguably the most important rite for Brahmin and Kshatriya male, ensuring his rights with responsibilities and signifying his advent into adulthood.[4]

The tradition is widely discussed in ancient Sanskrit texts of Hinduism and varies regionally.[5] The sacred thread or yajnopavita (also referred to as Janeu, Jandhyam, Poonul, Munja and Janivara[6] Yonya[7]) has become one of the most important identifiers of the Upanayana ceremony in contemporary times, however this was not always the case.[8] Generally, this ceremony should be performed before the advent of adulthood.



Upanayana literally means "the act of leading to or near, bringing", "introduction (into any science)" or "initiation" (as elucidated by Monier-Williams).[9] Upanayana is formed from the root √ni meaning 'to lead'. Nayana is a noun formed from the root √ni meaning 'leading to'. The prefix upa means 'near'. With the prefix the full literal meaning becomes 'leading near (to)'.[10] The initiation or rite of passage ceremony in which the sacred thread is given symbolizes the child drawn towards a school, towards education, by the guru or teacher.[9] The student was being taken to the Gods and a disciplined life.[11][12] As explained by PV Kane, taking (the child) near the acarya (for instruction), or alternately "introducing to studenthood".[13] It is a ceremony in which a teacher accepts and draws a child towards knowledge and initiates the second birth that is of the young mind and spirit.[5]


A popular variation is Maunjibandhana, derived from two words munja, a type of grass, and bandhana which means to tie or bind.[14] The munjha grass is tied around the waist.[14] This word was used by Manu.[15] Another variation is vratabandha(na) meaning "binding to an observance".[16] The word janeu is a condensed version of yagyopaveeta.[17] The ceremony is also known as punal kalyanam (meaning auspicious thread ceremony)[18] and Brahmopadesa.[19]


The sacred thread or upper garment is called the yajnopavita (Sanskrit: यज्ञोपवीतम्, romanizedyajñopavītam), used as an adjective, which is derived from the terms yajna (sacrifice) and upavita (worn).[20][21] The literal meaning would then become "something worn on the body for the sacrifice".[22] Accoutrements offered along with the yajnopavita may include be a danda (staff) and a mekhala (girdle).[23]


South India. A boy during his upanayana ritual. The thin, yellow yajnopavita thread runs from left shoulder to waist. Note the muñja grass girdle around the waist. The peepal tree twig in his right hand marks his entry into the Brahmacharya stage of life.


The earliest form of this samskara, whose name there are no records of, may have been to mark the acceptance of a person into a particular community.[15] Indologically, the ritual is present in the Gr̥hyasūtras and Dharmasūtras and Dharmaśāstra, as well as a couple of times in the Saṃhitas.[16][24]

Educational courses or training has been referred to in the Chandogya Upanishad[a] and in the Yājñavalkya Smṛti; Gharpure (1956) writes that during the Smriti period, Upanayana may have attained a permanent fixture if the life of students to be as compared to being optional before.[11]

In the Atharvaveda, and later in the Sutras period, the word Upanayana meant taking responsibility of a student, the beginning of an education, a student's initiation into "studentship" and the acceptance of the student by the teacher.[25] Preceptors could include a guru, acharya, upadhyaya, and rtvik.[26]

Gradually, new layers of meaning emerged, such as the inclusion of goddess Savitri or Saraswati, with the teacher becoming the enabler of the connection between this goddess and the student.[25] The meaning was extended to include Vedangas and vows among other things.[b][29]

The education of a student was not limited to ritual and philosophical speculations found in the Vedas and the Upanishads. It extended to many arts and crafts, which had their own, similar rites of passages.[30] The Aitareya Brahmana, Agamas, and Puranas genres of literature in Hinduism describe these as Śilpa Śastras.[30] They extend to all practical aspects of culture, such as the sculptor, the potter, the perfumer, the wheelwright, the painter, the weaver, the architect, the dancer, and the musician.[c][30] The training of these began from childhood and included studies about dharma, culture, reading, writing, mathematics, geometry, colours, tools, as well as traditions and trade secrets. The rites of passage during apprentice education varied in the respective guilds.[31][32] Susruta and Charaka developed the initiation ceremony for students of Ayurveda.[33] The Upanayana rite of passage was also important to the teacher, as the student would therefrom begin to live in the gurukula (school).[34]

Upanayana became an elaborate ceremony, that includes rituals involving the family, the child and the teacher. A boy receives during this ceremony a sacred thread called the yajnopavita to be worn. The yajnopavita ceremony announces that the child had entered into formal education.[35][36] In the modern era, the Upanayana rite of passage is open to anyone at any age.[1] The Upanayana follows the Vidyāraṃbhaṃ, the previous rite of passage.[14] Vidyāraṃbhaṃ became an intermediary samskara following the evolution in writing and language.[37] Vidyāraṃbhaṃ now marked the beginning of primary education or literacy while Upanayana went on to refer to spiritual education.[37][38] The Upanayana can also take place at the student's home for those who are home-schooled.[39] Ceremonial bhiksha as one of the rituals during Upanayana became important, attaining sizeable proportions.[40] The actual initiation occurred during the recitation of the Gayatri Mantra.[41] The spiritual birth would take place four days after the initial Upanayana rituals. It was then that the last ritual was performed, the Medhajanana.[42][43] The Samavartanam or convocation ritual marked the end of the course.[44] The Upanayana became a permanent feature around the Upanishadic period.[45]

Attire includes a danda or staff and a mekhala or girdle.[46]

Age and varna

Upanayana Samskara in progress in West Bengal, India.

In Hindu traditions, a human being is born at least twice—once at physical birth and second at intellectual birth through teacher's care. The first is marked through the Jatakarman rite of passage; the second is marked through Upanayanam or Vidyarambha rites of passage.[47][48] A sacred thread was given by the teacher during the initiation to school ceremony and was a symbolic reminder to the student of his purpose at school as well as a social marker of the student as someone who was born a second time (dvija, twice born).[49][50]

Many medieval era texts discuss Upanayana in the context of three of the four varnas (caste, class) — Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.[51] The ceremony was typically performed at age eight among the Brahmins, at age 11 among the Kshatriyas, and age 12 among Vaishyas.[52][53] Apastamba Gryha Sutra (verse places a maximum age limit of 24 for the Upanayana ceremony and start of formal education. However, Gautama Gryha Sutra and other ancient texts state that there is no age restriction and anyone of any age can undertake Upanayanam when they initiate their formal studies of the Vedas.[54]

Several texts such as Sushruta Sutrasthana, however, also include the fourth varna, the Shudras, entering schools and the formal education process,[55] stating that the Upanayana rite of passage was open to everyone.[56][35]

The large variation in age and changes to it over time was to accommodate for the diversity in society and between families.[57]

Vedic period texts such as the Baudhāyana Grihyasutra encouraged the three Varnas of society to undergo the Upanayana.

Gender and women

In some regions, in modern times, some girls undergo Upanayana rite of passage.[58][59] In ancient and medieval eras, texts such as Harita Dharmasutras, Asvalayana Grhya Sutra and Yama smriti suggest women could begin Vedic studies after Upanayana.[60][61][62][63]

Girls who decided to become a student underwent the Upanayana rite of passage, at the age of 8, and thereafter were called Brahmavadini. They wore a thread or upper garment over their left shoulder.[60] Those girls who chose not to go to a gurukula were called Sadyovadhu (literally, one who marries straight). However, the Sadyovadhu, too, underwent a step during the wedding rituals, where she would complete Upanayana, and thereafter wear her upper garment (saree) over her left shoulder.[60] This interim symbolic Upanayana rite of passage for a girl, before her wedding, is described in multiple texts such as the Gobhila Gryha Sutra (verse 2.1.19) and some Dharmasutras.[64]


Bratopanayan in progress in an Odia household

The sacred thread or the yajnopavita has become one of the most important parts of contemporary Upanayana ceremonies. There are accordingly a number of rules related to it.[8] The thread is composed of three cotton strands of nine strands each.[8][49] The strands symbolise different things in their regions. For example, among Tamils, each strand is for each of the Tridevi, the supreme trinity of the Hindu goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati.[65] According to another tradition, each of the nine threads represents a male deity, such as Agni, Bhaga, and Chandra.[66]

The predecessor to the sacred thread was an upper garment (such as a dupatta or an uparane).[67] However, as traditions developed, the upper garment began to be worn continuously. The usage of a thread grew out of convenience and manageability, becoming more popular than alternatives such as a kusa rope.[68]

The ancient Sanskrit texts offer a diverse view while describing the yajñopavītam or upavita. The term upavita was originally meant to be any upper garment, as stated in Apastamba Dharmasutra (verse– or, if the wearer does not want to wear a top, a thread would suffice.[69] The ancient Indian scholar Haradatta[d] states, "yajñopavītam means a particular mode of wearing the upper garment, and it is not necessary to have the yajñopavīta at all times".[69]

There is no mention of any rule or custom, states Patrick Olivelle, that "required Brahmins to wear a sacred string at all times", in the Brahmanical literature (Vedic and ancient post-Vedic).[71] Yajnopavita, textual evidence suggests, is a medieval and modern tradition.[71] However, the term yajnopavita appears in ancient Hindu literature, and therein it means a way of wearing the upper garment during a ritual or rites of passage.[71] The custom of wearing a string is a late development in Hinduism, was optional in the medieval era, and the ancient Indian texts do not mention this ritual for any class or for Upanayana.[69][71]

The Gobhila Gryha Sutra (verse 1.2.1) similarly states in its discussion on Upanayana, that "the student understands the yajnopavita as a cord of threads, or a garment, or a rope of kusa grass", and it is its methods of wearing and the significance that matters.[69] The proper manner of wearing the upper garment or thread, state the ancient texts, is from over the left shoulder and under the right arm.[69] yajnopavita contrasts with Pracinavita method of wearing the upper garment, the latter a reverse and mirror image of former, and suggested to signify rituals for elders/ancestors (for example, funeral).[71]

The idea of wearing the upper garment or sacred thread, and its significance, extended to women.[60] This is reflected in the traditional wearing of sari over the left shoulder, during formal occasions and the celebration of rites of passage such as Hindu weddings. It was also the norm if a girl undertakes the Upanayana ceremony and begins her Vedic studies as a Brahmavadini.[60]

The sacred Yajnopavita is known by many names (varying by region and community), such as Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jaanva, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar.[72][73]

Scholarly commentary

Doubts about Upanayanam in old texts

Scholars[74] state that the details and restrictions in the Upanayana ceremony is likely to have been inserted into ancient texts in a more modern era. Hermann Oldenberg, for example, states that Upanayana — the solemn reception of the pupil by the teacher to teach him the Veda — is joined into texts of Vedic texts at places that simply do not make any contextual sense, do not match the style, and are likely to be a corruption of the ancient texts.[74] For example, in Satapatha Brahmana, the Upanayana rite of passage text appears in the middle of a dialogue about Agnihotra; after the Upanayana verse end, sage Saukeya abruptly returns to the Agnihotra and Uddalaka. Oldenberg states that the Upanayana discussion is likely an insertion into the older text.[74]

Kane states in his History of Dharmasastra reviews,[34] as well as other scholars,[34][75][76] that there is high likelihood of interpolation, insertion and corruption in dharma sutras and dharma sastra texts on Upanayana-related rite of passage. Patrick Olivelle notes the doubts in postmodern scholarship about the presumed reliability of Manusmriti manuscripts.[77] He writes, "Manusmriti was the first Indian legal text introduced to the western world through the translation of Sir William Jones in 1794". This was based on the Calcutta manuscript with the commentary of Kulluka, which has been assumed to be the reliable vulgate version, and translated repeatedly from Jones in 1794 to Doniger in 1991.[77] The reliability of the Manusmriti manuscript used since colonial times, states Olivelle, is "far from the truth. Indeed, one of the great surprises of my editorial work has been to discover how few of the over fifty manuscripts that I collated actually follow the vulgate in key readings."[77]

Regional variations


At Upanayana ceremony of Nepalis

In Nepal, a ceremony is held which combines choodakarma (tonsure, shave the head) and Upanayana saṃskāra locally known as Bratabandha (Sanskrit brata = promise, bandhan = to be bound).[78]In Nepal, The one who wears the secred thread are called as Tagadhari.

This Sanskara involves the participation of entire family and a teacher who then accepts the boy as a disciple in the Guru–shishya tradition of Hinduism. Gayatri Mantra marks as an individual's entrance to a school of Hinduism. This ceremony ends after the boy goes for his first alms round to relatives and leave for the guru's ashram. Traditionally, these boys were sent to learn in a gurukula system of education but in modern times, this act is only done symbolically.[79]

See also


  1. ^ The story of Uddālaka Āruṇi and Śvetaketu
  2. ^ Rajbali Pandey compares the Upanayana rite of passage to Baptism, the Christian rite of admission and adoption where the person is born again unto spiritual knowledge, as Upanayana marked the initiation of the student for spiritual studies such as the Vedas.[27] Devdutt Pattanaik wouldn't compare the two.[28]
  3. ^ Ancient Indian texts assert that the number of the arts is unlimited, but each deploy elements of 64 kalā (कला, techniques) and 32 vidyā (विद्या, fields of knowledge)[30]
  4. ^ Scholars place Haradatta to 1100 C.E. or between 1100-1300 C.E.[70]


  1. ^ a b Coward & Cook 1996, p. 67.
  2. ^ Kanitkar & Cole 2010, p. 4.
  3. ^ "Dr. Shashishekhar Toshkhani: The Literary Works". Retrieved 7 February 2023.
  4. ^ Carstairs, G. Morris; Kapur, Ravi L. (1976). The Great Universe of Kota: Stress, Change, and Mental Disorder in an Indian Village. University of California Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-520-03024-4.
  5. ^ a b Kane 1941, pp. 268–287.
  6. ^ Sastry, C. V. (25 January 2022). Rituals & Practices of Hinduism. Zorba Books. ISBN 978-93-93029-12-6.
  7. ^ "Yonya (Janeu Holy Thread)". Retrieved 7 February 2023.
  8. ^ a b c Ambedkar 1947, p. 158.
  9. ^ a b Monier-Williams (1899) "upanayana" in Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 1899. Via Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries. At Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies, University of Cologne, Germany. pp. 201 (print edition).
  10. ^ Deshpande 1936, p. 159.
  11. ^ a b Gharpure 1956, p. 71.
  12. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 275.
  13. ^ Kane 1941, pp. 268–269.
  14. ^ a b c Gharpure 1956, p. 70.
  15. ^ a b Deshpande 1936, p. 9.
  16. ^ a b Zotter 2010, p. 17.
  17. ^ Dwivedi, Bhojraj (2014). Religious Basis of Hindu Beliefs. Diamond Pocket Books. ISBN 9789351650928.
  18. ^ Coward & Cook 1996, p. 71.
  19. ^ Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana Sandhyavandana And Gayatrimantrajapa. Ramakrishna Mission. ISBN 978-81-7823-453-3.
  20. ^ Ambedkar 1947, p. 159, "How did this Yajnopavita come in? Mr. Tilak offers an explanation (in The Orion, Or, Researches Into the Antiquity of the Vedas by Bal Gangadhar Tilak dated 1893)... The word yajnopavita is derived by all native scholars from Yajna + Upavita; but there is a difference of opinion as to whether we should understand the compound to mean an upavita for yajna i.e for sacrificial purposes, or, whether it is the 'upavita of Yajnas.' The former is not incorrect, but authority is in favour of the latter. Thus the Prayoga-writers quote a smriti to the effect that 'the High Soul is termed Yajna by the hotris, this is his upavita; therefore it is yajna-upavita.' [...] This explanation by Mr. Tilak is no doubt very interesting. But it does not help to explain some of the difficulties.".
  21. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 294, 297.
  22. ^ Deshpande 1936, p. 161.
  23. ^ Kane 1941, p. 279-287.
  24. ^ "upanayana". Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
  25. ^ a b Pandey 2013, p. 115.
  26. ^ Gharpure 1956, p. 71, 74, Preceptors Classified. "He who gives the Vedas is called the Guru ; one who performs the Upanayana and gives the Vedas is called the Acharya ; one who tenches'a portion is au Upadhyaya, and one who performs tho sacrifices is called the Rtvik; those are entitled to respect in the order of priority ; but more than all these is the mother most entitled to respect..
  27. ^ Pandey 2013, p. 112.
  28. ^ Pattanaik, Devdutt (2 July 2017). "Is the Hindu thread ceremony same as baptism?". Devdutt. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  29. ^ Pandey 2013, p. 115-116.
  30. ^ a b c d Kramrisch, Stella (1958). "Traditions of the Indian Craftsman". The Journal of American Folklore. 71 (281): 224–230. doi:10.2307/538558. ISSN 0021-8715. JSTOR 538558.
  31. ^ Elgood, Heather (2000). Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8264-9865-6.
  32. ^ Kramrisch, Stella (1976). The Hindu Temple. Raymond Burnier. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-0223-0.
  33. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 290.
  34. ^ a b c Kane 1941, p. 268-287.
  35. ^ a b Kane 1941, p. 288-300.
  36. ^ Prasad 1997, p. 119-131.
  37. ^ a b Altekar 1944, p. 266-267.
  38. ^ Aiyangar 1949, p. 144, 146, The upanayana marks not the beginning of education, but of Vedic instruction. After the samskara of caula (tonsure) comes a ceremony named vidyarambha, initiation into learning, i.e. literacy. [...] If vidyarambha was the beginning of literacy, upanayana marks the induction into sacred and redeeming lore..
  39. ^ Gharpure 1956, p. 79.
  40. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 280.
  41. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 278.
  42. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 281.
  43. ^ Gharpure 1956, p. 75.
  44. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 287.
  45. ^ Pandey 2013, p. 123.
  46. ^ Mookerji 2003, p. 178-179.
  47. ^ Mary McGee (2007), Samskara, in The Hindu World (Editors: Mittal and Thursby), Routledge, ISBN 978-0415772273, pages 332–356
  48. ^ Jackson, Kathy Merlock (2005). Rituals and Patterns in Children's Lives. University of Wisconsin Press, Popular Press. pp. 51–52. ISBN 978-0-299-20830-1.
  49. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1891.
  50. ^ Raman Varadara, Glimpses of Indian Heritage, ISBN 978-8171547586, page 51
  51. ^ Pandey 2013, p. 111-117.
  52. ^ Mookerji 2003, p. 174.
  53. ^ Monier-Williams 1891, p. 360.
  54. ^ Mookerji 2003, p. 174-177.
  55. ^ Mookerji 2003, p. 270-271.
  56. ^ Hartmut Scharfe (2007), Handbook of Oriental Studies, Brill Academic, ISBN 978-9004125568, pages 102-103, 197-198, 263-276
  57. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 273.
  58. ^ "A Village in Bihar, where Girl wear the Sacred Thread 'Janeu'". IANS. Biharprabha News. 10 February 2014. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
  59. ^ Jaisinghani, Bella (29 May 2009). "Thread ceremony for Thane girl". The Times of India.
  60. ^ a b c d e Kane 1941, p. 293-295.
  61. ^ V.L. Manjul (December 2002). Starting Vedic Studies - Backed by scripture, girls get their sacred thread, Hinduism Today. Archived on 15 January 2021.
  62. ^ C Tripathi (2005), The Evolution of Ideals of Womenhood in Indian Society, ISBN 978-8178354255, page 94
  63. ^ Kanitkar & Cole 2010, p. 217.
  64. ^ Oldenberg & Muller, The Grihya-Sutras: Rules of Vedic Domestic Ceremonies 1892, p. 44, Grihya Sutra of Gobhila Verse 2.1.19.
  65. ^ Arunachalam, M. (1980), Festivals of Tamil Nadu: Volume 3 of Peeps into Tamil culture, Gandhi Vidyalayam, 1980, p. 127, ... boy is invested for the first time with the sacred thread ... the three devis Sarasvati, Savitri and Gayatri ...
  66. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 298.
  67. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 276, 296.
  68. ^ Altekar 1944, p. 296-297.
  69. ^ a b c d e Kane 1941, p. 290-293.
  70. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1999). "Sanskrit Commentators and the Transmission of Texts: Haradatta on Āpastamba Dharmasūtra". Journal of Indian Philosophy. 27 (6): 570. doi:10.1023/A:1004636609126. ISSN 0022-1791. JSTOR 23496389. S2CID 189820541.
  71. ^ a b c d e Olivelle 1992, p. 9-10.
  72. ^ Sultān Bāhū, Jamal J. Elias (April 1998), Death before dying: the Sufi poems of Sultan Bahu, University of California Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0-520-21242-8, ... in Punjabi, zunnar, the sacred Yajñopavītam worn by Brahmin Hindus ...
  73. ^ Shashi Ahluwalia, Meenakshi Ahluwalia (1992), Living faiths in modern India, Indian Publishers' Distributors, 1992
  74. ^ a b c Oldenberg, The Grihya-Sutras: Rules of Vedic Domestic Ceremonies (1886), p. 7-8.
  75. ^ Arun Kumbhare (2009), Women of India: Their Status Since the Vedic Times, ISBN 978-1440156007, page 56
  76. ^ J Sinha (2014), Psycho-Social Analysis of the Indian Mindset, Springer Academic, ISBN 978-8132218036, page 5
  77. ^ a b c Patrick Olivelle (2004), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 353-354, 356-382
  78. ^ Zotter 2010, p. 23-24.
  79. ^ Shore, Amanda (26 February 2011). "Hindu Bratabandha Ceremony, Nepal". inTravel Magazine. Retrieved 20 May 2014.

Works cited

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Basava and Upanayana
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