Upanayana is the samskara that is performed in the seventh year at the critical juncture when the child is about to leave infancy behind and enter into childhood. It is the moment when he is given the dictum of life and the direction that he is to follow. On a suitable day, when the sun is in the northern solstice, he is invested with the sacred thread and girdle, initiated into the Gayatri mantra and the practices of pranayama, surya namaskara and brahmachari. He is given a loincloth and a staff and sent to live with the preceptor where his formal education begins. Thus he sets off into the world armed with the tools that have the potential to develop creativity, talent, steadfast and balanced thinking, vitality in action and discipline in thought and speech.
Until now his mother is his sole tutor. She gives him his first lessons. From her he learns compassion, surrender, grace, love, nobility, tolerance, humility and all the tender qualities that the heart has to teach. Later in life the head comes into focus but for now he learns to listen to his heart. This is a time of imbibing values and ideals, dreams and aspirations, all that is heart oriented. These experiences become etched very firmly in his psyche, for this blackboard is sparkling clean and absorbs everything onto its canvas. Moreover, being a part of her body, his connection with the mother is so strong and deep that her influence is everlasting. No one can deny that. One can clearly see the scars in a child who has not enjoyed proximity to his mother in his formative years. The Vedas have declared the mother to be the first guru. She initiates the child into bhakti, which is pure devotion and faith, qualities that are so vital for his interactions in life, perhaps more vital than the growth of his intellect. Intellect devoid of bhakti causes stagnation. Bhakti polishes the intellect and makes it shine even more.
After the upanayana samskara, at the appropriate time the child is handed over to the acharya, or preceptor. He is now a dwija, twice born, a beautiful term used to denote his second birth in the same physical body. His first birth he receives from his parents. It is they who are responsible for the opening of his two eyes. His second birth he receives from the acharya who opens the third eye, which is the eye of knowledge. That is the real birth. Prior to that he was operating on the instinctive level, just as an animal, eating, sleeping and excreting. With the opening of the third eye he begins to perceive intellect, intuition and ananda, or bliss, on the conscious level. All the samskaras prior to the upanayana are but preparations for this big event in his life. In this second birth his father is the acharya or guru and Savitri, the deity of learning, his mother.
About upanayana, Swami Satyananda has said, The age when the child is initiated into upanayana is very significant. When the child attains seven years of age his hormones undergo a type of reshuffling. New hormones are introduced in his body that induce chemical and electrical changes in the circuits of the brain. The pineal gland begins the process of slow but steady decay and the pituitary gland is activated into function. Thus the ageing process is set into motion. Upanayana is performed to counteract this influence. Through Gayatri mantra, pranayama, surya namaskara and brahmachari, the ageing process is counterbalanced and his vitality preserved.
Gayatri is the pranava mantra of twenty-four syllables. It has the same status and importance as the mantra Aum. It was realized by the sage Vishwamitra while remaining in deep states of dhyana for long years continuously. It is said that he remained motionless in meditation for such a long period that termites mistook him for a mound of earth and built vast anthills around him. But he remained unmoved. His meditation culminated when Shakti manifested before him as Savitri and gave him the Gayatri mantra. It is the one mantra that can bestow qualities ranging from good health, sound mind, disciplined emotions, control over thought and speech, creativity and intelligence to the highest transcendental experience. This is why Gayatri mantra boasts of leading the practitioner to shine in all realms, from the mundane to the transcendental. Practised along with pranayama the student develops a piercing mind and intellect that can dissect, digest and assimilate the loftiest ideas ever known to man.
After teaching the Gayatri mantra, the rite of first kindling the fire is performed along with chanting of mantras that are full of educational significance. The worship of fire begins now as a student and continues throughout his life. The fire bears witness to all the events in his life and finally at the time of death consigns him to flames.
The upanayana is a samskara to uplift man from the level of instinct to that of intuition, or prajna. According to tradition it can be performed again at any time in life when man falls back to the instinctive level. The sacred thread, staff and girdle he previously received are discarded due to contamination and new ones given. The head is once again shaved in the same manner, leaving a small tuft. The rite is repeated in its entirety.
The child's upanayana initiation marks his entry into the first ashrama of life, which is brahmacharya. This is a period when he sacrifices himself to the observance of different vows and devotes himself wholly to study and learning. He practises celibacy and moderation in thought word and deed. He serves the preceptor and toils for him.
During his stay with the guru, another samskara known as keshanta (shaving of the beard) followed by godana (offering of a cow) is conducted when the child is sixteen and a young adult. Just as in chudakarana samskara, the hair of the beard, moustache and head as well as the nails are removed and consigned to water. At the end of the ceremony a cow is offered to the preceptor.
For twelve long years the child lives with the guru and acquires the most varied knowledge ranging from reading, writing, martial arts, astrology, astronomy, economy, spiritual sciences, culture, history, agriculture, horticulture, as well as the simple art of living. He is exposed to the rigours of life. Even if the child is from a rich family he has to adhere to all the disciplines. No special concessions are made for him. The importance of being a responsible member of humanity is instilled in him at this stage.
Although the education is formal, it is important to say that in the gurukul tradition knowledge is imbibed by the child rather than imposed on him. This is a very vital factor to aid him in the process of learning. The gurukul tradition till today believes that knowledge does not have to be brought from outside. It is already within the child. All that has to be done is to provide the child with a fit environment for the unfoldment of this knowledge.
The next samskara, samavartana marks the end of brahmacharya and student life. Samavartana means 'returning home from the house of the guru'. It is also called snana (bath), because bathing forms the most prominent part of this samskara.
Samavartana is performed in the presence of the preceptor and its purposes are manifold. The child's life as a brahmacharia is a long sacrifice during which he lives in divine contact and acquires a divine lustre. This bath is meant to wash away the divinity from him before he enters the ordinary world of a grihastha (householder). Otherwise he would pollute the divine attributes and incur divine displeasure. Thus, in one way the samavartana samskara is a sort of sacrificial bath that is performed at the end of every sacrifice. It is also conducted as a symbolic bath to mark the great ocean of learning that the student has crossed. His body is heated with the fire of austerity and sacrifice, and prior to entering the comfortable life of a householder it requires a cooling influence that is symbolized by bathing and indicated by the verses associated with this ceremony.
The close of student life is very momentous because at this time the child has to make a choice between the two paths of life, pravritti and nivritti. The broad path of householder life and total involvement with the world is pravritti marga. Nivritti marga is the narrow path of detachment, austerity and renunciation, in the pursuit of supreme knowledge. Only a few who have a natural inclination for this sort of life opt for it and they remain with the preceptor.
After the grand ceremonial bath, the student casts off his entire outfit, which symbolizes brahmacharya life. Many of the comforts and luxuries denied to him during that period are now presented to him by the acharya. New garments, ornaments, fancy shoes, turban and garlands are given. Then he pays respect to the acharya and asks permission to leave, but not before he offers him guru dakshina. Until now he does not pay the acharya anything for all the years that he has lived with him, but when his studies are over he is expected to offer a token of gratitude. As a matter of fact not even the seven continents of the world are enough to repay the acharya for all that he has received from him. But he does not leave without making this offering.
So at the age of twenty-five he returns home ready to dive deep into the next stage of his life which is the grihastha ashrama, or householder life. It is interesting to note that the four stages into which the life span of a man was divided were known as ashrama: brahmacharya ashrama, grihastha ashrama, vanaprastha ashrama and sannyasa ashrama. The word ashram means to labour and life is viewed as a constant endeavour to achieve perfection, not as an opportunity for entertainment and pleasure. Even the married life of a householder where certain liberties were permitted is not for pleasure but an act of dharma. Contrary to other traditions and beliefs, here marriage is sacred and the union of man and woman is the fulfilment of dharma or righteousness. To accept a woman is a sacrifice and an unmarried man is disregarded as being without sacrifice.
Thus the samskara known as vivaha, or marriage, is very important in the life of man. A lot of time is given to the preparations for this event. Selection of the bride and groom is done on the basis of gotra (lineage) and jaati (identity). For good progeny these must be compatible or else the marriage is a failure. Gotra is the ancestral line from which that family has descended. At the time of marriage the gotra of both the bride and groom are recited in front of everyone. By that they can know the pedigree of the couple.
When we say that we are descendants of rishis and munis, we are not at all wrong. On examining these different gotras, it is found that they have all emanated from a rishi or muni. This purity of gotra has to be maintained. Some gotras are compatible with each other and some are not. This has to be examined very carefully at the time of selection, for it is a very serious matter. On this depends the DNA structure that the progeny will inherit. Faulty matches bring about faulty DNA. Once that happens, no doctor or medicine can rectify it. After marriage, women assume the gotra of the husband and their progeny will inherit the gotra of the father.
Jaati is the specific identity of the individual. It has come to mean caste but that is a very loose term. The word jna means to know and jnati or jaati is that by which you can be known. It is your passport to life. It is a very important science and nowhere in the world in any tradition has so much attention been drawn to this subject. It has been discussed, analyzed, and subjected to so much scrutiny that today on knowing the jaati of a person you can know his entire person. The study is so detailed that even his IQ can be known.
This is very useful information when selecting a match for marriage. You can know almost everything about not just the bride and groom but about the whole family by knowing their jaati. A lot of importance is given to this and many matches are rejected if they do not conform to the exact specifications required. When this requirement is satisfied the individual horoscopes of the bride and groom are compared. They should complement, not contradict each other. If they do then that is another important factor that can terminate the marriage plans.
The age for vivaha is when both are ready for a man-woman relationship. Prior to that the bride has three metaphorical husbands, Soma, Gandharva and Agni. Soma, who represents the moon, attends her till she reaches puberty and is responsible for the growth of hair on her body and the development of breasts and genital organs. Gandharva, who represents creativity, lends her beauty, grace, coyness and softness. Agni, who represents the sun, brings the onset of her menstrual cycle and hands her over to the human husband.
Selection of the match has other requirements too, apart from the gotra, jaati and horoscope. Physical attributes are no doubt important. Material status is also kept in mind. But greater emphasis is placed on the mental calibre, personal decorum and refinement of behaviour in the case of the bride as well as the groom and their respective families. These are considered more durable qualities.
Marriage is never regarded as a relationship between just two people. It involves the entire family. The bride and groom are the future progenitors of that vansha, or line. They have a duty to fulfil through marriage. That is the first, foremost and perhaps only purpose of this samskara. The progeny should be of a high calibre. All the planning that preceded marriage is with this aim in mind.
Restraint is the key word in the marriage relationship. After the marriage rituals are over, with agni as witness the father hands over the daughter to the groom through an important rite of kanyadaan, offering the girl. The couple then stay together within the precincts of the bride's home for three days and nights without consummating the marriage. A wooden staff representing Gandharva is placed between them on the bed. He bears witness to their restraint.
It is an indication to the couple that lust, passion and amour are temporary and do not necessarily lead to fulfilment of a relationship. Their marriage has to be more durable that that, extending beyond sexual union and progeny until old age when death parts them. Restraint and disciplined sexual life lead to fulfilment of desire and healthy progeny.
Whereas in brahmacharya ashrama development of the faculties of intelligence holds sway, now the chance to develop and intensify feelings and emotions presents itself. This is the period when one can pursue the total growth of one's personality, keeping in mind all that has been learnt until now. Children are born, they grow up and get married, and soon middle age appears. At this stage, around the age of fifty, he enters the third ashrama of vanaprastha.
Vanaprastha is a period of contemplation, visits to holy places, satsang and swadhyaya. Husband and wife undertake these practices together. They visit the guru's ashram, learn spiritual practices and gradually disengage themselves from their responsibilities and commitments, leaving the rein in the hands of their children. It is the dusk of their lives and much preparation has to be done before night sets in. The samskaras that are given to the individual during this period are purely spiritual. They have no social significance. The guru gives them on an individual basis according to aptitude and inclination. Thus these samskaras have not been generalized in the way that the previous ones are.
Thus he lives on and gradually prepares himself for the moment of reckoning, when he undergoes the last samskara of life anteshti (last rites of the deceased). It is conducted when the individual leaves his mortal body to return to his real abode. The eldest son inherits the duty of performing the anteshti. Amidst the chanting of vedic mantras he sets fire to the anointed mortal remains kept on the funeral pyre. This is the one samskara from which women are barred. After the funeral, the ashes are consigned to water. This ends his yajna of life.
If, prior to his death, the individual has entered the last and most noble stage of life, which is sannyasa ashrama, then this duty is not given to the son. Sannyasa is total renunciation of kith and kin. Therefore, in that case his last rites are done as per the norms of a renunciate.
For thirteen days, vigil is kept for the deceased and special rites are conducted to lead the disembodied soul away from the earthly plane to other lokas. During this period members of the family are considered impure. They do not engage in any social obligations. Sexual intercourse between family members is forbidden. Male members shave their heads and do not discharge their daily duties or social obligations. All activities of the household are directed towards bidding the deceased the last and final farewell before he assumes another body. After a year, shraddha, homage to the ancestors, is performed. It is a very important obligation that the sons have to fulfil year after year for well-being, happiness and progress of the soul on its onward journey.
In this modern age what an amazing concept this seems to be. To expect a boy or girl to live the life of brahmacharya and self-imposed austerities until the age of twenty-five seems far from possible. They do not have that kind of willpower, or sankalpa shakti. To ask them to marry not for love but for a higher purpose sounds unreal and unnatural. To expect them to turn to higher spiritual life after fifty is a demand most cannot fulfil.
To live life in this manner there has to be a seriousness of purpose. Nothing is denied to the individual. He enjoys and experiences everything, wealth, beauty, fame, luxury, comfort, relationships. The only difference is that he is aware of the purpose of all these in his life. It is an excellent training he receives. It makes him noble, refined, gracious, at ease in any situation. Fit to be called a man.
Swami Satyananda, the foremost authority on this subject, has said that samskara is a seed sown in the depths of man's consciousness. Man is a bundle of samskaras. He carries them with him life after life wherever he goes. Everything he experiences in life and after it remains embedded as a samskara. Just as a seed sprouts when the time is right, so too these samskaras sprout at the favourable time. Depending on the quality of his samskaras, he remains savage like an animal, or transforms himself into a human being, fit for higher births.
It is important to notice the specific moments when the samskaras are given to an individual. For then one can easily see that these moments have not been chosen at random but at the precise juncture when the individual is about to enter a new phase of life. At this critical juncture these samskaras provide a direction. Although this direction is not verbal, it evokes a response from the subtle awareness or witness within him.
Now the question arises: how relevant are these samskaras in our lives today? Are they just primitive rituals which we have outgrown in our present situation? If these samskaras were only intended to influence the external situation of man, then perhaps they would not be of use to us today. For man has reached the pinnacle of success in that area. But if their influence extends to the intangible and mysterious part of our personality, then they are just as relevant today as they were in ancient times.
The inner life is one area which remains a mystery to man. He does not know how to reach there. Nor does he know what is in store for him once he decides to look within. Physical attributes such as beauty, good body and good health do not make man a superman. It is his mental and intellectual development and level of evolution that earn him that laurel.
In the Bhagavad Gita the level of mind that a superman would have is defined as sthita prajna. In very simple terms, it is that state when the flow of mind is totally stable and the thoughts do not break. Evolved minds can follow a thought or an idea to its natural conclusion. Such minds are steady, focused and one-pointed, on account of which they are able to direct the mind as they wish. On the other hand, the thoughts of an ordinary mind jump from one to the other. This leads to erratic behaviour, forgetfulness, dissipation, distraction and an inability to complete any task properly.
Although as yet the state of sthita prajna may be out of our reach, we can at least expose our children to influences that direct them towards this goal. It is a mistaken notion that the vedic samskaras are intended just for a particular set of people in a particular part of the world. It is true that this tradition has been developed, practised and maintained only in India. But if we want to improve the quality of our children and in the course of time society and the world we live in then these samskaras are extremely important for all mankind today. Perhaps more than ever in the past.