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THE

EXISTENTIAL,
SIGNIFICANCE
OF

AND
SOCIAL,
THE
UPANAYANA

COSMIC
RITE

BY
CARL

OLSON

Madison, New Jersey, U.S.A.
For the Hindu as depicted in the Grhyasütras, life moves along in a
succession of periods. For each of these periods there are proper rites
to perform. The most critical periods of life are birth, puberty, marriage, and death. These crucial times in the life of religious man are
periods of transition. They are times of great danger. In order for
man to pass over the danger, he must occasionally take a leap. The
anthropologist - Mary Douglas - cogently expresses the situation,
as she writes:
Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one
state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one
to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others. The danger
is controlled by ritual which precisely separates him from his old status,
segregates him for a time and then publicly declares his entry to his new
status i).
Thus the succesful leap entails a transition into a new realm of reality.
For the Hindu the transition of various danger periods is accomplished
by means of numerous Saikskiras
(sacraments).
Traditionally one of
the most important Samskdras has been the Upanayana (initiation)
ceremony.
This paper will not be primarily concerned with the general structure of the rite. This investigation will focus on those aspects of the
view the existential, social, and
Upanayana rite which will enable us
cosmic significance of this rite for the Hindus. Thus this paper will
attempt to show the significance of the U panayana rite in terms of
three levels of being.
1) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution
and Taboo (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1966), p. 96.

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I
In speaking of initiation in general terms, one finds that it denotes
a body of rites and oral teachings. It is the purpose of these rites and
teachings to produce a radical modification in the religious and social
status of the person to be initiated 2). In more precise philosophical
terms, initiation is equivalent to a basic change in existential condition.
In other words, the initiate emerges from his ordeal endowed with
a totally different
being from that which he possessed before his
initiation 3). Thus there is a change in status from one ontological
level of existence to another.
In the U panayana ceremony, there are some examples of this change
in ontological status of the initiate. There are, for example, several
preparations before the actual ceremony. The day before the ceremony
the auspicious god Ganesa and several other deities were propitiated.
On the night before the ceremony, the body of the candidate was
smeared with a yellow substance. A silver ring was tucked into the
top-knot of his hair. The child was also instructed to remain silent
during the night 4). The yellow substance on the child's body may
have symbolized his embryonic state, as did the command to absolute
silence. For example, what is silent is undetermined
(S.B.VII.2.2. 14) .
The Hindus also believe that every man is born a Sudra 5). The color
yellow is the color of the southern direction. The southern direction
is symbolic of the Suclra caste 6). The south is also the direction of
Yama who is the lord of the dead. Furthermore,
yellow is one the
colors symbolic of demons 7) who are residents of Yama's realm.
He views transition as a process and in the case of rites de passages
In the transitional or liminal period, the individual is
a transformation.
structurally invisible. This structural invisibility has a twofold char2) Mircea Eliade, The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago :
University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 112.
3) Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth
and Rebirth (trans.) Willard R. Trask (New York : Harper and Row, Publishers,
1965), p. x.
4) Raj Bali Pandey, Hindu Samskaras (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1969),
p. 128.
5) Ibid., p. 30.
6) Willibald Kirfel, Symbolik des Hinduismus und des Jinismus (Stuttgart:
Anton Hiersemann, 1959), pp. 100-101.
7) Arthur Berriedale Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and
Upanishads Vol. I (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1970), p. 237.

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acter. Turner writes concerning the initiates, "They are at once no
longer classified and not yet classified" 8). In other words, neophytes
are similar to embryos or newborn infants. "Their condition is one
of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories" 9). A common characteristic of transitional beings is that they
have nothing. They possess no status, property, rank or kinship position. This process of which Turner writes seems to be also evident in
the Upanayana rite.
It may be possible to elucidate this argument by considering thc
position of Victor Turner.
Another preparatory practice is the final meal the initiate has with
his mother (G.G.S.II.io.7).
This last meal seems to symbolize the
of
the
umbilical
cord.
This observation makes sense, if one
cutting
recalls that the yellow substance smeared on the boy's body and the
command to keep silent represent an embryonic state. Thus the last
meal with his mother represents the final nourishment
that he is to
receive from his mother before he is born. These actions appear to
represent a re-enactment of the child's natural birth. The rite, by the
symbolic returning of the child to an embryonic state, is communicating
that this is the true or spiritual birth of the child. In the Vedic period
the initiation was regarded as a second birth (A.V. II.5.3). The rebirth
is expressed in terms of a teacher changing the boy into an embryo
and keeping him in his belly for three nights. This entire scenario
represcnts a rite of passage in the sense of a rite of separation to use
van Gennap's
terminology 10). This passage is from the child's
natural profane condition to the threshold of the sacred.
To cite another example, after one year, three nights or immediately,
the teacher recites the Sävitri ll?layr.tra to the student. The two participants sit north of the fire. The teacher sits with his face turned
eastward and the student faces westward (P.G.S. II. 3.3 ) . The teacher
recites the Sävitri ll?Iavctra (R.V. III.62.IO) in (-,Ctyatri verse to the
Brahman student. The teacher, however, recites a Trishtubla verse to a
Kshatriya and a Gayatï to a Vaisya
II.5.4-6). The teaching
8) Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembn Ritual (Ithaca :
Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 96.
9) Ibid., p. 97.
10) Arnold van Gennap, The Rites of Passage (trans.) Monika B. Vizedom
and Gabrielle L. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 20.

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of the sacred mantra signalized the second birth of the child 1 ) . The
teacher was regarded as the father and the Sfiiitri l?Iaoatra was understood as the mother of the initiate (M.S. II. 170) .
In existential terms the student has emerged from the initiation
ceremony endowed with a totally different being. According to the
Hindus, every man is born a Sudra. "By birth every one is a Sudra,
by performing the Upanayana he is called a twice-born, by reading
the Vedas he becomes a Vipra and by realizing Brahman he attains
the status of a Brahman"
1 2) . To achieve this condition he must bc
reborn. This rebirth is attained through the initiation rite. In other
His
words, the student has experienced a spiritual transformation.
has
been
has
evil
sanctified.
He
been
from
all
sin
and
body
purified
in his present existence and after death (M.S. 11.26). The student is
now fit for union with Brahman (M.S. 11.28).
II
There is also a change in social status for the initiate. As van Genr?ap
has indicated, the initiate is incorporated into a new social reality 13) .
He has passed from his former profane state of ignorance, inequality
and irresponsibility
into a sacred social position of enlightenment,
and
In other words, the Hindu initiate is takcn
responsibility.
equality
from the caste structure. It is the secrets and ways of this society
initiate learns. And it is eventually into this
that the transformed
social realm that the newly initiated individual is incorporated.
The caste structure is emphasized throughout the U panayana rite.
For example, a Brahman student was initiated in the eighth year
after conception and had until sixteen years of age to be initiated.
The ages for a Kshatriya and Vaisya are eleven to twenty-two and
twelve to twenty-four respectively (S.G.S. II, i ) . Oldenberg feels
the numbers were artificially prepared 14). On the other hand, Gonda
sees the numbers as having a mystical significance 1 5) . Caste distinction
11) Alfred Hillebrant, Ritual-Litteratur Vedische Opfer und Zaubcr (Strassburg: Karl J. Trubner, 1897), pp. 53-54.
12) Quoted from Pandey, op. cit., p. 30.
13) van Gennap, op. cit., p. 106.
14) Hermann Oldenberg, Die Religion Des Veda (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta'
Sche, 1923), p. 464.
15) Jan Gonda, Die Religionen Indiens I: Veda und älterer Hinduismus
(Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1960), p. 119.

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is also evident in the giving of the kaitpina vvhich is a small piece of
cloth used to cover the private parts of an individual. The Brahman
student was given an antelope skin (ajina), the Kshatriya was offered
the skin of a spotted deer and the Vasiya was presented a cowhide or
The Gopatha Brähgoat's skin (£.G.S. II.T3.2-4.5; G.S.G. ll.io.9).
1nana states that the antelope skin is symbolic of spiritual and intellectual pre-eminence
(G.1lr. 1-2. 1-8). This assertion parallels the
accepted superiority of the Brahman caste. There are also differences
based on the material used to make the sacred thread (yajii-.opazita).
The
Another distinction arises with the giving of the staff
Brahman studcnt was given a staff made of Palasa wood; the Kshatriya was given one made of Bilva wood; and the Vaisya was offered
a staff of Udumbara wood (P.G.S. 11.5.25-27). There are also differences of length to be observed depending upon the initiates caste.
Thus the caste that the individual was evidentually to re-enter was
continually emphasized throughout the rite.
There are also other examples of social signifance in the ceremony.
After receiving the staff f (dayida) from his teacher, the student went
to beg for food, which was to be the primary means of subsistence
throughout his career. The food obtained by begging was supposed
to be pure (M.S.
And the brahmacari who subsists on food
obtained by begging is like one observing a fast (M.S. II.188). The
student begged initially from those who would not refuse him on the
This usually entailed his tnother and other
day of the
relatives. The practice of begging emphasized to the student that he
was a non-economic entity. He was thus dependent on public charity 16). When the student became a full member of society he knew
that he must perform his social duties. The practice of begging also
emphasized the sacred value of food. Of course, food has many social
implications for the Hindus.
It has been noted that the Upanayana ceremony was not only a
passport to the literary tradition of the Hindus. It was also necessary
for entrance into Hindu society, because without the completion of the
initiation rite one could not marry an Aryan girl and be accepted as a
full member of society.
In the transitional period of initiation the young mcn were released
16) Pandey, op. cit., p. 139.

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from the structure of Hindu society to the immediacy of communitas.
Victor Turner understands c011lmunitas as that which emerges in the
or rudimcntarily
liminal period. It is "society as an unstructured
structured and relatively undifferentiated
comitatus, community, or
even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the
general authority of the ritual elders" 17). After initiation they return
to the given structure revitalized by their experience of cOl1ununitas.
As Turner has noted there is a dialectic present without which no
society can function 18).
There were severe social consequences for those who failed to complete the Upanayana rite. These individuals were referred to as 'vrätyas.
Manu states that because they have failed to go through the Upanayana, the vrätyas are excluded from the Sävitri Jll antra and become
despised by the Aryans. The vratyas are outcasts who are excluded
The
from the Vedic writings and Aryan marriage (M.S. II.
vrcityas wrere probably eastern tribes. According to Winternitz 19), it
is not known if they were Aryan but they were outside the pale of
Brahmanism. This position is challenged by Heesterman who argues
that the vrätyas were not outside the brahmanical pale or even nonof these positions, those who dissented from
Aryan 20). Irregardless
the Vedic religious tradition in later times were debarred from all
religious and social activities.
III
The existential and social implications of the Upanayana rite have
been noted. It is now necessary to view its cosmic significance.
Due to the fact that one of the main purposes of the (7panayana was
the acquisition of knowledge and the building of character, the best
possible teacher was sought. In the A tharaz,,eda (XI.5) the term âcârya
appears. In his instance, it literally means "the man who knows, adheres
to and practices the traditional good behaviour, customs, practices,

17) Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Stucture and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), p. 96.
18) Ibid., p. 129.
19) M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature Vol. I (trans.) S. Ketkan
(Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1927), p. 154.
20) J. C. Heesterman, "Vr�tya and Sacrifice", Indo-Iranian Journal Vol. VI
NR I (1962), p. 18.

158
establishes rules or institutions"
teacher had a divine character
cupied a very important place
significance of the teacher had
expresses this point:

21 ) . It must be noted that the religious
The spiritual guide oc(S.B.2.2.2.6).
in Hindu society
The
cosmic implications. Jan Gonda aptly

The potent word, the 'holy power' of which the brahman who has studied
the Veda is the bearer must be transmitted and remain a living force in the
world; the dharma must be known by those who reach maturity lest society
and the universe fall into decay and be reduced to chaos 22).
Thus only a teacher who was the paragon of wisdom, good character,
and purity was thought able to lead and teach a young child. Therefore,
the best possible teacher was sought to attain the best possible results.
During the rite, the teacher initiates the student while standing. The
teacher ties the girdle (iitekhala) around the student three times from
left to right (S.G.S. 11.2.). The girdle possessed a mystical power by
means of its ability to bind 23). The girdle served as an umbilical cord
from evil
symbolic of a new birth. It also afforded
protection
powers 24).
After the girdle was tied to the waist of the student, he was invested
with the sacred thread. This practice was unknown to early writers.
For example, the Grhyasiltras do not contain any prescription for the
wearing of the sacred thread. The sacred thread (yajzio?awita) could
be made of cotton and worn by all castes, although distinctions were
also made. The thread is equal to the height of a man which is measured in terms of ninety-six times his four fingers. These four fingers
symbolize the four states of the inner essence of man. They are waking,
dreaming, dreamless sleep, and silence (Má. U.). On the other hand,
the three folds of the cord represent the three gui *ias or the three
subtle elements (sattva, yaja.s, tamas) which make up primal matter,
from which the universe is evolved. In order that the satt??ag?.na or
good quality of reality may predominate in a man the cord is twisted
upward. The three threads remind one that he must repay three debts:
to one's ancestors, the ancient seers, and the gods. The knot which
21) Jan Gonda, Change and Continuity in Indian Religion (The Hague:
Mouton and Company, 1965), p. 235.
22) I bid., p. 234.
23) See note no. 2 Oldenberg, op. cit., p. 465.
24) Die Religionen Indiens I: Veda und älterer Hinduismus, op. cit., p. 119.

159
ties the three cords is called Brahmagranthi
w?hich symbolizes Brahma,
Visnu, and Siva 25).
Furthermore, one can view the cosmic significance of the ilpanayaiia
rite by looking briefly at another aspect of the sacred thread. The role
of the sacred thread is to implement a cosmic and human unity. This
primordial image serves to reveal the structure of the universe and
to describe the specific situation of man. For example, the sacred
thread is the spiritual bond holding together the universe and all beings
In another passage the sun binds the worlds to
(S.B. VII.3.2.13).
itself by means of the thread (S.B. VIII./.3.10).
This same thread
also binds man to the source of all life which keeps him alive but
also dependent 26).
After purifying the student with water (S.G.S. 11.2.4-io) and initiating him ( S. G. S. II.2- r 2 ) , the teacher has the new initiate gaze at
the sun (A.G.S. 1.20.7). The sun represents the cosmic law which
governs the entire universe. It is the place of immortality, the unchanging source of all consuming power 27). The sun gives to the
student vitality (ojas), physical strength
(bala), and beauty. This
act may also represent the acknowledgement
of Agni as the ultimate
teacher by the student. Agni is identified with the sun (R.V. 111.2.14)
and is the director of the rites or the great priest (R.V. VIII-49.1;
the student is made to witness the
VI.i6.i;
X.7.,S). Nevertheless,
symbol of the cosmic law. There is also a connection between the sun
and rebirth. Gonda writes, "W% hen the sun rises in the morning, the
world is reborn, but with this this proces the ritual rebirth of the initiate
who emerges from his hut may be regarded as runing parallel"
Thus every morning the significance of the ritual process of which
the student is a part is re-inforced.

25) Abbe J. A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies (trans.)
Henry K. Beauchamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 161; see also Monier
Monier-Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism (New York: Macmillan and
Company, 1891), p. 378.
26) Mircea Eliade, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne: Studies in Religious
Myth and Symbol (trans.) J. M. Cohen (New York : Sheed and Ward, 1965),
p. 170.
27) Heinrich Zimmer, "Death and Rebirth in the Light of India" in Man and
Transformation: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, ed. Joseph Campbell (New
York: Pantheon Books, 1964), p. 329.
28) Change and Continuity in Indian Religion, op. cit., p. 366.

160
IV
In the course of this paper, it has become evident that there has
been a certain amount of overlapping in the three levels that I have
This study has also shown that the U panaattempted to differentiate.
rite
has
the
to
enable the initiate to leap over the dangers
yaroa
power
inherent in a particular stage of life. With the danger behind him, the
initiate finds himself completely re-orientated. He is a totally different
person. He also has a new relationship with society and the cosmos.
The initiate's existential condition has changed. From a position
of structural invisibility, the initiate takes a leap to a secure position
lacking ambiguity. The biological umbilical cord is cut. There is a
return to an embryonic state to await his true, spiritual rebirth. This
second birth transforms the initiate into a new being. He is now <>na
new and higher ontological plane.
This transformation
also entails a social change. From inequality
to responsibility, from ignorance to
to equality, from irresponsibility
from chaos to ordered social structure, these are some
enlightenment,
of the social changes that the U panayana rite entails. Admitted to a new
social status, encompassed by his new found vitality, the initiate in
turn revitalizes the social order.
It has also been noted that the Upanayana is not without its cosmic
significance. Through the initiation rite, the novice comes to know
about the sacred tradition. He learns the dharma which supports and
protects society and the universe from chaos. Man learns that he is
only part of a cosmic whole. The sacred thread symbolizes to him the
essential unity binding all social beings together in the universe. Although the sacred thread binds man and keeps him dependent, it also
bestows upon him the sacred. In other words, the sacred becomes open
to him. It becomes man's new possibility.