Initiation: The Sacred Thread Ceremony

A recent upanayana ceremony in the UK.The brahmachari-ashram is not generally given as much importance these days, and more emphasis is given to secular education. Often the father himself performs the ceremony.

This ceremony is essential to the members of the three higher classes and marks a boy’s official acceptance into his varna. At this point he becomes “twice-born.” Everyone has a first, biological birth, but when a young man seeks his spiritual identity he symbolically accepts a spiritual teacher as father and the Vedas as mother. He may also receive a new, spiritual name. At the ceremony, he receives the jenoi (sacred-thread), usually worn for his entire lifetime. It is replaced at intervals, but never removed until the new one has been put on. There is a separate samskara marking the beginning of education, but today the two ceremonies are often combined.

Upanayana means “sitting close by,” referring to the boy’s taking shelter of the guru (spiritual teacher). Traditionally, he would move away from home to the teacher’s ashram, called “gurukula.” Even members of the royal family were trained to live simply without luxury or sense-gratification, in order to keep their minds pure and unspoiled. When later married, they would remain attached to the spiritual values they imbibed during their school days. The emphasis at gurukula was on the study of the Vedas and development of character.

The Ceremony

The ceremony itself involves shaving the head, bathing and wearing new clothes. The boy may also beg alms from his mother and from other relatives. There is a havan and the investiture of the sacred thread, which hangs over his left shoulder. The boy will then hear the Gayatri mantra from his priest or guru, who may give him a spiritual name to signify his “second birth”. Thereafter, wrapping the thread round the thumb of his right hand, he will chant this prayer thrice daily, at dawn, noon, and dusk. The boy takes vows to study the Vedas, serve his teachers and follow certain vows, including celibacy. He often concludes the ceremony by offering the traditional

The upanayana ceremony is very old, dating back to at least the time of Krishna. This painting shows Krishna and his brother Balarama at gurukula (the school of their spiritual teacher).

dakshina (gift) to his teacher.

Glossary Terms

  • Dvija – “twice born,” referring to full members of the three upper varnas. It also refers to birds and teeth.
  • Jenoi – a modern word for the sacred thread (it rhymes with “annoy’).

Related Values and Issues

  • The purposes of education
  • Delaying gratification (austerity)
  • Celibacy

Initiation for Girls

  • Traditionally this ceremony was open only to boys. With changing attitudes, some groups now initiate girls, although girls usually do not receive the sacred thread.