Upanayana is one of the traditional saṃskāras (rites of passage) that marked the acceptance of a student by a guru (teacher) and an individual's entrance to a school in Hinduism. The tradition is widely discussed in ancient Sanskrit texts of India and varies regionally. The sacred thread (yajnopavita) is received by the boy during this ceremony, that he continues wearing across his chest thereafter. The upanayana was restricted in many medieval Indian texts to the upper three of the four varnas (castes) of society — brahmins, kshatriyas and vaishyas. However, Vedic period texts such as the Baudhāyana Grihyasutra encouraged all members of society to undergo the upanayana, even shudras. Women were encouraged to undergo upanayana in ancient India before they started Vedic studies or before their wedding.
Upanayana (Sanskrit: उपनयन) literally means "the act of leading to or near". It is an important and widely discussed samskara in ancient Sanskrit text. The rite of passage symbolizes the leading or drawing towards the self of a child, in a school, by a teacher. It is a ceremony in which a guru (teacher) accepts and draws a child towards knowledge and initiates the second birth that is of the young mind and spirit.
Upanayana is the rite of passage for the start of formal education of writing, numbers, reading, Vedangas, arts and other skills. The Upanayana rite of passage was also important to the teacher, as the student would therefrom begin to live in the gurukul (school).
Upanayana was an elaborate ceremony, that included rituals involving the family, the child and the teacher. A boy receives during this ceremony a sacred thread called Yajñopaveetam that he wears. The Yajñopavita ceremony announced that the child had entered into formal education. In the modern era, the Upanayana rite of passage is open to anyone at any age.
The education of a student was not limited to ritual and philosophical speculations found in the Vedas and the Upanishads. They extended to many arts and crafts, which had their own, similar rites of passages. Aitareya Brahmana, Agamas and Puranas literature of Hinduism describe these as Shilpa Sastras. 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. Ancient Indian texts assert that the number of the arts is unlimited, but each deploy elements of 64 ‘‘kala’’ (कला, techniques) and 32 ‘‘vidyas’’ (विद्या, fields of knowledge). The training of these began from childhood and included studies about dharma, culture, reading, writing, mathematics, geometry, colors, tools, as well as traditions (trade secrets). The rites of passage during apprentice education varied in the respective guilds.
Rajbali Pandey compares the Upanayana rite of passage to Baptism in Christianity where the person is born again unto spiritual knowledge, as the ceremony marketed the initiation of the student for spiritual studies such as the Vedas.
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 sanskara ritual; the second is marked through Upanayanam or Vidyarambha rites of passage. 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); he went about collecting fire wood in forest and food donations from villages on a daily basis.
Many medieval era texts discuss Upanayana in the context of three varnas (caste, class) — Brahmins, Kshtreyas and Vaishyas. Several texts such as Sushruta Sutrasthana, however, also include Sudras entering schools and the formal education process, stating that the Upanayana samskara was open to everyone. The Baudhayana Grihya sutra in verses 2.5.8 and 2.5.9 states the teacher to "let him initiate [to school through Upanayana] a Brahmin in spring, a Kshatriya in summer, a Vaishya in autumn, a Sudra in the rainy season; or all of them in the spring.
The ceremony was typically performed at age eight among the Brahmins, at age 11 among the Kshatriyas, and age 12 among Vaishyas. Apastamba Gryha Sutra, in verse 220.127.116.11, 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 feel they initiate their formal studies of the Vedas.
Scholars 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. 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.
Scholars state that there is high likelihood of interpolation, insertion and corruption in dharma sutras and dharma sastra texts, and there are contradictory verses in it on Upanayana-related rites of passage. Patrick Olivelle notes the doubts in postmodern scholarship about the presumed reliability of Manusmriti manuscripts. 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. 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.