Upakarma is a Vedic ritual celebrated every year generally on the full Moon day of the Lunar Month Sravana that falls during August–September months of English calendar which also coincides with the monsoon season. Upakarma is referred to as Avani Avittam in Tamil, Jandhyala Punnama in Telugu, and Janivarada Habba in Kannada. This day also coincides with two other important events viz. Raakhi (Raksha Bandhan) and Hayagreeva Jayanthi (Supreme Lord of knowledge and wisdom).
What is Upakarma?
Upakarma is a Sanskrit word (Upa + Karma). Literally Upa means before and Karma means an action. Upakarma means an action performed before beginning the Vedic studies. Upa also refers to nearness or close touch with Upanishads (Vedas). In simple terms Upakarma refers to changing of sacred (Holy) thread called Yagnopaveetham on this day by the three varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vysyas).
Upakarma in Sanskrit also means the beginning or Aarambha. It is beginning of the study of Vedas and Upanishads. In ancient days study of Vedas and Upanishads was compulsory especially for Brahmins. One will get the eligibility to study Vedas and Upanishads only after getting properly inducted into Gayathri Manthra through a process of Upanayanam (sacred thread ceremony). To commemorate this, even today, the day is observed as Upakarma by symbolically changing the sacred thread and performing certain rituals that marks the beginning of study of Vedas.
Why Upakarma on this day?
One may get a doubt as to why it is to be observed only on this day? why not on other days?
Sravana/Bhadrapada months also falls during the period of Chaturmasam the sacred period to perform sacred austerities. In olden days people used to resort to study of Vedas only for a period of six months in a year starting from this day (Sravana to Pushya). Hence, to begin study of Vedas they used to start with a ritual of changing the Yagnopaveetham (Upakarma) on this day. Of course nowadays the study of Vedas is being done throughout the year as it is not possible to restrict for only six months.
Also in olden days when proper transportation facilities were not available people used to stop travelling during rainy/monsoon season that coincide with Chaturmasam and stay for four months in a particular place. Since this period is not suitable for travelling they used to resort to study of Vedas. This we observe even today in case of Ascetics who stick to a particular place during this period and perform their austerities and also engage themselves in study Vedas and Upanishads.
Another reason is this day of Sravana Pournima also coincides with Hayagreeva Jayanthi. Lord Hayagreeva an avathara of Lord Vishnu and regarded as the Supreme God of knowledge and wisdom is said to have taken his birth (avathara) on this day. He has restored the lost Vedas to the Universe (Brahma) by taking birth on this day as Hayagreeva (Horse head). To pay our obeisance and salutations to the God of Vedas (Lord Hayagreeva) who is also protector of Vedas, this day is marked as Upakarma by commencing the study of Vedic scripts.
Yagnopaveetham is changed on this day to convey a message that Vedic scripts cannot be studied or learned without Upanayanam (sacred thread ceremony).
Dating of Upakarma
While Upakarma is generally observed on full moon day of Sravana Masam, but in practice it is based on the Vedic division or branch one belongs to. We all know that Vedas were conveniently bifurcated into four divisions’ viz. Rig Veda, Yajurveda, Sama Veda and Atharvana Veda. Since ancient days people have started adopting one of these four divisions according to their lineage for performing sacred rituals. Upakarma which is also one of the Vedic rituals is observed by people as per the branch of Veda they belong to as per their lineage. Reference to these we find in texts like Dharma Sindhu, Nirnaya Sindhu, and Dharma Shastra Darpana. As per these texts performing of Upakarma is based on coincidence of certain elements of Almanac. Accordingly,
Rig Veda Upakarma will be carried out on the lunar day coinciding with Sravana Star during Sravana Masam
Yajur Veda Upakarma on the Full Moon day in Sravana Masam and
Sama Veda Upakarma on the lunar day coinciding with Hastha Star during Bhadrapada Masam
If there is a coincidence of eclipse or transit of Sun (Sankramana), Adhika masam (Mala masam) on the day of Upakarma the timing for performing will change accordingly. For more details please refer to the respective texts/follow your respective religious Almanac. Above rules are applicable for the first timers as well as for the subsequent Upakarma.
Upakarma for the first timers (Exception)
For the first timers (those who are newly inducted into Upanayana) as per Dharma Sindhu, Upakarma should not be performed if there is coincidence of Guru or Sukra Moudyami (Guru or Sukraastha), Brihaspathi (Jupiter) transiting Simha Raasi (Leo sign) and during Adhikamasam.
What is to be done on this day?
After taking holy bath, one has to wear new Yagnopaveetham (both married and unmarried) with proper sankalpa and invocation.
Perform Gayathri Japa (according to one’s capacity, at least #108 times)
At temples and Mutts where this event is performed collectively, Homa is also performed.
As a symbolic commencement of study of Vedas one can recite Purusha Sooktha and Sri Vishnu Sahasra Nama Sthothram on this day.
Thus, Upakarma is not just simply a festival to celebrate and enjoy. It is an occasion to make us remember the significance of Yagnopaveetham and Gayathri Mantra that has been initiated at the time of Upanayanam and to rededicate ourselves to the spiritual path. Hindu Dharma is so strong that even after millions of years the traditions started by our great Rishis and saints followed by our forefathers is still alive even today.