Upakarma in Sanskrit means 'A Begining'. Upakarma is the activity of changing of the Yagnopavita (Holy Thread),Tarpanam to Rishis and Vedarambha (begining of Vedas).
Upakarma is one of the most ancient Vedic Rituals practiced till today. This day and its next day are of great importance to Brahmins.
The event is observed once in a year, in the month of Shravana (Aug - Sep). Upakarma day is considered auspicious for beginning the Vedic studies.
It is the 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 perform certain rituals those mark the beginning of study of Vedas.
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 (Shravana to Pushya).
Hence, to begin study of Vedas they used to start with a ritual of changing the Yagnopavita (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.
This day is also auspicious as the Brahmins offer libations of water to their ancestors to whom they owe their birth and to the great Rishis to whom they are highly indebted for spiritual knowledge and the Vedas themselves.
Upakarma is performed on different dates as per the different sects. Traditional learners of Yajurveda observe the Yajur Upakarma in the month of Shravana (August - September), on the full moon day.
Yajur upakarma is held on the full-moon day that comes before the new-moon day of the month of Sravana (Avani). Sam Vedic Upakarma is observed.
It is observed on the day after Shravan Amavasya, Hasta nakshatra such that they do the Gayatri japam on Ganesh Chaturthi.
Rig Vedic Upakarma is observed on the day during sukla paksha Shravan month, having Shravana nakshatra. Rig Vedic brahmins change the sacred thread on the day, irrespective of poornima day.
Shukla Ajurvedic bramhins of North India & Orissa perform upaakarma on the previous day if Purnima spans two days. The Eclipse and Sankranti may occur when the sun enters Leo (masa pirrapu/avani 1st in Tamil) during purnima.
Then the people having upakrama on that day should finish before the purnima, when Hasta nakshatra is available (generally shravana shukla Panchami / Shashthi and for Samveda.
If there is sankramana (purattasi 1st) to kanya in bhadrapada, then shraavana month's hasta should be considered. Shravana suddha Panchami (hasta) day may have having sankramana / sankranti and purnima is having eclipse.
Then upakarma is delayed till the Samveda upakarma day i.e. bhadrapada hasta nakshatra but only Vajasaneyi Shukla Yajurveda people can do upakarma on the Panchami (hasta) having simha sankramana.
upakarma on Poornima having eclipse should be avoided. No one should do upakarma on a day having Uttarashadha nakshatra or a Lunar Eclipse.
It must be noted that, Upakarma is not just simply a festival to celebrate and enjoy, but 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.
On this day, hoams are held and a "Prayaschitta" (confession) is performed for two things to be forgiven for all the sins committed during the year.
Thereby to secure a divine blessing and for qualifing to perform the essential duties of Brahmanas as prescribed in the vedas. And secondly for the sin of learning Vedas in the prohibited period of the year.
After this confession, Yagnopavita, the sacred thread, is changed by removing the old one. While removing the old thread, the chanted mantra says - " I throw away the broken, old thread.
May the new one bring on long life and Brahmana's brilliance. After the new thread is worn another mantra is recited which means - "I wear the sacred thread which is highly pure and inseparable from the God.
It is capable of prolonging life and is the foremost in the accomplishment of a Brahmana. May such pure Yagnopavita bring strength and dignity."
As already mentioned, the procedure of Upakarma varies from state to state and sect to sect. However two main procedures are followed in two different regions i.e. the old Carnatic Region and secondly in the Dravida region.
Carnatic Region procedure is followed in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and parts of Maharashtra. According to the Rig Veda Upakarma, first they start with Punyahvaachana followed by Saptarshi Pooja, Utsarjana Hoam and later by Upakarmaanga Saptarshi pooja, tarpana and hoam.
As per the Yajur Veda Upakarma of Karnataka region, the procedure begins with Punyahavaachana, Pahi Trayodasha Hoam, utsarjana and then Upakarma. In this,"Nava Kaanda Rishis" are worshipped, who were the pioneers in the vedas.
Distinct feature of Karnataka's Upakarma is rishi pooja in detail and utsarjana. After changing the Yagnopavita, new thread is worn and later Vedas are begun, following the same comes Viraja Hoam and Brahma Yagna.
The 'Prasada' of the day is specially made "Satvada hittu" made out of all fruits, such as banana, guava, grapes, aapple, custard apple and dry fruits and also milk, ghee, til, jaggery, cucumber and rice flour.
First the Rishi Arghyam (offering prayers to the ancient Rishis) is done and the Brahmin bachelors perform 'Samitha Daanam and 'kamo karshith japam' after Mahasankalpam. Thereafter, Kaanda Rishi Arghyam is performed.
As per the rituals, all the male members should have a light meal in the night and the next day after an early bath, 'Gayathri Mantra' is recited by all.
Thereafter, Appam & Idli are served. The other items those are served on this day are Curd Pachadi, Koottu, Pitlay, dhal and chips, soup, buttermilk,Kosumalli Curry, rasam, appalams.
The fire ritual ie Hoam is performed in the temple or in the house and 'Naivedyam' of Green Gram, Dhal or Kondai Kadalai Sundal is offered. Arti is performed after everyone returns home.
The legend says, that after lord Vishnu created lord Brahma, he taught Brahma all the eternal Vedas. After lord Brahma was master of the Vedas, he was very proud that he was the only master of knowledge of the all eternal and holy Vedas.
Lord Vishnu took cognigence of the fact and created demons Nectar and Kaitabha from two water drops on the lotus that he mounts. He then directed them to capture the Vedas from Lord Brahma.
It was done accordingly and Lord Brahma was in a trouble that he was not in position to regain the eternal Vedas from the theft and prayed to Lord Vishnu to save him.
Lord Vishnu took the from of Hayagriva and restored all the Vedas back to safety and the pride of Brahma was curbed. Hence, the day of Upakarma is also celebrated as Hayagriva utpatti day.
Since the Vedass were restored on this day, Upakarma is performed on this day to mark a new beginning.