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Significance of the sacred thread
In Hinduism, the "sacred thread" (Sanskrit: यज्ञोपवीतम् yajñopavītam or upavīta) is a thin, consecrated cord, composed of distinct cotton strands, worn to symbolize the permission given to the wearer to perform sandhyavandanam and recite the Gayatri Mantra. The sacred Yajñopavītam is known by many names (varying by region and community), such as Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar. The other Sanskrit term for it is Avyanga.
The ceremony that invests the wearer with the sacred thread is often considered a socially and spiritually significant rite (or samskara). It has varying formats across Hindu communities and is also called by varying names, including brahmopadesham, munji, munj, janeu rasm and bratabandha. Among Hindus, the ceremony is associated with the higher varṇas.
In some regions of modern North India and also among a few South Indian castes, the ceremony is often conducted as an immediate precursor to wedding ceremonies instead of during adolescence. In other regions it is almost always associated with adolescence; with regards to this, it is very important.
Symbolism of the sacred thread
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The strands of the sacred thread have symbolic meaning that varies by community and region. The sacred thread has three strands. A bachelor wears only one sacred thread; a married man wears two of them making it six strands. If the man has married and has fathered a child, he wears three, which makes nine strands.
The three strands sometimes symbolize three debts (ऋण, rin) that must never be forgotten:
- the debt to one's teachers (गुरु ऋण, guru rin), i.e., those who have taught the wearer;
- the debt to one's parents and ancestors (पितृ ऋण, pitr rin), i.e., those who have nurtured the wearer and made possible his existence;
- the debt to the sages/scholars (ऋषि ऋण, rishi rin), i.e., those who discovered knowledge, both spiritual and secular, over the ages, which now enriches the wearer's life.
In some versions, the debt to the sages is replaced with debt to God (देव ऋण, dev rin). Upon marriage, sometimes the number of strands increases to six, because the man is expected to assume the debts of his wife as well.
The three strands does symbolize:
- Maa Parvati ( Goddess of strength )
- Maa Lakshmi ( Goddess of wealth )
- Maa Saraswati ( Goddess of knowledge )
The strands could represent purity in thought, word and deed expected from the wearer.
Upanayana (lit. "leading closer" to the Brahma) is a version of the sacred thread ceremony which initiates the boy into the study of brahman or the Vedas. The word brahman is the ancient word for Vedas or, specifically, Vedic hymns and shall not be confused with the later philosophical concept of Brahman. Traditionally, the ceremony was performed to mark the point at which boys began their formal education. The ceremony is performed when the boy is seven years old (Gharbheshu ashtame varshe) in the Brahmin varna, at least 13 years in the Kshatriya varna. The youngster is taught during the ceremony the secret of life through Brahmopadesam (revealing the nature of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality) or the Gayatri mantra. The child then becomes qualified for life as a student or Brahmachari, as prescribed in the Manusmriti. According to an appendix of the Manusmriti, girls were allowed to study the Vedas in the previous kalpa (Creation). Orthodox Hindus, however, do not accept this reference, because no Hindu canonical text allows this ceremony for a girl in the present kalpa. However, some sects, especially Arya Samaj, perform this ceremony for girls as well on the basis of this statement.
Brahmins, vaishya and Kshatriyas are called dvijas meaning "twice born". A man of these castes is born once in the womb of his mother and again during the Upanayana when he learns the Gayatri Mantra. The Upnayanam is practiced by the three higher castes in India[brahmin,vaishya,kshatriyas].
The main point of having gone through the Upanayana ceremony is the wearing of the Yajñopavītam on the body. The Yajñopavītam is circular, being tied end-to-end (only one knot is permissible); it is normally supported on the left shoulder (savya) and wrapped around the body, falling underneath the right arm. The length of the Yajñopavītam is generally 96 times the breadth of four fingers of a man, which is believed to be equal to his height. Each of the fingers represents one of the four states that the soul of a man experiences: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and knowledge of the absolute.
It denotes that one who wears the sacred Yajñopavītam should be pure in his thought, word and deed. The sacred Yajñopavītam reminds a Brahmachari to lead a regulated life with purity in his thought, word and deed. This Yajñopavītam also represents the debt that is owed to the guru, parents and society.
The knot in the middle represent the formless Brahman, the pure form of energy which pervades all. The three strands of Yajñopavītam again represent the manifestation of Brahman as Srishti, Sthithi and Vinasa. The sacred strands of Yajñopavītam illustrates the fact that everything in the universe emerges from and then merges with Brahman.
Ancient texts refer to the wearing of the Yajñopavītam in three forms:
- Upavītam, where the Yajñopavītam is worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm. This is for Gods. Upavītam is also called savya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra, etc.).
- Nivītam, where the Yajñopavītam is worn around the neck and over the chest. Nivīta form is to be used during Rishi Tharpana, sexual intercourse, answering the calls of nature, etc., and during ancestor worship/funeral rites (Shadvimsha Brahmana, Latyayana, etc.).
- Prachīnavītam is where the Yajñopavītam is worn above the right shoulder and under the left arm. This is for Spirits and is used by men when performing the death ceremonies of an elder. Prachīnavītam is also called apsavya (Katyayana Shrauta Sutra, Manusmriti, etc.).
In some communities, later, at the occasion of wedding, a further three strands of Yajñopavītam are added to make for a six-strand bunch. In some communities, the custom is of one thread more being added at the birth of every child. In some interpretations, these strands of Yajñopavītam are intended to constantly remind the man of his worldly responsibilities. Three original strands of Yajñopavītam (each consisting of three) make up nine strands of Yajñopavītam, to which three are added for wife and one for children, making a total of 13 individual strands of Yajñopavītam in some communities.
Ancient Hindu texts specify an age for the Upanayana ceremony based on the caste (8 for Brahmins, 11 for Kshathriyas, 12 for Vaishyas, and 19 for Shudras <http://www.marathicultureandfestivals.com/>(labour class defined by dominant group of people in that era)(Manu Smriti sloka 2:36)). Upanayanam marks the start of learning of "Brahman" and Vedic texts. The age for Upanayanam supports this as Brahmins devote their life in pursuing the knowledge of "Brahman" and hence makes sense to start early and continue for a longer time. Kshathriyas, on the other hand, study additional skills and go through the brahmin stage of life, studying. In the communities where three strands of Yajñopavītam are added at the time of wedding, there is another interpretation.
Once a student achieves a certain level of Brahma knowledge ("Brahma Vidya"), the guru adds three more strings signifying "graduation" and the student goes on to study. In South Indian wedding ceremonies, the addition of the three more strings is followed by "Kashi Yatra". This signifies the Yatra student intends for advanced study. At this point, the father of the bride convinces the youth to get married and then go to Kashi (Varanasi) with his new bride. In modern days, the ceremony is packaged in the wedding ceremony.
The sacred Yajñopavītam is supposed to be worn for the rest of one's life after the ceremony has been performed. A new Yajñopavītam is worn and the old Yajñopavītam discarded every year; the change-over ceremony is held on a specific date calculated as per the Hindu lunar calendar. Among Brahmins, this date varies depending on which of four Vedic Shakhas one belongs to.
The sacred Yajñopavītam has close and essential connection with the concept of pravaras related to brahmin gotra system, which reflects the number of most excellent Vedic rishis belonging to the particular gotra to which the wearer of sacred Yajñopavītam belongs.
Generally, there are either three or five pravaras. While tying the knots of sacred strands of Yajñopavītam, an oath is taken in the name of these excellent sages. The full affiliation of a Vedic brāhamana consists of
For example, a brahmana named 'X' introduces himself as follows: I am 'X', of Shrivatsa gotra, of Āpastamba sutra, of Taittiriya shākha of Yajurveda, of five pravaras named Bhārgava, Chyāvana, Āpnavan, Aurva and Jāmdagnya (This example is based upon the example given by Pattābhirām Shastri in the introduction to Vedārtha-Pārijata, cf. ref.)
The ceremony is called Munja or Mounji-Bandhana (lit. Tying of munja) in the state of Maharashtra. This name finds its origin in the name of a grass variety called Saccharum munja (Bengal cane). This grass is used to make a girdle that is tied around the waist of the child. In Gujarat, the sacred thread is known as the "janoi."
|#||Language||Name of the ceremony||Word for "Sacred Thread"|
(also Braḥma sūtram
|Poonool (IAST: Pūnūl)
|14||Tulu||Brahmopadesha, Upanayana, Noola Madimme
Bratabandha in Nepal
Bratabandha is a Hindu ceremony held for boys from 8 to 12 years old. It is the beginning of learning the traditional laws, ceremonial roles and rituals of their caste. It is considered as the beginning of their manhood. Boys who have not performed their Bratabandha cannot marry. It is a symbolic representation that a boy is mature enough to perform his duties as a brahmachari (i.e., to learn)
Red, white, yellow patterns, and Swasti are made around a fire for protection. They indicate where each god should sit as they join the ceremony. Offerings of fruit, money, cloth, and rice are made. At least two Bhramin priests are required to perform the complex rituals.
The boy's head is shaved by his mother's brother for purification. All of his hair is collected to protect the boys from anyone who might use them for harm. These hair will be later disposed of. After a boy's head is shaved completely, his mother, aunts, and sisters come to him to rinse any hair from their necks.Mothers never consider their boys to be men.
Boys who belong to the Brahmin caste were dressed in orange and given a deer skin bag to signify the traditional roles of Brahmins as priests. Boys of other castes use different objects instead.
Much of the ceremony is done under the cover of a shawl. This is secret only to the boy and his new Guru. Occasionally one of the boys comes out from the cover to add elements to the fire.The Guru later gives his students a sacred string to wear and a secret mantra, which they are not to share with anyone. This mantra comes from the holy Hindu book, Ved. It is said that if a boy repeats this mantra every day, he will be protected from misfortune and his matra will promote prosperity. Also, the mantra is seen as the only companion in the metaphysical journey towards becoming a Bramhan.
The ceremony ends as the boys ask their relatives for rice and receive Tika from their aunts. This practice is done to signify the traditional life of a monk and give the boys a spiritual grounding for their first life lesson. At this point, the boys who want to renounce family life and get to the gurus by running (they only pretend to run) are stopped by the maternal uncle who lures them to the material world or grihastha by offering his daughter's hand in marriage. In that process the boy tries to run away by running towards the other side of the road. The boy promises to stay home and at the same time perform the karmas of a brahmachari (studying, earning a living, and performing religious rites).
After the ceremony the boys are considered men (though not physically). They are given the Janai, a sash made of strings, and are expected to keep with the rules and norms of full-age men. This promise, taken by wearing the Janai, holds them in a bond. This gives its name Bratabhandha. From this point onward they are permitted to take an active part in religious ceremonies (pujas, last rituals, marriages, etc.). Non-veg is not allowed to the boy for a week or so who has just gone through his Bratabandha. Brahmins are given six strings and are taught the secret gayatri mantra which is not to be repeated aloud. Chettris are also given six strings. Some other castes, like giri and puri, are given three strings.
The Bratahbanda, like other Nepali festivals, is about a family recognizing an important day in someone's life.
Upanayana also means taking somebody near (upain) knowledge. In ancient times, after the ceremony was performed, the child was sent to the guru's house (gurukul) for education, where the child remained until completion of education. Even today, there are many Vedic gurukulas (traditional Vedic schools) which follow this practice with and without government help, without taking any fees from students (who must be brahmacharis).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Upanayana.|
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... The construction of this cord is no doubt simple, but it must be borne in mind that the Yajñopavītam when formed is of no use unless blessed by Brahmans and consecrated by the recitation of Vedic texts ...
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... in Punjabi, zunnar, the sacred Yajñopavītam worn by Brahmin Hindus ...
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... and the Devangans undergoing the regular Brahman Upnayanam, munj, when about eight years old ...
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... when he was eleven, two months after his Upnayanam ceremony (bratabandha) ...
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... Sacred Upnayanam (janeu sanskar) is held before marriage.
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...three debts to pay: a debt to God, a debt to his parents and ancestors, a debt to the wise men (gurus)...
- Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Indian thought through the ages: a study of some dominant concepts, Asia Pub. House, 1961,
...These duties are called the runas or debts which are three in number: the debt to the rishis or sages, the debt due to one's ancestors (pitris) and the debt due to the gods (devas) ...
- मनुश्य पर तीन ऋण कौन कौन से है?, Webdunia,
... मनुश्य पर तीन रिण कौन कौन से है और यह रिण किस प्रकार चुकाये जाते है ... पितृ ऋण, देव ऋण तथा ऋषि ऋण ... पितृ ऋण में पिता के अतिरिक्त माता तथा वे सब बुजुर्ग भी सम्मिलित हैं ... सन्तति को सुयोग्य बनाने से पितृऋण से छुटकारा ... गुरु ऋण ...
- M. Arunachalam, Festivals of Tamil Nadu: Volume 3 of Peeps into Tamil culture, Gandhi Vidyalayam, 1980,
... boy is invested for the first time with the sacred thread ... the three devis Sarasvati, Savitri and Gayatri ...
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