Guru Nanak and the Sacred Thread

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When the founder and first guru of Sikhs, Guru Nanak Dev Ji attained the age of nine years, his father was determined to invest him with the janeu (sacrificial thread of the Hindus). Until a boy is invested with the janeu, he is deemed almost an outcast. When the members of the family had gathered, and all the neighbours, secular and religious, had assembled; and all preliminary rites had been duly performed, Hardial, the family priest, proceeded to put the sacred thread around Nanak's neck. The boy caught the thread with his hand, and asked the priest what he was doing, and the advantage of putting on the janeu. The priest explained that the janeu was the basis of the Hindu religion, without which a man would only be a Shudra (there are four great varans or castes of Hinduism: Brahmans, the priestly class; Kshatriyas, the military class; Vaishyas, the trading class; and Shudras, the working and lowest of all classes. There are many subdivisions of these castes ), and by putting it on he would obtain greatness in this life and happiness in the next. On hearing this the young Guru uttered the following:

From Asa di Var (Guru Granth Sahib pg 462-475):

Make mercy thy cotton, contentment thy thread, continence its knot, truth its twist.
That would make a janeu for the soul; if thou have it, O Brahman, then put it on me.
It will not break, or become soiled, or be burned, or lost.
Blest the man, O Nanak, who goeth with such a thread on his neck.
Thou purchasest a janeu for four damris, and seated in a square puttest it on;
Thou whisperest instruction that the Brahman is the guru of the Hindus--
Man dieth, the janeu falleth, and the soul departeth without it.

The priest explained that the custom of wearing a janeu descended from the Vedic ritual, and that no Hindu could be deemed religious without wearing it. The Brahman then familiarly addressed the Guru, 'Thou art but a child of yesterday, and are we not as wise as thou? Unless thou wear this thread thou shalt be deemed a person without religion.' Guru Nanak replied:

Though men commit countless thefts, countless adulteries, utter countless falsehoods and countless words of abuse;
Though they commit countless robberies and villanies night and day against their fellow creatures;
Yet the cotton thread is spun, and the Brahman cometh to twist it.
For the ceremony they kill a goat and cook and eat it, and everybody then saith 'Put on the janeu'.
When it becometh old, it is thrown away, and another is put on, Nanak, the string breaketh not if it be strong.

The Brahman priest, on hearing this, became angry, and asked the Guru if everyone else was a fool, and he alone, who had abandoned the customs of his forefathers, was wise. He then asked the Guru to tell him what a proper janeu was. The Guru replied:

By adoring and praising the Name, honour and a true thread is obtained.
In this way a sacred thread shall be put on, which will not break, and which will be fit for entrance into God's court.

The Guru then wound up his instruction on the subject as follows:

There is no string for the sexual organs, there is no string for women;
There is no string for the impure acts which cause your beards to be daily spat upon;
There is no string for the feet, there is no string for the hands
There is no string for the tongue, there is no string for I the eyes.
Without such strings the Brahman wandereth astray,
Twisteth strings for the neck, and putteth them on others.
He taketh hire for marrying;
He pulleth out a paper, and showeth the fate of the wedded pair.
Hear and see, ye people, it is strange
That, while mentally blind, man is named wise.

Guru Nanak's reluctance was in participating in rituals which have no benefit and relevance in living a pure life. The Amrit Sanskar of Sikhi cannot be compared to the Janeu as 1) it is not a guarantee you will be able to live a spiritual life 2) it is open to all, from any gender and non-discrimnatory on caste lines. The Five Ks for the Khalsa are an assertion of sovereignty; they have little, if any, spiritual power. They are to be utilised in a Sikhs temporal life as commanded by Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Nanak Dev was not alone in making such announcements and shunning rituals, other saints also did the same from time to time:

1. Adi Shankaracharya (the sage of Kevala Advaita) refused to heed to the priests and offered ceremony of his dead mother himself. He said he is always pure atman so independent of action.

2. Baba Namdev refused to worship idol when he found out Shiva is essence of everything.

3. Tilopa Brahmin saint of Bengal highly adored by Tibetan Buddhism also stood against traditional ways of worshiping.

The following story describes the details of Guru Nanak Dev refusing to wear janeu, considered as a sacred thread as it reminded one of its duties. But people at the time were blind faithed so cared more about ceremonies and ritual attached with wearing janeu or janou rather than understanding the hidden message it bring and follow it.

Background info on Upanayanam (Thread Ceremony)[edit]

Upanayanam is the saṃskāra or the ceremonial rite in which the young Brahmin boy is invested with the sacred thread and initiated into the Gayatri - the Holiest of all mantras in the legacy of the Rishis. This ceremony is only for boys from the top three social classes. Traditionally, an auspicious time and date is chosen to shave the boy's head completely, leaving only a small tuft in the centre of the scalp, called bodi.

The sacred thread used for the ceremony consists of three strands, joined by a knot known as Brahmagranthi or the knot of Brahma. The three strands symbolise the Hindu trinity - Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. There are various interpretations of the three strands to represent many of the other triads like Mahasarasvati, Mahalakshmi and Mahakali. Or the three qualities known as sattva, rajas and tamas; past, present and the future; the three states – wakefulness, dream and deep sleep. Some even say that it represents the three dimensions known as heaven (swarga), earth (martyaloka) and netherworld (patala). The twist of the thread must be upwards to ensure that the Sattwaguna or the good quality of truth predominates.

The most important meaning of the three strands is ida, pingala and susumna nadi, through which the kundalini energy manifests as prana and consciousness. Yajno-pavita means 'thread of sacrifice.' That is so called because it symbolises the sacrifice of ego.

The sacred thread was a passport to obtain education. It was a prerequisite for education and also for marriage. Without it, no man could dream of getting a bride for himself. It was considered important because a person with Yajnopavita should have undergone all the oaths associated with wearing it, led a celibate life and completed a major portion of his education. Brahmachari or the bachelor (also, a learner) wore a single sacred thread while the householder or the married person wore two. A person who was married and had lost one or both of his parents wore three.

There are different methods of wearing the Sacred Thread at different occasions. While performing an auspicious ceremony one should be Upaviti, that is, the Sacred Thread should hang from his left shoulder. At the performance of some inauspicious ceremony one should be Prachnaviti, that is, the Sacred Thread should hang from the right shoulder; and at times he is called Niviti when the Sacred Thread is worn round the neck like a garland.

*Note: This information is about the ancient period in India, it is not an indicator of how things are done these days.


  • Macauliffe, M.A. The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus Sacred Writings and Authors. Low P2-8. 
  • B-40 Janamsakhi – Guru Baba Nanak Paintings. Guru Nanak Dev University. 1940. ISBN 81-7770-011-1.