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Hindu Sacred Thread

" In the eighth year from the conception of a Brahman, in the eleventh from that of a Kshatriya, and in the twelfth from that of a Vaisya, let the father invest the child with the mark of his class." (Mann, ii. 36.)

ONE of the many peculiarities that strike a stranger in India is that many Hindus have a cord or skein of thread over the left shoulder, hanging down under the right arm. It is worn as a sash would be. Probably few, except the Hindus themselves, could tell why this cord is worn ; why certain persons have it whilst others have it not ; or even how or of what it is made.

This article of dress or adornment forms, however, a very important factor in the Hindu cult. The yajno pavitam, as it is 'called, or the sacred thread of the Hindu, is the outward and visible mark that the wearer is a Dvija, or twice-born. It is a very much prized and a very sacred badge and commands respect and even adoration.

If we enquire who are privileged to assume this distinction, we find the matter very clearly defined by the ancient Hindu law-giver. In the quotation at the head of this chapter, it is clear that the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas must be thus invested. In another place it is distinctly stated that none but the three twice-born classes are entitled to the distinction.

" The three twice-born classes are the sacerdotal, the military, and the commercial ; but the fourth, or servile, is once-born, that is, has no second birth from the gayatri, and wears no thread." (Manu, x. 4.)

This is the law; but others besides these three privileged classes assume the distinction. It is not safe, therefore, to conclude that every wearer of the sacred thread must necessarily be a Brahmin or one of the other two highest castes. The goldsmiths, the weavers, certain classes of fishermen and others wear it. The explanation is that the goldsmith caste, many of whom are carpenters and workers in brass and copper, are themselves a class of Brahmins ; at least they assume the distinction. They have their own prescribed share in the Vedas and their own ritual. They have an upanayanam or second-birth ceremony, and are considered dvijas, or twice-born; hence this privilege in the matter of the thread, as well as in many others that are peculiar to Brahmins. The goldsmith caste are said to be the descendants of Brahmin women and Kshatriya men ; and this fact, together with the rights above mentioned, appears to be acknowledged by the Brahmins themselves ; yet, they do not appear to command much respect as a caste. This may be on account of their mixed origin. Until recent years, for instance, they were not allowed to celebrate their marriages with public processions, to use a palanquin, or to ride a horse. It is said that about thirty years ago there was much disturbance in Masulipatam when, in India through the freedom resulting from the British rule this caste first began to have marriage processions and, in other ways, to assert themselves. Now it is quite an acknowledged thing, for it has become what is known as ma‘mul (custom) and so no one interferes. They are not, as a rule, even now, allowed to enter temples. When they are permitted to do so, it is only to that part in which Sudras are allowed. A case recently came before the law courts in Masulipatam arising out of the attempt of a goldsmith to enter a Siva temple for worship. I believe it was eventually decided that a member of this caste could not enter a temple, except by the permission of the Brabmin priest in charge. The question of the social and religious status of the goldsmith caste is a most vexed one which gives rise to much controversy. It shows that not all wearers of the thread or cord are considered of equal rank.

I now make a slight digression to say a little as to the denial of the liberty of an individual to dress or to go as he pleases. There are very binding rules and regulations on these points. They are the outcome of caste customs, which, whatever may be the real rights of the matter from a legal point of view, are very real and strict in actual life. Theoretically, for example, any British subject has the right to use the public road in the way and manner of others, whatever may be his degree ; but, practically, this is not so. A low caste man, in going through a respectable public street, inhabited by high-caste people, must take off his shoes and turban and shut up his umbrella, and, if he should be riding, he must descend from his horse and humbly walk through on foot. Even if a Sudra should be riding and happen to pass a superior person, as a Pandit, or high official, he must descend and walk past on foot until he is well past the dignitary, when he may remount and go on his way. A case quite re cently came before the law court in a district where a native Pastor of one of the Christian communities was severely beaten, because he dared to ride through a respectable public thoroughfare. As a man of low caste origin, he should have humbly descended and have gone through on foot.

To return, however, to the subject more immediately in hand, others such as weavers and fishermen appear unlawfully to assume the privilege of wearing the sacred thread ; but, although their custom is not interfered with, no value is set upon it by orthodox Hindus. They cannot, for example, read the Vedas or even hear them read. Authority to do this, in the case of lawful thread-wearers, is conveyed by the ceremony of upanayanam, or second spiritual birth, of which the thread is the outward symbol. In these modern days, some other classes of Sudras have also adopted the yajnopavitam merely to add to their own importance ; but, in all such cases, it is of no true religious value. I have heard of a case in the Orissa country where a certain Raja of the Sudra caste made himself important by assuming authority to invest people of his own caste with the thread. Some of, them, to please him, appear to have submitted to the investiture, and adopted the thread—thus adding to the number of the unlawful wearers of this coveted mark of distinction. It is said that one unlucky wight who, on a visit to that country, was presented with this badge of honour, was, on his return home, deprived of the same and well beaten for his presumption by his indignant neighbours.

Having thus seen who are entitled to wear the sacred thread, I now pass on to mention some particulars of the thread itself and also of the mode of investiture. Originally there appears to have been some difference in the kind of thread worn, according to the class of the wearer. Thus :—

" The sacrificial thread of a Brahmin must be made of cotton, so as to be put on over his head in three strings; that of a Kshatriya of sana thread only ; that of a Vaisya of woollen thread." (Maim, ii. 44.)

This is the law and probably in ancient times the material of which the thread was made did thus differ, according to the caste of the wearer ; but in the present day no such difference is seen. The cord is universally made of cotton. A peculiar kind of very fine cotton is what ought to be employed, but ordinarily the common cotton is used. The threads are supposed to be prepared by Brahmins. Perhaps other than the Brahmins and Vaisyas are not so particular as to the manufacture, but these two castes are very careful in this respect. The threads can generally be obtained in any ordinary bazaar, but the very orthodox, in order to ensure their purity, will frequently procure their supply from the house of the Brahmins who may happen to be engaged in the manufacture.

The yajnopavitam consists of several skeins of cotton thread. Each thread consists of three strands, each skein has three threads, and a married man's cord must consist of not less than three skeins. The number three enters very largely into the structure of the cord itself, and the ceremony of investiture. This is said to represent the three gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva ; the three sacrificial fires ; three divisions of time —morn, noon and night ; and the three worlds—heaven, earth and hell. Each skein is tied with a peculiar knot called Brahma's knot. It is. made by making three turns with the threads and by so tying the knot that the ends do not appear on the outside. In making each knot the following incantation is repeated by the maker :—

" Pronouncing the word Om, the Brahma Sutram must be tied, and afterwards worn. (The wearer) will receive purity in all his rites, It being the personification of all the gods."

A youth, if a bachelor, when first invested with the cord, receives only a single skein, and he cannot wear more than a single skein until he is married, when he must wear, at least, three skeins. The Brahmin youth must be invested with his cord when he is about seven or eight years of age. He cannot be married until thus invested, but he may, and in fact often does, marry a day or two after the ceremony. Amongst some of the Banians or Vaisyas, it is customary to defer the upanayanam until immediately before marriage.

The ceremony of investiture is as follows. On the appointed day a fire is lighted, round which the relatives and friends of the novice are seated. This fire is a very important feature of the upanayanam. The whole ceremony is called the agni karyam or fire worship. It is kept alight during the whole four days during which the ceremony lasts, and it is the proper thing to feed it, as far as possible, with the twigs of certain kinds of trees,—principally those of the Indian fig tribe. At the repeating of the various mantrams which form part of the ritual, ghee is poured on to the fire as an offering. The father of the youth to be invested takes a thread of nine strands and puts it upon his son. This is not the true yajnopavitam, nor has it the Brahma knot, neither are mantrams said over it. After some time, during which various rites are performed, and the ears of the boy are bored for earrings and then adorned with thin rings of gold, the true cord is produced—a single skein of three threads. To this is attached a bit of the skin of a male deer, or, if procurable, a long strip of this skin is worn as a sash together with the cord. Deer skin is considered to be very pure, and also to be capable of imparting purity. For this reason untanned deer skin is much employed for covering the boxes and other receptacles, in which the household gods, and things pertaining thereto are kept. It is also much used. as a mat to sit upon when performing the daily rites. Mention is made in the Smritis (the teaching of the Sages) of the purity acquired by wearing deer skin, and there are several injunctions on the matter in the laws of Manu. For example :-

" Let the students in theology wear for their mantles the hides of black antelopes, of common deer or of goats, with lower vests of woven sana of cshuma and of wool, in the direct order of their classes." (Mann, ii. 41.)

The piece of deer skin is worn with the thread for several months, when it is taken off, with some short ceremony, at a temple.. When the father puts on the true cord, he repeats the yajnopavitam mantram, the novice saying it after him. This mantram is as follows :—

"This most hallowed yajnopavitam,

In former times with Brahma born,

Author of longevity ; wear it, it is pure,

May this yajnopavitam become my strength and glory."

As the new and true cord is put on, the imitation one which was first used is taken off. This completes the investiture, and the father at once proceeds to teach the novice the gayatri prayer. This is done with great care and secrecy. A cloth is thrown over the heads of both father and son, and, the sacred words are whispered into the ears, in as low a whisper as possible, . so that the holy words may not fall upon the ears of any uninitiated person. The upanayanam is now complete, and the lad is now a true dvija, duly entitled to read the Vedas, and to perform any of the religious rites of his caste.

Immediately following this investiture the youth proceeds to ask alms of those present, beginning with his mother and then his father and after wards the other relatives or friends. This act is supposed to Intimate a readiness on the part of the supplicant to provide for himself and his religious preceptor. All this takes place on the first day, but for three more days the festival is kept up, during which the novice is instructed in the morning, midday and evening prayers and in other ceremonial observances. There is always much feasting and rejoicing upon these occasions. Musicians are hired to enliven the company and friends and relatives are entertained according to the ability of the host.

A new cord must be put on every year on the occasion of a certain festival. This festival is called sravanalapaurnavami—the full moon in the month of Sravana (July-August). Should the cord be broken during the year, a new one must at once be put on. If a man has a cord of five skeins, a broken thread or two does not matter ; but a bachelor must have his one skein perfect, without even a single thread being broken, and a married person must have at least three perfect skeins, every thread of which must be perfect. There are also certain kinds of defilement, as for instance touching a Pariah, that necessitate the putting on a new thread and the casting away the old one. In these days, the orthodox are not always so very particular as this, but this is the rule. Should the cord become broken, or any defilement contracted, no food can be taken until the old is replaced by a new one.

If a strict orthodox Brahmin, in passing through the bazaar, accidentally comes into contact with a Pariah, or in any other way becomes ceremonially defiled, he must get a new cord, which he cannot touch until he has bathed, and thus purified himself .from the defilement. After bathing he ' takes the new cord and, dipping it into water, spreads it out on two brass or copper vessels. He then touches it with some of the pigment he uses for putting the sacred mark on his forehead. After that he walks round the vessels three times, from right to left, repeating the gayatri prayer. Then he takes the cord, skein by skein, and puts it on saying the mantram, or consecration prayer, used at the first investiture, repeating the same for each skein.

When he has thus put on the whole of the skeins, he takes off the old cord, repeating a mantram which says :—

" May this old yajnopavitam become my strength and glory."

The old thread is disposed of by throwing it into a river or some other water, if there should be any at hand. The ancient lawgiver says :—

"His girdle, his leather mantle, his staff, his sacrificial cord, and his ewe; he must throw into the water, when they are worn out or broken, and receive others hallowed by mystical texts." (Mann, ii. 64.)

Should no river, or other suitable water be conveniently near, the old thread is rolled up and thrown on to the top of the house. This is to prevent its being trodden under foot, or in any other such way defiled. This completes the re-investiture. The defiled one is now ceremonially pure, and he can proceed to perform the daily rites which must be gone through before he can partake of food.

The sacred thread is usually worn over the left shoulder, hanging down across the body under the right arm, and, as the orthodox Hindu is not encumbered with much by way of covering for the upper part of his person, it forms a very noticeable object. On certain occasions, however, the position of the thread is changed. At the' time of performing the annual ceremony for deceased ancestors, the position is exactly reversed. It is then placed over the right shoulder and hangs down on the left side. On certain other occasions, it is worn as a garland round the neck : whilst at others it is placed up over the ears to prevent its being defiled. Usually when saying the gayatri prayer, the thread is taken hold of by the thumb ; and on reciting various mantrams it is used somewhat as a rosary—the worshipper winding it round the fingers to keep count of the number of times the mantram is repeated. The ancient law-giver Manu, makes various allusions to the sacred thread other than those quoted above. He speaks of the sinfulness of omitting the sacred investiture (xi. 63) ; and he lays down the rule that no one must use a sacerdotal string that has been before used by another (iv. 66).

The yajnopavitam is to the Hindu an all important thing, being the sign of the second or spiritual birth. Without his cord the Brahmin is not a Brahmin. He is nothing better than an outcaste, he cannot perform any ceremony or partake of any food, nay, he must not even swallow his own spittle. He may breathe, and that is about all he can do until the lost or defiled cord is duly replaced with all proper ceremony.

A Sanyasi does not wear this cord, for he has entered the fourth or last stage of the Brahmin's life.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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