Yajnopavita (Samskrit: यज्ञोपवीतम्) is at present understood to be the sacred thread, that is to be worn by the dvijas (twice-born classes) from the time of the Upanayana ceremony onwards. The popular belief is that the Upanayana ceremony is primarily intended for investing the boy with this mysterious thread, and the Upakarma (also called as Shravani ritual) ritual for the purpose of renewing it annually. Yajnopavita is the sacred cord invested to a student on the day of Upanayana and has to be worn at all times till the end of his life, unless he takes the Sanyasa Ashrama.
In modern times, the Upanayana samskara came to be addressed as Yajnopavita samskara. Although none of the grhyasutras contain the prescription of investing the yajnopavita, later textual authorities, mention this rite as an important part of the samskara after tying the mekhala (girdle) to the boy undergoing Upanayana.
It is called Sacred Thread or cord in English but the name does not signify many associated characteristics.
यज्ञोपवीतस्य प्रादुर्भावम् ॥ Origin of Yajnopavita
Early Vedic references such as Rigveda, mention about the Brahmachari and their characteristics. Yajnopavita by itself, during Upanayana, was insignificant in ancient times. It seems that the upper garment (a dupatta of northern India or the Uparane of Maharashtra) which was offered to the young boy was the proto-type from which the sacred thread descended, though both the prototype (which was not used for yajnas) and the imitation (the sacred thread) were retained by the later authorities during Upanayana samskara. Grammatically, Yajnopavita is an adjective and refers to something that was worn at the time of the yajna. यज्ञाय उपवीतं यज्ञोपवीतम्। It is a compound of two words यज्ञ (Yajna) and उपवीत (Upaveeta), 'meaning a thread which has been sanctified by yajna'.
Bharatiya dress decorum and decency required that the upper part of the body should be properly covered when one was engaged in yajnas, danas and svadhyaya.
उत्तरं वासः कर्तव्यं पञ्चस्वेषु कर्मसु । स्वाध्याय-उत्सर्ग-दानेषु भोजन-आचामयोस्तथा।। uttaraṁ vāsaḥ kartavyaṁ pañcasvēṣu karmasu । svādhyāya-utsarga-dānēṣu bhōjana-ācāmayōstathā।। (Baud. Dhar. Sutr. 2.3)
Yajnopavita denoted the upper garment when it was worn in the proper manner prescribed for sacred occasions. Taittriya samhita explicitly says that Yajnopavita means wearing the garment in a particular manner - when it is passed under the right and over the left shoulder, it becomes Yajnopavita as per the authority of Brahmana texts. The upper garment that was thus used was normally a, piece of cloth. But in prehistoric times when the art of spinning and weaving was not known, it was a piece of deer-skin. Taittriya Aranyaka states that it should be a piece of deer-skin, rather than a piece of cloth.
अजिनं वासो वा दक्षिणत उपवीय। ajinaṁ vāsō vā dakṣiṇata upavīya। (Tait. Aran. 2.1.1)
In the course of time when clothes became common the upper garment also became a cotton product, but earlier tradition of the deer-skin was, in a way preserved by continuing the use of a small patch of deer-skin on such occasions. In later times when Yajnopavita as a piece of cloth was replaced by Yajnopavita in the form of the thread, this piece of deer-skin was strung into it. This custom still continues at the time of Upanayana. Some scholars regard that the custom of wearing Yajnopavita is ancient, since creation, with the creator Brahma wearing it.
वैशिष्ट्यम् ॥ Significance
During upanayana the young boy has a special attire which include ajina, mounji etc but they are removed at the time of samavartana only the yajnopavita and shikha are not removed. In brahmachaya and grhastha ashramas, the shikha and yajopavita are to be worn and can be removed only if the person accepts Sanyasa ashrama. As for the Grhastha and Vanaprastha ashrama dharmas, Katyayana smrti states that
सदोपवीतिना भाव्यं सदा बद्धशिखेन च । विशिखो व्युपवीतश्च यत् करोति न तत्कृतम् ॥ sadōpavītinā bhāvyaṁ sadā baddhaśikhēna ca । viśikhō vyupavītaśca yat karōti na tatkr̥tam ॥ (Katy. Smrt. Achara Adhyaya 1.4)
Meaning: Yajnopavita should always be worn and the shikha has to be kept bound (in a specific way having the specified number of knots) or knotted. If shikha and the yajnopavita are not present, whatever dharmik activities are undertaken they remain fruitless.
Yajnopavita given to the young boy during Upanayana samskara also serves a sign of commitment to schooling and vedic education. It emphasizes that the person is on the path of learning for many years and should avoid all distractions. It is a constant reminder to stay on the track of self-discipline and recite the Gayatri Mantra received as Brahma Upadesham, from the father or Guru. The Gayatri mantra is powerful and the vibrations it causes in the body and in the surroundings rejuvenate the body and mind with positive energy keeping them in good health.
Yajnopavita reminds the wearer that in life one is always a student and has to seek knowledge required in the journey through the various phases of life with ease and relish. The thread, made of cotton yarn is changed every year on Upakarma, signifying a renewal of commitment. It signifies that the onus of preserving the Vedas and Dharma and paying off the three rnas (debts) lie on the shoulders of the wearer. The formless Paramatma is termed Brahma while Paramatma with a form is termed 'Yajna' - to attain whom one acquires the adhikara by wearing the yajnopavita.
यज्ञोपवीतं परमं पवित्रं प्रजापतेर्यत्सहजं पुरस्तात् । आयुष्यमग्र्यं प्रतिमुञ्च शुभ्रं यज्ञोपवीतं बलमस्तु तेजः । yajñōpavītaṁ paramaṁ pavitraṁ prajāpatēryatsahajaṁ purastāt । āyuṣyamagryaṁ pratimuñca śubhraṁ yajñōpavītaṁ balamastu tējaḥ । (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.2.11)
The Acharya, while investing the student with yajnopavita repeats this appropriate Dharana Mantra, emphasizing that yajnopavita is very sacred, created for performing auspicious activities worn by Brahma the creator himself and bestowing strength, long-life and illumination to the boy. In Smritiprakasha, the reason why Yajnopavita is also termed as Brahmasutra is explained.
सूचनाद् ब्रह्मतत्त्वस्य वेदतत्त्वस्य सूचनात् । तत्सूत्रमुपवीतत्वाद् ब्रह्मसूत्रमिति स्मृतम्॥ sūcanād brahmatattvasya vēdatattvasya sūcanāt । tatsūtramupavītatvād brahmasūtramiti smr̥tam॥
Meaning: this thread is a mark of knowledge of brahmatattva and vedas, hence it is said to be brahmasutra.
निर्माणम् ॥ Preparation
The grhyasutras further mention the procedure to make the yajnopavita. A yajnopavita is spun either by the person himself, or a virgin Brahman girl or by a married lady from a specific kind of cotton and twisted by a Brahmana. Its length is ninetysix times as the breadth of the four fingers of a man, which is equal to his height. The three cords are tied together by a knot called' Brahmagranthi; the three individual cords are termed Brahmasutra, Savitasutra and Yajnasutra. Besides, extra knots are made in the cords to indicate the various Pravaras of a particular family. Then it is called as a Yajnopavita after being sanctified by the utterance of Pranava and Savitri mantras. Based on these aspects, a yajnopavita is prepared with utmost sanctity following all rules of soucha (purity).
The Yajnopavita is made up of three cords having a total of nine strands (tantus) well twisted with a knot for each cord (each cord has three strands). Every tantu (one strand) has a deity associated with it. Devala has elaborated as follows
ॐङ्कारः प्रथमस्तन्तु-द्वितीयोऽग्निस्तथैव च । तृतीयो नागदेवत्यश्चतुर्थस्सोमदेवतः ।। पञ्चमः पितृदैवत्यष्षष्टश्चैव प्रजापतिः । सप्तमो वायुदेवत्यत्सूर्यश्चाष्टम एव च । नवमस्सर्वदेवत्य इत्येते नवतन्तवः ॥ (Smriti Chandrika Page 82) oṁṅkāraḥ prathamastantu-dvitīyō'gnistathaiva ca । tr̥tīyō nāgadēvatyaścaturthassōmadēvataḥ ।। pañcamaḥ pitr̥daivatyaṣṣaṣṭaścaiva prajāpatiḥ । saptamō vāyudēvatyatsūryaścāṣṭama ēva ca । navamassarvadēvatya ityētē navatantavaḥ ॥
The nine devatas of nine tantus are given as Omkara, Agni, Naga, Soma, Pitr, Prajapati, Vayu, Surya, and all devatas.
The composition of Yajnopavita is full of symbolism and significance. Each of the four fingers represents one of the four states the soul of a man experiences from time to time, namely, waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and absolute Brahmanhood. The three folds of the cord are also symbolical. They represent the three Gunas, reality, passion and darkness, out of which the whole universe is evolved. The care is taken that the twist of the thread must be upward. It was done, so that the Sattvaguna or the good quality of reality may predominate in a man, and so he may attain spiritual merits.
The cotton cords should be worn by the Brahmana, woollen by the kshatriya and linen by the Vaishya. But the option of cotton cords is for all. It was also of different color based on varna. The Brahmana wore white, the Kshatriyas red and vaishyas yellow. Later this difference is removed during Upanayana and yellow color has been adopted.
धारणम् ॥ Wearing yajnopavita
Devatas wear the yajnopavita as mentioned in many Puranic texts. Offering yajnopavita is one of the 16 upacharas in the daily worship of deities. Yajnopavita samskaras of Shri Rama and Shri Krishna are well described in Ramayana and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Some evidences point to the fact that since Yajnopavita has been mentioned in the Vedas, it is not a later day modification of the upper garment as claimed by some scholars. It has been highly acclaimed in many texts and thus it should be revered and not treated as just any thread worn by the Dvijas.
The number of sets to be worn can be summarized as given below
ब्रह्मचारिण एकं स्यात् स्नातकस्यद्वे बहूनि वा। (Ashv. Grhy. Sutr.) यज्ञोपवीते द्वे धार्ये श्रौते स्मार्ते च कर्मणि । तृतीयमुत्तरार्धे च वस्त्राभावे तदिष्यते ॥ (Hemadri) brahmacāriṇa ēkaṁ syāt snātakasyadvē bahūni vā। (Ashv. Grhy. Sutr.) yajñōpavītē dvē dhāryē śrautē smārtē ca karmaṇi । tr̥tīyamuttarārdhē ca vastrābhāvē tadiṣyatē ॥ (Hemadri)
A brahmachari can wear one yajnopavita (i.e., one cord consisting of 9 tantus) A snataka can wear two or more sets. The reason as given by Hemadri is that when both shrauta and smarta karmas are to be fulfilled a person should wear two sets (of three cords each), the third set is worn in place of an upper garment. Some people wear two cords and an upper garment.
Summarily the yajnopavita is worn in the following way by people of different ashramas.
- A brahmachari can wear only one set
- A snataka, grhastha and Vanaprastha are given the privilege to wear two or three
- A sanyasi does not wear a yajnopavita
In modern times since the usage of upper garment is done away with, a grhastha who adopts modern dress code generally wears three sets of yajnopavita.
अवस्था ॥ Positions of the Yajnopavita
The Yajnopavīta would have three positions.
- उपवीती (Upavītī): The cord will be sitting on the left shoulder and hanging under the right hand. For all auspicious rites, and those related to deities (Vedic) one should maintain Upavītam. It is also called सव्य-अवस्था (Savya-avastha)
- प्राचीनवीती (Prācīnāvītī): This is opposite to Upavītam, i.e. the cord would sit on the right shoulder and hangs under the left hand. This position is to be used while performing any rite related to forefathers (Pitṛkarma) such as shraddha and tarpanas. It is also called अपसव्य अवस्था (Apasavya-avastha).
- निवीती (Nivītī / Saṃvītī): The cord simply hangs from the neck, like a garland is termed as Niviti. The tarpanas offered to Sananka and other rishis is performed with the yajnopavita kept in this position. The same position but with the cord hanging backwards, like garland, is also Niviti avastha. This position is adopted for any gramya dharma - human activity such as nature's calls, sexual intercourse etc. It is also called निवीती-अवस्था (Niviti avastha). During the nature's calls the yajnopavita is in niviti position and the cord is twisted around the right ear.
नूतनयज्ञोपवीतधारण-समयाः ॥ Wearing New Yajnopavita
A yajnopavita must be worn unbroken and should be clean. Starting from the day of Upanayana it should not be removed (with certain exceptions) until death. However, under certain conditions of Asoucha, a yajnopavita becomes unclean and it has to be replaced with a new one.
- वामहस्ते व्यतीते तु तत् त्यक्त्वा धारयेत् नवम् । vāmahastē vyatītē tu tat tyaktvā dhārayēt navam- Whenever the yajnopavita falls off the left shoulder and comes off the left hand, or if it falls below the hips, or if it comes off along with the clothes, or if the strands of the yajnopavita are broken (for any reason), then it has to be replaced with a new one.
- मलमूत्रे त्यजेद् विप्रो विस्मृत्यैवोपवीतधृक् । उपवीतं तदुत्सृज्य धार्यमन्यन्नवं तदा ॥ (आचारेन्दु) malamūtrē tyajēd viprō vismr̥tyaivōpavītadhr̥k । upavītaṁ tadutsr̥jya dhāryamanyannavaṁ tadā ॥ (ācārēndu) - At the time of nature's calls if one forgets to enclose it around the ear, or if it falls off the ear during that time, it has to be replaced with a new one.
- सूतके मृतके क्षौरे चाण्डालस्पर्शने तथा । रजस्वलाशवस्पर्शे धार्यमन्यन्नवं तदा ॥(नारायणसंग्रह) sūtakē mr̥takē kṣaurē cāṇḍālasparśanē tathā । rajasvalāśavasparśē dhāryamanyannavaṁ tadā ॥(nārāyaṇasaṁgraha) - New yajnopavita has to be worn after Jaata-Asoucha, and Mrta-Asoucha, after removal of hair, or if a chandala, a rajasvala (a woman during menstruation) or a dead body happens to be touched.
- उपाकर्मणि चोत्सर्गे सूतकद्वितये तथा । श्राद्धकर्मणि यज्ञादौ शशिसूर्यग्रहेऽपि च ॥ नवयज्ञोपवीतानि धृत्वा जीर्णानि च त्यजेत् ॥ (ज्योतिषार्णव) upākarmaṇi cōtsargē sūtakadvitayē tathā । śrāddhakarmaṇi yajñādau śaśisūryagrahē'pi ca ॥ navayajñōpavītāni dhr̥tvā jīrṇāni ca tyajēt ॥ (jyōtiṣārṇava) - During Upakarma, Utsarga, after the two Asoucha periods (of birth and death), after shraddha karma, in yajnas, after the eclipses (solar and lunar) a new yajnopavita has to be worn.
- धारणाद् ब्रह्मसूत्रस्य गते मासचतुष्टये | त्यक्त्वा तान्यपि जीर्णानि नवान्यन्यानि धारयेत् ॥ dhāraṇād brahmasūtrasya gatē māsacatuṣṭayē | tyaktvā tānyapi jīrṇāni navānyanyāni dhārayēt ॥ - Once in three or four months, when the yajnopavita gets spoilt and degenerates due to bodily dirt, it has to be replaced with a new one.
Generally during Upakarma, the many yajnopavitas are sanctified by gayatri mantras and other procedures as prescribed. They may be used throughout the year whenever a new one has to be replaced. When such yajnopavitas sanctified by mantras are not available, a yajnopavita has to be sanctified and worn after the prescribed vidhis.
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