In Hinduism, all male brahmins are required to go through an initiation called thread ceremony (upanayanam or yagnopachhedan) in which their heads are shaved before they are given the sacred thread (janeva, yajñopavītam (यज्ञोपवीतम्) or upavīta), to wear on their torso for the rest of their lives. I have also seen some non-brahmins wearing one.
The sacred thread is called by other names depending upon the region and community; a few of which are Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar.
What is the reason behind the thread ceremony (upanayanam), especially the shaving of the head?
What is the significance and origin of the practice of wearing a janeva (yajñopavītam)?
The term "upa" means near and "nayanam" means leading. So Upanayam means "leading near". It's one of the 13 samskara prescribed by the Vedas.
What does the Sacred Thread signify?
The Janeu or yajñopavītam symbolizes the ability of the wearer to perform Sandhyavandanam and recite the Gayatri Mantra.
There is a variation in the thread count of yajñopavītam. Bachelors wear a single thread, married men wear 2, and married men with children wear 3. Each thread contains 3 strands as well.
The three strands signify three debts,
Debt to one's teacher(s).
Debt to one's parents and ancestors.
Debts to sages and Rishis.
Significance of Rituals
Upanayanam was performed traditionally before the boy starts his study of Veda i.e Vidyarambham. It acts as a stepping stone for leading a life of Brahmachari in the service of Guru studying Veda and other subjects. Ages are specified in Manu-smriti as 8 for Brahmins, 11 for Kshathriyas, 12 for Vaishyas (Manu Smriti sloka 2:36).
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 concept of Upanayanam is steeped in symbolism. A Brahmachari is allowed to wear a Yagnopaveeta of 3 strands, a householder 6 strands and a householder who has performed his Shastyaabdhapurti (60th birthday) is allowed to wear 9 strands. The 9 strands are also worn to signify the last 3 strands as a substitute for the Angavastram. Each 3 strands are tied together with a knot and only one knot is permitted per thread. As a rule, the upaveetha is to be hand woven by using cotton and drawing thin shreds and rolling them with the help of the sacred ash and consecrated water. When the desired thickness is achieved for each strand, they are knotted.
There is a Tantra aspect to the concept as well. The three strands represent the three main naDis viz., Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. The knot signifies the Bramha Granthi - the first knot encountered while raising the Kundalini shakti (the divine energy) situated in the Muladhara chakra. It is said that only after breaking past the Bramha Granthi, the student is free from animalistic urges and is set on the right path of salvation.
The second thread (of three strands) are worn for two main reasons:
Everyone looking at him will know that he is married (people in the early days used to cover their upper body only with a cloth - Angavastram).
The better half (wife) usually a homemaker, will not have the time required for Sadhana (practice) and therefore, the responsibility of the wife's emancipation is also on the husband's shoulder. Therefore, he wears the second upaveetha on behalf of the wife and grants her equal share of the merits derived from his practice and spiritual quest.
The third and final upaveetha is worn basically to tell the world that he is a Vriddha (senior citizen) and therefore will command respect and his blessings to be sought.
The thread is worn from left to right because the Ida nadi (signifying the moon) runs from the Muladhaara on the right and ends on the left side of upper part of the body (at the Ajna chakra and the thread can only rest on the shoulder and not any further up).
The Ida side is chosen because the Ida naDi controls the mental functions of the brain and is responsible for contemplation, meditation and worship.
It is to be noted that while performing the daily Sandhyavandanam, pranayama is an integral part and in almost all lineages, it is taught to start the Anuloma-Viloma pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) from the left nostril first as it draws in the prana in to the "cool" channel rather than the right nostril ("hot" channel).
During the Shraddha ceremony the thread is worn on the other side (from right shoulder dropping to the left hip). This is because the departed soul is invited to the ceremony to partake of the tarpana and pinda dana. Souls, as they do not posses a body have 360 degree vision and see everything (front, back, sideways, up and down) all at the same time. This causes objects to be mirrored and wearing the upaveetha in the reverse actually appears the correct way to the invited soul.
People of 3 of the 4 chaturashramas - Bramhacharya, Grihasta and Vanaprastha as a rule are supposed to wear the Yagnopaveetha. People who have taken up the Sanyasa ashrama (Turiya ashrama) are not allowed as they are supposed to be beyond the regular timetabled practices and are to be constantly engrossed in Samadhi and are not required to perform daily austerities (but many Sanyasis still perform their daily austerities to set an example to followers)
The Yagnopaveetha is to be worn by all the people of the first three varna ashramas - Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishya The fourth ashrama are not allowed as their prescribed profession is manual labour and hence would not have the time to follow prescribed rules and worship.
During the Upanayana ceremony, the student is initiated into the Gayathri mantra as the first mantra for his life long spiritual quest and final emancipation. The Gayathri mantra is a moksha pradana mantra and not meant for acquiring material benefits and hence this mantra is taught.
In the olden days, the students went to the ashrama of the Guru taking 'samit' in hand.If Guru understood that he is competent (to study the Vedas), he initiated him.He also used to bind 'tripuravrittamaunjimekhala' around the student's waist as a symbol of controlling the body, mind and speech ('kaya-mano-vakya').The student used to bind his loin-cloth by this.In the later days, sacred thread has replaced the 'maunji-mekhalA'.
By the way, when someone goes to toilet, he has to put the upavita around his right ear encircling the ear.According to Sri Sri Trailanga Swami, this is done because
the sacred thread has to be kept away from impure objects.
The significance of the Upanayana lies in making a person eligible for gaining Vedic Knowledge.
Without a duly performed Upanayana one is not eligible to venture into any studies of the Vedas and other knowledge forms in Hinduism.
This what the Mahaperiyvar, Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwamiji says in his lectures -
The importance of the upanayana ceremony lies in this: it makes a
person fit to receive instruction in the Vedas and spread their divine
power throughout the world. Parents must realise this fact and perform
their son's upanayana at the right time.
"Dvi-ja" ("iru-pirappalan" in Tamil) is the name given to a Brahmin,
Ksatriya or Vaisya. They merit the second birth only when they become
qualified to learn the Vedas. Such a birth is meant, as mentioned
earlier, to spread the divine power all over the world, and it is
through the upanayana ceremony that they become qualified for it.
Performing this ceremony at the right time is the responsibility of
the parents. At present, in matters like this, no regard is paid to
the canons. In contrast, in the old days, people had faith in the
scriptures and acted according to their dictates.
And, the origin of the practice of wearing a janeva (yajñopavītam) is Eternal, just like the Sanātanadharma, which is eternal (cf. BG 2.12), since not only dvija-humans, but also, all the deities are said to wear the sacred thread too.
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