Upanayana is one of the traditional saṃskāras that marked the acceptance of a student by a guru and an individual’s entrance to a school in Hinduism. The tradition is widely discussed in ancient Sanskrit texts of India and varies regionally.The sacred thread is received by the boy during this ceremony, that he continues wearing across his chest thereafter.
A boy during his upanayana ritual. The thin, yellow Yajnopavita thread runs from left shoulder to waist. Note the munja grass girdle around the waist. The peepal tree twig in his right hand marks his entry into the Brahmacharya stage of life.
Upanayana is the rite of passage for the start of formal education of writing, numbers, reading, Vedangas, arts and other skills. The Upanayana rite of passage was also important to the teacher, as the student would therefrom begin to live in the gurukul (school).
Upanayana was an elaborate ceremony, that included rituals involving the family, the child and the teacher. A boy receives during this ceremony a sacred thread called Yajñopaveetam that he wears. The Yajñopavita ceremony announced that the child had entered into formal education. In the modern era, the Upanayana rite of passage is open to anyone at any age.
Significance of the yajñopavītam, sacred thread
The “sacred thread” is a thin cord, composed of three cotton strands.The strands symbolize different things in their regions. For example, among Tamil Hindus, each strand is for each of the three trinity of goddesses (Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati).
The ancient Sanskrit texts offer a diverse view while describing yajñopavītam or upavita. The term upavita was originally meant to be any upper garment, as stated in verse 18.104.22.168–22.214.171.124 of Apastamba Dharmasutra or, if the wearer doesn’t want to wear a top, a thread would suffice. The thread identified a person who is studying at a school or has graduated. The ancient Indian scholar Haradatta states, “yajñopavītam means a particular mode of wearing the upper garment, and it is not necessary to have the yajñopavīta at all times”.The Gobhila Gryha Sutra similarly states, at verse 1.2.1 in its discussion on Upanayana, that “the student understands the yajnopavita as a cord of threads, or a garment, or a rope of kusa grass”, and it is its methods of wearing and the significance that matters.The proper manner of wearing the upper garment or thread, state the ancient texts, is from over the left shoulder and under the right arm.
The idea of wearing the upper garment or sacred thread, and its significance, extended to women.This is reflected in the traditional wearing of sari over the left shoulder, during formal occasions and the celebration of rites of passage such as Hindu weddings. It was also the norm if a girl undertakes the Upanayana ceremony and begins her Vedic studies as a Brahmavadini.
The sacred Yajñopavītam is known by many names,such as Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar.The other Sanskrit term for it is Avyanga.
Vedic or medieval tradition?
There is no mention of any rule or custom, states Patrick Olivelle, that “required Brahmins to wear a sacred string at all times”,in the Brahmanical literature (Vedic and ancient post-Vedic).Yajñopavītam, textual evidence suggests, is a medieval and modern tradition.However, the term Yajñopavīta appears in ancient Hindu literature, and therein it means a way of wearing the upper garment during a ritual or rites of passage.The custom of wearing a string is a late development in Hinduism, was optional in the medieval era, and the ancient Indian texts do not mention this ritual for any class or for Upanayana.
Yajñopavīta contrasts with Pracinavita method of wearing the upper garment, the latter a reverse and mirror image of former, and suggested to signify rituals of sorrow