Discussions on religious traditions can take place in the unlikeliest of circumstances. When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited the Somnath temple in Gujarat recently, one of his people made an entry into the visitor’s book, identifying him as a “non-Hindu”. When his rivals latched on to the issue and demanded to know what his religion then was, the Congress initially tried to brush away the matter by calling it a “conspiracy” since Rahul Gandhi had himself not written the term. When that didn’t work, a Congress spokesperson claimed that the Congress leader was a “janeudhari-Brahmin” (sacred thread-wearing Brahmin).
And so, suddenly in the midst of an election campaign, the focus turned on the sacred thread. Congress spokespersons reminded the people that Rahul Gandhi had worn a sacred thread during the last rites of his father Rajiv Gandhi. The irrepressible BJP leader and Member of Parliament, Subramanian Swamy, claimed that Rahul Gandhi did so because the priest conducting the rituals had insisted on it. Besides, Swamy added, Rahul Gandhi had put the sacred threat over his kurta, whereas the janeu must be direct contact with the body.
It is possible that neither Rahul Gandhi nor many of the people who have joined the issue on either side have any understanding of the value of the sacred thread. There are three ways to deal with the matter. The first is to trivialise the tradition by calling it meaningless — even a manifestation of the domination of the upper castes (Brahmins and Kshatriyas). This would be the favourites line of the Left-Liberal kind. The second is to patronise it for the sake of symbolism without having a real feel for it. This is what the Congress leaders have done in the case at hand. And the third is for the adherents and others to understand and appreciate the purpose of wearing the sacred thread, and seek to live up to those ideals. Of course, there would be many janeu-wearing Hindus who violate the principles, but that should not bring the ritual into disrepute.
The Congress spokesperson’s remark was ridiculous for another reason. There are high caste Hindus who don’t wear the sacred thread, and they are no less Hindus for that. It’s a matter of initiation at the right age. My maternal grandfather was deeply religious and always donned the janeu, the end of which he would coil around his ear lobes when he set out for ablutions. My paternal grandfather did not wear it, nor was he particularly religious. My father did not wear the sacred thread, nor do I. If that does not make me less of a Hindu, it also does not mean that I should not glorify the values associated with the sacred thread.
The sacred thread is an important element in the Hindu rites that are laid down for the purification of the mind and the understanding of inner knowledge. It is part of the Upanayana ceremony which a high caste Hindu boy is supposed to go through in his fifth, seventh or twelfth year. The child is initiated into the Gayatri Mantra at the same time. Once he wears the sacred thread, he is expected to engage in regular prayers, including the chanting of the Mantra.
But mere prayers are not enough. The rites enforce upon the individual to work for the larger good of humanity as well. In the earlier era, this was reflected in the performance of Yagnya, which is why the sacred thread is also known as Yajnopavitam. The three strands of the janeu remind the individual of the three debts that he owes: To his teachers; to his parents and ancestors; and to the sages and Gods. He needs to be grateful to them all as they are the ones who have made his existence possible on earth. The value of life is nothing without the lofty ideals the three stands represent.
For those who believe that the sacred thread is yet another adornment which can be flung across the torso casually, here is something to ponder over: The janeu must be worn on the left shoulder, and this represents taking on the burdens of life with a sense of tolerance. The thread runs over the heart — demonstrating both faith and determination. In other words, the sacred thread represents tolerance, faith, determination and the desire to do good for every human being.
There is a verse in Sanskrit which states that the wearer of the sacred thread gains knowledge and shines like the sun. All of these lead to salvation of the human soul. The verse is follows:
Yajnopavitam paramam pavitram prajapateryat-sahajam purastat
Ayushyamagriyam pratimuncha shubhram
Yajnopavitam balamastu tejah
The shloka describes the sanctity and the spirituality of the sacred thread and how the janeu connects the individual to the Creator, and confers on him knowledge and power.
The wearer of the sacred thread is also considered ‘twice born’ — a concept that is often related to those who attain the highest forms of spiritual awakening — such as our sages. It is believed in the Hindu faith that there is no difference between one child and another at the time of birth. This is the first stage (Sudra). The second birth happens when the child goes through various levels. The first of these is the Upayanaya ceremony which relates to the tying of the sacred thread. This second is the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra. The third is when the individual masters the Vedas. The fourth is the Brahmana status when the individual realises the Brahman through the deepest knowledge of the Self. Interestingly, while there is a connect between the sacred thread (worn by the higher caste) and the rituals, the Brahmana level is not had by virtue of birth but is determined by the conduct of the individual in life. In other words, deeds and not the caste at birth will decide whether an individual is fit to be a Brahman.
The janeu or the Yajnopavitam or the sacred thread is, therefore, the new umbilical chord that connects the individual to not just his parents and ancestors but also to God and the goodness of humanity.
Since we live in modern times, the question arises: Why have girls been excluded from this elevating experience. Surely they have as much right as the boys to realise their Self and connect with their ancestors and their gods and their parents. According to certain interpretations of Manusmriti, girls were allowed to study the Vedas and thus be also initiated in the sacred thread-wearing ceremony. In fact, some Arya Samaj sects do perform the Upanayana ceremony for girls. But the general Hindu tradition does not allow for it. This is where matters stand.
(The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal)