After tying the mekhalā, the boy was invested with the yajñopavīta (sacred thread). While the yajñopavīta as a ‘sacred thread’ was largely unknown in ancient times, it became the focus of the upanayana saṃskāra in later years. In later times, the young vaṭu was given the yajñopavīta and made to recite the well-known mantra, “The yajñopavīta is supremely sacred.”
The yajñopavīta is prepared from threads that are spun by an unmarried Brāhmaṇa girl. The threads are twisted by a Brāhmaṇa, and the number of knots introduced in the yajñopavīta depends upon the number of pravaras (eminent ancestors) in the gotra (lineage) of the boy who was to wear it. The yajñopavīta has three threads of nine strands well-twisted (for each thread). The nine devatās (deities) of the nine tantus (strands) are Omkāra, Agni, Nāga, Soma, Pitṛs, Prajāpati, Vāyu, Sūrya, and Viśvedevas. While performing certain iṣṭis and yajñas, the number of strands and threads varied.
There is a certain symbolism in the manner in which the yajñopavīta is prepared. Ideally it was custom-made for the one who was to wear it. The length was ninety-six times the breadth of the four-fingers of the hand of the one who was to wear it. The four fingers represented the four states of consciousness – jāgarita (the wakeful state), svapna (the dream state), suṣupti (the deep sleep state), and turīya (all-pervading state of knowing one’s true Self).
The three folds of the cord represent the three guṇas – sattva (benign goodness), rajas (relentless activity), and tamas (deluded lethargy). The twist of the thread is upward to signify that sattva should predominate over the other two.
The three cords also remind the wearer of the yajñopavīta to pay the three ṛṇas (cosmic debts) that he owes to the i. ṛṣis (seers), ii. devas (deities), and iii. pitṛs (ancestors). There is a famous passage from the Vedas that refers to the three ṛṇas and includes the words ‘brahmacārī’ and ‘brahmacarya’ – “Every brāhmaṇa when born is indebted in three ṛṇas: in brahmacarya to the ṛṣis, in yajña to the devas, and in offspring to the pitṛs; one becomes free from ṛṇas when he lives with his ācārya as a brahmacārī, when he performs yajña, and when he has a son.”
The three cords are tied together by a knot called ‘brahmagranthi,’ which symbolises Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva.
When the ācārya gives the yajñopavīta to the boy, he recites a mantra praying for strength, long-life, and vigour for the boy; in the mean-time, the boy is supposed to look at the sun. During the upanayana, the brahmacārī is given one set of the yajñopavīta (with three cords). A gṛhastha (householder) is given the privilege to wear two sets (typically given to him during his vivāha).
Depending upon the occasion, the yajñopavīta is worn differently. While answering the calls of nature, carrying a corpse, during sexual intercourse, while offering ṛṣi-tarpaṇa, during some of the saṃskāras performed for one’s children, and while doing those actions that are meant only for men, the sacred thread is worn in the nivīta manner (hung from the neck). During an auspicious religious rite—and during normal days—the sacred thread is worn in the upavīta manner (slung from the left shoulder across the body). While performing the antyeṣṭi or during the śrāddha, the sacred thread is worn in the prācīnāvīta manner (slung from the right shoulder going across to the other side).
In other words, when performing actions within the realm of humans alone, he is a nivītī; when performing actions for the deities, he is an upavītī; and when performing actions for the ancestors, he is a prācīnāvītī.
To describe it graphically, if the yajñopavīta is worn around the neck like a garland, one becomes a nivītī. One puts his right arm into the yajñopavīta, lifts it over his head, and suspends the cord over his left shoulder in such a way that it hangs down on his right side to become an upavītī. If one puts his left arm into the yajñopavīta, puts it over his head, and suspends it over his right shoulder so that it hangs down along his left side, he becomes a prācīnāvītī; this is done only during the rituals offered to ancestors.
In ancient times, a strip of kṛṣṇājina or a cloth was used as the yajñopavīta. It was believed that whatever ritual was undertaken by one wearing the yajñopavīta would become prosperous, while that would not be the case for one who didn’t wear the kṛṣṇājina (or cloth). Whatever a brāhmaṇa studied while wearing the yajñopavīta was as good as performing yajña. However, it is noteworthy that the word yajñopavīta is not used to refer to any thread or cord; it refers merely to the skin of a black antelope or a piece of cloth. The gṛhastha was generally expected to wear an uttarīya and over the course of time, it was sufficient if he wore just the sacred thread instead of deer-skin or a cloth.
Apart from the fact that many gṛhya-sūtras are entirely silent about giving or wearing a yajñopavīta, we also don’t find Vedic mantras to accompany the act of giving the yajñopavīta; but several mantras from the Vedas are available for many of the other components of the Upanayana saṃskāra. It is quite possible that the sacred thread was not used in older times at all. The uttarīya was used for certain rituals and over the course of time a cord of threads came to be used as a replacement for it.
To be continued…
Thanks to Pradeep Chakravarthy for getting me to write this essay. Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna, who have always supported and encouraged me, were kind enough to go through the essay and give their detailed feedback. Shashi Kiran B N, a young scholar-poet went through the essay and offered valuable suggestions. Yet another scholar-poet, Arjun Bharadwaj, helped me with getting some of the reference books needed for this essay. My heartfelt gratitude to all of them.
Achari, Sri Rama Ramanuja. Saṁskāras: The Hindu Sacraments. Srimatham, 2015 <http://www.srimatham.com/uploads/5/5/4/9/5549439/hindu_samskaras.pdf>
Devuḍu. Mahādarśana. Bangalore: Devuḍu Pratiṣṭhāna, 2009
H H Sri Rangapriya Swami’s lecture on the Gāyatrī mantra
Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana: Sandhyāvandana and Gāyatrīmantrajapa. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
Harshananda, Swami. A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. R-Z. Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, 2008
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. Vol. II, Part I. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941
Pandey, Rajbali. Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1969
Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. Vol. 17. Ed. Rao, H. P. Venkata. Mysore: Sri Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamala, 1948-62
Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s seven-part lecture series in Kannada titled Ṣoḍaśa-saṃskāragaḻu at Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) in December 2005
The Sixteen Samskaras <http://cincinnatitemple.com/articles/SixteenSamskaras.pdf>
 HDS, p. 284, 287-92 and HS, pp. 131-33
 Āśvalāyana, Āpastamba and several other sūtrakāras do not say a word about the yajñopavīta
 According to Karka and Harihara (on Pāraskara) the ācārya gives the yajñopavīta to the boy after tying the mekhalā. The Saṃskāra-tattva (p. 934) says the same thing. Hiraṇyakeśi-gṛhya-sūtra 1.2.6, Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.3, Mānava-gṛhya-sūtra 1.22.2, and the Saṃskāra-ratnamālā (p. 202) mention that the boy already wore the yajñopavīta before the homa began. Sudarśana comments on Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 10. 5 saying that the boy wears the yajñopavīta with the mantra before he takes his meal (according to some) or (according to others) before he puts the samidh (fuel-sticks) into the fire
 Snātaṃ śucivāsasaṃ baddhaśikhaṃ yajñopavītaṃ pratimuñcan vācayati “Yajñopavītaṃ paramaṃ pavitraṃ prajāpateryatsahajaṃ purastāt. Āyuṣyamagriyaṃ pratimuñca śubhraṃ yajñopavītaṃ balamastu tejaḥ.” iti. Yajñopavītinamapa ācamayyātha devayajanamudānayati. – Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.7–8; the verse ‘Yajñopavītaṃ…’ quoted as from Gṛhya-pariśiṣṭa in Smṛti-candrika (I, p. 31). This mantra occurs in some manuscripts of Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra but it is an interpolation, for Harihara says, “Yadhyāpa sūtrakāreṇa yajñopavītadhāraṇaṃ na sūtrinam”
 Kauśaṃ sautraṃ vā tristrivṛdyajñopavītam. Ā nābheḥ. – Baudhāyana-dharma-sūtra 1.5.5-6
 See Devala quoted in the Smṛti-candrikā.
 Medhātithi on Manu-smṛti 11.44 says that in iṣṭis, paśu-yajñas, and soma-yajñas, the yajñopavīta was to have only one thread of three tantus, but it was three-fold in three classes of ahīna, ekāha, and sattra yāgas since they require three fires. In the seven soma-saṃsthās, it was seven-fold while it was five-fold when viewed with reference to the three savanas and two sandhyās.
 Jāyamāno vai brāhmaṇastribhirṛṇavā jāyate brahmacaryeṇarṣibhyo yajñena devebhyaḥ prajayā pitṛbhya eṣa vā anṛṇo yaḥ putrī yajvā brahmacārivāsī – Taittirīya-saṃhitā 220.127.116.11
 HDS, p. 270
 Yajñopavītaṃ paramaṃ pavitraṃ prajāpateryatsa hajaṃ purastāt. Āyuṣyamagryaṃ pratimuñca śubhraṃ yajñopavītaṃ balamastu tejaḥ... – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.11
 See Baudhāyana-gṛhya-paribhāṣā-sūtra 2.2.3
 Nivītaṃ manuṣyāṇām. Prācīnāvītaṃ pitṛṇām. Upavītaṃ devānām. Upa vyayate. Devalakṣmam eva tat kurute. – Taittirīya-saṃhitā 18.104.22.168
Incidentally, this is one of the earliest references to yajñopavīta.
 Dakṣiṇaṃ bāhumuddhṛtya śiro’vadhāya savyeṃse pratiṣṭhāpayati dakṣiṇaṃ kakṣamanavavalambaṃ bhavatyevaṃ yajñopavītī bhavati. Savyaṃ bāhumuddhṛtya śiro’vadhāya dakṣiṇeṃse pratiṣṭhāpayati savyaṃ kakṣamanvavalambaṃ bhavatyevaṃ prācīnāvītī bhavati. Pitṛyajñe tveva prācīnāvītī bhavati. – Gobhila-gṛhya-sūtra 1.2.2-4
 Prasṛto ha vai yajñoparvātino yajño’prasṛto’nupavītino yatkiṃ ca brāhmaṇo yajñopavītyadhīte yajata eva tat. Tasmādyajñpavītyevādhīyati yājayedyajeta vā yañjasya prasṛtyai. Ajinaṃ vāso vā dakṣiṇata upavīya dakṣiṇaṃ bāhumuddharate’vadhatte savyamiti yajñopavītametadeva viparītaṃ prācīmāvītaṃ saṃvītaṃ mānuṣam. – Taittirīya-āraṇyaka 2.1. This passage is quoted as from the Kāṭhaka in the Tantra-vārtika on Pūrva-mīmāṃsā-sūtra 1.3.7 (p. 201)
 Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 22.214.171.124-23 says that a gṛhastha should always wear an uttarīya; the sacred thread may serve the purpose of an uttarīya. Originally the yajñopavīta referred to the uttarīya and not merely a cord of threads. Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 126.96.36.199 says that a person who partakes of śrāddha dinner should eat covered with an uttarīya slung over the left shoulder and passing under the right arm.
 The mantra ‘Yajñopavītaṃ paramaṃ pavitraṃ…yajñopavītaṃ balamastu tejaḥ’ is cited only in Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.7 and Vaikhānasa-smārta-sūtra 2.5. Dr. Kane says about this mantra, “This has certainly a comparatively modern ring about it and is not cited in any well-known ancient work.”