What do the three strands of the sacred thread represent?


Upanayan [Vratabandha, Munja (The rite of thread ceremony)]

1. Definition and synonyms

  • A. The word Upanayan consists of two words, upa and nayan. ‘Upa’ means near and ‘nayan’ means to take towards. In short, Upanayan means taking to the Guru (teacher), who will teach the Gayatri mantra. Nayan also means ‘the eye’. Upanayan thus means the inner vision (antahachakshu). Therefore that rite which facilitates the development of inner vision is called Upanayan.

  • B. Vratabandha is that rite by which one is bound by restrictions of vowed religious observances (vrat), norms of Righteousness (Dharma) and celibacy. Before that, there are no restrictions on the child’s behaviour.

  • C. Upanayan is also named Munja after the grass ‘munja’ which is tied to the waist during the rite.

The one on whom the rite is being performed is called a batu, munjamani, brahmachari, etc. The one on whom the rite has already been performed is called an upanit.

2. The objectives

Every human being is born a Shudra, that is he just learns how to clean himself physically. However, by performing rites (karma) he is reborn (dvij). ‘Dvi’ means two, that is second time and ‘j’ means to be born. Since due to the thread ceremony the boy has a kind of rebirth he is said to become twice born (dvij). The second birth of a celibate (brahmachari) is marked by the rite of the thread ceremony. It is symbolized by wearing a girdle of munja grass. In this birth, Savitri is supposed to be his mother and Acharya (the teacher) his father. (Manusmruti 2.170). Once he becomes twice born he becomes worthy of chanting the Gayatri mantra, that is qualified to do spiritual practice; hence performing the thread ceremony is a must, while marriage is not.

Apararka, the critic of ‘Yadnyavalkya’ writes that the word Upanayan represents the link between the pupil and the Gayatri mantra and is established through the medium of the Guru (Yadnyavalkyasmruti 1.14, Apararka’s definition).

3. Who qualifies for this rite?

3.1 The age according to the class (varna)

According to ‘Ashvalayan Gruhyasutra’ (1.19), this rite is to be performed during the eighth year in a Brahman (priest), the eleventh year in a Kshatriya (warrior) and the twelfth year in a Vaishya (businessman). The reason for this is that for Vratabandha the minimal requirement of the sattva component is 30% and a child of the respective class can achieve it at that particular age as given in the table below.

The Class
The sattva
component at birth %
The age in years at
which 30% sattva
level is achieved
1. Brahman 25 8
2. Kshatriya 23 11
3. Vaishya 20 12
4. Shudra 19 17

In the olden days boys got married before seventeen years of age. After the thread ceremony one had to live with the Guru to learn the scriptures. This was not possible after marriage. Thus performing the thread ceremony was of no use to the Shudra (labourer) and hence he did not have the right to perform it.

Manu (2.37) proposes another explanation: To acquire divine splendour one should perform the thread ceremony of a Brahman in the fifth year of life, to acquire strength it should be performed on a Kshatriya in the sixth year and to acquire wealth, on a Vaishya in the eighth year.

3.2 The girls’ right to Upanayan

‘In the ancient times there was a practice of performing the thread ceremony (Upanayan) in girls as well. A mention of this is made in the Kurma Puran as

पुराकल्‍पे हि नारीणां मौञ्‍जीबन्‍धनमीरितम्‌ ।

Meaning: In ancient times (kalpa) thread ceremony for women was recommended.

Either the father, paternal uncle or brother would impart knowledge to the girl. However, other men were prohibited from doing this task. A celibate girl (brahmacharini) would ask for alms in her own household. Manu (2.66) states that the thread ceremony in girls was performed without a mantra. From this, it appears that since Manu’s times this custom slowly started declining.

In the succeeding age, the Panigrahan sanskar (rite) performed by the bridegroom on the girl was the main sanskar. The Upanayan chapter of the Sanskar-Ratnamala mentions the following two types of women based on the quotes from ‘Haritsmruti’ : 1. Brahmavadini – the one who is desirous of studying the Brahman principle. Her thread ceremony should be performed and she should be allowed to study the Vedas. 2. Sadyovadhu – one who wants a worldly life. Her marriage should be arranged soon after the thread ceremony is performed. Even today followers of the Arya Samaj perform the thread cermony (Upanayan) on girls.’ (1)

4. Preparations

One day prior to the day fixed for the thread ceremony (or three days in advance) the boy should remain only on a diet of milk. This increases the sattva component.

5. The resolve (sankalpa) of the boy undergoing the thread ceremony (batu)

‘I will absolve myself from the sins of my behaving as I wish, talking as I wish and indulging in drinking and eating as I wish by performing three intense penances or by donating money.’ [Refer ‘Science of Spirituality : Chapter 37 – Path of Action (Karmayoga)’]

6. The resolve of the one performing the thread ceremony

‘In the thread ceremony of this child I will perform a sacrifice for planets (grahayadnya) in order to acquire the favour of the planets and to venerate The Supreme Lord’. The father has the first right to perform the thread ceremony of his son.

7. Installation of the deity of the pandal (mandapdevatapratishtha)

First the deity of the pandal is installed. Bruhaspati is the main deity of the thread ceremony.

8. Shaving the head, bathing and tying a string of flowers across the boy’s brow (mundavalya)

Expressing a resolve, ‘Before performing the thread ceremony (Upanayan) of this child I will shave his head (keshavpan), etc. as the first part of this sanskar (rite)’, the boy’s head should be shaved off and after a bath a tuft of hair (shendi) should be tied. [The importance of retaining a tuft of hair is given in point ‘The objectives’] The shendi is also called shikha, its knot shikhagranthi and the act of tying it, shikhabandhan. After this a tilak with vermilion (kumkum) is applied on the boy’s forehead and then a string of flowers (mundavalya) is tied across his brow.

9. Gifts from the family

Entering the house to the accompaniment of auspicious music one must make three heaps of rice in the north-east direction and install the deities Bhagvati, Matruka and a pot to ward off obstacles (avighna kalash), on each heap amidst chanting of the two mantrasTadastu mitra Varuna (तदस्‍तु मित्रा वरुणा)’ and ‘Gruha vai pratishthasuktam (गृहा वै प्रतिष्‍ठासूक्‍तं)’ perform the ritual of worship with sandalwood paste (gandha), consecrated rice (akshata), flowers, etc. Then married women (suvasinis) should move a lit lamp in a circular fashion before the host and his wife and then relatives, friends and well-wishers should offer them gifts. Amidst the chanting of mantras clothes are offered as gifts and then the sanskars which have not been performed hitherto like Jatakarma, etc. are completed. Gifts are offered because the effect of the good wishes accompanying them last longer than just verbal good wishes. If a mantra is chanted during the offering of gifts, then the good wishes are even more effective.

10. The ritual of installation of the pot to denote the auspicious time (muhurtghatikasthapana)

  • A. The resolve (sankalpa): ‘I am installing this ghatika yantra as a device (yantra) to know the auspicious time (sumuhurt) when performing the thread ceremony of my son.’

  • B. The ritual: A copper vessel (such as a ghangal) should be placed on a heap of rice or any other food grain. Then after chanting the mantraImam me (इमं मे)’ water should be poured into the copper vessel and then the ghatika yantra should be placed in it. At that time a mantra which means, ‘O yantra (device) the chief among the yantras Lord Prajapati created you in the beginning. I am now installing you in order to attain good fortune, a long lifespan, health, good progeny and wealth. May we achieve fulfillment of our ceremony on account of this should be chanted’.

11. Eating with the mother (Matrubhojan)

This is the last meal that a boy takes from his mother’s plate as he is going to be reborn and will be away with the Guru. The boy undergoing the sanskar (rite) – the batu, offers a meal to eight other batus. This is called ashtavarga.

12. Performing the thread ceremony

A curtain (antarpat) is held between the father and the son whose thread ceremony is being performed and the eight auspicious lines (mangalashtakas) are recited. The father who teaches him the Gayatri mantra is considered to be the first guru (teacher). The curtain (antarpat) held between the father and the son is removed thus reducing the distance between them. This signifies their coming close to one another.

In the olden times after the rite of the thread ceremony (Upanayan) the children would go to their Guru to undertake their studies. So when one says ‘savadhan (सावधान)’ on the completion of the eight auspicious lines the parents would realise that their son was going to be separated from them and become sad. Since the mother grieved about the separation more than the father, during the recitation of the eight verses it is customary for the mother to stand away from the boy. There is no implied scriptural meaning behind this.

13. Wearing a loin cloth and new clothing (Langoti va Vastradharan)

A triple folded thread is tied onto the waist of the boy and he is made to wear a loin cloth (langoti). The three strands of thread represent the three components (trigunas) while the tying of the loin cloth symbolizes celibacy and keeping these three components in control. Then chanting a mantra the boy should be dressed in new white clothing. Subsequently, repeating the same mantra he should be given a red cloth to drape himself. The white colour depicts purity while the red, penance (tapashcharya). New clothing is used to avoid the influence of impressions caused on clothing used by another.

14. Wearing the hide of a deer (Ajindharan)

The boy should be made to wear a deerskin after chanting a mantra. Usually deerskin is used as later one is supposed to use the hide as a seat for spiritual practice. (Refer ‘Science of Spirituality : Chapter 3 – Practice of Spirituality’.)

15. Wearing the sacred thread (Yadnyopavitdharan)

Then the sacred thread is held in the hand and chanting the Gayatri mantra ten times, is sprinkled with water charged with mantras. This endows it with the tej (absolute fire) element. The boy is then asked to wear it.

Yadnyopavit is a word consisting of two words, yadnya and upavit. Vit means that which is woven, that is cloth and upavit means the upper garment. One is born naked. Then the baby is kept wrapped in one garment. Till the thread ceremony is performed the boy can remain clad in one garment. The use of the upper garment begins after the thread ceremony. After the thread ceremony one garment refers to the loin cloth (langoti) and the second (upper) garment to the sacred thread (janave) which is in a way a condensed form of the shawl on the shoulder (uparne).

The sacred thread is made up of nine fibres. One deity is established in each fibre as follows. 1. Omkar, 2. Agni (deity of fire), 3. Nag (serpent), 4. Som (moon), 5. Pitar (ancestors), 6. Prajapati (deity of procreation), 7. Vayu (air), 8. Yama (deity of death) and 9. Vishvadevata (deity of the universe). Three strands are created by twisting three of the nine fibres in each strand. The three Vedas – Rugveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda are established on each of these strands. Three fibres are woven into one strand and the three strands are then knotted together. This knot is called the Brahmagatha (gatha means a knot) or the Brahmagranthi (granthi means a gland). [The knot of sacred grass (darbha) tied to a gold ring (pavitrak) is also called a Brahmagranthi.] It is the site of establishing the Atharvaveda. This knot is extremely important and one requires skill to tie it. The three strands represent the three stages (ashrams) – celibate student (brahmacharya), the married householder (gruhastha) and retired householder (vanaprastha); the three fires, the fire worshipped in the home (garhapatya), the fire placed in the south (dakshinagni) and the sacred fire lit for a specific spiritual purpose (ahvaniya) as well as spiritual knowledge (dnyan), devotion (bhakti) and action (karma). The one who possesses all these three qualities gets the spiritual experience of Brahman. Based on 96 items listed below, the length of the sacred thread should be 96 times the breadth of a finger (angul).

तिथिर्वारं च नक्षत्रं तत्त्‍ववेदगुणान्‍वितम्‌ ।
कालत्रयं च मासाश्र्च ब्रह्‍मसूत्रं हि षण्‍णव ।।

Meaning: 15 auspicious dates (tithis) + 7 days of the week + 27 lunar asterisms + 25 principles + 4 Vedas + 3 components (gunas) + 3 time periods (kals) + 12 months = 96. Thus, the length of the sacred thread (yadnyopavit) is 96 times the breadth of a finger (angul).

In the Shaiva sect, the three strands of the sacred thread represent the three horizontal lines of holy ash (tripundra) on the forehead of Lord Shankar which symbolize spiritual knowledge (dnyan), purity and penance (tapashcharya). The Brahmagath indicates the origin of these three, that is divine consciousness (chaitanya).

The celibate (brahmachari) and ascetic (yati) should wear one and the married householder (gruhastha) and the retired householder (vanaprasthi) should wear two sacred threads. One thread indicates that an ascetic and a celibate are concerned only with their own spiritual progress while two threads in the married householder and the retired householder indicate that they are also responsible for the spiritual progress of their wives besides their own.

15.1 What is the motive behind placing the sacred thread over the right ear lobe during urination or defaecation?

निवीती दक्षिणे कर्णे यज्ञोपवीतं कृत्‍वा मूत्रपुरीषे विसृजेत्‌ ।
ऊर्ध्‍वं नाभर्मेध्‍यातर: पुरुष: परिकीर्तित: ।।

In short, it means that since the part of the body above the navel is considered pure and that below it impure, during urination and defaecation the sacred thread is worn as a chain (nivit) around the neck and is placed on the right ear. The scriptures often mention the importance of the right ear. Since it is the seat of various deities like Aditya, Vasu, Rudra, Vayu, Agni, Dharma, Veda, Apa, Som, Surya, Anil, etc. mere touch of the right ear bears the benefit of the ritual of sipping water from the palm (achaman). Thus by placing the sacred thread on the right ear which is pure, one is not bound by the restrictions of impurity.

The right ear assumes such scientific importance because the nerve endings and receptors situated here are closely related to the testes. During urination there is a likelihood of passage of sperms in a small quantity. It is well documented by Ayurveda that seminal loss is prevented by encircling the right ear with a thread. The frequency in case of repeated nocturnal emissions can be reduced by keeping the right ear tied during sleep. An animal is subdued as soon as its ear is held. Of the seven causes of scrotal swelling, one is urinary. Encircling the ear with a thread prevents a scrotal swelling due to a urinary cause.’(2)

16. The resolve of establishing discipleship (Avaksharan sankalpa)

The priest expresses the resolve ‘I am performing only ayanjaliksharan to purify the boy and to appease the Savitru deity [Surya (Sun deity)].’

17. Prayer to receive the Gayatri mantra (Upasthan mantragrahan)

One prays, ‘Please teach me the Gayatri mantra’. Then the following mantra is taught.

ॐ भूर्भुव: स्‍व: तत्‍सवितुर्वरेण्‍यं भर्गो देवस्‍य धीमही धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्‌ ।

Meaning: We are meditating on the Creator, the supporter of the world, the radiant form of That Energy which inspires the attitudes of our mind.

The Gayatri mantra is first taught by the father, hence he is the first Guru. However the father should have chanted the mantra atleast 10,000 times, himself. After this, the ritual of worship (puja) of the Guru, fire (agni) and the sun begins.

18. Application of holy ash (Vibhutigrahan)

Chanting the mantras holy ash should be applied to the forehead (representing Sage Jamadagni), neck (Sage Kashyap), navel (Sage Agasti), right and left shoulder (God) and the head (all deities and sages). The holy ash generates detachment (vairagya). [For more information on holy ash (vibhuti) refer ‘Science of Spirituality – Chapter 7 : Path of Devotion (Bhaktiyoga)’.]

19. Tying of the girdle (Mekhalabandhan)

Three turns of the girdle are wound around the waist of the boy undergoing the thread ceremony (batu). Three knots are tied with both the ends, near the navel. At that time, the boy should realise that he is bound to the study of the three Vedas inclusive of their six parts (angas) along with the ‘Aranyakas’ (one of the parts of the Vedas to be recited in the forest) and the Upanishads. Manu (2.42) states that the girdle should be made from the grass called munja for a Brahman boy, from the string of a bow for a Kshatriya and from the shan tree for a Vaishya.

20. The ritual of holding the staff (Dandadharan vidhi)

The staff is handed over to the boy after chanting the mantra. At that time the boy undergoing the thread ceremony (batu) should say, “I am holding this staff which will suppress I who am impudent (the boisterous one who does not pay heed to anyone) and which will make me follow the righteous path. May it protect me from that which may induce fear”. The staff is an upright straight branch from the top of the palash tree. It converts distressing energy from the atmosphere into pleasant energy. The number of the knots on the staff denote the number of penalties that the initiate has to observe throughout his life. ‘The staff of the Brahman boy should be made from the palash tree and should be long enough so as to reach the hair on the boy’s scalp. The staff of a Kshatriya should be made from the holy fig (oudumbar) tree and should reach the forehead while the Vaishya’s staff should be made of the bel (bilva) tree and should reach the chest at the level of the heart’, as described in Ashvalayan Gruhyasutra.

21. The code of conduct preached by the priest (Acharbodh) and the vowed religious observances to be followed by the boy undergoing the thread ceremony (Batuvrat)

21.1 The code of conduct preached by the priest (Acharbodh)

‘Since you are a celibate (brahmachari) you should observe the following rules:

  • A. Take a sip of water from the palm (achaman) after passing urine or stools, eating, travelling and sleeping, for maintenance of purity.

  • B. Perform the ritualistic actions (nityakarma) of sandhya, spiritual practice, lighting the sacrificial fire (hom), etc. everyday

  • C. Do not sleep during the day.

  • D. Chant the Vedas, under the guidance of the teacher.

  • E. Beg for alms in the morning and evening.

  • F. Offer sacrificial firewood (samidha) to the fire in the morning and evening.

  • G. Observe celibacy for twelve years or until the completion of the study of the Vedas.

  • H. Beg for alms from the man or woman who will not let you return empty handed.’

After explaining this code of conduct that part of the sacrificial fire (hom) from ‘Yadasyeti (यदस्‍येति)’ onwards should be completed.

21.2 The vowed religious observances to be followed by the boy undergoing the thread ceremony (Batuvrat)

This includes following the code of conduct preached by the priest, refraining from eating salty foods, sleeping on the floor, etc.

22. Asking for alms (Bhikshagrahan)

The boy undergoing the thread ceremony (batu) should ask for alms of rice sufficient for the anupravachaniya sacrificial fire (hom) and for a meal of the priest. He should first go to the mother and say, ‘Give me alms’ (‘ॐ भवती भिक्षान्‍देही!’). Then he should repeat the same to the father. Thus, begging for alms from the maternal aunt, elder sister and well-wishers he should take the alms so collected to the priest. (In the absence of parents, a maternal aunt and a sister, alms can be asked from anyone else.) Then he should perform sandhya at noon (or may not depending on the sect). From the next day onwards the Brahmayadnya (sandhya) should be performed only with the Gayatri mantra. Asking for alms helps in reducing the ego. By giving alms (food) to the priest, the boy realises that the responsibility of looking after the needs of his teacher lies on him. He also learns to eat only after offering food to his teacher, to partake of only what is given to him by the teacher and to ask for alms only sufficient for a sacrificial fire and to feed the priest (purohit).

23. The ritual of generation of spiritual intellect (Medhajanan)

One should express the resolve, ‘I am performing this ritual of Medhajanan in order to venerate The Lord for the generation of spiritual intellect to master the Vedas after completion of the sanskar (rite) of thread ceremony of my son. I am worshipping the deity Savitri also known as Medha’.

24. Farewell to the deity of the pandal (Mandapdevakotthapan)

One should bid farewell (utthapan) to the deities (devak) on the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th or 10th day from the day of their installation.

25. Comparative importance of various rituals in the sanskar of thread ceremony (Upanayan)

The ritual Importance
1. Supporting rituals 5
2. The resolve of the boy on whom the
    sanskar is being performed
3. The resolve of the one performing the
    thread ceremony
4. Installation of the deity of the pandal 1
5. Shaving the hair 1
6. Gifts from the family (a form of blessing) 1
7. The ritual of installation of the pot 1
8. Performing the thread ceremony 5
9. Wearing new clothing 1
10. Wearing the hide of a deer 2
11. Wearing the sacred thread 8
12. The resolve of establishing discipleship 2
13. A prayer asking for the Gayatri mantra 2
14. Learning the Gayatri mantra 2
15. Application of holy ash 2
16. Tying of the girdle 2
17. The ritual of holding the staff 10
18. The code of conduct preached by the

19. A vowed religious observance to be
      followed by the boy undergoing the
      thread ceremony

20. Asking for alms 10
21. The ritual of generation of spiritual
22. Farewell to the deity of the pandal 2
23. Others 20
Total 100

26. Nivit (A mode of wearing the sacred thread)

Nivit means wearing the sacred thread like a chain (mala) around the neck. This practice is followed when making an offering to sages (rushitarpan) and on retiring to the forest after completion of the duties of a married householder (vanaprasthashram).

Reference :

‘Sixteen Sanskars and some other rituals’, published by Sanatan Sanstha.

Bharatiya Sanskrutikosh. Publishers: Pandit Mahadevshastri Joshi, Secretary, Bharatiya Sanskrutikosh Mandal, 410 Shanivar Peth, Pune 411 030.
Vol. 3 to 10: First edition           Vol. 1 and 2: Second edition
1. Vol.1, Pg. 660

Shastra Ase Sangate. First edition, fifth reprint – October 94, Vedavani Publications, Kolhapur 416 010.
2. Pg. 14, 15

1 thought on “What do the three strands of the sacred thread represent?”

  1. A very well written article useful for the current generation who want to keep the tradition alive. A small reference to the customs practiced by VASHNAVITES
    (like use of Gopi Chandan instead of Ashes by Saivites,,Use of SRIMUDRAS
    on the temples by using copper/silver Sankh/Chakra etc Seals dipped in Chandan and impressed on the Temples of the BHATU) would have made the vaishanvites too get some ideas! I do understand that there are hundreds of variations in customes by Hindus across the country!!


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