The Sacred Thread

It was a time of great festivity in the household of Mehta Kalu, a prominent resident of village Talwandi. It was the time (1479) when his only son Nanak would be given a Janeu (the sacred thread) to put on by Pundit Hardyal, their family priest. It was the first major religious ceremony in the life of his only son. Lot of preparations were going on. An atmosphere of hustle and bustle was visible all around. A big feast was planned for the event. Lots of relatives, friends and everyone in the village were invited to participate in the event and enjoy the feast.

Nanak (1469 – 1539) being a child genius used to ask questions about each and everything to seek and then give his own logical explanation where he differed with the other persons. He was famous throughout the area for his lateral thinking, unusual questions and his intelligent answers to questions from other people. His logic was irrefutable, and everyone loved him for his humility in asking the questions and for his extraordinary genius in answering the questions and giving explanations to his answers. He was the only one in his village who dared to think laterally and question the age-old explanations being given by both the Hindu and Muslim priests.

Nanak had an elder sister named Nanaki. Both of them were very affectionate to each other. They discussed everything between them. Nanaki asked her brother,” You know what this all is about?” “Yea, I heard I will be given a Janeu by the Purohit. Can you tell me why you did not get it? You are older than me” replied Nanak. “I don’t know. Probably women don’t get it. Mom does not have one either. You better check with Mom and Dad or ask the Purohit” answered Nanaki. Nanak went to his father who was busy organising for the event making sure that everything goes on smoothly. “Dad, can I ask you a question?” said Nanak. “Sure son, you can”, replied his father, “but you got to be quick as I have lots of things to do”.  “What is this Janeu and why do I have to wear it, and why my sister does not have one?” “To be honest, I don’t know the exact answer to these questions. All I know is that I have this Janeu since I was of your age and my father, grandfather and great grandfather all of them had this,” replied Kalu. “Can I ask these questions to our Purohit?” pleaded Nanak. “I think that is best thing to do. Pundits are the most learned persons in our community and our purohit Pundit Hardyal will be able to answer all your questions”. “Thanks Dad”, said Nanak.

The word spread like the fire in jungle that today Nanak will question the Pundit regarding Janeu. This was something that nobody has done before, and everyone expected a very lively and informative discussion between the child genius Nanak and the scholarly Pundit. There was a huge gathering on this occasion and Pundit Hardyal arrived on time for the ceremony. He was greeted with great respect and was given a VIP treatment by the family and the close relatives. Nanak’s father told him that his son Nanak wanted to know all about Janeu before he adorns it and requested him to answer his questions. Pundit Hardayal told him that he already knew about this and he had come prepared for it. He further told him that in fact he expected this because he knew that Nanak being an extremely precocious child would question him about Yajnopavita. “Every one knows Nanak from school where he learnt everything very quickly and asked Pt Brij Nath and Maulvi Qutab-ud-Deen very unusual questions about the books he read with them. So I expected this and am well prepared for all his questions”, said Pundit Hardyal.

Pundit Hardayal started the ceremony. The Havan, the sacred fire, was lit while chanting of verses from the Hindu religious books. Everyone gathered around the fire. Pundit Hardyal asked Nanak to come to him and sit by his side so that he can perform the ceremony of Yajnopavita, the investiture of sacred thread. Nanak went close to Pundit and said, “Pundit Jee, can I ask you some questions about Yajnopavita?” “Yes, you can. Your father has already told me about this. Let us finish the ceremony first and then I will answer all your questions,” replied Pundit Hardyal. “Pundit Ji, if you answer my questions first, then I will be able to enjoy the whole ceremony, so allow me to ask you these questions before you start the ceremony”, quipped Nanak.

Pundit Hardyal replied, “In fact, I knew that you’ll ask me questions about this ceremony and I have come prepared to answer all your questions. However, before you ask me a question; I will explain in detail for the benefit of everyone here what the significance of Yajnopavita is. I am sure this will answer most of your questions.” “Yea, that will be good”, answered Nanak. Pundit Hardyal started addressing the audience.

Upanayanam, the janeu ceremony is a very important event in the life of a Hindu as he gets the yajjopavita the sacred thread in this ceremony. It is his second birth. According to our religious books and Manusmriti the first birth of an Aryan is from his natural mother, the second birth happens when he is given the sacred thread (Janeu), which we will be doing shortly to Nanak. There is a third birth, which takes place on the initiation to the performance of a sacrifice. Out of these three births the second one is the most important as this is for the sake of Vedas. In this birth the goddess of knowledge, Savitri is his mother and teacher, the Brahmin guru is his father. One who has not been initiated cannot pronounce any Vedic text except at the time of funeral rites. A Brahmin boy is eligible for the ceremony of the sacred thread at the age between five and eight, the Kshatriya at the age between nine and eleven and Vaisya is entitled to it at the age of twelve. The age for the third birth, the savitri initiation is sixteen, twenty second, and twenty-fourth for a Brahmin, Kshatriya and the Vaisya respectively. Now as you know Nanak is more than nine years old and he is born in Kshatriya caste, it is the time for him to get this sacred thread. His parents are very religious and have organized this function for their only son. As you know Nanak is a genius and once initiated by this ceremony of sacred thread he will have access to the treasure of Vedas and other religious books. I can say without any doubt that one day he will become a great scholar of our Vedic texts. When Nanak will study our religious text he will find this information in Manu Smriti and other religious texts”.

Pt Hardayal recites verses from Manu Smriti and other religious texts. The bulk of the audience do not understand what he says but they bow their heads in respect and awe of the scriptures. He glances at the audience, which was spell bound at his erudition. He looked at child Nanak who was listening very attentively imbibing each and every word and seems to have understood him very well. Pt Hardayal continued.

“All this is from our ancient scriptures. We should never ever question our scriptures. Any one who questions it will not only go to hell himself, but his entire family and next seven generations are also doomed. As you know Brahmins, Kashtriyas and the Vaisyas wear the sacred thread. Wearing the sacred thread is a very holy and sacred ceremony amongst the Hindus. A Brahmin becomes a true Brahmin only after this ceremony. Similarly, a Kashtriya and the Vaisyas become true Kashtriyas and Vaisyas only after the ceremony of sacred thread. It is said in our Shastras that Janmana jayate sudrah, karmana jayate dvijah. It means that by birth we are all Sudras, but by this ceremony we are born again as Brahmins or Kashtriyas or Vaisyas”.

“I tell you more in detail about the significance of this sacred thread. It is not an ordinary thread. It is spun by a virgin Brahmin girl and it is twisted by a Brahmin. Its length is ninety six times the breadth of the four fingers of a man. It denotes that one should be a Brahmchari in thought, word and deed. It consists of three cords. Each cord represents a Veda – the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Sam Veda. It also represents the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The knot in the middle represents the formless Brahma, the supreme principal. The three cords also represent the three aspects of Maya – the Sattva, the Rajas and the Tamas. The knot in the middle represents Ishvara who controls Maya. The three cords of the sacred thread reminds the wearer that he has to pay off three debts he owes to the Rishis, to his ancestors and to the gods. The three strands also represent past, present and future; the three states – the wakefulness, dream and deep sleep; it also represents the three dimensions known as heaven, earth and the nether regions. Another important meaning of three strands is ida, pingala and sukhmani nadi through which the kundlaini energy manifests as supreme consciousness. After getting the sacred thread, a boy becomes eligible to recite the most pious mantra in the world, which is Gayatri Mantra. Gayatri is Vedmata. Just as water manifests in four different forms of ice, vapour, air and liquid, and fire manifests in the forms of burning, heat, light and movement, so also Gayatri manifests in the form of four Vedas, four kinds of knowledge. Gayatri is the mother and four Vedas her progeny. Those who worship God at the three Sandhyas and repeat the Gayatri holding the Brahman knot of their sacred thread derive immense strength and power. And you should also not forget that a Brahmin meditating upon the Gayatri holding the Brahma knot has the power to bless and curse others. As per our Shastras even gods are powerless before the curse of a Brahmin and blessings of Brahmin can force the gods to give you all favours”.

Pt Hardayal looked at the audience and noticed that the fear of curse was visible on their faces. However, he noticed that it did not have any impact on Nanak who was smiling and looked eager waiting for his opportunity to say something. He thought it would be worthwhile to know what is going on in his mind. He addressed Nanak in a very affectionate manner.

“Dear Nanak, does this clear all your doubts about the sacred thread. I am sure it does?”

“Not really”, replied Nanak.

“OK, honey tell me what is going on in your mind, I will clear all your doubts. Ask me any question you have in your mind.”

“Pundit Ji tell me why do women do not get this janeu?” Asked Nanak

“That is not right sweetie. They do get it, but indirectly. You’ll know when you marry. At that time, we will give you one more janeu for your wife,” Said Pundit Hardyal with a smile at his face. He continued.” It is laid down in our religious books that the husband will wear a janeu for his wife. Husband is like a god to his wife.”

“Pundit Ji, is it not unfair and what if a woman dies before her marriage?”

“No, it is not unfair as it is written in Manu Smriti and Shastras. I told you before you should never ever question your religious books. It is a great sin. Besides you should not talk about death at this auspicious occasion. Once we finish with your questions I will recite some pious verses to purify the atmosphere of the sad things you have just said’ Pundit Hardyal mutters something from his mouth that no one could hear.

“I do not agree when you say that it is a sin to question the authority of the religious books,” replied Nanak


“First of all it is not a matter of questioning the authority; the fundamental question here is to understand what is written in what we call our religious books. We cannot understand unless and until we ask questions. And if we do not understand we cannot follow the instructions contained in these books. Besides God gave us a brain to think and question, so there cannot be a sin in using our intellect to know what is wrong or right. We must study in depth all our scriptures to gain knowledge. We can do so only when we question and seek answers. I have personal experience in this regard. While at school with Pt Brij Nath, I finished reading all the books in his library. While reading these books millions of questions came to my mind and I shared these questions with Pt Baij Nath ji and other learned people I know. Similarly, while studying with Maulvi Qutab-ud-Deen I asked him all the questions that came to my mind. My mate Mardana will certify that this helped us to understand what is written in the books. In fact it is a sin if we do not use this gift of God and keep on doing something, which is wrong without questioning it. This extraordinary gift of intellect is what distinguishes mankind from the other species on this earth. I would go even further to say that we should use our intellect when we worship God and donate money in the name of religion. Otherwise it is highly likely that some one can cheat us in the name of God and religion.”

Mardana, who was also in the audience as an invitee to entertain with his music, stood up and asked for permission to say something, which was granted. “Respected elders, I would like to tell you that Nanak helped me with his questions to understand the truth. Sometimes he used to come up with questions that would leave Maulvi ji speechless and what is even more surprising is that when Maulvi could not answer his questions, Nanak used to come up with an answer that astonished Maulvi Ji even more.”

“I confirm what young Mardana has just said. I have ventured many times to discuss Islam with Nanak. But every single time I learned something from him.” Chipped in Sayyad Hussain who being a neighbour was one of the invitees to the function.

Pt. Hardyal was visibly upset at this unexpected turn of discussion and intervened quickly to salvage the situation. “Are you finished or you have any more questions; we are already getting too late for the ceremony” He said. “Yes I have more questions. Pt Ji, could you please tell me why Sudras don’t get this Janeu?” asked Nanak.

“Sudras are not eligible for this as per our religious books”

“Pt. Ji you just said that we are all born as Sudras but a Brahmin is reborn as Brahmin after the ceremony of Yajnopavita. Then why do those who are born in Sudra families not entitled to become Brahmins, Kahatriyas or Vaishas?”

“I can not change what is written in our Vedas and Smrities” replied Pt. Hardyal.

“Pt. Ji, why do people have different types of Janeus?”

“Because they are born in different castes” replied Pt Hardyal

“Wouldn’t it be nice if all wear the same janeu?”

“No that is against our scriptures. Janeu tells us what caste a person belongs to. The Janeu born by a Brahmin is made of cotton threads, that of Kashatrya of hempen threads and that of Vaisya of woollen threads. All this is laid down in Manu Smriti.”

“Pt. Ji, why do people get janeu at different ages in their life?”

“As I told you earlier children born in different castes are eligible for investiture of janeu at different ages.”

“Why? That is my question. Does it mean that a person matures quickly if born in a Brahmin family?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t made these rules. These are the inviolable rules from our scriptures.” Pt Hardyal was getting a little bit annoyed.

“Pt. Ji I understand that you have not made these rules, but I want to know if you have any logical explanation for this outright discrimination.”

“No, I don’t have any explanation for this nor do I need to give you one. In fact, you are not supposed to ask me these questions.” Pt. Hardyal was feeling a bit uncomfortable now.

“Pt. Ji, why do we have to shave our heads for this ceremony? God gives us this gift. So, we should take care of it in every possible way. If we shave our hair off, we are showing our disrespect to God.” Nanak asked another question.

“Once again I have not made any rules for this ceremony. You still keep a tuft on your head. That will protect your brain from any sudden stroke and keep it cool.”

“If keeping of only a tuft of hair of is so good, then we should not shave our hair at all.”

“That is up to you, your hair will grow back soon.” Pt Hardyal was trying to run away from the heat of logic.

“Pt. Ji you said that it gives us immense powers if we recite Gayatri Mantra holding the Brahma knot of the sacred thread”

“That is right.”

“I know the Gayatri Mantra by heart. I heard people recite this many times.

oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ

 tát savitúr váreniyaṃ

bhárgo devásya dhīmahi

            dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt”

“Yes, that is the mantra. But you should not have recited it without the janeu.”

“Pt Ji, if I translate this in the language that all of us can understand, it says “Oh Almighty Supreme Sun impel us with your divine brilliance so we may attain a noble understanding of reality.” Is this not an invocation of the Sun god to give us divine knowledge?”

“Yes, it is. Pt Brij Nath has taught you very well.”

“Pt Ji, God created this universe and this Sun. Then should we not pray to that One God who is the supreme Creator? This will give us even more power.”

“No, you should go by your religious books”

“Pt Ji, you said that after this ceremony a person gets a new birth wherein Savitri, the goddess of knowledge is his mother and the Brahmin Guru is his father.”

“That is right”

“Pt Ji, Guru means that which dispels the darkness of ignorance. Then it is wrong to call Brahmin a Guru on the basis of his caste only. The Word that conveys us Knowledge is the real Guru. And this Guru is both our mother and father in this second birth.”

“Nanak, you are crossing all limits. You are questioning the authority of our religious books. You are questioning my authority to be your Guru.” Pt Hardyal was losing his patience.

“Yes, I am” replied Nanak

“Kalurai, did you hear this! Your son is questioning my authority! He is questioning everything that has been going on for generations. Do you realize the repercussion of what he is doing right in front of the whole village?” Pt Hardyal was very upset and controlling his anger he tried to scare and rope in Nanak’s father in this discussion to get his upper hand.

“Nanak, we should not question the authority of our Purohit. He is our family priest and is a very learned person. All Purohits are learned persons. Finish your questions quickly so that he can perform this ceremony. It is for your good.” Kalurai intervened in an attempt to pacify the priest.

“Pt. Ji once again it is not a question of your authority. It is question of whether what we’re doing is right or wrong?” said Nanak.

“Who will decide what is wrong? You! Or your elders?” Pt Hardyal grabbed this opportunity to score a point. But Nanak knew where he is coming from and quickly replied. “Neither me nor our elders. It is Knowledge that decides what is right or wrong. Knowledge is the real Guru, the true Guru. Knowledge, I believe, does not come with age; it comes with God’s grace.”

“OK then, tell us what does your Guru says about Janeu.” Pt Hardyal now wanted to play this game of discussion in Nanak’s side of the field. In fact he had no other option left now.

“Pt Ji, my Guru tells me that the Janeu should not discriminate and should be the same for all of us, in fact same for the entire human race,” said Nanak.

“You got to be kidding. No one has ever seen such a janeu. Muslims don’t wear the janeu. Sudras can’t wear a janeu.”  Pt Hardyal said with a smile on his face. He thought Nanak would be defeated in his own argument here. He turned towards the audience, “Has any one seen such a Janeu?” No, was the reply from most of the persons in the audience.

“Pt Ji exactly, that is the point. The Janeu that you offer is not applicable to a Muslim, it is denied to women and Sudras. The Janeu that my Guru gives is meant for the entire human race.” Nanak replied in a very calm and composed manner.

“Show me this Janeu.” Pt Hardyal still believed that Nanak would falter in his argument before long.

Nanak now stood up and started addressing the entire audience. “I agree with the view that there has to be a formal induction process for any person who wants to embark upon the journey of true knowledge and faith. Pt Ji, you are right when you say that this is our second birth. We are all children of the same God and all are entitled to this second birth. So, all of us should go on this journey. Hence, we should have the same process in place for all of us. You are saying that it is mandatory for a Hindu to wear Janeu. But at the same time, you deprive more than half the population of Hindus from what you call a very important thing in the life of a Hindu. The ceremony of Sacred Thread is being used as a tool to discriminate and divide mankind into different castes. This is a ploy to force people to accept a person born in a Brahmin caste as their perpetual spiritual Guru. In my opinion the true Guru is knowledge which is beyond any caste or creed.”

“The Sacred Thread that most of you are having on your bodies does not help you in any way towards the achievement of your ultimate goal in life. People are committing serious crimes while wearing this sacred thread. It does not stop them from doing so nor does it stop them from cheating and telling lies. As a result of this you land yourself in trouble. When it gets soiled or is broken, you get a new one from your Purohit Brahmin. You treat him with food and gifts on this occasion. The new sacred thread is as ineffectual as the old one. It is still a piece of cotton, hempen or wool. It does not make a difference whether a Brahmin virgin girl spins it or your own daughter spins it for you. It will have same qualities of a thread even if a Sudra, who is not entitled to have it, spins it. However, there is a sacred thread that only you can spin, and which will make all the difference in your life. You don’t have to pay your Purohit for it. There is no age for it. It is same for all genders, castes and creeds.”

“Apparently the sacred thread, given by your Purohit, does not serve any purpose when you put it on your bodies. So, we got to find a way so that this sacred thread works.  In my opinion if we put a sacred thread on our minds; that will work for sure. Since it is a thread for our mind it has to be made from different materials. The cotton we use here is mercy or being kind and loving to all creatures on this earth. When we practice humility, and are kind and considerate to all that will result in contentment in our lives.  So, the thread that we spin out of this cotton is contentment. The satisfaction and contentment in life leads to self-restraint. So the continence or self-restraint is the knot on this thread. And to make this thread strong we must twist it with our love for knowledge of truth. The thread that you are putting on your bodies does not help you restrain your body from indulging in various acts that leads to shame and untoward situations. Nor does it help to strengthen your spiritual life. But the thread that you will put on your mind will go a long way in restraining you from doing things that lands you in trouble and it will also make you spiritually strong. The thread that you put on your bodies gets burnt in your funeral pyres when you die. No one ever remembers a person if he has the sacred thread or not. What we remember is what he has done in his life. The sacred thread that you put on your mind will motivate you to good deeds that will outlive your death. Pt. Ji, this is the thread, which everyone should have. You should have it. It is a must for everybody including Sudras. It is a must for people from all races and religions. Now tell me are you capable of giving me this sort of thread? If so; I would love to have that thread from you.” Nanak shot this question to Pundit Hardayal.

Everyone was looking at Pt. Hardyal for an answer. It was obvious from his face that he was very upset and angry. Instead of answering this question, he turned towards Nanak’s father and released his anger. “Mehta Kalu, your son is insulting me in front of the whole village and he is showing total disregard for our religious scriptures. He is rebelling against our age-old traditions. You did not intervene, nor did you stop him. I warn you to nip this evil in the bud. I warn you that there will be grave consequences, of what he has done today, for you and also for your coming generations. You must bring this rebellious child to book. Otherwise I will not help you in any way. I can see an impending curse looming large on your family. Don’t come running to me for help unless and until you punish this child and make him accept this sacred thread from me.”

Before Kalurai could say something, many senior persons from the audience objected to this outrageous outburst by Pt Hardyal. They told him that they did not find anything objectionable in what Nanak had said? They opined that there is still lot of time as Nanak is only ten years old and Pt Hardyal should convince Nanak, if he can, to put on the janeu. The suggestion appealed to Pt Hardyal as it gave him an opportunity to get away with some honour. Turning towards Mehta Kalu, he said, “OK Mehta Kalu, I agree with what the elders are saying here and advise you to keep your son under control. Do not allow him to mix with people from low castes. I have already warned you many times regarding this matter.”

Pt Hardyal collected the fee for his services and left in haste. Everyone enjoyed the feast while talking about the event. They were witness to a history. Many people gathered around Nanak and congratulated him for his courage and wisdom. Every one was talking about this episode. No one has ever dared question what the Brahmin Purohit said or did. The low caste people were especially happy. For once some one has treated them at par with other castes.


Guru Nanak refused to put on Janeu because,                                   

  1. He did not like Pt Hardyal                                                                                   
  2. It discriminates against women and Sudras
  3. It is a formal process for induction to Hinduism
  4. It is designed to force people accept Brahmin as their Guru.
  5. It makes people worship Sun god
  6. Pt Hardyal was not knowledgeable enough to convince Nanak.
  7. It encourages casteism in society.
  8. It establishes the supremacy of Brahmins in the society.
  9. Guru Nanak was against Brahmins
  10. It undermines principle of equality among human beings.

Answer these questions with a yes or no and justify your answer from the text.

Note: Written on 20/05/2007, and published in Sikhspecturm, an online magazine

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