sacred thread

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A ‘sacrificial’ cord with which males of the first three varṇa are invested at upanayana. The thin, knotted cord is passed over the head, and is thereafter normally worn suspended over the left shoulder and looped loosely beneath the right arm (the upavīta mode). When performing śrāddha rites, however, the cord is slung in the opposite direction, over the right shoulder (the prācīnāvīta mode). And when taking part in impure actions, or excretion and sexual acts, it should be looped around the neck alone (the nivīta mode). According to Manusmṛti (2.44), the cord for a brahmin should be made with a triple strand of twisted cotton thread, for a kṣatriya with hemp, and for a vaiśya with woollen strands; each strand is itself to be made up of nine separate threads. Early references in the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas suggest that the ritual function of the upavīta was served by special clothing, such as a strip of antelope skin or cloth worn during the sacrifice (yajña), and then put aside. Similarly, references to the yajñopavīta in various Dharmasūtra passages, are interpreted as prescribing a particular way of wearing an upper garment, rather than a dedicated cord as such. Over time, however, the (often continuous) wearing of a cord, or ‘sacred thread’, came to be considered a symbol of twice-born status and, in particular, a prerogative of initiated brahmins.

Subjects: Hinduism.

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