Sacred Threads

Every year, on this day (called Avani Avittam), Tam Brams gather together to discard their old sacred threads (Poonal) and replace them with fresh white new ones. The bachelors (Brahmacharis) wear a single thread, married men (Grihasthas) wear 2 and elderly men whose fathers have passed away wear 3. (Ive heard different versions of this too. This is just the most popular one I have heard)

Every year, my father gives me a call and asks me to attend this 30 minute ceremony at the local temple along with him.

Some history first. When I was 13, and my younger brother was 8, we had this big Upanayanam ceremony and some priests and my father whispered the Gayathri Mantra into my ears while a big silk dhoti was used as an anti-eavesdropping device. They also put a thread around us. My grandfather explained with gravitas that the primary use of this thread is to scratch inaccessable portions of one’s back. Since I am reasonably fit enough to reach any part of my back without using the thread as an accessory, I very rarely wear it nowadays. So the general custom is that my father hands me an “old” thread on Avani Avittam morning that I then proceed to discard in favour of a “new” one which subsequently gets “lost” due to various “activities” such as swimming.

My apparent lack of interest in this thread business did not come out of an unwillingness to learn about its significance. I have talked with several relatives (some are priests), all of whom espouse completely differing ideologies.

Yajur Fan Mama says,

The thread is your identity as a Brahmin. Just as Sikhs wear turbans, this defines you. The Gayathri mantra is supreme wisdom from an era when there was no evil in the world. The thread protects you from the vagaries of this world. The Upanayanam is the young man’s coming-of-age ritual. It signifies the start of manhood. And wearing it ties you to the community. It is also a symbol of belonging to the group.

Sigappu Marx Mama says,

Bull. The thread is an age-old symbol of caste superiority. In today’s world, it is a feeble attempt to reinforce the Varna (caste) divisions of yore. Ask Yajur Mama why our priests won’t conduct upanayanams for non-brahmins. It is a symbol of elitism that has also taken on ugly capitalist tones. Priests today have no clue of the original symbolism and relevance and simply conduct these ceremonies just to make a profit. In the past, the father would conduct this ceremony in austerity and only close family would attend. It has become an ugly show of wealth and class distinctions and a complete waste of time and resources. With so much poverty around, it is criminal I say.

Naastheeka Iyer Mama says,

This whole business is riddled with inconsistencies and hypocricies. Why don’t women wear sacred threads? Why are they expressly disallowed to learn or chant the Gayathri Mantra? The Yajur Veda is nothing more than a detailed, graphic and gory animal dissection manual. Just read the section on the Ashwamedha yagna. It is total hypocrisy I say. On the one hand, our people go to every length trying to defend vegetarianism and portray meat eaters as being impure, while the Vedas are pretty much recipe books for roasted bulls. And the caste system? The Vedas describe inhuman crueltytowards the Dasas and Dasyus, who are the Dalits of today.

Spiritual Balance Mama says,

Now that is mostly polemic. Nastheeka Iyer is simply taking things out of context. The Ashwamedha yagna is symbolic. It does not call for an actual horse to be sacrificed. That is sadly a result of wrong interpretations of the Vedas over the years. The Horse represents the inner ego that is to be sacrificed. The thread is a coming-of-age ritual, something that is present in most cultures in various forms. If one wishes to see caste connotations in it, go ahead, but for me, it’s a personal decision. Hindu dharma allows every follower to interpret rituals and mantras in ways that add value to them.

Social Pscychologist Mama says,

SB is painting a pretty picture, but social reality is somewhat different. If it’s a personal decision, why do we force our kids to wear the thread when they don’t possess the mental maturity to understand and adapt the symbolism in a contemporary way? In fact, most adults and even priests have no clue on how to derive contemporary meaning out of this tradition. To me, it sounds like every generation just wants to be seen as being the torchbearers of the old order. We encourage our children to not ask questions. We demand that they simply wear the thread, chant the mantras and simply believe that it’s all for some greater good. This is not sustainable.

Practical Mama says,

As far as I am concerned, I don’t understand any of those mantras. But it keeps the old people happy I say. Don’t waste your time on the ceremonies, but just wear the thread when old people are around. But I must say that if you wear the thread, engineering college admissions in TN are very dificult I say. So much quota. So think about, weigh your options and do a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threads).

I say,

Several good arguments and several bogus ones. But the only reason I still continue to do this is this. My father watches soaps on TV. I watch documentaries on Youtube. He believs in astrology. I believe in astronomy. He consults horoscopes. I consult Google and Wikipedia. He believes in slow patient decisions. I believe in fast impulsive decisions. He is strongly theist and believes in karma. I am strongly atheist and believe in Navrathan Kurma. He is 63. I am 30.

Avani Avittam is one of those days I can sit next to him for 30 minutes and gloriously mispronounce sanskrit and change threads together. After that, we come back and drink Coconut Payasam. That’s a good reason, isn’t it?

ps: For a more detailed exposition on the back-scratching origins of the thread, read this