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The Master’s String

The Master’s String

When the Congress, which still doesn’t know how far to use Hindutva, swears by the ‘sacred’ janeu, the theatre turns absurd and the humour dark

The Master’s String Illustration by R. Prasad

There is a clown, Santushta, in the Sanskrit play Avimaraka by Bhasa, circa 4th century AD. Asked if he was a Brahmin at all, he retorts: “Here, look at my sacred thread!” The sacred thread, he knew, is the supremely unimpeachable proof of elite caste identity for men. But it has other uses as well. In another, more famous Sanskrit play, the Mricchakatika of Shudraka (5th century AD), there is the clever Brahmin called Sarvilaka. He is thievish, and plots against Charudatta, the hero. Sarvilaka wants to break into Charudatta’s house. He identifies a vulnerable spot on the wall, but realises he had forgotten the measuring thread to mark out the area where he could bore a breach. It is all right, he assures himself: he can put his sacred thread to good use! For, the sacred thread is a tool of great help (mahad upakaranam) to Brahmins, especially of his kind! “One can measure a passage in the walls with it, untie the knots of ornaments, open the doors fastened by a bolt and dress the wound of insect- and serpent-bite.” He, accordingly, measures out the area on the wall with his sacred thread and bores through the wall. As he was almost finished, a snake bites his finger. He ties up the finger with his sacred thread and is promptly relieved.

Why is there so much of disdain in the thread’s description from such early times on? The sacred thread (yajnopavitam janeu), the mark of men who claim to be of “upper castes”, is worn at the time of initiation. The material prescribed for it varies from caste to caste—cotton for Brahmins, hemp for Kshatriyas and wool for Vaishyas. The age of initiation when it is first worn also varies according to the caste. In any case, it is described in a formula chanted at the time of its wearing as the “ultimate” (paramam) and “pure” (pavitram). Born simultaneously with the creator (prajapatheh sahajam), it is thought to bestow longevity and prominence as well as power and brilliance. It is a mark of respectability. A person wearing the thread has free passage everywhere; he is held in high esteem and fed with the highest respect.

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