Tuesday, February 3, 2009

“ Silk” in Indian tradition

The break-through evidence from the Harappan excavations that silk had been known in India as early as 2000 BCE was posted in


This was no surprise to us because the use of silk-cloths had been mentioned in many places in Valimiki Ramayana.

What silk was used in Ramayana times?

The 'kausheyam' or 'kausheya vaasam' was worn by Rama and Sita.

Kusheyam means made of 'cocoon' or 'pupa'

This gives an impression that reeling silk from the cocoon as it is done nowadays – (a method borrowed from China) could have been known to people even as early as Ramayana times.

At the same time a question arises whether 'himsic' method was used in making that silk – as it is done now.

It is also difficult to think that the avatara purusha used cloths made of himsic ways.

"Ahimsa paramO dharma" is the injunction.

Ahimasa is the supreme dharma.

So 'Himsa' is a highly adharmic

Vedic society did not allow himsa, except for the purpose of vedik purpose.

The injunction on where to allow 'himsa' is found only at one place – in the last verse of Chandoghya upanishad where it is said that one
desirous of moksham is allowed to do 'himsa' only as approved by
scriptures. This is interpreted by scholars and elders as approval
for animal sacrifice in yajnas only.

Shastras say, "vaidee himsa, na himsa"

If the Himsa is done for vaideeka (vedic) purpose, it is not himsa.
That silk is meant for vaideeka purpose is not to be found in
scriptures. The only type of himsa found is animal sacrifice, which is
invalid in kali yuga. Pramana exits for this too.

In the light of this injunction on ahimsa,

it must be deduced that the silk mentioned in Ramayana must have been the 'ahimsic' silk, drawn from the cocoon after the moth-fly had left.

There is a probability that both the ways of himsic and ahimsic silk making had existed. But those persons who were inclined on moksha dharma and those who were following Vedic way of life would not have used himsic silk.

Silk from plants?

Silk could have been made by another method too.

This is like making cotton from cotton tree.

There exists in Sanskrit names of silk- trees, giving rise to the notion that silk was made from silk trees.

As far as I know, Sanskrit lexicon contains names of two trees,

'ahikA' and 'apUraNI'

for silk making.

ahikA= the silk-cotton tree (Salmalia Malabarica);
apUraNI = the silk cotton tree (Bombax Heptaphyllum).

The silk found in Harappan sites must be analysed in the light of himsic, ahimsic and plantation sources.

There is another plant source for silk.

It is the fiber of plants.

Until a couple of generations ago, 'naar-pattu' was in vogue in Tamilnadu.

This is said to have been made from the plantain tree.

Naar pattu was used while doing pooja.

Silk in auspicious functions.

As far as I have enquired with the Vedik scholars whom I have come across, I have
been told that specifications have been given in sastras regarding
every detail of different ceremonies and this also includes the type
of vasthram to be used. It is mentioned at many
places that the cotton vasthram has to be used.

But the custom of using or gifting silk vEshti in marriage and
upanayanam has come into vogue, perhaps to flaunt the affluence and
affordability. If one digs up what the satras say about most of the
ceremonies, it will be shocking know that most of what is
being bought or gifted have not been mentioned by satras and silk has
no sastric sanction.

For instance, in the upanayanam ceremony, where it is customary for
the maternal grand father / maternal uncle to bring / buy 2 silk
vasthrams, there is no scope to wear them during the ceremony. That
is, nowhere it is mentioned that the silk vasthram is to be used.

The boy does not wear the silk veshti during any time in the ceremony.

But in a wish to somehow use it, people started using it to cover the boy and the couple at the time of Brhamopadesam

The usage of the silk vEshti during Brhamopadesam is a later
development, but it is not without a flaw. If the rules were to be
strictly followed, the 4-muzham silk Veshti is not sufficient to cover
the agni, the Brahma, the couple and the boy. But people desirous of
using these silk vEshti cover only the couple, at times the father and
son only with the Purohit peeping inside. This is not as per sastras.

Silk for Gods.

Looking for textual evidence,

wherever there is a mention of vasthram for God,

there it is about yellow vasthram or golden vasthram.

Shastras say about using 'noothana vasthu' for Gods, but nowhere it
has been said that 'rEshme' vasthram (silk vasthram) is a noothana
vasthram or to be used for adorning Gods.

We can see in a number of places, the term pIthambharam as the vasthram of
God. PIthambharam means, a vasthram of "peetha sahitham" - with yellow
colour. The yellow dye is made from turmeric powder which will
stick to cotton vasthram effectively and not to silk vasthram.
Therefore the cloth mentioned in slokas and scriptures is cotton cloth soaked in turmeric.

Yellow is symbolic of Gold
Gold is also yellow in colour and this again is symbolic Lakshmi.

(refer Sri sookhtham)
The sapeetha vasthram mentioned in slokas is therefore defined as golden vasthram.
Sapeetham is 'samyatha peetham'. It is yellow in colour, and the yellow is indicative of gold. Even the silk offered in Purna ahuthi in a homa is not silk, but 'pon-aadai', golden vasthram in those days.

By adorning the Lord in peetha vasthram and sapeetha vasthram, we are
seeing Him with the inseparable Lakshmi!

We do find a mention of "kausheya vaasam" in the dhyaana sloka of Vishnu sahasranama.

It is difficult to believe that himsic silk was used to adorn God in olden times.

Detailed explanation on this is covered in the next post.

But a story exists that silk from China (Cheenamshuk)

– the himsic silk – was brought to India only within the last couple of millenia.

It was brought for pooja by the highly ahimsic Jain people unknowingly.

The story is given below.

Without the knowledge of how that silk is made,

silk has entered temples too and for adorning gods.

Anything that is costly or rare is supposed to belong to the Royalty and God

or be dedicated to kings and gods.

In that sense, himsic silk might have come into use in the temples.

(to be continued)



Pramoda Chitrabhanu

Jain Meditation International Center

Story of Silk

How many people know that the silk one wears or uses involves violence and that one wears it with great pride in the places of worship? It is sad that one follows traditions blindly without questioning the origination or it's making process.

It all started around 1133 AD at the time of King Kumarpal, the King of Gujarat, a state in Western India. During his rule he was greatly influenced by a great Jain teacher Acharya Hemchandra. The King was so inspired by his teachings of Ahimsa (nonviolence) and Compassion that he declared in his entire state to stop killing for food, sport or fun.

It is said that he was further inspired by the saint to lead a religious life and perform puja (a symbolic worship to an idol in the temple) everyday to show his devotion to Lord Mahavir. The King decided to wear the best, the most expensive and new clothes to perform the puja and so he ordered the best of the material to be obtained. His men went and purchased the most costly, fine and soft material from China for their King. At that time the King did not know that the material purchased for him was imported silk, made from killing silkworms, which involved sheer violence. If he knew that he would not have used silk for puja. But since then the tradition continues.

Unfortunately even today people wear silk clothes in religious rituals justifying that King Kumarpal used it.

It is time one wakes up to the fact and knows the true story of silk. Beauty Without Cruelty organization in India has done a great work in this field and brought to light the cruelty involved in making silk.

Soft, smooth and shimmering silk is perhaps the most attractive textile ever created. More than two thousand years ago, this beautiful fabric was imported from China known as "Chinanshuk" in Sanskrit language. The method and source or its production was a very highly guarded secret -may be because it involved the killing of millions of lives.

The filament of silk is what a silkworm spins for its cocoon. The cocoon is constructed as its shell to protect itself during its cycle of growth from caterpillar to chrysalis to moth.

The female moth lays about 400-600 eggs. The eggs hatch in about 10 days and the larvae (1/12 inch in length) emerge. They are fed on mulberry leaves for 20-27 days till they are fully grown (3-3 1/2 inches length).

A fully-grown caterpillar emits a gummy substance from its mouth and wraps itself in layers of this filament to form a cocoon in 2 to 4 days. The caterpillar develops into a moth in about 15 days. To emerge it has to cut through the cocoon - thereby ruining the filament of the cocoon. In order to save the filaments from being broken, the chrysalis are either immersed in boiling water or passed through hot air or exposed to the scorching heat of the sun, thus killing the lives inside. The filaments of the cocoons are then reeled.

To produce 100 grams of pure silk, approximately 1,500 chrysalis have to be killed. Certain chrysalis are chosen and kept aside to allow the moths to emerge and mate. After the female moth lays eggs, she is crushed to check for diseases. If she has any disease, the eggs laid by her are destroyed.

Generation after generation of inbreeding has taken away the moth's capacity to fly. After mating, the male moths are dumped into a basket and thrown out.

India produces four varieties of silks obtained from four types of moths. These are known as Mulberry, Tussar, Eri and Muga. Mulberry is also produced in other silk-producing countries: China, Japan, Russia, Italy, South Korea, etc. but Eri and Muga are produced in India only.

The other materials that look somewhat like silk are from man-made fibers known as artificial silk (art silk). Of these, rayon (viscose) is of vegetable origin; where as nylon and polyester (terrene) are petroleum products. Silk, once woven is known by different names depending on the weave, style, design and place where it is woven. Materials like boski, pure crepe, pure chiffon, pure gaji, pure georgette, khadi silk, matka silk, organza, and pure satin are 100% silk. Saris from Calcutta, Gadhwal, Madurai and Shantiniketan can be in 100% silk or 100% cotton.

Irkal saris from Narayan Peth (Andhra Pradesh) can be of 100% silk or part silk and part cotton yarn.

Venkatgiri saris may be in all cotton or part silk/cotton. Chanderi, Tissue, Poona, Ventakgiri and Maheshwari Saris of Madhya Pradesh have silk yarn in warp and cotton yarn in weft.

Manipuri Kota and Munga Kota have both silk and cotton yarn. Matka silk is also 100% pure silk. In this, the yarn in warp is the usual silk yarn, whereas the yarn in weft is obtained from the cocoons that are cut open by the moth to come out. Later these moths are crushed to death after they lay eggs.

Materials like crepe, chinon, chiffon, gaji, georgette, satin etc. can be made from man-made fiber called artificial silk. Cheaper quality of Tanchhoi can contain silk yarn in warp and artificial yarn in weft.

The Japanese and Indian materials known as "China Silk" (not Chinese Silk) is not pure silk but polyester.

Those who would like to know what yarn is used in particular materials, can test in the following way:

To identify silk, you must burn some yarn (a few from warp as well as weft). Since human hair also burns like silk, it will be easier to learn by burning a strand of hair. Take some fallen hair, hold it with a tweezers and burn it. See how it burns. When it stops burning, a very tiny (pinhead size) ash ball is formed. Take it between your fingers and rub it. Smell the powdered ash. The smell of burnt hair, silk, wool and leather will be the same and the way it will burn (to form an ash ball), will also be the same. If it is cotton or rayon yarn, it will burn in flames and will not form any ash ball nor will it smell like silk. If it is a petroleum product like nylon or polyester, it will burn forming a tiny, hard glass like ball.

100% Silk Materials: Boski, Pure crepe, Pure chiffon, Pure gaji, Pure georgette, Khadi silk, Organza, Pure satin, Raw silk, Matka silk and many more that we may not be aware of."

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