Friday, December 28, 2007

Customs, Traditions, Greetings and Stories

By Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara

Its fascinating how we all dutifully follow customs that we are not even aware exist. There are things we do by habit, and over time most of us have grown so immune to them that we never stop to ask why we are doing them.

Our heads automatically bow when we greet someone, especially someone elder to us. Not to the extent of a Japanese greeting but there is always that subtle hint of servility. Have you ever asked yourself why?

The reasons lie deep in our ancient scriptures, which detail five different ways of greeting a person, the simple Namaste being one of them. The others include rising to welcome a person, touching someone’s feet, and even prostrating fully on the ground. Namaste in Sanskrit literally means I bow to you’. And hence the symbolic bowing that accompanies the gesture. Most of us might not be aware of this literal translation, but we still bow our heads slightly anyway, even when we are saying hello.

There are innumerable such examples where our subconscious minds follow a custom without our being aware of it. I asked my mother why she wears a bindi. She gave me an explanation which seemed to make sense but was very different from the one my grandmother gave, which also made sense. I collected a few more explanations from others and realized there are at least three plausible reasons that seemed most accepted.

One explanation is that it started as a caste mark, with different castes wearing different colours. Even today we see the Iyers and Iyengars sporting two very different marks on their forehead.

Another explanation is based on yogic philosophy. The area between the eyebrows (where the bindi is placed) is believed to be the seat of wisdom. It is believed that during meditation, latent energy from the body rises to the fore-head, with the central point, the bindu, therefore becoming a possible outlet for this energy. The bindi lies between the eyebrows to cool the forehead and retain this potent energy within the human body.

That a bindi symbolizes the mystic third eye and is said to protect you against demons or bad luck, is another explanation.

To my mind, it really doesn’t matter which is the right explanation. There is usually more than one fascinating story behind each custom we follow. We are a country of believers. We believe first, and then find a way to justify the belief. Our vast bed of mythology gives us enough opportunities to come up with creative explanations for any of our idiosyncrasies. So what starts with a very practical objective, might soon attain a mythical and then religious dimensions, as more and more people start practicing it.

All leading to an assortment of customs, mores, festivals, beliefs, and practices, that makes India so culturally rich and colourful. And what fascinates me the most about all this, is the fact that we are all so comfortable following the same customs, often for very different reasons.

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