HINDU CUSTOMS AND BELIEFS
- WHAT THEY
DENOTE Page One
Hinduism is as old as the
hills. The word "Hinduism" Is a misnomer. The Hindu Dharma was
known as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal law. This springs from the
ingrained faith of the Hindus that all creation- animate and inanimate-is one
family. The ancient sages and seers repeatedly impressed upon us the truth that
by harming another one is injuring oneself.
As we all know, in
day-to-day life, we receive back what we do to others in the same coin. Hatred
begets hatred, jealousy begets jealousy, and love begets love. It is as simple
as action and reaction. Therefore, if we wish to be loved by others it is
incumbent upon us to send forth thoughts of love to others by whom we wish to be
loved in turn. That is why Jesus Christ said: "Love thy neighbour as
Belonging to a race which
firmly believes that creation is one family. Hindus were basically vegetarian.
However they were not fanatic and in determining what food may be taken, ancient
Hindus took into account various factors concerning the commodity men used for
consumption. First in order are vegetables: then fish, then the other animals.
They prohibited slaughtering of cows for consumption. The reason is not far to
seek. The cows are more useful to us alive than dead. It provides milk for our
babies and grown- ups alike: it ploughs our fields for cultivating our food: its
urine has medicinal properties and the dung is used as manure for our crop as
well as to light village fires. The smoke that emanates from it kills mosquitoes
and other disease-carrying germs. Small wonder then that the cow is worshipped
as the mother by the Hindus.
The Tulasi plant is tended
with love and reverence by the Hindus. The Tulasi leaves have medicinal
properties for destroying malaria germs, stopping vomiting, destroying worms and
are good for Asthma. Many are the unique powers of the Tulasi leaves that I
shall be dealing with it in a separate chapter by itself.
In the morning we Hindu
children were made to place a glass of water, with Tulasi leaves in our prayer
room as prasad (offering to the deity) which we would consume after
finishing our prayers. We were supposed to be fasting until then. Today, the
doctors tell us that it is good to have a glass of water first thing in the
morning. A Tulasi leaf or two added to it, leaves no doubt in my mind that it
would be most beneficial for our health.
The ladies were asked to
go round the Tulasi. As they would do the above exercise they would breathe in
more heavily thereby inhaling the air full of Tulasi fragrance, which, I am
told, would cleanse the lady’s system making it easier for her to conceive a
child. We were made to worship the Tulasi plant as it is delicate and unless it
is tended with care it does not last long. Like the Tulasi, haldi (turmeric)
also has medicinal properties so it is a part of ritual to give a packet of it
as a gift to a daughter when she is blessed with a child.
When a child gets measles,
chicken pox, small pox, Hindus are told not to panic as Durga Mata, (mother of
Creation) has manifested within the patient. We are asked not to give medicines
but to feel positive and pray.
Today we know that measles
is caused by virus. There Is no known medicine to combat it. It takes its own
course. All we should do is to have a prayerful, positive attitude and keep the
patient as comfortable as possible. However, we Hindus are allowed to give
medicines, after the 5th or 7th day when the temperature subsides and that is
when it is necessary to administer cough syrups and other antibiotics to prevent
In the Hindu community a
girl, after she reaches puberty. Is barred from entering the prayer room or
performing any religious prayers during her menstruation. The only reason
mentioned in our scriptures is that she is (ashudha) unclean during that
Let us go back to where
this custom started from. During those days ladies would have their bath either
in the river, pond or near the well. During the time when the girl would be
menstruating, it would be awkward to bathe together with the rest of the ladies
as you would probably 'pollute’ the water.
Since the ladies did not
bathe and there were no bathroom facilities for the rest of the day during the
menstruating period, they would naturally be termed ‘unclean’ during that
time. Hence, their being barred from the clean’ places in the house, namely
the prayer room or the kitchen.
This is, as far as the
physical aspect of being (ashudha) unclean, goes.
However, when the
scriptures spoke of ‘ashudha’ they may have not only meant the physical
aspect but the mental aspect as well.
Science talks of the
menstrual syndrome, i.e., a woman is more irritable during those days because of
a hormonal imbalance. Psychics claim that there is a different aura around a
menstruating woman, maybe again a chemical reaction. Segregating to pray
requires a positive attitude and people tend to respond to the negative
vibrations of a person standing with you; maybe that was the reason why a woman
was barred from public places of prayer during these days.
Whatever the reason, the
ladies who used to work so hard during the month would get a well-earned rest
during that period of time.
Another class of people
that are kept excluded from the rest of the so-called high class Hindu society
are the Sudras or as they are more commonly called the untouchables.
The Vedic interpretation
of caste classification was based on the distribution of social labour and had
nothing to do with the superiority or inferiority of the individual.
Hence a man of
intellectual wisdom was a Brahmin; a man of developed physique a Kshatriya
(Protector), a man engaged in mercantile pursuits a Vaishya and a man who was a
labourer and monetarily backward, a Sudra.
The above classifications
are similar to the ones we could give out today depending upon a person's
profession i.e. a scholar, a soldier, a businessman and a labourer.
Just like today it is in
the man’s hand to choose the profession of his heart’s desire, pursue it and
earn the title, so was it in the Vedic period.
Nowhere in the Vedas is
propagated hatred and untouchablity of the Sudras that plagues our society
today, and true highness was more dependent on the intellectual values and
humane conduct of the individual rather than on the convention which regards
caste of birth as the basic for class determination.
As young Hindus, our
parents and grandparents made us go through the ritual of bathing the idols,
putting a tikka (mark on forehead) and garlanding them. But that was
probably the nursery class to spiritual advancement. It was to instil the habit
of spending a little time in the prayer room, and to keep us occupied while we
chanted our mantra or our personal prayer.
We are normally made to
cover our head during our prayers as a symbolism to denote that we will totally
surrender to the Lord by symbolically covering our seat of knowledge, namely the
We are made to perform
Aarti (a small flame is burnt on a wick, which we rotate round the deity).
The Aarti reminds us of
the greatness of the Lord, because the flame that rotates it is symbolic of the
cosmos (sun, moon, stars) revolving round Him, thereby making obeisance to Him.
The Aarti is performed
during the morning and the evening; and that makes our prayers a must, besides
the flame being conducive to the elimination of mosquitoes and Hindu philosophy
teaches us that we ought to burn our desires, because they are the root cause of
all our problems.
By burning the flame at
night we are reminded of the above philosophy and we hope that our desires are
burnt away along with the flame as we go through the rhythmic movement of the
We associate the fragrance
of the Incense stick with prayer, so when we light it, It becomes easier for us
to become attuned to our communication with the Lord. The habit of taking a lit
incense stick round the deity and to different religious pictures round the home
helps in bringing the fragrance all through the house.
N. G. Bhave believes that
all that exists is just different levels of energy. He states that "the
ancients found such large and strong accumulation of life energy in vagabonds of
space that they raised them to the level of minor deities which could influence
life according to certain laws". He refutes the belief that Idol’ worship
is just a stupid waste of time as some of these idols are actually invested with
such high energy level that even persons who have attained a very high degree of
spiritual evolution become ecstatic in their presence, and the Indian version of
idolating is good enough for all but the most evolved.
Even blind mental
attachment to some existence at a higher level makes the mind move automatically
towards such existence whenever doubt or peril is felt. This is actually a
method prescribed by most religions for spiritual evolution of their followers.
When we become initiated
by a Guru (Teacher), we are given a mantra (a certain word or sentence connected
with Divinity) by him which we are made to repeat continuously. This makes the
subconscious aware of the power of the object of devotion and so it starts to
slowly move towards it.
The enlightened Hindus
tell us that to achieve ultimate salvation we have to go beyond the mind, i.e.,
the mind has to be stilled from the five senses of sight, smell, sound, taste
and touch that keep the mind in constant turmoil.
The devotional songs that
we sing, the continuous repetition of a mantra and the swaying movement of Hindu
prayer have rhythmic techniques and these tend to make the mind cling to the
mantra thereby making the mind still.
According to the Katha
Upanishad, "When the five senses and the mind are still, and reason itself
rests in silence, then begins the path supreme."
The most powerful mantra
amongst us Hindus is the "OM".
According to Hindu
philosophy the vibrating sound of the OM encompasses the universe and we Hindus
believe that by chanting it continuously with a certain technique we can be put
in tune with the Cosmos.
According to the mystics,
there is a difference between meditation and contemplation.
Meditation is the means or
the path to reach the end. During meditation we still strive to feel the Truth,
that is Universal Love.
During contemplation the
soul has already achieved this end, being made one with the Truth and Love and
is content to be in that state without any need for further striving.