Incredible India – The Brighter Side
A slightly longer article than usual, but hope its useful and informative!
The Indian culture is known to be one of the world’s oldest civilizations. In the past western cultures mocked some of these customs and failed to appreciate the pleasant or favourable aspects of them. When the British took hold of India they tried to change many of India’s customs and systems. Today, we see how extremely beneficial some of these customs can be to our well-being and survival, they are not simply traditions to be followed blindly. In our current times India may offer some useful practices and lifestyle choices.
Namaste – the Greeting
The greeting of Namaste is just perfect in our times of ‘social distancing’ and presidents and royalty have got the hang. If we say Namaste with the consciousness of a soul to soul meeting, understanding that this greeting is about respect and honouring each being, then social distancing is no problem at all.
Namaste, is a Sanskrit word which is made up of two words namely ‘Namas’ and ‘Te’. Namas means ‘to bow’, and Te means ‘to you’. Therefore, Namaste means: “I bow to you.” “I bow to the greatness in you.” Or, “I bow to you with respect.”
Both hands come together in front of the heart in a prayer position to greet and welcome friends, relatives and strangers alike. The gesture can also express politeness, hospitality, gratitude and courtesy. As both hands come together the fingers and thumb press against each other, further providing that extra bit of acupressure and keeping the energy of the body flowing well. The word ‘Namaha’ can also be translated as ‘na ma’, meaning ‘not me’ or it’s ‘not about me’, in other words I am not in charge and I surrender to the Higher Power.
I grew up in a vegetarian household and have been a vegetarian since birth. For many who may have come from a Hindu background, this was very normal. Vegetarianism means total abstinence from any kind of meat.
It is only of late that people from India find it, I would say, ‘fashionable’ to eat meat. As the Moghuls and British invaded India, their influence became prominent in many areas all over India. The cuisine changed in many ways as more animal dishes were introduced. Otherwise if you go back to the sacred stories in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the people only ate vegetarian foods.
There were two reasons that the food was vegetarian.
1) Animals were revered and worshipped and considered a sacred part of the world and humankind.
2) For health and well-being – as the ‘meat’ from the dead animal only rotted causing sickness and ill health.
The idea of fasting is prominent in many faiths and in India it holds a very high place in the list of sacrifices and rituals to follow to appease God. There are many reasons for fasting: people fast on religious festivals as a way of gratitude; to find a good husband; to please the gods so that the god’s may fulfil personal wishes in return. But more importantly fasting is a means to return the body to good health and equilibrium and many scientists have proven this.
In fact, every day of the week is deemed special and can be a day of fasting if one so chooses. As one fasts mostly from sunrise to sunset, the deity of the day is remembered and worshipped. To please those deities certain colours would be worn, or the deities would be presented with those colours in the form of flowers, food and clothing as an offering to those gods.
Eating with Hands
Many westerners have a bit of a culture shock when they see Indians eating with their hands and not the expensive shiny cutlery on offer! Well, believe it or not, the flora on your fingers and the nerve endings on your fingertips aids digestion and blood flow, and is actually better for you overall than all the fancy cutlery. As per the Vedas, the religious texts, your hands are the organs that come most frequently into action. It is believed that every finger is an extension of the five elements – the thumb represents space, the forefinger the air, the middle finger the fire, the ring finger the water, and the little finger the Earth. In fact, as we eat with our hands we can monitor the heat of the food and not burn our mouths. Plus we savour the food, it tastes better and there is greater appreciation for it.
Also, whilst we eat the food with the right hand, there is a custom to keep the left hand clean, if one wants to take seconds later or serve others. Not many know about this, so if you are eating with the Indians, take note!
Sitting on the Floor to Eat
Another thing that irritated the British when they took over India was this age old tradition of eating on the floor. When one sits on the floor and eats, one is sitting in sukhasana, or the cross-legged position. So, it is like sitting, eating and doing yoga asana at the same time. This posture signals the brain to begin creating the digestive juices because the food is on its way. As one bends to eat and goes back to chew, this yogic position is known to induce better digestion as this presses on the abdominal muscles further aiding digestion. One’s posture becomes improved also.
Each day of the Week is Special
Each day of the week has its special attributes so in many ways every day in India is a festival!
Sunday is the day of Lord Surya, or Deity Surya Narayan, the Sun god.
Monday is the day of Lord Shiva. It is the called Somvar which takes its name from Soma or Chandra meaning the moon, hence day of the Hindu moon god. Somnath is also another name for Shiva.
Tuesday is the day of Lord Ganesh, Hanuman, Durga and Kali. It is called Mangalvar and dedicated to the planet Mangal or Mars.
Wednesday, called Budhvar in Hindi, this day is dedicated to Lord Krishna and the planet Budh or Mercury. Buddhi means intellect, hence it is the day for becoming wise and astute in business or education… if one fasts!
Thursday is called Guruvar or Brahspativar, the Guru of Devas (Deities). Vishnu (the four armed god) is worshipped on this day. It is considered a sacred day and worship is done with milk and ghee and fasts are also broken with the same rich foods.
Friday is Shukravar or the day of thanks. The day is dedicated to the Goddess of Contentment – Santoshi Ma, and she is worshipped on this day. The day falls under the omens of Lord Shukra or Venus.
Shanivar is Saturday – the day of Shani. Shani is a negative omen and people fast on this day primarily to remove the bad effects and wrath of shani. Shani is so dreaded by many Hindus that they even avoid travelling on Saturdays.
Festivals – Always Happy Times
With the large number of festivals due to the variety of cultures within India, there is a festival almost every other day. And festivals bring people together, for bonding, eating, meeting, dancing, rejoicing, satsang – divine discussions, and much more. As people dress up for these festivals, it uplifts their spirits. The bright colours also uplift the moods of those not deliberately celebrating too, and there is just an injection of happiness with every date of the festivals.
The biggest celebration in India is Diwali – followed by the New Year. There is also Christmas and Eid, together with Makar Shankranti, Holi, Dashera, Navratri, Budha Poornima (from the Buddhist Religion), Mahavir Jayanti (Jain Religion) and the list is endless. Each festival has been astrologically aligned in the calendar to help and assist us through that period of the year.
The Kumbh Mela, (a mega gathering), this is the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims and it is even noticed from outer space! For many of the Hindu faith this is a time to go to the Ganges, to cleanse their sins by bathing in the sacred waters. The main devotees are the Naga Sadhus, the naked saints. The Kumbha Mela rotates between four pilgrimage places: Haridwar, Allahbad, Nashik and Ujjain. An estimated 30 million attended the Prayag Kumbh Mela on 10 February 2013.
The Celibate Saints of India
It is said that if the celibate saints of India were not there, then India would have degraded more rapidly. It is because of the practice of living a chaste life, that the sanyasis and sadhus of India command a certain respect. Some of the sages and monks renounce everything in order to attain spiritual heights. In every town and almost every corner, while they sit and ‘do nothing’, they remind us of how impermanent life is. In fact, the ash on their bodies is a reminder that the body will turn to ashes.
Respect for and the Worship of Cows
Cows are worshipped because they sustain us in many different ways, they are seen as maternal. Lord Krishna has been shown herding the cows and playing a flute for the gopis, (the milkmaids). One of Krishna’s many names is ‘Gopala’, which means the protector of cows. Cows give us milk and that is a bounty in itself because from milk comes yoghurt and ghee etc. Cow dung is used as fuel and for making food, hence the cows are a very significant part of Indian culture.
Temples and Holy Places
Most temples, churches and holy places are located along magnetic energy lines, or ley lines, which help to galvanise the positive energy from all around these places. Hence going to the temple helps create a positive mind and reduces the physical influences. Very often a copper plate is placed under the deity idol. This copper absorbs energy and then resonates this energy all around.
Arti – Burning of Kapoor
Arti is a plate with burning cotton wicks together with some camphor and red kankoo powder. Camphor has been used in Hindu worship for centuries. The arti is then rotated clockwise in front of the idols against the backdrop of the arti song. After the song is over, then the arti is taken around the house and it is believed that the burning camphor destroys all kinds of evil energies, this makes everything fragrant, and the smell of camphor makes the gods and goddesses happy too.
When a Hindu dies they will choose cremation, they will not bury the body. It’s not just because of the cost, because sometimes the wood for burning the dead body can work out to be expensive. Cremation can be considered going green (excuse the pun!), and eco-friendly, but also saves the Earth from all the chemicals used in embalming the body. With no graves to visit, all loved ones can visit you in thought anytime, anywhere!
Hygiene Practices After the Funeral
Also, when someone has been close to the body as part of the funeral, it is advised to come home and have a full shower and put the funeral clothes straight in the washing machine or in a bucket of water and wear clean clothes. This helps to get rid of any negative energies, physical or subtle, that may have been picked up at the funeral.
All the close relatives of the deceased must stay indoors for at least 13 days. This is not simply due to religious reasons, but as we have learnt, they are being quarantined in case the deceased had anything contagious.
Thereafter the ashes are immersed in a river of choice, generally the Ganges in India. This whole idea is about flowing with and returning to God. It is like the soul – as a river merges back with the Ocean – the Supreme Soul.
There is a famous morning ritual in which part of the worship involves filling a small urn with water and pouring that water to the sun. But as one does this, one looks at the sun and praises the sun through hymns. In this manner one looks at the sun, and the morning sun is very beneficial for the eyes; it provides vitamin D, better sleep, boosts the immunity and creates stronger bones and prevents cancer. In this way the day is started in a state of appreciation.
There are so many benefits to chanting ‘Om’. Even the west has taken up this practice with full faith. Om chanting has a great effect on health, lowering blood pressure, clearing sinuses and creating a good heart beat. Om chanting purifies the atmosphere around us. It helps us to improve our concentration and focus, and it also relaxes the mind and heart. There are just so many reasons to chant Om!
Removing footwear before entering the home and holy places is a common practice in India. Not only do shoes bring in the dirt, but also bad energies.
The leather in the footwear is also symbolic of the leather of the body, and the ego consciousness that we need to remove before entering the home and places of worship. There is no place for ego before God and before our loved ones. We must enter with the cloak of humility.
Silver Toe Rings
Did you know that wearing a silver toe ring can keep you cool and calm at all times? It is said that silver rings, (and not gold or copper), conduct the Earth’s energy and takes it up through the body hence energizing the body. Of course for this you would need to walk bare feet for some time.
Joint families can be a blessing or a curse… it is true. But the intention of having joint families was to not only ‘keep the wealth in the family’, but more importantly to provide love and support to each other, which helps in handling pressure of all sorts. In the name of independence many problems are created, children may leave home without properly developing the skills of co-operation along with self-reliance.
There are always pluses and minuses for arranged marriages. But let us say that the intention of arranged marriages was to find the best match for the bride and groom. Their horoscopes were matched, as was their astrology, religion, caste etc., the parents tried to tick as many boxes as possible to get a compatible match for their children.
Women have always dressed modestly until recent times. Perhaps, with the advent of Hollywood, Bollywood and the TV serials etc., now these show such revealing clothing that it seems to give a sort of permission to everyone to dress the same. So, whether it’s the elegant sari or the salwar kamiz, these clothes were designed to simply respect the body, and what was worn was with a sense of decorum.
Hygiene and Cleanliness
It is a custom in India to not enter the kitchen until one has showered, and in some cases not until the morning prayers have been done. It is said that all karmas will not be successful if the early morning bathing and cleanliness is not observed. Also, it is advised to shower after having a haircut.
Making a Plait
In India we very often see women and men alike wearing their hair in a plait. It does not always look fashionable, but perhaps they know a thing or two which we don’t! Did you know that making a plait creates pressure on a few nerves in the brain? These in turn makes the brain stable and powerful.
Signs and Symbols — on houses and in cars
In the Indian tradition many symbols are placed on the doors and at entrances, these various signs and symbols have a myriad of positive meanings. For example, the Om symbol that brings good luck. The lemons and chillies placed on doorways are believed to ward off the evil eye. The Swastika brings good omens. A statue of Lord Ganesh is supposed to remove all obstacles. Vastu Shastra, which is the science of architecture, also helps to keep things in the right place as to bring forth good energy. A bit like Feng Shui, but Indian style.
‘Atithi Devo Bhavah’ – A Guest is of Supreme Importance
The guests have a special place in everyone’s home. There are many stories where families have gone hungry just to feed the guests. Kingdoms have risen and fallen due to this Atithi Devo Bha, depending on how one treats their guests. It is a very respectful practice to treat one’s guest as God… for who knows when God may come knocking at your door!
I truly believe that Indian food is the best! Well, that is just as well given that I have to live in this Indian body! Being a vegan and a vegetarian I have so many choices and I am ever so grateful for. I am in awe of the variety. Apart from the taste, it has proven to be a really healthy diet incorporating turmeric, ginger and many other spices that aid digestion and help with healing. Ofcourse Indian cooking also has a lot of sugary and fried foods and so one needs to eat with caution. But generally speaking, it’s fab and you should definitely try it! There are a variety of foods such as rotis, theplas, and pancakes of different ingredients, steamed items such as idli and dokhla, veggies and stir fries called sabjiz blended with tomatoe, tamarind, cashew or other sauces. Rice comes in a variety of forms, and dishes vary from region to region.
The two greatest epics of all time, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana were written in India. If you want to see the TV serials there are around 300 plus episodes of around 20-25 minutes each. That’s a very long time! These epics remind us of the virtue and value of sacrifice, loyalty, devotion and truth. And both stories remind us that good is always victorious over evil.
There are other books also known as Vedas. Vedas means knowledge. There are four Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about their mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, and diseases.
Some of the ancient Hindu dharma states that the best sleeping position is East to West. Where the head is to the East and the feet to the West. Sleeping with head towards the East increases memory power, concentration and also good health.
Today, anyone can get into yoga! 2014 saw the launch of The International Day of Yoga at the United Nations General Assembly, and this event is now celebrated annually on 21 June. Through yoga people have had the opportunity to come back to some really simple and healthy daily practices. And now the world is looking towards India not only for the best yoga, but for many ancient health practices like Ayurveda to improve their sense of well-being.
There are many different types of meditation practices and the aim, to a greater or lesser degree, is to basically bring the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of life back into balance. Meditation can bring peace to the mind and the soul, therefore the practice of meditation and mindfulness is all about alignment. Now, every one of us can benefit from this practice.
It’s Time… to value some traditional practices and appreciate their importance in our modern world and modern life.
© ‘It’s Time…’ by Aruna Ladva, BK Publications London, UK