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  ‼  Aum, Asato maa sadgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya  ‼  
     

 

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 thyself."

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 complications.

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 period.

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 brain.

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 Aarti.

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.

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