OPINION

The Roots of Religion: Why My Bindi Is Different?

June 03, 2006
Sheetal Makhan

A recent chat with my 15 year old cousin inspired me to write this column. He asked me a question which I had never gave much thought to. He asked: "Do you know why certain rituals and fasts are performed in our religion?" I am sure that I speak on behalf of many people when I say that most of what we do has become routine and close to meaningless.

Things like lighting a lamp becomes part of ones daily chores while going to the temple for a special festival is significant only because you were sent a pamphlet in the mail by your Hindu society. Maybe it's an opportunity to wear a recently purchased outfit? Perhaps it's even to meet up with people from the community and catch up on the latest news. What I have noticed is that most traditions are being upheld for the mere fact of there being a senior family member in the household.

Why does a Hindu wedding procession take over a week to complete? Why is it such a big deal to do a prayer for a birth or a death? Why is it important to bless any property before moving into it or when we buy a new car? What about basic questions like why we light a lamp and use incense sticks, or why we offer sweetmeats and milk to deities.

The question I am mostly asked by Westerner's is "Why do you wear that dot on your forehead?" I then go on to explain the significance of it warding off evil and it being the third eye. Then I am asked "But why does your mother wear a red one all the time" which brings on the explanation of women wearing a red bind signifying their marital status. It is usually when we are faced with questions like these do we realize that we, ourselves do not know the significance of certain rituals. For some, they seem silly and pointless, that is until you get to know the significance and meaning behind it all.

Most of my friends can't believe that Hindu engagements are so lavish and that it can carry the expense of a small-scale wedding. They then tell me that in their respective cultures, they become engaged by merely having a ring placed on their finger.

Hinduism is a religion steeped in tradition, richness and value. I probably speak on behalf of most people when I say that most of us don't know why we do certain things. We go to temple on special occasions and fast for certain periods of time. Yet, we never bother to ask why we do so or the reason behind it.

While a portion of our culture may be maintained, I fear that the lack of knowledge on religion itself will be lost. There is only so much we can learn from books, and more recently the internet. In my opinion, the best way to learn is by asking questions - asking your parents, grandparents or members of the community about age old customs and practices.

Because what then is the purpose of fasting and going to temple if you don't know why you're doing it. In years to come, it's no use saying something like "My parents made me go".

I believe parents and any other influence can play a limited role in someone's life when it comes to instilling religion, culture and heritage in someone. It is pointless teaching someone who is not willing to learn. If anything, it is for this very reason that I wish my grandmother were still alive. I can just imagine what a wealth of information she would have been in my life. But, as oral tradition has proved to be the most effective way of passing down historical information, she has instilled most of the knowledge to my mother. As a result, I have picked up some tidbits on why we do certain things and we certain gods are acknowledged on specific days.

I have said this many times and I will say it yet again - it can prove to be a great challenge for Indian families to uphold traditions in the home. Our lifestyles just don't seem to cater for it. We are either too busy or we have just become too westernized.

When I am asked questions by people, they expect me to know the myths and traditions that surround my faith. Let's face it, no one enjoys looking ignorant. I certainly don't. But it is not for this reason that I have decided to go on this spiritual journey that I seem to have undertaken. It's because I want to. Why? Because it think it's important to not only know where we come from, but to know the meaning of our existence.


Sheetal is a final year Journalism & Media Studies student from South Africa. Even though she is specializing in Television, she has not abandoned her passion which is writing. She runs a monthly column called "Chatterbox with Sheetal Makhan" in SA INDIA. Be sure to visit her blog and comment on the various posts - http://sheetalmakhan.blogspot.com
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The Roots of Religion: Why My Bindi Is Different?

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Author: Sheetal Makhan

 

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#1
Shantanu Dutta
June 3, 2006
02:08 PM

Good point. In the Christian faith we say that God has no grand children , only children- meaning there by that each succcedding generation has to make that indicvidual connection with God and all that goes it with it - customs, rituals , traditions and what have you. Without that connection being made , practices passed on to the next generation will rapidly become shallow and eventually be abandoned. A parent's duty therefore becomes to help the next generation make that inner pilgrimage even as external dos and donts are being taught by family elders or others.

#2
temporal
URL
June 3, 2006
02:20 PM

Sheetal

and now that you have embarked on this journey am sure you will share the findings?

when you do...please explain why:

1: i cannot wear a mang'l sut'r? (only M can?)

2: why should men fast on karva chauth (for the same reason women do)

and on another note:

don't want to sound jaded....but at some point you will learn that too much religion is not too conducive to peace of mind - your own as well as those of your neighbours

;)

#3
balaji
June 4, 2006
03:00 AM

Well an interesting debate I guess.

Recently, I learnt, that in patriarchical societies, women moved from their family of orientation to the family of procreation. Simply meant, from mom's pad to the husband's side pad.

Often, girls from the same village were not married to boys from the same village.

And each village/tribe/clan/denomination had a symbol.

The mangalsutra is supposed to have both the symbols to tell the relationship. Don't ask me why. As time went by, these symbols have been 'generalized' into similar looking pieces, and ornamentalized (if there is a word like that) in gold (for those who cd afford).

Hence men do not wear a mangal sutra.

Fasting, according to naturopathists is good. at least once in a week - at least half day.

Fasts are an antidote to feasts. Fast on Saturday and hog on Sunday! compensatory and a balanced life-style!

On a serious note, denying oneself, is symbolic of renouncing, or respecting or holding back the 'desires of the body', hence the belief that fasts cleanse the system (both physical and spiritual).

In the Muslim culture, it is believed that God wanted people to fast, especially the fat and rich ones, so that they know what hunger means. So that they can be more humane in their engagement with others. especially others who are not like them.

I can believe, this tradition, over a period of time could have been adopted by every one. As the poor imitate the rich. the MN Srinivas would like us to believe - a process of sanskritization/brahminization, happens with the lower castes/classes once they become richer or more prosperous. A sociological phemenon.

Temples, I am told in the older days were repositories of knowledge, culture, dance, courtesans, medicine, shelters for those dispossessed, counseling centers, source of calendar (the most important thing in a farmer's life, that's how the Panchangam or almanac reading for the year is such an important thing at the beginning of a new year).

As other specialized institutions, structures started emerging and which gradually eroded the influence of the temples, they lost all except the deity and what it represented.

My suspicion about the weekly engagement with the temple probably an influence from Islam and Christian cultures co-existing. The idea of a Sabbath day or a Sunday is from Judaic, Christianic concepts.

The only time you visited the temple was to ward off evil, or special occasions. Apart from the afore-mentioned functions which are defunct now.

I am afraid we will not be able to hold all of our traditions with us, as we have to make way for the new ones which should be called 'KalaDharma', time-relevant practices. Inspite of this some will survive like the pinna of the ear (at least it helps hold reading glasses!.

Symbols have a meaning for us in our life. Since we still hold and probably forever hold some 'tribalism' with ourselves. Symbols are powerful, they shape a generation, influence our thinking, help us understand some phenomena, and offer the primordial soup that we need to make our own personalities.

Often, the ritual loses its meaning over a period of time when we stop understanding the meaning of them in the first place. The ritual loses its power when it becomes just a ritual.

Probably, we need to invent, like spring cleaning, a periodic process for re-inventing, rationalizing, adapting, redefining our rituals and symbolisms from time to time, so that we do not get caught in superstitious stubbornness.



#4
Desigirl
URL
June 4, 2006
03:51 AM

Hi Sheetal,

Good post. Time and time again, I think along similar lines, especially when I wonder what culture know-how I am passing on to my little boy.

One of my great-aunts is a fount of info when it comes to the do's and don't's of tam-bram culture and I used to question her mercilessly regarding the way we do things. What I have found after such interrogation sessions is that most times, there was a reason behind our forefathers ordained something to be done so.

For example, a new mum is not to go out of the house till her baby is atleast 21 days old - this is so that she has enough time to recouperate and the baby's not subjected to pollutants and other bad things before his/her little system has a chance to get used to things.

It is when we do things blindly, without knowing the reasoning behind it, that the whole meaning of an act gets lost. If we probe and figure out the whys and wherefores of our religion and its practices, I am sure it will be a rewarding and enriching experience.

#5
Sheetal
URL
June 4, 2006
04:00 AM

Hi everyone,

Thanks very much for all your comments.

Balaji - thank you for all that information :)

#6
Sumanth
URL
June 4, 2006
09:44 AM

Good post on traditions, rituals and their evolution.

-----------
Temporal,

Why do you have to look at things always from a Men vs Women and Patriarchal prism?

If you can look at the world from a single prism (oppression by religion/culture), then why do not you tolerate others who do the same?

Its not religion/spirituality, but too much of logic and blind intellect can drive people to madness.

#7
Sumanth
URL
June 4, 2006
09:44 AM

Good post on traditions, rituals and their evolution.

-----------
Temporal,

Why do you have to look at things always from a Men vs Women and Patriarchal prism?

If you can look at the world from a single prism (oppression by religion/culture), then why do not you tolerate others who do the same?

Its not religion/spirituality, but too much of logic and blind intellect can drive people to madness.

#8
balaji
June 4, 2006
12:02 PM

I guess Sumanth, while your questions are valid, it is important to see where each one of us comes from what is the context in which we live.

Our typical preoccupations come from where we come from.

If I were a Dalit, I would constantly be aware of discrimination, if I were a woman from a patriarchal society, and I am not caught in the 'traditional stuff of womanhood', and believe am as equal as any male, my concern would be that. and so on.

I am afraid, that there is nothing like no prism.

We are condemned to see from the prism that our conditions condition us to.

It is a fact that there are tendencies, especially growing ones, which use religion to oppress in new ways and hideous ways than the old ones. And tolerance seems to get a beating in this new world. And unfortunately, very few religions tolerate 'deviance' today. Gone are the days where you could bemoan a god, complain, critize your God for letting you down and so on. There would be millions of ignorant, manipulatable beings baying for your blood.

While religion has a role to play in all human societies, it is critical to see that it does not become our opium/heroin/cocaine as the case may be :-).

cheers.

#9
sumanth
URL
June 4, 2006
02:54 PM

All structures are oppressive in some way or other.

#10
temporal
URL
June 4, 2006
03:11 PM

sumanth

why?

first, prisms (or pov) are unavoidable when discussing (thanks balaji for catching the point)

second this post was from one vantage point

i offered another one

but you also did not answer my query re karvachauth and mang'l sut'r...why cannot men wear them...display their gratitude/affection/respect/committment etc?

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