I have often participated in discussions about ceremonial rituals and habits of yesteryear in mixed crowds of different age groups. There seems to be an obvious divide between generations where the older group always seem to worry about cultural dilution and loosening of moral values. The younger group passing it off as blind beliefs and unnecessary.
Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga states the importance of Yama-Niyama or the Dos and Don’ts of living life, along with meditation and yoga postures as part of the process of self-realization (samadhi). To feel a whole person following the appropriate Yama and Niyama is very necessary. Just asanas (yoga postures), breathing exercises (pranayama-pratyahara), meditation (dhyana-dharana) are not enough.
Yama tells us what to avoid doing thus to avoid harm to the individual and that of society. The observance of yama disciplines the five organs of action which are the arms, the legs, mouth, the organs of regeneration, and the organs of excretion. If the mind wishes to bring harm to something but the organ of action refuse, then no harm will be done . Niyama is religious observance. Niyama controls the organs of perception, which are the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the skin (sensory system).
Dont’s: Violence,killing and torture (practice ahimsa) ~ Lying or untruthfulness (practice satya). ~ Stealing & misappropriation (practice asteya) ~ Lust (practice Continence & celibacy-brahmacharya)~ Greed & selfishness (practice aparigraha)
Do’s: Purity in thought, deeds, & body (Shaucha), ~ Contentment with self (Santosha),~ Spiritual discipline (Tapas), ~ Spiritual learning (Svadhyaya),~ Surrender to God (Atamanivedana).
While the details of cultural rituals and ceremonies appear to be added on by people to suit their conveniences of ego, the underlying reason for the habitual activities may be actually related to the do’s and don’t principles.
Vegetarianism: Ahimsa– while food chain is very important for survival, ahimsa is more appropriate where torture and cruelty observed. Using meat to keep the body healthy and alive is not the same as indiscriminate killing for entertainment.
Vegetarianism: Svadhyaya– Meat protein is very difficult to digest and needs rigorous exercise to digest it. For those who were primarily involved in learning vedas, they did not indulge in rigorous activity and thus eating meat was not conducive to their life style.
Not wearing shoes inside the house or temple: Shaucha of the environment. The home that you live in is a temple in and of itself. Cleanliness of the environment helps preserving the external sanctity. Purity of thought preserves integrity and sanctity of internal environment. Both are equally important. Shoes bring dirt inside the house from outdoors.
Temples always have a water source outside the entrance for devotees to clean their feet prior to entering the sacred place. Your house and temple are both symbols of sanctity and integrity.
Drinking, smoking, and lust are taboos: Saucha-Indulgence and abuse of money, sex, and substance corrupts the mind, body, and spirit within your internal and external dwelling. The sanctity and integrity of external and internal dwelling is greatly compromised through corrupt thoughts and eventually corrupt actions.
Daily prayers: Svadhyaya and Atmanivedana
Caste system: May have been a way of categorization of peoples mental abilities and learning styles to follow the yama-niyamas in the most efficient way
- Shudras- multimodal learners. They require auditory, visual, and kinesthetic inputs to acquire new concepts-with time they were identified as the menial worker
- Vaishyas- visual learners- with time this type of learning style suited the merchant or business class
- Kshatriyas- kinesthetic learners- with time they were best suited to be warrior
- Brahmins- auditory learners-with time they were the teachers of vedas because for the longest time the texts were passed down by listening and memorizing the information and meaning.
Four stages or ashramas of life in Hinduism
- The First Ashrama – “Brahmacharya” or the Student Stage- Brahmacharya
- The Second Ashrama – “Grihastha” or the Householder Stage- Santosha through satya, asteya, aparigraha, and shaucha
- The Third Ashrama – “Vanaprastha” or the Hermit Stage Santosha from downsizing
- The Fourth Ashrama – “Sannyasa” or the Wandering Ascetic Stage Santosha and eventually Samadhi from svadhyaya and atmanivedana
“Mangala sutra” is derived from the two words, “mangala” meaning holy or auspicious and “sutra” meaning thread. It is a sacred necklace that the groom ties around the bride’s neck on the day of a Hindu wedding in a ceremony called Mangalya Dharanam (which means “wearing the auspicious”): Auspiciousness signifies a promise by the groom to follow all the yama-niyamas of life to uphold the sanctity of marriage during the Grihastha Ashrama. The bride accepts the promise by wearing the auspicious.
Sapta Padi– seven steps- During this marriage ritual, the groom walks with the bride to the right side of the sacred fire. He holds the right toe of his wife with his right hand and helps her take seven steps around the fire. At the beginning of each step, he recites a Veda mantra to invoke the blessings of Maha Vishnu to bless her with food, strength, piety, progeny, wealth, comfort and health. At the conclusion of the seven steps, he addresses his wife with a moving statement from the vedas summarized below: Dear Wife! By taking these seven steps, you have become my dearest friend. I pledge my unfailing loyalty to you. Let us stay together for the rest of our lives. Let us not separate from each other ever. Let us be of one mind in carrying out our responsibilities as householders (grihasthas). Let us love and cherish each other and enjoy nourishing food and good health. Let us discharge our prescribed Vedic duties to our elders, ancestors, rishis, creatures, and gods. Let our aspirations be united.
The entire ritual of Sapta Padi is based on the yama-niyamas of life although the details of the ceremony have been altered from culture to culture and state to state.
Dowry system may have been a way of providing a security blanket for the bride who would normally move far away to the husband’s house. Familiar things provided to her from her own environment would help foster an initial sense of santosha by eliminating home sickness. However since humans are bottomless pits the grooms family developed greed leading to stealing and torture, disregarding the yamas of life unfortunately..
Calling older friends and relatives using titles of respect (akka or didi for older sister, anna or bhai for older brother, other older friends or relatives by aunty or uncle terminologies, etc) is one way of fostering Saucha- purity of mind, thoughts, and body along with the other don’ts of yoga. It was meant to create boundaries in human relationships, to avoid the temptation of egoistic mind and taking advantage of the other person. With cultivation of respect in some form and structure, it was expected to preserve human values beyond material and body WANTS.
Namaste, bowing and touching feet, seeking blessings from older friends and relatives fosters humility through atmanivedana (surrender to God). Every form on earth is bound by divinity of the cosmic intelligence. Bowing to another human and taking blessings by touching their feet fosters humility by complete surrender to the same divinity within, qsymbolically speaking.
Body and face tattoo: Saucha– At one time the women’s face in the tribal areas were tainted with tattoos at a very young age. Even the prettiest women looked despicable. This preserved the sanctity of the women’s body from predators who took advantage of the women and indulged in rape and other atrocities.
Sati: Saucha– As cruel as bride burning is, the women did not have much success in living a healthy life after becoming a widow. The ahimsa of burning in a pyre of fire may have been far more acceptable than the ahimsa of mental and physical torture for a women as a widow. Self-preservation has always been a compelling idea in all the rituals that have developed in society. Until reform was made to respect women as a human and not a property Sati or bride burning may have been the best option. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a great reformer to help foster women’s respect and integrity.
All rituals, blind beliefs, ceremonies that seem obsolete in this day and age, when analyzed from a yama-niyama perspective seem to have a subtle moral value. So before throwing the baby with the bath water, let us save the baby first. The values have been muddied with egoistic thoughts of humans that we are not able to discern the ego from the basic moral fiber which is the foundation of every society.
Older generation should help discern the underlying values and younger generation should preserve culture and society by understanding the values. The details are just means to an end which may or may not be appropriate for the current life styles.