As Indians, we have a wide range of customs and traditions handed over the generations. These vary not just across religions and castes but also regions and states. There are very contradictory attitudes towards these customs/traditions, especially among the younger lot and also the urbanized elites/literates. On the one hand, we observe people criticizing these customs openly and also blatantly ridiculing them. But, the same lot, at least a major proportion, would go ahead and practice the rituals when it relates to them personally. This hypocrisy is very prevalent even among the educated and working class. It makes one wonder about the progress that is expected to come with literacy and universal education as emphasized by our policymakers.
It is usual practice at the office to have lunch with a group of 4-5 colleagues. We normally share our lunch; exchange recipes, discuss the rising price of vegetables/rice/dal etc. Recently, one of my colleague was not passing her box around. When asked, she informed us that since her relative her passed away and they were in the period of mourning, she was not supposed to share food cooked in her house. She told me that others would not like to partake food cooked at her place as she was in mourning.
This was very surprising as the persons who were behaving this way were also the ones who keep ridiculing the old-fashioned customs and traditions followed. On further debate on the issue, two sets of reactions were observed. One set was all for following the traditions and customs, especially since this particular instance pertained to death and mourning. The other set just pooh-poohed the whole thing away. They were against the traditions/customs not because they had a valid reason/logic, but just for the heck of criticizing and maybe appearing “cool”.
This custom of not taking food from a house in which a death has occurred is a very ancient one. I felt that instead of blatantly criticizing the ancients and labeling them as backward and illiterate, it would be better to look at things from their eyes in their times and situation.
Earlier, there were joint families, many families living under one roof, leading to large number of persons and equally as many number of mouths to feed. In case of a death in the family, the relatives and friends would visit the house to pay condolences and grieve with the family. Normally, this would put an additional burden on the already burdened grieving family; especially, if they had to cook for and feed the visitors also. Tenets of hospitality will not allow guests/visitors to leave a house without partaking meals; “Athithi Devo Bhava” being ingrained in all households. This custom disallowing visitors/guests/relatives calling on a household in which a death has occurred, from partaking meals there seems to have been made with much thought and care by the ancients taking into consideration the burden and difficulty the family would have to go through in their time of grief.
Neighbors and others cook food for the family to help them in their time of distress. When we look at the custom in this perspective, it is purely logical. Nowadays, there are very few joint families. Most families are nuclear. When such a contingency occurs, those away from home can rely on delis/take-away food packs. In these days, these customs seem irrelevant. People continue their activities as usual; those who cannot avail longer periods of leave have to return to their work and cook at home.
The other ritual in such cases is cleaning the entire house with water in which turmeric powder is mixed. It was made mandatory then mainly to prevent infection. Most of the deaths were at home and the body used to be laid in the house till the funeral.
Washing the house and taking bath by all members in the house with some herbs and turmeric in the bath water must have been done to prevent infections. Even those who visited the house had to take a ritualistic bath. The family members also were not allowed to go out of the house and mingle with others till a period of time. This is very logical considering the proximity of houses in villages. The idea was not to ostracise or exclude the household, but to give them space and time to grieve and at the same time prevent spread of infections.
Nowadays, following these rituals becomes redundant and at times cumbersome. The pressure to return to work at the earliest to meet looming deadlines does not give one the leisure to follow all these rituals. Moreover, people use work pressure to counter their grief.
My intention in writing about the logic in the rituals is not to either stand up as an upholder of tradition or a critic. It is only to bring to the notice of some people who talk about being very “modern” and blatantly ridicule customs. It is these very same people who keep out of the lunch group as they do not want to partake of the lunch offered by a person whose family has experienced a recent death. They come across as very shallow and inhuman. Why don’t they realize that a person who is already grieving the loss of a family member requires to be got into the group and helped to overcome grief and not kept away and reminded of their grief.
Education and literacy is not just about earning degrees/certificates from reputed academic institutions and procuring highly paid jobs in elite organizations. It should enable us to be human beings first with empathy towards fellow humans. We should realize that neither blatantly ridiculing customs nor following them blindly is of any use. We should be able to let go of certain rituals which are not convenient or have no meaning in the present day. The bottom line of any religion is love for all fellow humans. As far as death is concerned, it is a given. All of us will have to face it some time or other in our lives till our time comes. We are very much aware of this and many of us keep referring to the end even in our daily conversations. So why don’t we accept it as part of our lives and be more practical and humane in our relations with others around us.
Progress and development will be achieved not just by literacy and education as in the current system but one which imparts holistic knowledge with emphasis on humaneness and humanity.