Table of Contents


First Book

Ancient India's
Contribution to
Modern Civilization


Current Book

- A Search for Our Present
in History


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Chapter 1 on
Popular Beliefs and Folklore


Chapter 2

Some Prevalent Social Practices
Moksha, Upavasa, Muhurat,
Sati, Dowry, Child-Marriage


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Popular Beliefs

India is a land of innumerable beliefs, rituals and religious symbols. These beliefs and symbols are highly respected and revered. As a devout people we normally do not go into the meaning and interpretation of our many beliefs. It is sufficient for most of us to know that they are part of the heritage handed down to us by our ancestors and in deference to tradition it becomes our duty to scrupulously and meticulously adhere to them. But by doing things without knowing the meaning behind them do we not deprive ourselves of an insight into our heritage?

Culture can be well appreciated and adapted to changing times if the meaning behind its different constituents is well understood. To develop this understanding one has to look upon all human actions as having originated in human society. While answers to all questions cannot be obtained, the acceptance of this approach at least opens the door to inquiry into the circumstances which gave rise to our revered traditions.

An attempt to interpret our religious beliefs and symbols is a challenging task. Many of these issues defy analysis and call for a judicious combination of the study of the social environment, etymology, aesthetics and philosophy. As far as aesthetics and philosophy go there exists a good deal of subjectivism and value judgement. While talking about etymology and the social environment we are on relatively firmer ground. In this chapter we have taken a set of symbols, beliefs and rituals and have attempted to examine the possible meaning behind them and the reasons which could lie behind their origin. The first religious symbol we take up is that of Om or Omkar.

OM or Omkar

The syllable OM is quite familiar to a Hindu. It occurs in every prayer. Invocation to most gods begin with this syllable. For instance we have Om Namaha Shivaya, Hari Om, Om Shanti etc. OM is also pronounced as AUM.

Is OM present in Christianity as 'Amen' and in Islam as 'Amin'?

This term occurs in various ancient and modem civilizations. It exists Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

In Arabic the first alphabet is pronounced as aliph. In Greek it is alpha, in the Roman script it is A. Thus in many languages the first letter in the alphabet has the syllable A, with which the word AUM or OM begins. In the Greek alphabet the last letter is Omega which comes very close to OM. Thus the significance of the syllable OM as the beginning and end finds a parallel in many of the scripts associated with ancient languages.

This indicates some link between the various symbols and perhaps a common origin. Even in the English language the syllable 0m occurs in words having a similar meaning. for instance; Omniscience means infinite knowledge, Omnipotent means having infinite powers Omnivorous means eating or reading every thing. This syllable also occurs in words such as Omen which means a sign of something that is to occur in future, Ombudsman means a person having authority to pronounce a verdict. Thus Om is also used to signify divinity and authority.

The syllable OM is not specific to Indian culture. It has religious significance in other religions also. The word Amen used among Christians at the end of a prayer is also said to be derived from the the syllable OM. Although OM is not given any specific definition and is considered to be a cosmic sound, a primordial sound, the totality of all sounds etc., Amen is said to mean 'May it be so'.

In Arabic a similar term 'Amin' has a religious significance.

Thus the origin of the syllable OM is lost in the misty past. Its not being specific to any one country or civilization is indicative of its being an universally perceptible sound for the human race. This reason for this universal perceptibility possibly lies in the fact that AAAH is the most natural sound that issues from the human larynx. This is evident when a man cries out naturally in extreme pain, anger or fear. When emotions reach an extreme pitch the articulate sounds evolved by man are not the ones that are heard, but the syllable natural to man which is AAAH.

This sound it can be said would have been associated with man, in absence of articulate speech, as are the various sounds of barking, meowing, bellowing that we associate with different animals. This perhaps is the reason why the syllable beginning with the letter 'A' is the first one in most alphabets. And this perhaps is also the reason for the Deification of the syllable AUM or OM.


The next religious symbol which is also revered by Hindu and ranks second only to OM is the Swastika. Today, the Swastika is know the world over not as a religious symbolism of the Hindus but as the Nazi emblem. Hitler's use of the Swastika on the flag of National-socialist Germany has besmirched the Swastika. But the Swastika continues to hold a religious significance for the Hindus. Like OM, the origins of Swastika are lost in the misty realms of the past and they can only be guessed by piecing together of the surviving clues.

Unlike OM, the Swastika is not a syllable or a letter. It appears to be decorative charecter which could have originated in a hieroglyphic (pictorial) script.

The word Swastika is normally believed to be an amalgam of the words Su and Asati. Su means 'good' and Asati meant 'to exist'.

As per Sanskrit grammer the words Su and Asati when amalgamated into one word become Swasti (as in the case of Su and Aaatam becoming Swagatam meaning welcome). If this derivation of the word Swastika is true, then the literal meaning of the term Swastika would be 'let good-prevail'.

There exist many types of signs which stand for the Swastika. Even the standard version has two forms the one facing the right also called the symbol of- the right hand path and the one facing the left called the symbol of the lefthand path. These two Swastikas are also considered to represent the male and female. There is also a Swastika which is an amalgam of these two types.

All these forms present the Swastika to us as if it were only a symbol. But it is quite possible that Swastika was an object which played an important role in the real lives of people. Some scholars have said that in ancient times forst were builtin the shape of a grid resembling the Swastika, for defensive purposes. Under such an arrangement it was difficult for an enemy to storm into all parts of the fort simultaneously.

Did the Swastika originate as blueprint for a fort called Su Vastu?

In the conventional type of a fort, the fall of one of the gates to the attacking army would lead to the Enemy's pouring into the fort and lead to massacre or capture of all or most of its inhabitants. But under the Swastika grids fall of one of the four gates could still keep, at least three-fourths of the fort safe.

The understanding of the Swastika as a blueprint for a fort can also be etymologically corroborated. In Sanskrit, Vasa means to inhabit and Vastu means habitation. While Su means good. The word Swastika might be an amalgam of the terms 'Su' and 'Vastu' pronounced as as 'Swastu') meaning 'a good habitation'.

Incidentally in Sanskrit the term Swasta means calm or peaceful. Thus the term and concept of Swastika might as well be a derivation of the name of a defensive structure which due to its impregnable character was looked upon as a good habitation.

That this form of a defensive arrangement was a fact is also corroborated by the military practice of Chakra-vyuha used during ancient times. In the Chakra-vyuha, the army was arranged in the form of a circular grid which an enemy army was supposed to break. This was one of the techniques used during the Mahabharata war in which Arjuna's son Abhimanyu was killed. That the Chakra-vyuha was an effective form of defense and it was very diffciult to break it is corroborated by the episode of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Briefly, this episode is as follows:

When Abhimanou was on the family way, Sri Krishna used to take Draupadi (Abhimanyu's mother) on excursions. To humour her, Krishna used to relate many of his adventures to the pregnant Draupadi. On one such excursion Krishna was narrating his experience with the technique of Chakra-vyuha and how step by step the various circles could be penerated. It seems that Draupadi did not find this topic interesting enough for she soon went into a slumber. But someone else was interested in Sri Krishna's narration and that was the yet to be born Abhimanyu.

While Draupadi dozed off, Abhimanyu continued to carefully follow Srl Krishna's narrative of the Chakra-vyuha. But after talking for sometime and not receiving any response from Draupadi, Sri Krishna turned back and saw that Draupadi was savouring a sweet nap. Sri Krishna who had at that time come upto the seventh step of the Chakra-vyuha, gave up his narration and returned with Draupadi to the palace.

The unfortunate Abimanyu could never obtain the technique of breaking all the circles in the chakra-vyuha, but whatever he had heard Sri Krishna say, he carefully preserved in his memory. He grew up to be a brave handsome young man. Many years later when during the Mahabharata war the Kavravas set up a Chakar-vyuha and challenged the Pandavas to come forward and break it, none of the Pandavas knew the technique of doing so. At that Juncture to save the honour of the Pandavas, Abhimanyu came forward and offerred his services for the task of breaking the chakra-vyuha. Despite his incomplete knowledge of the technique he entered tne grid and overcame one circle after another till he come to the seventh one for the breaking of which he had no knowledge. Brave and ambitious es he was he fought valiantly in the unequal struggle but in vain. His strength and bravery proved no match against the skillfully laid out maze on warriors fighting whom, he met his end.

Similarly the Swastika could also have originated as a defensive structure which due to its vast practical utility was considered powerful and was sanctified.


Namaste or Namaskara is the traditional Indian form of salutation. It is used while greeting friends and acquaintances as also while paying obeisance to sod. As a word it finds its place in the invocation to our different Gods, for instance we have Shri Ganeshaya Namaha Aum Namaha Shivaya, Krishnaya Tubhyam Namaha etc.

Namaste involves the joining together of both palms at the level of the breast. If the person being greeted is a senior or if it is addressed to God, the Namaste is accompanied with a slight bow. This bow can be termed a slight one for it is only a downward inclination of the head unlike the Japanese bow where the body is bent at right angles at the hip.

The origin of this graceful and modest form of greeting can only be guessed. Its literal meaning is an indication of it origin. Namaste could be an amalgam of Namsya (or Namaha) meaning obeisance and 'Te' which means you or to you. Thus Namaste as an amalgam of Namasyate could be translated as obeisance to you.

The meaning implies a submission of one person to another. Thus, Namaste as a salutation could have originated as an acknowledgement of submission or surrender of one person to another.

Significantly, the Sanskrit word for subjugation is Niyamaha, which is close to Namaha meaning obeisance or submission. Hence, it would not be erroneous to infer that Namaste was in fact a declaration of submission. The fact that both hands have to be displayed to the person being greeted could have its origin in the practice that when a person submits to another or when two strangers hail each other they have to prove that they are unarmed and that their intentions are peaceful.

This inference may sound incredible, but social anthropologists have established that different types of mutual greetings and salutations have originated in actions of two or more persons (facing each other) which aim at proving that all of them are unarmed and that they come in peace. The origin of the handshake has also been found to be a smilar one. More so, the human smile also is considered to have originated as a sign of submission.

A smile is nothing but a grin with a feeling of pleasure or happiness and it involves revealing our teeth by parting our lips. But the same action on part of an animal is considered to be a display of anger and fear. Even humans grit their teeth in anger. But this is noticed prominently among animals.

For instance, when two dogs fight over food they snarl and bear their teeth at each other. The human smile, anthropologists say: is a development of the animal grin minus the anger and plus pleasure. When two humans smile at each other they acknowledge that they look upon the other as a friend.

Similarly, Namaste as a greeting could have originated as an act of reassurance or submission between two persons.


The Tilaka is normally a vermilion mark applied on the forehead. This mark has a religious significance and is a visible sign of a person as belonging to the Hindu religion. The Tilaka is of more than one colour although normally it is vermilion. It also does not have any standard shape and form and is applied differently by members of different Hindu sects and sub-sects.

It is applied as a 'U' by worshippers of lord Vishnu and is red, yellow or saffron in colpur. It is made up of red ochre powder (Sindhura) and sandalwood paste (Gandha). Worshippers of lord Shiva apply it as three horizontal lines and it consists of ash (Bhasma). Soot (Abhira) is also used as a pigment for applying a Tilaka.

Thus there is a variety of pigments; red, yellow, saffron, white, grey and black, etc. These pigments are not only applied on the forehead but in some cases they are applied also on the forearms and the abdomen. This is normally so in the case of worshippers of Shiva, a deity whose origin is said to lie in the primitive pre-Arvan or proto-Aryan society.

How this practice of Tilaka came into being is an open question. But anthropological researches show that in most tribal societies in tropical and equatorial regions, there exist customs according to which people paint their naked or semi-naked bodies with different pigments. This may be for decorative and ritualistic reasons. Even today in our civilized way of life, during festivals like Holi or Carnival whose origins are supposed to lie in a primitive tribal past, the smearing of colours is an essential aspect of festivities. Tilaka could be a refined adaptation of this tribal practice.

Literally, Tilaka means a mark. Sindhura which is also used to describe a Tilaka means red and Gandha which is also a term for Tilaka means pleasant odour. Hence, Tilaka normally connotes, a red mark with a pleasant odour. Some scholars have seen the red colour as a symbolism for blood. We are told that in ancient times a groom used to apply his blood, on-his bride's forehead as a recognition of wedlock. The existing practice among Indian women of applying a round shaped red Tilaka called Bindiya or Kumkum could be a survival of this.

Significantly when an Indian woman has the misfortune of becoming a widow she has to stop wearing this mark. In a woman's case a Tilaka is a sign of her being in wedlock Among men, the Tilaka has been traditionally interpreted as a good luck charm. Apart from applying it in the course of normal life, its application had special significance while setting out for a battle, a hunt or before any other event of importance. To demonstrate the person's solemn commitment to succeed in the endeavour he was about to undertake, the Tilaka was made up of the person's own blood. Even today application of one's own blood as a Tilaka is considered to be a display of solemn commitment to the oath or pledge being undertaken.

On the whole it can be said that Tilaka is a survival of the tribal practice of smearing one's body with different colours. This practice was later refined and given a solemn meaning.



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