The great Indian Heritage

PS: Wrote this post way back in the year 2008. Although I still hold some of my views expressed in this  post, my perspective about looking at traditions has changed. It seems quite naive as I read this post today. However, I haven't done any change into it.

I happened to read a blog post recently by a distant friend of mine who shared his cynical observations on the mysticism surrounding India. His views are perfect reflection of the generation (which I belong to) which grew up caught up in the rebellious battle between the fascinations of the science and technology offered by the west and the parental mystic-religiosity of Indian culture.
Many folks of our generations endorse a similar view. Any talk regarding Indian heritage and spirituality is jettisoned in the garb of the sheen of the Western Rationalism. They talk about the technological sophistry, economic superiority, and opulence of the west and juxtapose it with our relatively poor economy, conservative attitudes and our obsessions with spirituality, rituals, Gods, Astrologers, and God-men et al.

Any mention about God, Religion or Tradition by our parents is often looked with scorn by the Gen X Generation. “Which world are you living in?”, “Things have changed” are some of the common phrases that can be heard in the living room arguments between the younger folk and the parents folk. In a conservative environment like Chennai, such arguments are often heard. It’s a common sight here to see youngsters rebelling against religious practices, deriding them with all arguments within their intellectual reach.
This simply denotes the lack of knowledge and awareness of our great heritage. We have such high regard for the western thought that discussions about our culture seem so vapid and foolish. This syllogism mainly works on the premise of economic inequality which distances the west and east. My single piece of advice, for all those folks who rant incessantly about these, is to go and grab a copy of The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen.
Let me however make myself clear. Yours truly doesn’t claim to be a superior authority in deciding the value of the Indian heritage and contrasting vis-√†-vis with the Western thought. Yours truly is still a student and will continue to be so in the future too.

Having made this clear, let me try to illuminate in the best way I can, about the glory of the great Indian heritage by pointing out to some common actions which we do in our daily lives and the significance of it.
Let me first talk about holy Ash. Well, Im not talking about “mannequin” Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. I am talking about the sacred ash which can be seen in the foreheads of several south Indians. It can be seen in various sizes, either as a small white stroke of paint in the forehead, or three equidistant lines resembling the road marker lanes, mostly seen among Brahmins. In many Brahmin families, parents force the children to wear these symbols, much to their distress, who find it embarrassing to wear in multi cultural schools where people from various religions study together. Parents, in supporting their argument would cite Sanskrit slokas like ”Vibhuthi sarva bhooshaanaam yamalogam bayam naasthi”(if u apply this holy ash (aka Vibhuti), the fear of death would be expelled). The very first syllable of this verse would sound like thuds of hammer in the rebel’s ears. His typical response would be “What Crap”!!

However behind this simple religious symbol, lies the great philosophy of living.
Most of us would have read the famous inspirational book, 7 habits of highly effective people by Steven R. Covey. The book had sold more than 15 million copies in 38 languages since the first publication. The second habit of this book talks about “Begin with the End In Mind
Applying this holy ash is nothing but putting the second law of Steven Covey into practice. When you apply holy ash, you realize the evanescence of this world and its multifarious cruel machinations. It is to remind us that everything will get over soon and we will turn into ash one day. The most interesting part of this traditional practice is that we do a service to the society. When someone wears this, everyone except him can see this mark on his/her forehead. When we do our actions with the awareness that everything is going to perish, then our actions would be devoid of feverishness and frenzied excitement. It would bring equanimity in our mind, and our actions would lead to favorable results. By this, I am not implying that everyone should wear this mark on the head. It’s simply one’s expression of his faith. When we become truly aware of this truth, we need not wear it. However, caught up with the world’s luring schemes, we often forget this truth. Hence the necessity arises. In simple terms, it is a gentle reminder of the profound truths of life.
Let us come now to the world of poojas. We have pujas for every God in our pantheon and we have tonnes of literature detailing on the procedures to be followed. I am not going to get into detail about the procedures, but simply talk about a simple procedure which have been doing since time immemorial. Breaking a coconut is said to be an auspicious form of worship. In south India, people make deals with Lord Ganesha with the help of these coconuts. 108 coconuts for passing the exam, 1008 coconuts for winning the constituency are some of the atavistic deals that have passed across the generations.

However, very few people understand the significance and the meaning behind this ritual. The hard shell of this coconut with all its coirs enmeshed around its surface gives a perfect picture about our lives. Our lives are so entangled with attachment over fame, wealth and our dear ones. Frustrated by the machinations of this cruel world, our hearts have become hardened with hatred and apathy. When we go to a temple and pray to the Divine, we break all our hardened shells and bring out our true and sweet nature. When we break the coconut, there is a small tuft left behind with the shell. This small tuft signifies the petty desires we pray to the divine for our lives. There is divinity within your self. This truth is brought to light by this ritual. A beggar who lives by the temple looks at the same thing with different light. Whenever any person brings in a coconut for the puja, he anticipates it with full eagerness, as he would run and pick the pieces of coconut for his meal. 

In simple terms, the rationale behind pooja can be explained as a game of gratitude for the Mother Nature. Have you ever seen children playing with miniature kitchen? They play a game wherein they cook food with those tiny stoves, utensils and crockery and serve it to the mother who endearingly makes food for them. We play a similar game towards the Mother Nature. Our mother earth is blessed with the Sun for its infinite source of energy. We pay our gratitude to the Mother Nature by moving a form of light around a statue immortalized as the God who created this abundant nature. Our Mother Nature has blessed us with abundant supply of milk, sweets, fruits and vegetables and we show our gratitude towards the nature by offering these to the Divine.
One of the greatest myths of our times in India among the Gen-X, that we have the perception that most of the traditional practices are devoid of reasoning and logic.

Our ancestors have understood the profound truths of life and have incorporated these truths in every facet of life which has been bequeathed to us as so called traditions. Similar deconstructions can be made for almost every other ritual we have in our tradition. These interpretations are mine and I have accepted these with my reasoning. Any one can critically analyze these practices and can derive their own logic and reasoning. I can go on and write more about my interpretations of other traditional events. However it would be nothing short of spoon feeding the logic. My main intent through this article is to provoke some interest in our rich cultural legacy and showcase the need for preserving the priceless heritage we possess. I hope it has served its purpose.