Bless you! Promptly came out of my mouth, in my auto pilot mode deeply engrossed in something with my eyes fixed on the screen and not even knowing ‘that someone’ who sneezed, said thank you and was sitting 3 desks away. I paused for a second, looked over my right shoulder, smiled at that co-worker in the agile seating area who had sneezed a few seconds ago and got back on to my screen. Except this time, I could not focus back on work. What my mind had now drifted on to was, why has it got ingrained in me to wish someone well when they sneeze even though I don’t know them! Because you got wished well a few times too by strangers in past, promptly said the voice within. This good manner advocates that every sneeze should be followed by some variation of “bless you.” Whether it’s a wall-shaking nasal explosion or a dainty ahchoo! no sneeze is complete without it. But have you ever wondered why we do it? Or for that matter why do we follow what we follow as habits or traditions or even a silly superstition per se!
Isn’t it true? A lot of things simply gets ingrained in us just by following something or someone we are surrounded with! Such are our most firmed up beliefs, traditions, faith or rituals too. And that’s how we have become the followers of those ancient beliefs like – Bless you! Touchwood! Fingers crossed!! Black cat crossing! Avoid no.13 and definitely on a Friday! Lemon and Chilies tied together with a thread to be hung at the entrance! Throwing coins in the water! No sweeping or clipping nails or shaving at night! Aarti (greetings with the flame) and so so so many more such beliefs that list just goes on and on…
Growing up in modern India, I dwelled up on an assumption that Indians are very superstitious people but as the horizon of my knowledge and information expanded, I realised that beliefs on similar lines exists everywhere, across the globe. It ranges from tapping on the wood to myths and beliefs around black cat crossing, number 13, luck charms, throwing coins in the water and rituals like saying prayers before eating! Of course, there are more serious and intense ones, but we get the idea here.
These ancient traditions, rituals and beliefs in reality are deep-rooted cultural notions passed on from generations, sentiments intact. Despite having witnessed or belonged to these societies with innumerable traditions we lack the understanding of the logical reasoning behind several of these customs. We instead, very conveniently have branded them as ‘Superstition’ or meaningless, thus carried on following or not following. We have shelled away many of these anecdotes passed on by our ancestors with the years of increasing modernisations and convenience. Somewhere along the line we got a bit mislead with these beliefs but that has its own valid reasons. The lifestyles were evolving rapidly, so were our thoughts and idea of comforts. We kept what felt like ‘habit’ and detached what was supposed to be the ‘logic’ behind it and that got passed on to the generations and lifestyle we dwell in today.
We have seen various public figures, celebrities and business tycoons associate themselves to some peculiar faiths and beliefs, have also seen many big names treat a specific number or day as a bad omen in their day today business. The reliance of such beliefs also varies from colours to sports/ activity kits to cars to outfit to visiting a particular place before their big day to physical presence of a living being literally. While these dependencies could provide psychological uplifts, they can also lead to irrational decisions, such as trusting more in the merits of good luck and destiny rather than sound decision making and trust in our own ability.
Believe it or not our ancestors were full of ancient and spiritual wisdom, so there must be a reason behind why we believed what we believed. It’s also true that when it comes to beliefs, yes there are choices and there is no such thing as what my belief is, should be yours too but let’s not throw the baby with the bathwater. Perhaps these are the times when we need to open our third eye and see where the misinterpretations have taken place? What exactly are the correct interpretation and reasons behind existence of any such belief or tradition. Let’s try and dig a little deeper on some of these beliefs. What we refer as superstitions today and see why things are, the way they are and what possible logical significance could have been for each of these rituals that we have been performing all along.
Bless you: A habit that emerged from a slightly gloomy social pact. It originated in Rome when the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe. Sneezing was one of the main symptoms of plague, and it is believed that Pope Gregory I suggested that a tiny prayer in the form of saying, “God bless you” after a sneeze would protect the person from the extreme. Well it’s good to be kind and caring in any era or situation.
Touchwood: It’s a child’s play. This dates back into the early 1800s when children played this chasing game called Ticky Touchwood, players protected themselves from being tagged if they touched wood. Given the popularity of the game at the time and its relevance, the concept of touching wood for safety/protection may have advanced from then.
Fingers crossed: Good luck, courage or when in need of protection. It is very common, in both action and even affirmation – “Fingers crossed”. But when did it originate? It actually traces back to pre-Christian times, when the cross was a symbol of unity and kind spirits residing at the intersection point. A wish made on a cross was a way of “anchoring” the wish at the intersection of the cross until the wish was fulfilled. So, no harm at all in keeping the fingers crossed for anyone or anything.
Black Cat crossing: Alert! A cat is crossing the road! Whether now or then in olden days; and the special powers/disruption were their shiny eyes, which startled the cattle or horses who pulled the wagon in the olden days while passing through dense and dark jungle or at night as shining eyes were only what was visible in dark. It was required to remain careful and alert while driving/riding as the cats could suddenly appear from anywhere, given they can be classed both domestic and wild animals. It sure is a requirement today as well to be extra cautious of suddenly emerging pedestrians – humans or animals. But can they really bring bad luck? Not them, but our carelessness in driving/riding definitely can.
Lemon Chili hanging: Simply a Diffuser! Yup! Diffuser of that era with medicinal properties. Pest control spraying was not a facility available in those days. So, our clever ancestors invented this insecticide from Lemon and Chili. They used to just hang the lemon and chili at the entrance of their shops or home to keep away the mosquitoes, fly or any other insects as the houses were made up of mud and stones then. Lemon and Chilies are very rich in vitamin C, if lemon and chilies passed through a cotton thread absorbs the fluid, spreading the scent in the surroundings when in contact with the air makes it a good replant for flies and insects. So! Next time don’t panic thinking you have no hope of survival, should you accidentally step on a used bunch which a lot of times due to false belief people even fear disposing it in their dustbins. if they did, it probably will only do some good to the dustbin. Oh, and wearing/keeping a metal/plastic version necklace/keychain or using the replica of the real for symbolic reasons hoping the protection from evil eye is not going to help you in any way!
Friday the 13th: It’s just another day (and a number). Maybe you suffer from fear of the number 13, a phobia famously called triskaidekaphobia – or specifically fear of Friday the 13th, which is termed as paraskevidekatriaphobia. For most of recorded human history, the number 13 was associated with Christian mythology, 13 guests attended the last supper instead of 12 as planned and the day before Jesus’ crucifixion which was on a Friday. Although there are a variety of possible origin stories associated with Friday the 13th or with No.13 but, there really isn’t any scientific evidence that backs the claim that this day is inherently unlucky. Time noted that it’s possible a self-fulfilling prophecy to blame for bouts of bad luck that may have occurred on Friday the 13th. For me this no. has been quite a blessing as both my parent’s Birthdays are on 13th and I cleared my driving test on a Friday the 13th 😊
Throwing coins in the water: It’s a give and take business! In our ancient world most civilisations flourished near the water sources such as rivers, springs or wells and those were a significant source of fresh and clean water. The livelihood depended on these sources for essential activities such as agriculture, irrigation, drinking, cooking, washing etc. As for essential part of survival these sources also became scared amongst people and were worshiped. Our clever ancestors then discovered the antibiotic properties of both copper and silver, the two metals traditionally used in coins. Throwing coins in these water sources made of either of these metals could help make the water safer to drink. Water sources that were frequented by those that threw coins in may have been less affected by a range of bacterial infections making them seem more fortunate and may have even appeared to have cured people suffering from recurring infections. Give back to nature, it always will reward wellness
No sweeping, clipping nails or shaving at night: A lesson to not leave things till it’s too late! This is an age-old tradition which our ancestors followed. The fact behind this thought is not stupid but a wise one. In those days when there were no electricity and people did their chores in the light of candles or oil lamps post sunset. That kind of lighting as we can envisage (and as my Husband says) is not even enough for the purpose of a candlelight dinner, let alone cleaning and personal grooming. If you were sweeping the floor or mopping it, chances are that you might accidentally clear-out something valuable along with the dust. Likewise, personal grooming could result in serious cuts and injuries in that level of visibility and this was a sensible way of avoiding them. Importance of clarity and being organised.
Aarti: Aarti is reception with love, respect and devotion to the supreme – that supreme could be a deity, guest or a family member in that moment. There also is a scientific aspect to it as it symbolises elements of creation as a whole, with the representation of Fire, Earth, Water, Air and Space. These rituals now occasionally are performed the way it was meant to be, but the significance of this ritual is to cleanse and purify the energy field around the one being greeted; with the help of flame in Diyas made of mud, water in copper or silver cup, fan usually made of peacock feather in those days and sound if made use of bell that was made of several precious metals in those days. Lit camphor also acts as sanitiser against unhealthy germs that one may have carried along. A warm welcome in true sense.
It’s true in this world we operate a lot on the basis of not knowing the bigger picture and hence follow a lot of things without even being able to get to the bottom of it. The above-mentioned faith, traditions, rituals, habits, beliefs, notions whatever you name it, not only becomes a nice to know fact but also a choice of how we want to perceive it. Although amongst many such superstitions there are some serious ones with absolutely unacceptable norms in this era. How can we choose to remain oblivious to so many obvious unacceptable practices taking place around? These are also the kind that should have been eradicated with many other horrendous one’s which thankfully doesn’t exist anymore. Out of a few disturbing myths that still exists, this one bothers me frequently;
It has pretty much been there since the beginning of time! What was established in good faith of giving the much-needed space and rest during those days to a female body; and was/is unfortunately interpreted in the ways which instead became a reason for discrimination, shame and many more dreadful beliefs and restrictions. Many cultures thought that menstruating women could spoil milk, pickle, crops or even wilt flowers or vegetation and then religion came along! Purity myths only made that worse! And you know why we have this taboo carrying on till today in the name of belief, ritual and tradition? Because, there was no woman to put their foot down and say, well actually we don’t suddenly become untouchables amidst our menstrual cycles. Many of you reading this would even be thinking why do I have to write about this? And rest of you who agree with me would be thinking of dropping me a line privately to say, “I absolutely agree with you”. That’s how effective this cultural shame is, that us women can’t even openly share our common experiences. Why is it that no one should talk about periods?
So, where does these myths come from?
Before science and medicine was brought into existence religion was the only authority in explaining natural occurrences. How else would they have explained why women bleed every month when not pregnant? Simple! by putting a negative spin on menstruation, making it a time of impurity in women.
As generations passed, whatever information we got on this topic was either from our mother, female relatives or girlfriends. Much of these information was based on the remnants of religious beliefs mixed in with some practical observations by our female ancestors. The concept of a menstruating woman being unclean, impure, or even potentially evil, led to cultural practices that isolated and excluded them. Many girls and women are subject to restrictions in their daily lives simply because they are menstruating. Not entering the kitchen is the main restriction in the rural areas. Another major restriction that resided and to a great extent still resides is not entering the puja room/ temples or any holy places. Not only that, they are also restricted from offering prayers and touching holy books. The underlying basis for this myth is typically the cultural beliefs of impurity associated with menstruation. This was purely due to lack of hygiene aid and knowledge available in those days. With science and technology advancing, these aids have much evolved and are easily available to hand. This may have changed the views towards the process and its rituals in most cultures. But society still attaches a social taboo to menstruation, driving the conversation underground in a hush hush tone. So much that even a sanitary napkin brand happily calls themselves ‘Whisper’!
Why is that buying a sanitary napkin such a shameful and shying away line of act vs buying a toilet paper?
For a start, without menstruation, no one would be here! It is a fundamental part of the female and human existence, and without it, women would not be able to get pregnant, give birth, and perpetuate the human species. I am no gynaecologist but understand the basic that it’s a monthly cycle when the ovary starts producing an egg, hormone’s released and starts forming lining of the uterus and during the ovulation process it comes out bleeding through the blood vessels if there’s no pregnancy. So, what’s so impure and toxic about it? If this is so toxic to be deemed as untouchable, then the entire formation of mankind is obnoxious and that includes me and you. Cultural norms and religious taboos on menstruation are often compounded by traditional associations with evil spirits, shame and embarrassment surrounding sexual reproduction. This actually all seems like a curse to womanhood than a boon. But in reality it is a boon to the entire mankind and not just women, who Instead should be regarded and cared for this special magical power.
What really is a curse here, is the fact that one who downplays or demoralises most of the times is another woman, whom we look up to.
A few years ago, I worked for a global organisation and a female boss. All going well when I suddenly had to go through a phase to fix my gynecological issues, during the process my periods became really heavy which restricted my comfort in the office and working from home in those days felt like a better option. There was no reason for me to take days off and disrupt my work for those 4 to 5 days. When I very easily and clearly explained this to my boss, asking for the permission to work from home each time assuming being a female she will be able to understand my issues and discomfort better, as all I really needed was to be in a more familiar and private space to deal with what I funnily now call period diarrhea. To my surprise not only that boss plainly denied the requirement and asked me to book those days as off every month consistently but also later in the performance review raised it as a serious concern of regular absence. No, these sorts of issues really don’t deserve days off to work through in this digital age. The requirements may vary depending on the situation but the plea here is that let the lady in charge decide how she wants to handle it. No one likes to or should use this as an excuse to show that this weakens us females in anyway.
Menstruation should not be a taboo, it’s neither an ailment nor a disorder but a welcoming change in every female’s lifeJyoti Singh
I encourage all the Mums to groom their daughters to reflect the strength this process possesses; and inspire fellow womenfolks to stand by each other and never to use this as an opportunity to overpower.
If we are still humans and not robots yet, why we abide by the traditions and rules that was programmed in us through culture, society or religion without ever questioning them? Why we never tried to find truth behind these “superstitions” before following them in our auto pilot mode. Is this really the legacy we want to leave behind? Think about it…