On some customs and traditions of Hinduism

When Truths realized by enlightened sages and prophets are relayed down the ages without proper understanding, they tend to get frozen into customs observed by the masses out of habit or due to fear of God.  Such archaic customs tend to accumulate until they are shattered by the next enlightened sage who appears on the scene.   In this context,  these are some striking observations of Mother Mirra Alfassa on some encrustations of Hinduism.

Self-mortification in the guise of Askesis

Ascetic sitting on a bed of nails (Image by wikimedia. Click on image for source.)

The practice of extreme self-mortification was very much in vogue in ancient India and continues to this day even in other religions.    These are the Mother Mirra’s observations on the subject.

Mother Mirra Alfassa: These practices, which consist of ill-treating the body in order, so they say, to liberate the spirit from it, are in fact a sensuous distortion of spiritual discipline; it  is  a  kind  of perverse  need  for  suffering  which  drives  the ascetic to self-mortification. The sadhu’s recourse to the bed of nails or the Christian anchorite’s resort to the whip and the hair-shirt are the result of a more or less veiled sadistic tendency, unavowed and unavowable; it is an unhealthy seeking or a subconscious need for violent sensations. In reality, these things are very far removed from all spiritual life, for they are ugly and base, dark and diseased; whereas spiritual life, on the contrary, is a life of light and balance, beauty and joy. They are invented and extolled by a sort of mental and vital cruelty towards the body. But cruelty, even with regard to one’s own body, is nonetheless cruelty, and all cruelty is a sign of great unconsciousness. Unconscious natures need very strong sensations, for without them they can feel nothing; and cruelty, which is one form of sadism, brings very strong sensations. The avowed purpose of such practices is to abolish all sensation so that the body may no longer stand in the way of one’s flight towards the spirit; but the effectiveness of this method is open to doubt. It is a recognised fact that in order to progress rapidly, one must not be afraid of difficulties; on the contrary, by choosing to do the difficult thing at every opportunity, one increases the will-power and strengthens the nerves. Now, it is much more difficult to lead a life of moderation and balance, in equanimity and serenity, than to try to contend with over-indulgence in pleasure and the obscuration it entails, by over-indulgence in asceticism and the disintegration it causes.  It is much more difficult to achieve the harmonious and progressive development of one’s physical being in calm and simplicity than to ill-treat it to the point of annihilation. It is much more difficult to live soberly and with- out desire than to deprive the body of its indispensable nourishment and cleanliness and boast proudly of one’s abstinence.  It is much more difficult to avoid or to surmount and conquer illness by an inner and outer harmony, purity and balance, than to disregard and ignore it and leave it free to do its work of destruction.

The Mother, On Education: The Four Austerities and the Four Liberations

The sacred cow

Question: Does the cow really have a special sanctity or is it merely a tradition based on economic needs?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Mere tradition based on old symbols.

The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: Symbols

Some background needs to be developed to understand her remarks.  According to Sri Aurobindo, the verses of the Rig Veda have a dual meaning – esoteric and exoteric.  If the verses are read in the exoteric sense, they seem to be a description of bucolic life complete with rituals to some sacrificial fire and battles between gods and demons.  However, some of the verses appear incoherent when read purely in the external sense.   Sri Aurobindo, with the light of his spiritual illumination, decoded and outlined the esoteric meaning of the various symbols.   According to him, the Rig Veda describes man’s spiritual journey which commences with the kindling of the inner fire (Agni), using which one has to battle the inner and outer demons(Dasyus, Vritra, Vala).  Success in the spiritual path is signaled by the arrival of dawn (Usha).  The cows are the rays of light which are released by the coming of inner illumination, and their milk symbolizes the knowledge and power which descends from the Divine Consciousness.

For illustrative purposes, consider Rig Veda verse V.14.4,

“Agni born shone out slaying the Dasyus, the darkness by the Light; he found the Cows, the Waters, Swar.”

agnir jāto arocata, ghnan dasyūn jyotiṣā tamaḥ, avindad gā apaḥ svaḥ.

The esoteric sense of verse is that the cows and the rivers of higher consciousness  are released when the inner fire burns bright during meditation(see Descent experience).  With the passage of time, this inner meaning was lost and the cows came to be revered as sacred symbols of Hinduism.

Much more on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Rig Veda can be seen in his work The Secret of the Veda available online here.

Sleeping aligned in some direction

Question: There is an old Hindu belief that one should not lie down or sleep with one’s head towards the North. Has it got any real significance, Mother?

Mother Mirra Alfassa: Many things have been said on the subject but, as far as my own experience goes, I do not attach much importance to that belief.

The Mother, Some Answers from the Mother: 24 March 1936

Astrology

Question: Has X spoken to you about some influence of Saturn he has found in my horoscope? I forgot to ask you about it on my birthday.
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Yes, he spoke to me about it. But you must know that yoga frees us from subjection to the horoscope; the horoscope expresses the position one has in relation with the material world, but by the sadhana(spiritual practice) we get free from the slavery to that world.

The Mother, Some Answers from the Mother: 14 September 1936

For more on astrology, see another post :  Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on astrology.

Ganges water

The water of the Ganges have been held in great regard in India since antiquity.  The Mother encouraged consecration and contemplation instead.  The real Ganges is the flow of spiritual energy (Kundalini) within the body which has to be awakened.

Mother Mirra Alfassa: Sincere devotion is much more effective than the Ganges water.

The Mother, Words of the Mother – II: Devotion

In a similar vein, we see Ramana Maharshi stating:

Question: Is there efficacy in bathing in the Ganges?
Ramana Maharshi: The Ganges is within you. This Ganges does not make you feel cold or shiver. Bathe in it.

(Talks with Ramana Maharshi, p 144)

Festivals – Indian and other

It must be stressed that these observations were made to disciples living in an Ashram practicing Yoga.  For the masses, some external observance or ceremony may be required to remember and renew contact with the Divine but for those who have progressed on the spiritual path, such observances can be dispensed with.  When one is established in the Timeless, every day becomes sacred.

Question: What is the origin, significance and purpose of festivals such as Deepavali, Dasera, Rakhipurnima, etc. − and also some of the western festivals? On these days do the gods respond more to human aspirations? Thirdly, what is the connection between the inner truth and the external functions of these festivals? Lastly, what should be our attitude towards these festivals?

Mother Mirra Alfassa: Men like festivals.

Question: As an answer to my letter on the significance of festivals you wrote to me: “Men like festivals.” Does it then mean that they are men’s fancy and whim ? Have they no meaning and no utility ?

Mother Mirra Alfassa:It is men who give a meaning to festivals in order to legitimate their presence.

The Mother, Words of the Mother – III: The Gods

Caste system

The caste system in India began as a classification of man’s inborn predilections similar to Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul.  Those gravitating towards contemplation were called Brahmins, those possessing dynamism and governing skills were Kshatriyas, those with mercantile ability were Vaishyas, and those endowed with physical capacity were Shudras.  In each person, there is a mixture of these four tendencies and the purpose was to discover and refine one’s abilities and play one’s part in the greater life.  Eventually, this truth was lost and the mechanism deteriorated into a rigid system of discrimination based on one’s birth in a certain family.   For more on this, see an earlier post on the True Intent of the Caste system

Holy places with favorable vibrations

On the positive side, the Mother spoke favorably of the various places of pilgrimage in India which are imbued with a beneficial occult atmosphere.  This is her  conversation with a French disciple Satprem.

Mother Mirra Alfassa: There are places that are favorable for occult experiences. Benares is one of these places, the atmosphere there is filled with vibrations of occult forces, and if one has the slightest capacity, it spontaneously develops there, in the same way that a spiritual aspiration develops very strongly and spontaneously as soon as one lands in India. These are Graces. Graces, because it is the destiny of the country, it has been so throughout its history, and because India has always been turned much more towards the heights and the inner depths than towards the outer world. Now, it is in the process of losing all that and wallowing in the mud, but that’s another story … it was like that and it is still like that. And in fact, when you returned from Rameswaram with your robes, I saw with much satisfaction that there was still a GREAT dignity and a GREAT sincerity in this endeavor of the Sannyasis (renunciants) towards the higher life and in the self-giving of a certain number of people to realize this higher life.

The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: November 22, 1958

Related Posts:

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  3. How religions are formed
  4. Ghosts explained
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19 thoughts on “On some customs and traditions of Hinduism

  1. Mohan Krishna

    On festivals: The festivals of India have many aspects. There is the general “fun” aspect but not unaccompanied by the spiritual – this is vital for the common folk who have not a strong exclusive attraction for spiritual pursuits (the lure of fun is important). Another aspect is that of diet. Each festival has its specific foods which provide for a balanced, nutritious and healthy diet.

    There is enjoyment that is unopposed to Dharma. I strongly think this is a very important aspect that builds unity and educates the masses spiritually (for example the recitations of mantras from the Vedas are commonly heard – even though few people understand them there is an uplifting effect).

    Reply
  2. Mohan Krishna

    For clarification on askesis (so that the wrong idea is not got on Indian asceticism in general).

    ” Indian asceticism is not a mournful gospel of sorrow or a pinful mortification of the flesh in morbid penance, but a noble effort towards a higher joy and an absolute possession of the spirit… I do not accept the ascetic ideal as the final solution of the problem of the human existence.” “But even its exaggerations have a noble spirit behind them than the vitalistic exaggerations which are the opposite defect of Western culture.”

    India’s Rebirth, Sri Aurobindo (1919)

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      > For clarification on askesis (so that the wrong idea is not got on Indian asceticism in general)

      That’s not a problem. It is clear from the last passage

      I saw with much satisfaction that there was still a GREAT dignity and a GREAT sincerity in this endeavor of the Sannyasis (renunciants) towards the higher life and in the self-giving of a certain number of people to realize this higher life.

      Reply
  3. Mohan Krishna

    Regarding the cow

    Of course there is the spiritual symbol of the cow as jnana but she is also like the mother who unselfishly provides nutritious milk. A mother for whom species is no boundary.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Maternal instincts are found in all species, not just the cow. The true meaning of these symbols is unveiled after illumination. In the following passage under Symbols seen during spiritual experiences taken from the Letters on Yoga, Sri Aurobindo discusses how the cow and the horse became Vedic symbols

      …Conventional symbols such as the Vedic Rishis formed with objects taken from their surroundings. The cow stood for light because the same word `go’ meant both ray and cow, and because the cow was their most precious possession which maintained their life and was constantly in danger of being robbed and concealed. But once created, such a symbol becomes alive. The Rishis vitalised it and it became a part of their realisation. It appeared in their visions as an image of spiritual light. The horse also was one of their favourite symbols, and a more easily adaptable one, since its force and energy were quite evident.

      Reply
      1. Mohan Krishna

        Sorry, my statement wasn’t clear. What I meant to say was that the cow is the provider of milk used for human consumption and religious rites. It provides this not just for its own calf but for man as well. This is the point – man drinks from the breast of the cow; so is she not our mother? as the cow gives herself to man through her milk, is she not our mother? And what man is a man who does not protect his mother?

        I’m not in anyway disputing what you quote of Sri Aurobindo. I am merely stating another fact. The reason I did is because one should not think that cow slaughter is all right now that it is just a symbol.

    2. Sandeep Post author

      Swami Vivekananda on cow symbolism

      “The Swami told Prof. (Sundarama) Iyer that in ancient times Brahmins took meat and even beef and were called upon to kill cows and other animals in yajnas, or for giving madhuparka to guests. He was further of the opinion that the discontinuance of flesh-foods (which he ascribed to the spread of Buddhism) was one of the chief causes of the gradual decline of national strength and the final overthrow of the national independence of the united Hindu races and States of India”

      (source: S.N.Dhar. A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda, Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra:1975 , vol. 1, p 368)

      Sri Aurobindo in support of Swami Vivekananda’s views:

      Nirodbaran: What about meat diet? Vivekananda advocated it.
      Sri Aurobindo: Meat is rajasic and gives a certain force and energy to the physical. That’s why the Kshatriyas did not give up meat. Vivekananda advocated it to lift our people from Tamas (inertia) to Rajas (dynamism). He was not quite wrong.

      (source: Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, p 107)

      Reply
    3. Sandeep Post author

      Alberuni (Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī) was an Iranian Muslim scholar who traveled to India in the 11th century as part of the entourage of Mahmud of Ghazni. In his memoirs, we find the following description of regarding the eating of cows:

      Some Hindus say that in the time before Bharata (i.e.Mahabharata war) it was allowed to eat the meat of cows, and that there then existed sacrifices part of which was the killing of cows. After that time, however, it had been forbidden on account of the weakness of men, who were too weak to fulfil their duties, as also the Veda, which originally was only one, was afterwards divided into four parts, simply for the purpose of facilitating the study of it to men. This theory, however, is very little substantiated, as the prohibition of the meat of cows is not an alleviating and less strict measure, but, on the contrary, one which is more severe and more restrictive than the former law.

      Other Hindus told me that the Brahmans used to suffer from the eating of cows’ meat. For their country is hot, the inner parts of the bodies are cold, the natural warmth becomes feeble in them, and the power of digestion is so weak that they must strengthen it by eating the leaves of betel after dinner, and by chewing the betel-nut. The hot betel inflames the heat of the body, the chalk on the betel-leaves dries up everything wet, and the betel-nut acts as an astringent on the teeth, the gums, and the stomach. As this is the case, they forbade eating cows’ meat, because it is essentially thick and cold.

      I, for my part, am uncertain, and hesitate in the question of the origin of this custom between two different views,
      (Lacuna in the manuscript.)
      As for the economical reason, we must keep in mind that the cow is the animal which serves man in travelling by carrying his loads, in agriculture in the works of ploughing and sowing, in the household by the milk and the product made thereof. Further, man makes use of its dung, and in winter-time even of its breath. Therefore it was forbidden to eat cows’ meat; as also Alhajjaj forbade it, when people complained to him that Babylonia became more and more desert.

      (Edward Sachau. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030; London, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., ltd., 1910, vol. 2, p 152)

      Reply
  4. ipsa

    I really liked the article as it was unique with respect to explaining many things which we believe blindly and turn out to be not really true. Its wonderful as it really helps to understand that unnecessary customs serve no purpose in reaching god. I have read it 2,3 times before.

    Reply
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  8. Sandeep Post author

    Question: There is an old Hindu belief that one should not lie down or sleep with one’s head towards the North. Has it got any real significance, Mother?

    Mother Mirra Alfassa: Many things have been said on the subject but, as far as my own experience goes, I do not attach much importance to that belief.

    What does science say on the belief that north-south sleeping direction is better?

    There was a paper published in 1987 on this topic:
    Dependence of a sleeping parameter from the N-S or E-W sleeping direction by Ruhenstroth-Bauer G, Rüther E, Reinertshofer T.
    The paper says that “the duration of REM latency is influenced by the position of sleepers in N-S or E-W direction: it is shortened in E-W direction (p = 0.02).”
    See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2962381

    In a Q&A in the Hindu newspaper, Dr. Nagarajan Venkataraman, Professor Emeritus in Neuro Sciences, at the Dr MGR Medical University, Chennai answered this question, as follows:

    “Many researches are being conducted even now with high exposure of magnetic fields on human volunteers to see the effect of the magnetism on the human brain.

    It is observed that some amount of sleep disturbances have been recorded to a certain extent, but it is not convincingly proved that exposure of brain to magnetic field does cause such disturbances in sleep.

    There are two types of phases in sleep, the REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement sleep) which is the initial phase of sleep, during an attempt to sleep. During this period the eyeball rolls from side to side. It runs for a period of 20-40 minutes.

    The second phase of sleep is called Non Rapid Eye Movement sleep (NREM sleep), which lasts for a few hours. The cycle returns after a period of sleep, say around 4 to 6 hours, repeatedly. During the REM sleep we do get dreams. There appears to be a disturbance in REM sleep if exposed to a magnetic field for a long time.

    The body as such may be a magnet, though research has not proved it. But it consists of several ‘bar magnets’ which are hydrogen atoms. Magnetic Resonance Imaging relies on the concept of bar magnets in body fluid and in tissues.

    Such bar magnets should be in alignment with the Earth’s magnet (i.e. north and south pole of the body bar magnets, on par with the south and north pole of the Earth’s magnet) when the head is on the southern side.

    So far specific studies have been conducted in the sleep EEG of the patients in my lab, which did not show any gross alteration in the sleep pattern, except for a slight shortening of the REM sleep.

    There may be some possible factors which may influence the body’s bar magnets especially of brain towards the generation or alteration of sleep pattern. Since there is a lot of psychological, mythical influence on the belief that keeping the head on the north side is bad, one may get influenced psychologically also to get REM sleep disturbances.

    In course of time, researchers will unravel the truth. But, in the general practice of neurology, there are affirmative data (may be due to psychological causes) on whether patients are getting disturbed sleep. ”

    http://www.hindu.com/seta/2008/03/20/stories/2008032051191600.htm

    Reply
  9. Sandeep Post author

    A description of Diwali or Deepavali from the memoir of Iranian Muslim scholar Alberuni (Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī) written in the 11th century:

    The 1st Karttika, or-new moon’s day, when the sun marches in Libra, is called Dibali. Then people bathe, dress festively, make presents to each other of betel-leaves and areca-nuts; they ride to the temples to give alms and play merrily with each other till noon. In the night they light a great number of lamps in every place so that the air is perfectly clear. The cause of this festival is that Lakshmi, the wife of Vasudeva, once a year on this day liberates Bali, the son of Virocana, who is a prisoner in the seventh earth, and allows him to go ‘out into the world. Therefore the festival is called Balirajya, i.e. the principality of Bali. The Hindus maintain that this time was a time of luck in the Kritayuga, and they are happy because the feast-day in question resembles that time in the Kritayuga.

    (Edward Sachau. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030; London, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., ltd., 1910, vol. 2, p 152)

    Reply
  10. Sandeep Post author

    Disciple : Is there any truth in the belief that the three times prescribed for the sandhya (a Hindu religious practice) are more favourable for meditation ?

    Sri Aurobindo : Yes, they are. These transitional times – especially the evening times – are times when you are most likely to be attacked by the hostile powers.

    Disciple : Is there no time which gives one the greatest immunity from these attacks ?

    Sri Aurobindo : I don’t think there is any such time ; if you are open to them you can be always attacked and more so at these sandhyas – transitional times.

    Disciple : There is an idea that the bright half of the lunar month is more favourable to Sadhana(askesis) than the dark half.

    Sri Aurobindo : There is some truth in it, I think

    […]

    Disciple : My father one day suddenly got up from sleep and asked me at the dead of night to get away saying that the house was going to collapse. He dragged me out and the moment we were out of the verandah a portion of the house collapsed.

    Sri Aurobindo : That is not an omen, it is a premonition. Many people get that sort of intimation. You can always get it provided you are open to it in the subconscious and you allow it to come up to the surface in the conscious being.

    Disciple : Do you mean that there are forces that intimate these occurrences ?

    Sri Aurobindo : Yes. Man is surrounded by these small physico-vital beings and some of them take a great interest in man. They know the near, the immediate future, what is just going to happen. They can intimate it to you if you are open.

    (A.B. Purani. Evening Talks, Second Series, pp 167-168, dated 30 July 1926)

    Reply
  11. ipi

    Women priests in Hinduism are not new. But for the first time, an institute in Pune is offering women a one-year course which will train them to become ‘purohitas’ or female priests. And the response so far has been quite encouraging, with many families specifically asking for ‘purohitas’. “Seventy per cent of our batch comprises women, most of them housewives, who are doing this course to do a job of a purohita,” said Arya Joshi, Senior Instructor, Jnana Prabodhini, Pune.

    Reply
  12. mike

    “Sri Aurobindo : Yes. Man is surrounded by these small physico-vital beings and some of them take a great interest in man”

    ls the ‘physico-vital’ like the ‘subtle-physical’ or ‘lower astral’??
    l suppose SA is referring to those beings that don’t belong to the human side of evolution – angelic or perhaps nature spirits like fairies etc…

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Physico-vital probably means vital-physical. Yes, they are angelic beings or gods of the lower plane.

      In Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi”, there is a story of a wonder-worker who uses the power of a disembodied spirit:

      “Afzal faithfully followed his yoga exercise for twenty years. His miraculous feats began to attract widespread attention. It seems that he was always accompanied by a disembodied spirit whom he called ‘Hazrat.’ This invisible entity was able to fulfill the fakir’s slightest wish.”

      http://www.crystalclarity.com/yogananda/chap18.php

      Reply
  13. Pingback: On luck, superstitions, folk tales and miracles | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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