Monday, October 28, 2013

Common superstitions in South India

Many Indians are extremely superstitious. It is a big part of the culture - astrology, vaastu shastra, drishti - all are mainstream beliefs. A superstition is "a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like." In India, there is a huge belief in supernatural occurrences, bad omens, and there Hindu rituals to remove these bad omens. I think Hinduism is one of the more superstitious religions - as even marriages are fixed as per auspicious stars; and many politicians also use astrology.

My MIL is extremely superstitious, like any other typical traditional Indian aunty. She is always removing drishti (evil eye) and is generally a big scaredy-cat. Many of the Indian elders are like this that I've met - one time, we were leaving our friends' house in Hyderabad, the aunty handed me a small stone to put in our car. It was because traveling in 3's is bad luck, so you have to bring an object to put in the car to represent "a fourth entity" so nothing happens to you. As a Westerner, all this is new to me! Our superstitions in Canada are extremely limited - few and far between.

As my MIL is here now, we have been watching all the horror films on TV, with Halloween coming up. I decided to ask her what are some common superstitions in India - particularly in South India - in our Tamil / Telugu Brahmin communities - that she has heard. Here are some that she recalled:

Common superstitions in South India

- sleeping with the legs facing south is a bad omen (dead bodies are buried facing this way)

- midnight on the night of the new moon (amarvasya) is said to be the night of ghosts

(via)

- black cats in the path in front of you are seen as a bad omen, and are seen as carriers of witchcraft

- if you sneeze whilst you are leaving the house, you must stop for 15-20 mins before going 

- it is bad luck to see a widow (stranger, not family) the first thing in the morning

- if any idol of a god, mirror or glass breaks, it needs to be immediately thrown out due to bad luck

- it is bad luck to travel in groups of 3's - either use an object to act as a 4th person; or 2 people leave the house first, and the 3rd person leaves 5mins after

- if you go to a special occasion (birthday, marriage celebration - where there are lots of people) and you come back with a headache, vomiting, excessive yawning - then someone has given you the evil eye. To remove the drishti, an elder must take salt, dried red chillies and camphor in your right palm and circle it around your head (3, 5, or 7 times according to severity of the misfortune) and throw it out

(via)

- a string of lemon and chillies can ward off the evil eye at entrance ways to homes

- if you are having health problems, to remove the bad drishti you the elder must take lime and dried chillies tied together with a string, and rice; circle it around your head and then throw it on the road. It is said that the person who steps on the lime will take away your misfortune and take it onto themselves (people avoid stepping on lime and chillies on the road)

- if you bite your tongue, someone is cursing you

- if you choke on your food, someone is thinking about you seriously

- if you are giving a gift of money, it must always be in odd numbers (51 INR, 101 INR)

- After sunset on Saturdays, Tuesdays or Fridays, you must not cut your hair or nails

Peepal tree (via)

- trees such as Marichettu (banyan), Peepal, Tamarind, and Kumkurukai are to be avoided as evil spirits are said to reside there

- after childbirth, you should not go to the temple for 11 days

- after a death in the family, you should only go to the temple after the 13th day

- - if there is a death in the family, no festivals should be celebrated for one year. Also, boys of the family (who carry on the family name) should not get married for one year. Girls, however, can get married and it is seen as lucky if they do.

- if someone offers you food while you are leaving the house, it is a bad omen to say no. Also if someone asks you `Where are you going?`` while you are leaving, your work will not be fulfilled

- wearing black is seen as unlucky; where as in North India, white is unlucky, as that is what widows wear

(via)

- solar and lunar eclipses are also seen as unlucky times. Temples will be closed, and you should not eat or cook food during that time. Pregnant women are also supposed to stay indoors as it is said to have a bad effect on the fetus. Childbirth is also considered to be unlucky during these eclipses.

- if the family has a series of misfortunes due to a bad nakshatra (bad star), then it is common for the house you are staying in to be completely vacated for several months, and after several pooja's are performed to calm the bad spirits of the house down

- if a woman has her period, she should not cook or enter the kitchen. She should avoid touching anyone, and stay in a separate room. She should not go to the temple or attend marriages (even a woman's marriage date will be fixed around her period)

- symbols that are associated with witchcraft: graveyard, midnight on amarvasya (new moon), tamarind tree, black cats, lemon, blood, hair

- the cow is a sacred animal, and his tail is the most holy part (cows are seen as "mother")

- cows, elephants, snakes, and peacocks are seen as good luck

- owls, crows, or bats should not enter the house - bad omens

- if a crow hits your head, death is on the way

- it is bad luck to sweep the house at night (sweeping away prosperity)

- in the olden days, taking photographs of children was avoided as it was seen as exposing them more to the evil eye (hence husband-ji`s lack of baby pics!)

- penciling a black dot on the body with kajol prevents the evil eye (even if the black dot is hidden on the leg) In marriages, you will often see a black dot on the couple`s cheeks

- vaastu is often followed in houses to bring good fortune (similar to feng shui)

- left hand is inauspicious - you should not give or take anything with the left hand, especially food, gifts or money

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Yea, I know, right? Such a huge list! I personally do not believe in superstitions, although I am scared of ghosts and things like that. I think the only superstitions we share in Canadian culture is the fear of the black cat. But, I think things only have meaning when you give them the power of having a meaning. After all, as an intercultural couple, we have gotten the evil eye since day 1 - so it`s really nothing new to me! However, I do have the Greek evil eye in my house (thanks to my Greek aunties!) just as a precaution :)

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Related articles:
BURI NAZAR & BABIES, by Chardi Kala Life
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What about you, dear readers? Do you believe in the evil eye and bad omens? What superstitions do you have in your cultures and which ones do you follow?


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34 comments

  1. In Hindu belief full moon is auspicious. Most of the religious days are actually full moon days. There is a belief that if you put a container filled with kheer (sweet rice porridge) outside on a full moon night, the rays of the moon turns it into nectar. It is very good for health. This is different from the western legends where full moon is associated with rise of the werewolves and vampires.

    All the superstitious that you mentioned are prevalent all over the country among different communities irrespective of religion because everyone was hindu once upon a time in India. About the chilli thing, after waiving it over one's head it is thrown into fire. If there is smoke, then somebody had cast a evil eye, otherwise it is ok.

    Some believes have scientific basis. Scientists have proved that at the time of solar eclipse, sun's ultra violet rays are more prominent. So it is advisable not to venture out during solar eclipse. About women and periods, the women were prohibited to work so that they get some respite from daily work during that crucial period. It was also hygienic to do so at that time, when modern amenities were not available to women. These practices were then given religious legitimacy so that people follow. them.

    In our community, we say "I come" when going out of the house. It is considered inauspicious to say "I am going", which means that the person going out won't come back the house. India has always socially and economically unstable, due to wars, famines, religious persecutions etc. agricultural society, these superstitious emerged out partly our to insecurities and party due to common sense couched in superstitious.

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    1. Very interesting!!! Thank you for adding!
      Yes, in Western legend, full moon is associated with crazy behavior. When I was in the hospital, I asked the nurses if they get more people during full moon and they said yes - tons more than usual. Also the maternity wards get a ton more during full moons.
      For the Indian superstitions - the only thing I wonder though, is why are so many still followed in modern day? Especially with the periods thing - that you should not go to temple etc., obviously in modern times there is nothing unsanitary about menstruation...?

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    2. hi Alexandra...there are a few more, eso in brahmin communities. if a lone brahmin crosses your path brfore you start about something or somewhere, you may not be successful... and hey though all these are termed superstitions, I came to know that some of them have social/scientific significance, while others are versions of proper practices twisted over time. for ex: teh belief that if u go to a large gathering and a lot of people observe you, you might end up being ill. modern research has shown thoughts to be electromagnetic fields. this is why a collective positive thought(like praying in groups or chanting /bhajans) is supposed to attract positive cosmic energy. I also read that it has been proven to be true.. In that case, the contrary is true too. that a collective negative thought(of jealousy envy etc), at gatherings or parties, can cause harm..
      source- experience of "trying: to read some authentic indian texts like the upanishads and vedas and some info from books and teh internet (try reading the Krishna key by ashwin sanghi (he is the latest very popular Indian author). an interesting work of fiction which also makes a good attempt at explaining the underlying reasons for some popular Indian customs.
      p.s just voicing an opinion, not trying to be defensive:)

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    3. @lucky - Wow that is so interesting and it makes a lot of sense too. I really believe in the power of prayer.
      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Xo

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  2. People take a bath and then sit in pooja or go to temple. Some people do not participate in pooja/go to temple after going to toilet. After visiting the loo, you need to change clothes, take a bath and then participate in religious ceremonies. You have to be physically pure. That is why women don't go to temples during periods. There also the practice of not entering temple after eating meat/carrying meat. I guess we associate god with purity.

    Tamil Brahmans in my experience are very conservative. There is class hierarchy between Iyengars and Iyars where one is placed slightly above the other. There is also a division between Shivaites (worshipers of Lord Shiva who put horizontal lines on their forehead ) and Vaishavanites (those who worship Lord Vishnu and put single vertical line on their forehead). These two groups have been historically averse to each other. I was told this by a tamil brahmin so I can't vouch for its authenticity. I am not a Tamilian myself. They have build a caste system within the Brahmins itself which is ridiculous. I believe such sub divisions exist within castes in all communities etc. This is like opening a Pandora's Box.

    BTW Bengali and Kashmiri Brahmins eat meat, while north indian and south indian brahmins are vegetarians.

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    1. Very interesting, thanks for adding.
      Ummm....yes...Tamil Brahmins are extremely conservative. In everything, especially in eating habits - it is almost borderline OCD or eccentric. I have also noticed the hierarchy within the Tamil Brahmin community, as Iyengars are seen to be the highest (whatever that means, LOL) Iyengars worship Vishnu, and Iyers worship Shiva.
      My MIL is a Telugu Niyogi Brahmin whose family worshipped Shiva, so naturally her Iyengar inlaws had an absolute fit! (love marriage) Not to mention, when she visited our family's Iyengar village, some would not even let her enter the house.
      I love my Iyengar family, but a lot of times I notice an air of superiority with the Iyengars, as if they believe they are truly god-like. I personally do not believe in the caste system or all these sub-castes. It is not like anybody has a particular blood type. Everybody is human, we are all the same.

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    2. iyers worship all hindu gods but iyengars are vishnu fanatics.
      u can easily see a iyer in vihnu temple but its difficult to find iyengar in a shiva temple

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    3. @anonymous - very true. I wouldn't exactly call them "fanatics" but I would call them extremely picky...LOL

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    4. Actually Tamil iyengars are like Muslims (no god but allah & the last prophet Mohd.) & Christians(jesus as god & son of god) in their approach to religion (no god but vishnu & major prophet like being would be Ramanujan & their saints would be Alwars).Among hindus i have only seen Tamil vaishnavites(iyengar) community who are just too much into Vishnu becoz he is the only savior according to their ideology.Also iyengars are a minority in hinduism & most hindus(more than 90%) are open to worship any hindu god.

      But in iyengars god vishnu is kind of forced up on & people don't chose gods other than avatars of vishnu as their ishta devata.also there are some tamil shivaites who do this but they are miniscule.

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  3. Caste system was originally designed on the assumption that everybody has an inborn quality which must be of use to the society. It had nothing to do with birth. In every society there are learned people doctors,scientists etc., (Brahmins), people who are dynamic, leaders, military men(Khashtriyas), business people (Vyas) and common people (Shudras). The Hindus just gave a name to this system.

    When the Aryans settled own in India (i.e. if we believe the Aryan theory), the society was divided into four castes on the basis of occupational specialization"-

    1. Brahmins who gave intellectual and spiritual guidance to the society
    2. Khatriyas who protected the tribe from wild animals and rival tribes.
    3. Vyayas or business men who provided goods for daily use.
    4. Shudras who were provided services to the society.

    This was not a birth based system which it later become. It also acted as check and balance as one who taught did not wield weapons and the one who wielded weapons did not decide the policy. Overtime the original idea was lost and it became casteism instead of the caste system.

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    1. Very, very interesting! Love to learn all these things.

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    2. As far as i know iyengars split out of the iyer caste becoz they became worshipers of Shri Vishnu & folowers of Shri Ramanuja who preached that Vishnu is the supreme being & Shiva etc are subservient to Vishnu, may be because of this they consider themselves superior to other people as they worship the superior god & others have not understood this truth yet.Also socially they are rich & educated hence occupied higher ranking Govt Jobs but other castes of india are also catching up as for centuries they were denied social respect & equality.Brahmins are already being pushed back by other communities, today Brahmins are not the only educated community

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    3. Hmm...interesting theories....I am a Tamil Iyer...was deep into the anthropological and scientific logic behind these practices...and came upon on etheory which does seem to hold a lot of water...it happens to be the theory of disease prevention...in olden times ...the village / settlement / cities used to be organised to achieve maximum benefit for different professions....it was gradually learnt that there is no way the diseases can be contrlled from rapid spreading...and it was also seen that the warrior classes and the priests didnot have a s good an immune system as teh artisan and worker class...and to ensure that the people with the lower immune systems dont suffer....different rules of segregations were imposed...a scavenger or a butcher would certainly have a built in system of immunity much stronger that a sedentary priest who just bathes, studies and prays...so it was ruled that the so called higher castes will be allowed to accept uncooked edible items from teh lower castes...like milk, vegetables, etc ...which will positively have to be cooked before eating....and the continuity and extremely high levels of hiegiene imposed by the higher castes ensured that they had a longer life time...(the pure veg and peaceful life styles also helped)...and to ensure that the old people do not fall ill...and trouble the younger generations,, they were given additional rules of hygiene..like teh MADI....this kept them further clean and disease/ infection free.....it also gave them a sense f identity and a well deserved respect in teh society...the ladies were not allowed to do anything in teh house hold during teh periods ...to ensure that they geta break from their chores day in day out with no week ends...it also got the family together in case of any mishap...becasue for teh 4 -5 days the man of teh house handled all teh affairs of teh house and was at any time fully conversant with all aspects of coooking...cleaning..rearing children etc...and he had a healthyrespect for his wife...additionally ...in case the lady became ill or was confined for labour ...the house hold didnt collapse on it self...logical ..maybe we can do with a lot of teh logic from he good old times..!!!....

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    4. Logical and scientific reply

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  4. Yes, I am South Indian and I have come across most of these!

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    1. :)
      My daughter's name is Maya too :)))

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  5. Hi Alexandra! I was wondering if you know any superstitions around oil or ghee, please? Is it auspicious or inauspicious to give it as a gift?

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  6. Your writings are deeply felt and well expressed. Since you know so much about your Telugu/Tamil customs, may I recommend a book on Indian history? Will and Ariel Durant have written a marvelous compendium of world history, one of the volumes is titled "Our Oriental Heritage", I highly recommend this book to you to get a better understanding of India.

    Almost all of these superstitions are common throughout India, but they are not really based in Hindu religious texts, just cultural as is so in the Western world ( black cats, #13, saying bless you after sneeze, etc), Many Muslims and Christians also believe in them as almost all of them were Hindus at one point before the Arab/Turkish/Mongol/Portuguese/British conquests.
    As a sign of progress, many Hindu temples in urban India as well as US do not prohibit women from entering temples during their periods, nor do they stop people from visiting temples immediately after a death in family....in fact they invite the members for prayers for the departed.
    Most of the customs are based on old fashioned needs of safety, cleanliness, health. Modern science has educated us all, including westerners, to drop irrational habits.
    In ancient times the caste system was a useful system of job classification and one could cross the lines until the good old boys clubs put up barriers...now is the time to bring down the walls.

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  7. supraja;very nice so many r written in this super

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  8. hello Mama, Namaskaram!
    I have just performed the varshabdikam of my father (along with my only brother) at my residence in Mumbai. He was suffering from multiple cancer relapse for past 5 years and we did all that we could until his last. His departure was difficult for all of us. On the last day of the 5day shraddham, a crow sat near the rice pinda for almost 2 hrs without cawing even once. Me and wife offered vada, appam and some water, it readily ate from our hand. after a while, it flew inside our home and then we had it push it out. perhaps in fear it shit too inside the home. my father was very dear to us, you have said that entering of the crow in the house is a bad omen.. what does this really mean? we stay in a high rise building structure in this house for past 9years, but something like this has never happened. i am curious and at the same time disturbed as well.

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  9. So interesting, thanks for sharing! The crow one is particularly scary.

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  10. Have you come across any references to bathing in one's clothes on a birthday and then giving whatever you are wearing away?

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  11. Most of the Hindu customs have hidden SCIENTIFIC interpretations which many fail to understand.

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  12. Yeah... Still many more believes blindly followed..

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  13. I can comment a lot about the things written here, but to keep things short, I'm restricting myself to women and menstruation topic. It is not just that women shouldn't enter temples (this is just modern idea) during periods, traditionally women should stay in a corner of a dedicated room (or 10x10 area) and take rest for typically 3 days. Other old women in family will take care of her during those days. This was a kind of forced period leave (from cooking and other household chores) in ancient days. There is nothing "Cool" about going to temples during menstruation. It is no different than a guy masturbating in church. And please don't bring in feminism here, period leave is catching up even in the west these days. I think people should look at this ancient practice with a positive attitude. Thanks for reading

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    1. I get the period-leave thought process but it should not be forced. It stems from the idea that women are "impure" during their periods. Also, did I read that correctly? You are comparing a guy masturbating to a woman's periods? Come on dude, please think before writing such nonsense.

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  14. I need to know if the relatives coming to our home for seeing new born baby .
    What is the reason ?
    Why they keeping money in pooja room instead of giving money in the babies hand . Is this good or bad for us please anyone give me ans

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  15. The thing I was informed by my elders about the mensturation is that a woman is very weak during the her periods and making her work during this time is not good. So in the Olden days, woman were not allowed to work or go out and are asked to be home to take rest as they get stomach cramps, body pains, etc., But asusual people started believing that it's bad luck or making things impure. In Indian myth woman are considered as most purest at the time of there period as there are going to be in the fertile window after her period or menstural cycle. Ovulation time or giving birth to a child is considered as the most purest relation in the world. �� This was a reason told by my grandparents. And they take care of each and every woman when there are in this phase of cycle.

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    1. Our ancestors did a mistake. They should have told the real scientific reason such as ladies not being strong enough during menstruation due to loss of blood. Instead of just laying down rules. Else there is a lot of science we don't know at all.

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  16. Hi please rply anybody...tomorrow is solar eclipse and am pregnant... can i attend birthday party? Plz its urjent

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    1. Ultra violet radiation more during eclipse. So there is a scientific reason. Pl ask your doctor. If you can avoid, please do. Best decision maker is your gynaec

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    2. By now, I hope you attended the birthday party. Just don't look at the sun while there is a solar eclipse to avoid burning your eyes/retinas :) That is the thought process behind it.

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  17. It's just human nature to criticize all things which are supernatural now you will say ghosts or demon does not exist but if you want I can prove it to you right now and after that you yourself will use lemon and chillies.

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