The Meaning of Culture
Each of the religions of the world has its own culture, with many customs, traditions and refined qualities. The Hindu culture is a culture of love, respect, honoring others and humbling one’s own ego so that the inner nature, which is naturally pure and modest, will shine forth. Here we have described some of the important faith and behaviors of Hindu community.
RESPECT AND REVERENCE
- RESPECT FOR ELDERS: Respect for elders is a keystone of Hindu culture. This genuine acknowledgment of seniority is demonstrated through endearing customs, such as sitting to the left of elders, bringing gifts on special occasions, not sitting while they are standing, not speaking excessively, not yawning or stretching, not putting one’s opinions forward strongly, not contradicting or arguing, seeking their advice and blessings, giving them first choice in all matters, even serving their food first.
- NAME PROTOCOL: Younger never uses the proper name of their elders. In the Tamil tradition, a younger brother, for example, refers to his brother as annan, or periannan (older brother), not by name. The elder, however, may use the name of the younger. Children are trained to refer to all adults as auntie or uncle. Only people of the same age will address each other by first name. A Hindu wife never speaks the name of her husband. When referring to him she uses terms such as “my husband,” “him” or, for example, “Athan, Mama, etc.,”.
- TOUCHING FEET IN RESPECT: One touches the feet of holy men and women in recognition of their great humility and inner attainment. A dancer or a musician touches the feet of his or her teacher before and after each lesson. Children prostrate and touch the feet of their mother and father at festivals and at special times, such as birthdays and before departing on a journey.
- Darshan (darshana): “Vision, sight.” Seeing the Divine. Beholding, with inner or outer vision, a temple image, Deity, holy person or place, with the desire to inwardly contact and receive the grace and blessings of the venerated being or beings.
- DAKSHINA: It is tradition to provide dakshina, a monetary fee or gift to a priest given at the completion of any rite. Dakshina is also given to gurus as a token of respect for their spiritual blessings.
Purity and its opposite, pollution, are vitally important in Hindu culture. Purity is of three forms — purity in mind, speech and body, or thought, word and deed. Purity is the pristine and natural state of the soul. Impurity, or pollution, is the obscuring of this state by adulterating experience and beclouding conceptions.
In daily life, the Hindu strives to protect this innate purity by wise living, following the codes of dharma. This includes harnessing the sexual energies, associating with other virtuous Hindu devotees, never using harsh, angered or indecent language, and keeping a clean and healthy physical body. Here are several ways purity is preserved in Hindu culture.
- PURITY AND FOOD: Purity is central to food and nutrition, as the nature of one’s nourishment deeply affects the entire physical, mental and emotional nature. One cooking food for others would never taste of the dish from a spoon and then put the spoon back in the pot. If food is to be tasted while cooking, a small portion is placed in the right hand. Similarly, one would not touch the lips to a water vessel that is also used by others. Nor would one offer something to another from which one has taken a bite or a sip.
- FLOWER OFFERINGS: One does not sniff flowers picked for offering to the Deities; even the smell is for the Gods, not for us. Flowers that fall to the ground should not be offered.
- OFFERINGS: Offerings, such as an archana basket, flowers or garlands, are carried with both hands on the right side of the body, so as to not be breathed on. All items are washed in preparation and, if carried more than a short distance, wrapped or covered.
- THE LEFT HAND: In Hindu culture the left hand is considered impure because it is used (with water) in the place of toilet paper for personal hygiene after answering the call of nature. Handing another person anything with the left hand may be considered a subtle insult.
- SHOES: Shoes are considered impure. The cultured Hindu never wears shoes or sandals inside a temple or shrine, nor in his home or the homes of other Hindus. Carrying shoes in the hands from one part of the premises to another is also avoided. An ultimate insult is to be struck with a shoe.
- CAUTION WITH FOOTWEAR: It is very important to apologize immediately if one touches someone with his or her shoe or sandal. This is done by touching the right hand to where the foot touched the other person and then touching one’s right hand lightly to his own left eye and then the right. This same remedy applies to inadvertently hitting someone with the hand or foot or bumping into him or her.
EXCHANGE OF PRANA
- GIVING AND RECEIVING WITH BOTH HANDS: Giving and accepting things from one to another, presenting offerings to the Deity, etc., is most properly done with both hands. The reason for this is that with the gift, prana is also given through both hands, thus endowing more energy to the object. The recipient of the gift receives it with both hands along with the prana from the gracious giver. It is known that this exchange of energies is vital for friendship, harmony and the total release of the gift to the recipient. Hindus never accept gifts from strangers or unknown persons.
- HUGGING AND EMBRACING: Hugging and embracing is found in Hindu culture; but it is restricted to close relatives, Guru/disciples and associates that too in a private place. In Mahabharatha and Ramayana we find this very often. Hugging and Embracing improves pranic energy and this practice is not allowed with strangers.
- NOT POINTING THE FINGER: Pointing with the forefinger of the right hand or shaking the forefinger in emphasis while talking is never done. This is because the right hand possesses a powerful, aggressive pranic force, and an energy that moves the forces of the world. Pointing the index finger channels that force into a single stream. The harshness of this energy would be severely felt in the nerve system of the recipient. More properly, rather than pointing or shaking the index finger to give direction or emphasize a verbal statement, the entire hand is used as a pointer, with the palm up and the thumb held alongside the forefinger.
- SHAKING HANDS: The traditional way that Hindu men greet one another is with the anjali mudra, then, with palms still held together, extending their hands to one another, in a two-handed handshake, in a deliberate transfer of prana. The hands of one man, usually the less senior, are gently clasped between the other’s. Each looks smilingly into the other’s face while bowing slightly in humility. This handshake is not firm, but relaxed and gentle.
- NOT THROWING THINGS: Throwing any object on another person is considered extremely improper, even if the persons know each other very well. Cultured Hindus consider this crude and even mildly violent, even if done in efficiency or jest.
- CARE IN SITTING: It is improper to sit with one’s legs outstretched toward a temple, shrine or altar, or even toward another person. This is a grave insult. Crossing one leg over the knee when sitting in a chair should be avoided, though crossing at the ankles is permitted. One must always try to follow the example of traditional elders. Worshiping, meditating or sitting in the kneeling pose is not acceptable among Hindus.
- DOORWAYS: Conversations are not held inside or through doorways. This is considered inauspicious. Similarly, to exchange or give or lend an object, one-steps inside the room first, or the recipient steps out of the room so that both parties are in the same room.
- MODESTY: Interaction in public between men and women is much more restrained in Hindu culture than in Western culture. In Hindu culture, for the most part, men socialize with men, and women with women. Men never touch women in public unless the lady is very elderly or infirm.
- DISPLAYING AFFECTION: Married Hindu couples do not hug, hold hands or kiss in public. Even embracing at airports and train stations is considered not wise. Men, however, frequently walk hand in hand.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
In traditional Hindu culture, women are held in the highest regard — far more respected, in truth, than in the West. But this does not imply the kind of equality or participation in public interactions that are common in the West. The qualities traditionally most admired in a Hindu woman are modesty of manner, shyness and self-effacement. Self-assertive or bold tendencies are regarded with circumspection. Feminine refinements are expressed and protected in many customs, including the following:
- WOMANLY RESERVE: In mixed company especially in the presence of strangers, a Hindu woman will keep modestly in the background and not participate freely in conversation. This, of course, does not apply to situations among family and close associates.
- WALKING BEHIND ONE’S HUSBAND: The wife walks a step or two behind her husband, or if walking by his side, a step or two back, always giving him the lead. In the West, the reverse of this is often true.3. SERVING AT MEALS: At meals women follow the custom of serving the men first before enjoying their own meal.
- CHAPERONING: It is customary for a woman to always be accompanied when she leaves the home. Living alone, too, is unusual.
- WOMEN IN PUBLIC: Generally it is improper for women to speak with strangers on the street and especially to strike up a casual conversation. Similarly, drinking alcohol or smoking in public, no matter how innocent, are interpreted as a sign of moral laxity and are not acceptable.
GUESTS IN THE HOME
- HOME VISITS: Close friends can visit one another anytime without being announced or making arrangements first. When they drop in, at least a refreshing drink is always served.
- HOSTING GUESTS: Children generally leave the room, with a smile, when guests enter. The mother remains close by to serve as needs arise. The father, if present, will speak with the guest. If he is not present, the mother and a mature son will fulfill this role; and if no son is present, the mother may act as hostess, but only with the accompaniment of someone close to the family.
- WIFE HOME ALONE: If the lady of the house is in home alone and a male visitor comes to see her husband, it is not proper for her to invite him in, nor for him to expect to enter. Rather, he will leave a message and depart.
- GIVING GIFTS: Gifts are always given when one visits a home or stays overnight as a guest. The value of the gift varies greatly, depending upon circumstances. It is proper to give a separate gift for the wife and the husband. The wife is given the nicest item.
All Hindus know that “Life is meant to be lived joyously!” All is God, and God is everywhere and in all things. This understanding and appreciation is exemplified in every aspect of Hindu deportment.
- KINDLY WORDS AND COUNTENANCE: Hindus strive to keep a pleasant expression on their face, a gentle smile and a kind word for everyone they meet through the day. They know in their heart of hearts that God is everywhere and that all in the universe is perfect at every point in time. This knowledge gives them strength and courage to face their daily karmas positively and graciously.
- REFINED GESTURES: Hindus know that every movement of the body, the face, hands, eyes, mouth, head, etc., has a meaning. Youth are taught to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others in their body language.
- EYES: Eyes are also a primary means of communicating, and the meanings are fairly straightforward. They usually indicate degrees of interest in what the speaker is saying. Smiling with your eyes as well as your mouth conveys sincerity. There are three levels of smiling (and infinite shades and degrees in between). Having the eyes open only slightly indicates mild interest. Eyes more open and a bigger smile indicates more interest and enthusiasm. Having the eyes open wide with a big smile or nod, possibly accompanied by some verbal expression, indicates greater interest or great happiness.