Q: Gurudev, my in-laws force me to wash my hands after I touch cooked rice. During my menses cycle, they don’t allow me to enter the prayer room, kitchen or touch clothes. Why do they follow these customs? Is there any scientific reason behind it?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You need scientific experiments to be conducted to prove or disprove any custom. Unless an experiment is done, you can’t say whether a custom is wrong or right! For example, in traditional homes, before going to the toilet, people would tie the sacred thread around their ear; many times this looked absurd. The explanation given was that maybe the sacred thread is long, hanging down too much, tie it on the ear, so it does not get caught anywhere. However, a scientist in New York published a study which stated that the back of the ears and the ear lobes are connected to the bowels. So when the ears are squeezed, the blood pressure comes down and the bowel movement is better.
So the custom does have an impact on the system. This is why you cannot say that it is superstition; although at one level it was a superstition, on another level, there was a scientific validation to the practice.
Similarly, people thought the use of turmeric in food, and washing vessels was also a superstition. In a lot of the food preparations, they would put a Tulsi (basil) leaf on top of the food after it was cooked. Scientists in the eighties targeted turmeric for a long time, saying, ‘Oh this is just color, pigmentation; it has no big value, there is nothing sacred about turmeric, it does not add any value to the food.’
By the nineties, scientists discovered that turmeric is the best antioxidant.
The Ayurvedic Vaidyas (physicians) said that turmeric acts as a vayasthapan, i.e., a process that stops aging; but nobody believed them. MBBS doctors would say all this is nonsense. Later, scientists proved that turmeric is very good for health; it even stops cancer. So, you cannot discard any practice unless it is proven wrong.
Again, I am saying that we have to keep an open mind; maybe it is proven right at one time and disproved later on.
There was a big wave in this country that peanut oil is very bad. In South Indian homes, they would use only peanut oil and gingelly oil (sesame oil). A company that wanted to promote palm oil said coconut oil is bad; these other oils are bad; palm oil is the best oil. Suddenly everyone started using palm oil.
Now research has disproved that, and found that groundnut oil, i.e., peanut oil is very good, it is the best; they sing the glory of peanut oil. In fact, people used groundnut oil here for centuries, millennium! In Tamil Nadu, gingelly oil is called Nalla ennai, i.e., very good oil. It is supposed to do so much good to our system.
Since the oil market had to import all that Malaysian palm oil to India, some researchers made these sorts of stories. The research was funded by the company, and it created a wrong impression. So, the research conducted should be authentic, and we should keep our mind open for further research.
In the future, if another research comes up and says this is wrong, we should not hold on to it, we should be ready to embrace it.
The beauty with the ancient Ayurvedic System is that it is time tested for 5,000 years! That is why tradition cannot be overlooked. Having said that, many times tradition has been interpolated; a lot of things have been kept in the name of tradition.
For example, people say you should apply hot kheer (rice pudding) on the body of a small baby, then the child will grow well; or dangle the child upside down for a few minutes, maybe some God will be pleased or something; these are all stupid things. These practices are very remote; maybe some people follow these practices in the name of religion in some villages; it is ridiculous.
I am not saying that we should follow all that tradition is saying; simultaneously, you cannot totally discard tradition; the middle path has to be chosen.
If someone has passed away or a child is born in the house, they have sutak, i.e., they are untouchable for ten days. This would be practiced by very close relatives. They won’t celebrate anything or go to anyone’s house; no one will take or eat food from their house. What is the reason behind this?
Whenever someone dies, people are overcome with such grief that the vibration of their grief is in their homes, in their atmosphere, so they are free from all obligations, that is all. It is not that if you touch somebody, something will happen to you. It is just the vibration for ten days is like that, filled with grief.
Suppose someone has no grief! If someone was sick in the family for a long time, when they die, the family is happy. They say, ‘Okay, well he got liberated, I am happy for him and I am happy for myself.’ Then there are no negative, depressive, sad vibrations, because they are happy for them! Everybody has to go some day!
Similarly, when a child is born people are very excited, too happy; even then the vibrations are not calming. So people say at such times also one is free from all obligations. But, people stretch it to such an extent that it does not appeal to your intellect.
When the menstrual cycle happens a woman is supposed to take good rest. So, it is just to keep that barrier, to tell women not to get involved in any work, that this tradition is maintained. It is to let women just rest, sleep, relax, read, do some knitting or whatever. Otherwise, when women start working, they do too much work.
About the rice and cooked food; in the ancient days, cooked starchy food was sticky. It would usually overflow from the pot. You touched the pot and then touched anything else, everything would become sticky. If you touched the food, it would stick to your hands, so it would be better to wash your hands; this is the reason. Today you don’t touch it by hand, you use spoons.
In those days, the hygiene consciousness was so good; so when you touched starchy foods, you have to wash your hands. They would even keep fruits separately. However, someone should do research on these customs.
Even the Jews have a similar tradition; if you touch milk, then you don’t touch meat; they have certain rules.
The Japanese also have such customs; orthodox Japanese people keep separate set of cups and vessels for guests; they have a separate cupboard in which the guests’ washed vessels are kept. They don’t use the guests’ vessels and they don’t let anybody else use their vessels either. I was very surprised to see this in Japan. Even in India, some people used to follow this tradition of keeping their cups and plates separate. In Japan, this is very prevalent in the traditional family homes and in monasteries.
Many of these habits do not have a scientific background, or reason for it, then we should stop practicing them. If some practices are there, we should see if it is good, or at least do some experiment in that direction.