Rituals and Etiquette

By Sunder Das

“The great secret is not having good manners or bad manners or any other        particular sort of manners, but having the same manners for all human souls.”   George Bernard Shaw

As Rituals and Etiquette are inextricably connected I want to deal with them as one.  One of the first things that comes to mind is an experience I had had while I was waiting at a bus stop in New Delhi.  In those days people had no concept of a queue and it was a fight to get into the bus first!

A gentleman whom I did not know from Adam struck up a conversation with me.  After he had ascertained that I was from Kerala and that I was married, his next question was as to where I was working.  Albeit reluctantly I supplied the information and the ensuing question rendered me nonplussed, to say the least.  He wanted to know how much I earned.  I felt tempted to add a couple more zeros to my salary but I thought the better of it.

Thinking back on this incident it was not the first time I had struck this kind of information seeking.   In those days the journey from Chennai to New Delhi took the best part of two days with a bit over.  Although we enjoyed the luxury of a reserved ticket, the journey was not for the introverted person but for the outgoing who could supply exaggerated accounts of his life and employment.   I hate conversations with strange people on those occasions.   But there was no escape from the prying questions of the people travelling with me.

By the end of the first day everyone in the compartment knew everything about everyone else.  But this information gathering was without malice as there was only one chance in a million that one would run into any of those fellow travellers in the foreseeable future.  Although one can say that this kind of curiosity cuts across the so-called good manners, I think our Indian people are used to this and think nothing of their curiosity.   So much for the first lesson in good manners.

In the West it is customary for a man to stand up when a lady enters the room.   I do not know whether it is the same in India too.  But I do know one thing that men as also women stand up when a VIP or a Swamiji comes near.  It is a beautiful thing to see people prostrating and touching the feet of a Swamiji.   I hope this habit does not die out.  In the Bible we read:  “How beautiful are the feet of them that bring good tidings.”   Touching of the feet is a custom in the East.  I do not know how or whence this habit originated.  In this context I remember an incident when a particularly noteworthy, well-liked former Indian High Commissioner to Australia was offended when some Indian ladies sitting at a table did not stand up when he approached.   I sometimes wonder why the so-called socialites chose to ignore the niceties of good manners on that occasion,

One of the saddest things is that we tend to ignore children when they are around.  Again we have to consider what Jesus said:  “Suffer little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Parents and others who consider little children as important people not only bring happiness to the little ones but also to themselves.   To have a child as a friend is to have unbounded happiness.

I think that India is a country with boundless rituals suitable for every occasion.  Hardly a month passes when we do not have a festival or the other.  And for women exclusively there are special festivals.   When a woman is seven months pregnant her women friends get together and have a celebration with rituals galore.  Her hands and feet are adorned with patterns of henna.  Every one of her friends then adorns her forehead with sandalwood paste and kumkum.  Her hair is plaited carefully and flowers placed on it.  The whole ceremony lasts for a couple of hours after which a tasteful vegetarian lunch is laid out in which sweets form an integral part.  The whole function is to wish her well and also her unborn child.

It is customary for a man to walk closer to the kerb and his lady companion to walk in comparative safety on the other side.  This must have originated from the need to protect the lady from the mud and spray that used to be generated when vehicles passed by in days of yore.   Remember how Sir Walter Raleigh spread his coat over a puddle so that the Queen did not have to soil her clothes in the mud. One does not often come across the need for this kind of courtesy anymore on Sydney streets.

One of the most colourful festivals celebrated in India is the Holi to commemorate the safety of the god-fearing Prince Prahlada from the demoness Holika who was burnt in a bonfire.  This festival also celebrates the joyful play of Sri Krishna and the Gopis.   Krishna has been referred to as the artist who dyes this world in the hues of bliss and joy.

Cutting the cake is a ritual at birthday parties and at weddings.  This is essentially a thing of western culture now adopted widely among Indians.   The origin of this practice is not very clear.   But in weddings at least when the bride and groom both hold the knife together to cut the cake it betokens their unity in all that they do.  It is customary for them also to feed each other a piece of cake presumably to indicate that they both would sustain each other in their future life.

It is customary for the bride to throw her bouquet before she departs with her spouse for the honeymoon.  Any girl who catches the flowers, the saying goes, would get married next.  In the West it is considered ill luck if the groom were to see the bride on the day of the wedding before they both go to Church for the ceremony.

In the East it is considered not only bad manners but also inauspicious if a person were to give a gift to another using the left hand.  In the West especially in Church one sees people put collections in the plate using the left hand. An offering to God is made with both hands or at least with the right. When greeting another Indian we always fold both our hands together to denote the holistic nature of the Universe and the pervasive nature of the Atman. Shaking hands is a Western custom but for the Indians who live in Australia it is necessary to greet other Westerners in that fashion.  But many young people of Indian origin present a limp hand just like a dead fish! This creates an impression of weakness.  A handshake has to be firm.

It is perhaps relevant now to speak about the sanctity of the document that contains the written word. It has a great deal to do with Saraswati the goddess of learning. Indians and people of the East usually do not step on any kind of writing.  It is therefore understandable why the desecration of a holy book in recent times has caused such a great furore in the Middle East.  This is the greatest insult that can be offered to a culture and indeed to God himself.

When we first come to encounter the Western culture it is always a surprise that even a young person when addressing an older professional uses the Christian name.  In the universities a young student could address his professor in this manner.  The inability or unwillingness of the Eastern student to do so causes complaints of crawling.  In fact respectfulness towards one at a higher professional level is inherent in the Eastern Guru tradition and I think it would not be proper for the youngsters to disregard this important cue.  I am afraid the present generation of Indians in Australia is fast sinking into the morass of a non-ritualistic existence.  The so-called scientific materialism devoid of the gracious rituals of living could lead to a kind of anomie.

There does exist a kind of courtesy when an artiste is invited to perform on stage.  If he or she is a singer, that artiste is supposed to stop after a couple of numbers.  But what do we find?  When a singer confronts a captive audience, the temptation to prolong the agony of the people is hard to overcome!  I often think that there ought to be a trap door on stage that could unobtrusively be opened by the MC when the artiste has transgressed his allotted time, pitching the offender into the void below.  Then there is the band that clutters up the stage with all kinds of electronic gear preventing other performers like the dancers from exercising their skill.  One way out of this difficulty would be to get the band to set up their wares during the break for refreshments.  After the intermission there should be only the items pertaining to their expertise. However, there is the danger though that most of the people in the audience might disappear after the refreshments! I find that performers in the band have an exaggerated sense of their importance and their ability to please.

I feel that the invention of the keyboard has been one of the most unfortunate of developments.  The canned music with built in percussion and accompaniments prevents the full exercise of the creativity of the performer.  Furthermore it has a tinny tone rather offensive to the discerning ear.  But it is the craze in the West these days and the Indian youth is all agog with enthusiasm to embrace this instrument.  Gone are the days when the violin, the veena and the mridangam kept the listeners spellbound.  It seems that classical music has also fallen a victim to the meretricious tricks of “progress”.  The same applies to Western music too. The orchestras which used to play Mozart, Bach and Beethoven do not have popular appeal any more, and least of all to the young people.

Gone are the days too when the graceful lilt of ballroom dancing appealed to the dream of the performers and the watchers alike.  And the music of Strauss and other composers who wove their skills in accompaniment is a thing of the past.   The “thump thump” music which we hear these days and the vituperative jumping up and down without rhyme or reason that goes under the rubric of modern dancing such as rock and roll and disco have universal appeal. In parties and other public functions our children too take to this meaningless activity.  I have a strong feeling that the young people of India have lost their way and we adults are not helping any to bring them back. We have to be happy about one thing though.  Bharata Natyam is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

The giving of gifts is an exquisite art that needs a lot of cultivation.  There are two kinds of gift givers. The first gives gifts, perhaps very expensive ones that he/she likes.  The second likes to give what the recipient likes or needs.   It is not always necessary to give very expensive gifts.  When a person has learned this art then one might say that he has become an adept at interpersonal relations

Although what I am about to say transcends mere etiquette, it has to be said that double standards exist as to the value of human life in the East and in the West.   Thinking people all over the world will agree that killing is evil but when people are killed in Western countries as a result of bombing, it is made much of and the perpetrators are said to be barbaric and without conscience. When the Coalition forces kill thousands of innocent men, women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one seems to think it is a terrorist activity. It seems to me the only difference is that the Coalition employs the latest weapons and kills both on the ground and from the air!

Consonant with the present day Information Technology and Online behaviour, is the code of ethics known as Netiquette, namely the art of what can be said and not said in Cyberspace.  Some gossip and rumour that are nonmalignant can be spread among friends in a chat room but things that could cause dissension should be avoided.  Further, it seems to me that messages on the Internet email system have to be answered promptly.  In recent days we have seen how items of news in the Media have caused riots and protests in many countries. Another thing is that when writing out sentences or phrases, unnecessary capitalizing is often synonymous with yelling!

In the final analysis one has to agree with Edmund Spenser when he says: “The gentle mind by gentle deeds is known.  For a man by nothing is so well betrayed as by his manners.”

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Posted by on Nov 18 2010. Filed under Body Mind Spirit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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