Removing the Past and Introducing the New

Click here for the Tamil version of this post.

There is a good saying in Tamil that ‘the old should be removed and the new should be introduced’ (பழையன கழிதல் புதியன புகுதல்). Those who promote this ideal do not encourage people to remove old things just for the sake of opposing old customs and traditions, but encourage the need and relevancy of them for our present time.

One such writer is Sri S. Venkatesan, who along with Dr. K. Sivaraman tour to important towns in Tamilnadu and share their views on this subject. They also share many good and important points regarding food habits. They warn about the modern food habits that cause many health problems and promote traditional foods that are quickly disappearing but good for health. Venkatesan also gives a lot of valuable information about our customs and traditions, and challenges us to think about their meaning and need for our time.

But one problem with such speakers is that in the name of saying something different or new, they oppose several traditional values, customs, and practices without knowing their background.

For example, at a recent meeting in Salem, Sri Venkatesan said:

Now we have new things amidst us. But old things are not yet removed completely. Our ancestors took fire with them in a mud pot in olden days when they carried the dead to cremate. Do you know the reason for that? In those days there was no matchbox. There was no electricity. Therefore they carried torches to see the path in dark. In order to keep the flame alive, they took fire along with them in the mud pot. Now electricity has come. Electric cremation has also come. Yet we didn’t abandoned carrying the fire in a mud pot. My argument is not against old customs. But after pondering about their need and use, we should give up them. This is my request. (p. 29)

He said this without knowing the background of this custom. In olden days in every Brahmin house they kept three important fires. The main one is known as garhapatya (household fire). For various ceremonies there will be another one called dakshina (south of garhapatya) and one for sacrifice called ahavaniya (in north).1 All the ‘twice born’ (dvija) viz., Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya can keep those fires, but this custom was largely practiced only by Brahmins. And even among the Brahmins, a special kind of Brahmins known as ‘Agnigotri’ generally kept that fire.

Among the fires, the garhapatya belongs only the head of the family (husband) in which his wife too can do rituals. But when he dies it will be put out. When he dies his body should be cremated only with that fire keeping his body as the material (ahudi) offered in that fire. So his son will carry that fire in a mud pot to the cremation ground.

Without knowing this custom, Sri Venkatesan out of his imagination shared that in order to keep the flame alive in a torch they took it with them. Even if it is true, what would they do when they return back from the cremation ground, where that mud pot with fire should be destroyed? And what about those who bury and don’t burn the dead person? They never carry any fire in a mud pot, so how would they have kept the flame alive in a torch? With rare exceptions most funerals (burning or burial) are done before the sun sets, though there is a provision to do it up to 8.30 pm. So why did they still carry the fire when they will complete the funeral before evening and can return back to their home before sunset?

Agreeing with Sri Venkatesan, one person in the audience said, “We accept this. There are several such customs, rituals and traditions still amidst us. There is a special kind of people whose livelihood depends upon doing this kind of ritual. Therefore they cannot give it up.” (p.28)

But the person who said that should know that those who are making a living depending upon such rituals never impose them on anyone. When their service is sought they will explain certain rituals and the things needed for it. And in that too they will tell which ones are important and which are secondary, leaving the decision to them. Even they will do the ritual according to the budget of the person who approaches them.

For example, if a son does not like to carry a fire in mud pot, they will create that fire at the cremation ground itself and accomplish the ritual. So where comes the idea that “They cannot give up such old practices as their livelihood depend upon them?”

Let us take another example. After the body is put for cremation, the son has to carry a mud pot full of water with a wet cloth and circumbulate the pyre and then has to break the pot with water. Was that practice introduced by the pot-makers in order to make a living out of it?

Yes new things need to be introduced and old should be removed. But without knowing the background, if speakers and writers like Venkatesan promote such ideas, those who are ignorant about the background may applaud them and welcome their ideas. But those who know the background will simply ignore them and carry on their practices.

The reason I write this is not to contradict people like Venkatesan but to show the new generation that before throwing away anything old that they consider as useless, they should know the background and then do it with proper understanding.

I am also not writing this to protect the livelihood or interest of those who provide such services for others. The tragedy in it is that nowadays even those specialists who perform such rituals also have no time as they too are very busy. And such specialists are not many now. In many small towns they have to bring such specialist from big cities where they live. So, as they are very few and busy, they too don’t bother those who are not seeking their service for such rituals.

Let me give another example. In the past, a Brahmin priest who performed an annual death ritual known as ‘sraddha’ (divasam in Tamil) should only do it at one house in a day and the next day he cannot perform it for another person. But nowadays, they not only do it the next day, but also for more than one house in a day. The main priest will bring other Brahmins, do the rituals quickly, ask the host to feed the rest of the Brahmins, and will immediately go to another place to do it in another place. They know this is not correct, but they are forced to go along with the time (maybe they also follow the dictum, ‘old should be removed new should be introduced’). So if less people approach them seeking their service they can do it without violating their tradition (dharma).

Let me share about the influence of such rituals in people’s life. There lived one person near to our house who belongs to OBC, is an atheist, and also a member of communist party. When his father died, he went to his native place to do the final rites. After one year during the first death annual day, he went to a nearby river and did the annual ritual with the help of a Brahmin priest. When I came to know about it, I asked him why he did the ritual since he has no faith in it. For this he said, “If I don’t do it, then my relatives will misunderstand me. Above all I don’t believe in such rituals. But suppose the things I don’t believe are true. If I neglect them, some evil consequence might happen to my children and family in the future. But if they are not true and if I still do them, I am only going to incur some expense which I can easily earn. As I don’t want to take such risk I have done the annual ritual to my father.”

Many of those who oppose certain old rituals and customs in public have the same fear in them. Fear of the unknown is one of the causes for people to do many things in which they don’t have faith. Apart from social pressure or misunderstanding from relatives and others, they don’t want to take risk. As long as such people are there, there is no point in blaming those who do offer their service to them as if they are imposing it on others to make a living for themselves.

Each society has its own culture, tradition and customs that need not fall within rationalism. They are the mark of that civilization. In the name of removing the old and introducing the new, no novelty will be introduced to replace them. But the vacuum that will be created by removing them won’t be limited to rationalism. For example, every parent wants their son to do the final rite for them, particularly cremation. This is a sentimental feeling. It is also a mark of our Hindu civilization. If the son does not light the pyre the body is not going to remain unburnt. And it is not going to affect the dead person in any way. But it will affect the heart and mind of a person who refuses to do it or who missed the opportunity to do it, and also his relatives particularly his mother.

Let me give two real incidents in this regard. I know a mother who lived with her daughter. Her only son not only settled permanently in America, but married a American woman. But that mother wanted him to do her final rite, as she brought up her children by working as a teacher after her husband passed away. So when she was on her deathbed, his sister informed her brother. But as he was too busy to come, he requested her to do the final rites with the help of her husband.

After two years when he came to India to visit his sister, she handed over some personal things that her mother asked her to give to her son. On seeing them he broke down and cried by saying, ‘I should have kept my mother with me at least in her old age to serve her. But I missed it. At least I should have come and done the final rites as per her wish. But as I failed to do it, this will remain a permanent pain in my heart till the end of my life.

Another happened in Bengal. One old mother came to me and said that her second son who had became a Christian not only refused to attend her husband’s funeral, but refused to do his part in the annual ritual. I spoke to her son in person and explained to him how even his newfound faith doesn’t stop him from carrying out his filial responsibility and social obligation. When I clearly explained all this from his own scripture, he was finally convinced.

As per my advice, he called all his relatives and friends of his father and gave some gifts to the family Brahmin priest. This not only gave great comfort to his mother but also brought reconciliation with his family members. His mother, who refused to come and stay with him earlier, was now ready to visit him often. She told me, “He got his share in the property and business which my husband earned and established through hard work. But when he refused to participate in the funeral and the final rites that followed it, it not only hurt me but estranged him from rest of the family. I am not opposing his new faith. All I expected from him was to honor his father by participating in the funeral and rites which he failed.”

In our given global scenario, several children miss the funeral because of their new work situation. But I heard that now an electric cremation centre in Coimbatore has introduced a new system. A chip is given to those who live outside India, and when their parents die and the body is brought there, the son through his mobile phone can use that chip to light the fire in the electric cremation. This I will call ‘removing the old and introducing new.’

According to Hinduism each person is born with debt to others. Whether we take it as religious one or not, it shows and remind us of our social obligations. By worshiping God, we repay our debts to him. By remembering and doing the annual rites we repay the debt to our ancestors. By reading religious scriptures and implementing their teaching we repay the debt to the rishis and gurus. By hospitality we repay the debt to fellow human beings. By feeding and taking care of animals we repay the debt to them.

Although a son can repay all these debts, till the end he cannot repay his debt to his mother. That is why even a sannyasi is allowed to keep his mother with him in the ashram to take care of her and also do the final rite for her. Sri Adi Sankara performed the funeral rite for his mother. Sri Ramana kept his mother with him in his ashram. Pattinathar promised his mother that he will come and light her pyre though he renounced everything and went away. The songs which Pattinattar sang at his mother’s funeral time will move one’s heart deeply. As my translation in English will spoil the melancholic mode of these songs, I give them first in Tamil:

’ஈரல் ஒதுக்கி

இடங் கொடுத்த மாதாவுக்குக்

கூந்தல் ஒதுக்கிக்

கொள்ளி வைக்க வந்த மகன்!’

பழ. கருப்பையா. பட்டினத்தார் ஒரு பார்வை. கோயம்புத்தூர், விஜயா பதிப்பகம். 2009. P. 89

 

Pushing the liver to a side

The mother who gave a space in her womb for me

I came to light the funeral fire for her

By removing the hair—Pzha. Karuppaiya, Pattinatthar a view, Coimbatore, Vijaya Press, 2009, p. 89

 

அரிசியோ நானிடுவேன் ஆத்தாள் தனக்கு

வரிசையிட்டுப் பார்த்து மகிழாமல்-உருசியுள்ள

தேனே அமிர்தமே செல்வத் திரவியப்பூ

மானே எனவழைத்த வாய்க்கு–தாயாருக்கு தகனக்கிரியை செய்கையில் பாடியது,

 

Can I put the rice to my mother

In her mouth which called me

‘Sweet honey, nectar, my rich, flower’

Instead of giving gifts to her?

–Periya Jnanakkovai, compiled by Saravanamuthu Pillai, Chennai, Ratina Nayakar & Sons. Year not mentioned. song 5

 

அள்ளி யிடுவது அரிசியோ தாய்தலைமேற்

கொள்ளிதனை வைப்பெனொ கூசாமல்–மெள்ள

முகம்மேல் முகம்வைத்து முத்தாடி என்றன்

மகனே எனவழைத்த வாய்க்கு—ibid. 6

 

Am I going to take rice to put in her mouth

Which keeping with my mouth and giving kiss

And calling affectionately ‘my dear son’

Can I put fire on her head without any hesitation?

–Periya Jnanakkovai, compiled by Saravanamuthu Pillai, Chennai, Ratina Nayakar & Sons. Year not mentioned. song 5

 

’முன்னை இட்ட தீ முப்புரத்திலே

பின்னை இட்ட தீ தென்னிலங்கையில்

அன்னை இட்ட தீ அடிவயிற்றிலே

யானும் இட்ட தீ மூள்க மூள்கவே!’-பட்டினத்தார். 395, p. 90

பழ. கருப்பையா. பட்டினத்தார் ஒரு பார்வை. கோயம்புத்தூர், விஜயா பதிப்பகம். 2009, Song 395, p. 90

 

The fire which Siva put was at Tiripura

The later fire by Hanuman was at Srilanka

The fire which my mother put is in my stomach (because of her death)

Therefore let the fire which I put for her also glow up quickly

By removing the hair—Pzha. Karuppaiya, Pattinatthar a view, Coimbatore, Vijaya Press, 2009, song 395, p. 90

 

Notes:

  1. …The building of the fire altar is a foundational Vedic ceremony, and the kindling and maintaining of the three fires—the household fire (Garhapatya), the ceremonial fire (Dakshina), and the sacrificial fire (Ahavaniya)—were a basic responsibility of every householder.—Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History, New Delhi, Penguin/Viking. 2009, p. 130