I grew up in a family in which the women especially indulged in some blind practices without ever questioning them; they just followed what was handed down to them from their mothers and mothers-in-law. Grandmothers were a powerful force in the families and one saw a docile mother implicitly obeying her - no questions. There could be disagreements at the personality level but when it came to traditions they were hand in glove.
Some of them were pretty elaborate like those relating to birth, marriage and death. Some seemed more like habits of someone with OCD like the way one had to clean one's hands before and after touching several things. The concepts of "Madi" and "Pathu" in a Tambrahm household needed the skills of a rocket scientist to unravel. For the uninitiated, Madi is when you had to be clean and pure to do certain things like cooking and pooja. This involved having a bath, often wetting your hair too and wearing clothes that have not been touched by anyone who is not practising Madi. Pathu is an extreme form of hygiene which meant not mixing cooked things with uncooked things. But it is not all that simple as it seems - the finer intricacies are mind boggling. Suffice it to say I always did something wrong and incurred the wrath of my grandmother whose madi and pathu I polluted.

As a teenager, I used to be fascinated by some of these practices and angry about the discriminatory ones. But whenever I questioned a tradition or a ritual the answer was the same:
"This is the way we have always done it in this family." If I persisted more I was told that I was going to make the Gods angry and they would pierce my eyes.
That was a powerful threat.And when I got married one of the important and repeated advices I received from my aunts and grandmother was:
"Don't be impertinent. Learn the practices in their house and follow them. Else it is your children who will suffer."

The best part was that even though I married another TamBrahm there were so many subtle variations in the practices in their family and deviations were not tolerated. And when I asked my m-i-l for the rationale I got the answer:
"This is how we have always done it in this family." How enlightening!

And that is exactly how traditions and rituals get perpetuated - unquestioning obedience, irrational fear and blind faith. Once the ground is fertile with these nutrients it is easy for those wielding power to use these effectively to reap their benefit. So many practices still thrive around the world on the only excuse:
"We have always done it this way and we do not have to change." Remember the recent cases in Haryana where the Panchayat separated a couple and took away their children for they married within the same gotra? Remember our discussion here on the power of Horoscopes and defects in natal charts?

Female circumcision a.k.a female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been in practice in many African countries for over 2000 years. It is still practiced in over 40 countries.It involves some very crude and dangerous methods done without medical assistance in many villages. This summer 2 girls died in Egypt after they were subjected to the procedure and there was an angry furore over this. The Egyptian health ministry banned the practice but the public reaction was that the ministry had no right to question a cultural tradition:
Osama Mohamed el-Moaseri, imam of a mosque in Basyoun, the city near where the 13-year-old girl lived, and died. “This practice has been passed down generation after generation, so it is natural that every person circumcises his daughter,” he said. “When Ali Gomaa says it is haram, he is criticizing the practice of our fathers and forefathers.”

Most parents fear that no man will marry an uncircumcised girl as it is a symbol of a woman's honour and chastity! You can read what WHO has to say on FGM here.
Such a dangerous and barbaric practice and yet people defend it on the grounds that this is how we have always done it in our community.

How come we abandon all reason, judgement and humanity when it comes to tradition and faith? Why is there a reluctance even to question it and understand it even from people who suffer under the weight of it?
Reminds me of a story a friend forwarded:

A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on the top.Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder.
After some time, no monkey dare to go up the ladder regardless of the temptation.

The scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. The first thing that this new monkey did was to go up the ladder. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up.
After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though he never knew why.

A second monkey was substituted and the same occurred. the first monkey participated in beating the second. Soon all the monkeys were replaced.What was left was a group of 5 monkeys that even though never received a cold shower, continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder.

If it was possible to ask the monkeys why they would beat up all those who attempted to go up the ladder…..
I bet you the answer would be….
“I don’t know – that’s how things are done around here”
Does it sound familiar?

I agree that every culture has its own peculiar traditions but it is necessary for successive generations to evaluate them against external changes and see their relevance and usefulness. While I am all for preserving our culture and best traditions, it is important to throw out those that have outlived their purpose, those that have been proved unscientific and those that are repressive and barbaric. That things have "always" been that way is no excuse. Now is always a good time to throw them out and become a more humanistic society.
25 Responses
  1. Unknown Says:

    I am an athiest, but I respect other people's right to be religious and understand how they could have come to put all their faith in an entity I cannot acknowledge.

    My belief's are a by product of a endemic revulsion to man prostrating in fornt of nothing. Something which neither has any tangible form or invisible spiritual existance.

    Religion is the result of MAN's desire to exercise control the masses & impose there whims on them through dogmas. Most of the religions have been unkind and insensitive towards women - "why," you would understand if you opened your hearts and minds.

    Systematic repression and humiliation of women has been one of the instruments that have kept most men under the folds of one religion or the other.

    They unite, the moment they get an opportunity to push a woman under their thumbs.

    I wish we could change this.

  2. Anonymous Says:


    Totally agree with you. Grandmom's(read as mother in law) have lot of control over all such things.

    Few things are disgusting and if you try convincing them with rationale thoughts, they would never even allow you to go near them .. wonder whether these rituals have an hand in making them so non-flexible !!!

  3. Hip Grandma Says:

    I can relate to these mad madi ways and a snarling grandmom finding fault first at the 'useless' DIL and then the 'unruly' children.But with age I seem to find some logic in certain practices although I have to agree that those who practised them did so without questioning the reason behind their imposition on other family members to the extent of suffocating them.Women seem to excel in roles that require subjugation and seem to find sadistic pleasure in subjugating others when their turn comes.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I had read of FGM in some articles long ago but I did not realise it was such a widespread practice. It is horrifying to learn that in this day and age, they still practice such primitive customs without any valid scientific basis. In fact they can cause harm to the women to the extent of endangering their lives.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    What I don't really understand is why rituals that are often irrelevant are considered the essence of our culture. And sadly education does not seem to aid much in broadening peoples' views and lead to a more progressive society. This I know from looking at people all around me- family and friends, who would much rather submit/subscribe to a certain ritual than earn the wrath of god. It is very very distressing to see how powerful a tool fear is.

  6. Unknown Says:

    While I do think a few practices were probably developed for some health reasons...I wish the reason was also passed along. Some of the old practices are not even applicable now. Smearing cow dung for antiseptic purposes. Don't we have better alternatives now? Do we really have to follow the old way just for religious reasons??

  7. Savani Says:

    what a great story about monkeys? I was pretty faithless before.. not so sure any more.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    LOL! Loved your hilarious take - "This is how we have always done it in this family." How enlightening!

    On a more serious note, I couldn't agree with you more. Coming from a traditional South Indian family myself, I could identify with a lot that you said, especially the 'madi' concept. Brought back a lot of memories of childhood rebellions. :-)

    I had such a lot to say on the subject that I ended up writing my own post on it. Do check it when you get some time.

  9. Chitra Says:

    Great post and stories. It couldn't get better than the monkey story.

  10. Usha where are your feet? Please stick them out so that I amy touch them!!! I know, this is an age old practice, but when I truly respect someone, I am more than happy to prostrate myself at their feet.

  11. Mahadevan Says:

    Some of the practices may have relevance in certain context. Sticking to those practices, in a totally changed situation, without rationally analysing their relevance, leads to problems. You have given the example of Gothra. In a small village where hardly a few hundred families live and where they know each other for generations, using Gothra to avoid consanquinous marriages is understandable. Separating the spouses by declarating the marriage as nulland void merely because they belonged to same gothra and also segregating the child from the parent, is not only the height of irrationality, but also is a crime, deserving punishment.

    My submission is - subject every practice to contextual relevance in relation to an objective.

  12. Gauri Says:

    Ditto this all the way Usha. I too have incurred more than my share of wrath at teh hands of the elderly ladies in my family by questioning practices and customs. In fact, just questioning them, in itself, tantamounts to sacrilege.

    And funnily enough, it is women who get some kind of a kick out of subjugating or atleast trying to subjugate another woman. One woman vents on another - when is this going to end ?

  13. Pranjal Says:

    Hi Usha,

    Great post! I agree with Gauri. Most, if not all practices, are ment for women to follow and pass-on. I've had my share of troubles with mom, grandmom & aunts who've chided me on several occasions for being out-of-line. And all that 'coz I always had 'But-whys'!

  14. hmmm. get quite irritated with the 'untouchability' within the inlaws'homes during those days. I can understand to some extent my MIL and others of her age practising it, but I get VERY irritated when my SIL who's younger than me practises all this. How in this age can somebody who's received an education believe in all this mumbo jumbo?
    I mean, I can understand that temples are meant to be kept pure, but homes????

  15. Lavs Says:

    Ushaji, I totally agree with you when you say that elders want us to do things coz they have always done it like that. My mom always told me that only girls are supposed to clean the floor once food has been eaten. Boys should not do it. Till date, I rebel this idiotic rule of hers.

  16. My granny would tell me how her MIL would boss around and everything she said had to be obeyed by my granny, from no non veg being cooked in the same kitchen to no Christians being allowed in the house, not going out,covering your head, not being allowed to study even though my granny's FIL wanted her to,and in short just being mute and submissive...but the good part is my granny is not like that, she is the opposite, she emphasises on studying and making something of yourself, she beleives in freedom and equality..well, she has her issues but I am proud of the my granny's open mindedness...people need to change, and try to make the world a better palce to live in...

  17. Anonymous Says:

    At mother's place, my mother used to tell "please follow these as long as you are at our home". After marriage MIL says "These rules should be obeyed as long as I'm alive". When I'm supposed to live without tension of 3 days trouble in my life? I have decided my little daughter should not undergo this humiliation. I have declared this in front of elders also.....
    - Lakshmi

  18. Usha Says:

    advait: I agree about religion being summoned in defence of certain kinds of subjugation. But practices like FGM are more cultural traditions than of religious origin. These are the symbols of societal practices taking control of individuals. They are guarded as symbols of identity even when they have been proved absurd and in some cases dangerous.

    Veena: Do they derive a sense of power from these impositions? Is that why they guard them so jealously even when they perpetuate discrimimation and repression? "I have endured it. Now you do too" kind of feeling? (Kyonki...saas bhi Kabhi bahu thi na...heheh)

    Hipgran:Yes, I can see the logic behind certain practices too which we anyway follow in the name of hygiene now. It is all the theetu business which bothers me - a pattu vastram unwashed is considered madi even if it may be full of dirt. How do they explain that! And keeping a child unclothed so he can be handled by people observing Madi - how justified is that!

    Kalyan: I shudder to think of the pain inflicted on little girls in the name of this practice.

    CW:Yes we seem to take the easier way out. Simpler to do it than get a bad name. I know newly marrieds separated in the month of Adi even now. When both are working in a different city and the parents live ina different city how practical is that. And yet, the young couple don't protest and observe it!
    I have written before about a doctor freind observing karadaiyan nombu for the longevity of her husband - so there!

    Coffeerocks:haha, where do they get cowdung from? maybe it is lmore hygienic to use domex and phenyl instead of cow dung. A friend suffered for one year from a terrible infection that he contracted from cattle dung which he seems to have come in contact with while washing his car.

    Dotmom: :)

    Devaki: enjoyed the post and the discussion in your blog. :)

    Chitra: I am sure you can relate entirely to the concepts of madi and pathu and theetu and vizhuppu all that... How did we survive without a fatwa?

    The MM:Heheh. A hug would do just fine.
    I don't believe in the practice of touching the feet of another human being unless it is for medical or pedicure purposes!

    Mahadevan:Exactly my submission. Please ask why and if it is relevant and makes any sense and more importantly does it hurt anyone.

    Gauri/ Pranjal:Veena has raised the same point.
    I am repeating the same response: :)
    Do they derive a sense of power from these impositions? Is that why they guard them so jealously even when they perpetuate discrimimation and repression? "I have endured it. Now you do too" kind of feeling? (Kyonki...saas bhi Kabhi bahu thi na...heheh)

    JLT:How do they manage it in small apartments? and why do women allow themselves to be treated so?
    It doesn't even bother me to enter a temple on those days - not that I plan it but if it happens I know it is a natural thing and I do not feel like a sinner.
    Apparently the pills used for tampering with cycles for the sake of poojas and attending weddings have long term effects.And I know people who swallow them at the drop of a hat.

    lavs:My god!this is how male domination is perpetuated.
    I wish more women would rebel.

    DiD:I have known some people of the older generation too who have been liberal like your granny. Trouble is there are not enough of them and it saddens me when educated intelligent girls indulge in these without a single thought.

    Lakshmi: At least it will end now. Your daughter won't have to and your daughter in law wont have to. Until then enjoy the rest for full three days.. (just kidding, I know how hurting it is - seems like such an invasion of privacy announcing it to all.)

  19. This is the first time I am hearing of FGM and my god, it is so gross and frightening. I cannot even begin to imagine what these people make young girls go through in the name of custom. And this practice seems to be quite widespread too.

  20. Sumana Says:

    I can relate to each of the facts you have listed here, as i have been through these my younger days and till date. I enforce a few of the hygenic things on my kids which may not even be a one hundredth of it.

  21. Choxbox Says:

    brilliant post usha and agree with all of it. i have had my arguments with my MIL and more with grand-MIL because i simply cannot see the sense of it. one example is karva chauth - if i fast it will help me perhaps - how will it benefit my hubby? and if at all it does help him then why shouldn't he fast for my benefit?!!

    they have totally given up on me and dont expect much from me. we all live and let live. thank god.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Using the monkey's experiment to suit one's situation is wishful thinking.

    The person (Smt.Devaki?) who quoted the monkey's
    experiment did not (conveniently) include the conclusion drawn by the scientists.

    One of the obvious conclusion is that the animals lack comprehension that comes out of analytical power. On the top of this, extrapolating this situation to apply to humans who are of higher order is not correct.

    Madi and acharam need to be followed with spontaneity as the seshi (atman) tries to demonstrate to Paramatma the level of control over the indriyas. The resistance to these austerities is one's perogative. But scriptures have revealed how to lead life to reach one's final and only destination.
    The choice is yours.

    I have seen people expressing "I want to be a free bird" just to get away from the present 'unpleasant' situtation... without even reflecting the dismal state of the bird. A highly developed higher specie which has taken millions of births to get to this form and then whimsically wanting to go back instead aiming higher.

    If only everyone knows that we are all prisoners due to one's past karma (for you it is MIL or SIL today, an office supervisor tommorrow, a husband later or a DIL), one will take this as ordained gracefully, and look forward to that day of release from Samsara to continue the seshastvam..

    For such of those, gruham is a temple and vice versa.


  23. Anonymous Says:

    Ahh..a newly wed friend told me about the madi etc..and i was simply offence to anyone practicing it..but u see the point of it?!! i just couldnt!

  24. Saintly Sita Says:

    Ah, to the anonymous Appi.

    Leaving anonymous comments full of pseudo-philosophy on a blog is of course demonstrating masterful control of the "indriyas".

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