“So basically, if there is like a book on the ground, you are not allowed to step on it, deliberately or accidentally. And you are also not allowed to let them [books] touch your feet, because it’s kind of like, books are seen as this sacred holy thing that gives up knowledge, so we have to give books a certain level of respect. So if you kind of touch the books with your feet or kick them, you are disrespecting the sacredness of the knowledge that the books are giving us.”
Context: The informant was raised Hindu, but is non-religious. She explained to her roommate why she should not step on her books in order to reach a high shelf. For her [the informant], this was something that was told to her throughout her childhood by her parents and grandparents. Though this custom/folk belief is rooted in religious belief, the cultural aspect of the custom is what sticks with her and impacts the way that she lives her life–specifically whether or not she is able step on books.
Analysis: I agree with the informant’s insights about this particular custom. For many superstitions and folk beliefs–especially those that are rooted in religious beliefs–they are not just about religion, but are also influenced by the culture from which the custom was derived. For example, while literacy and knowledge is influential in the Hindu religion, but I believe the Indian culture is also a large factor in how impactful this belief is on non-religious members of the culture. For Indians, intelligence, and more importantly, the acquisition of knowledge is extremely important, and the value of an education has been instilled by many parents into their reluctant children. This shows that even though some see knowledge as sacred based on Hindu belief, there is also a cultural component to the custom. This cultural component of the custom is what carries with the non-religious members of the community.
Along with this, there is a component of homeopathic magic in this superstition/folk belief. As homeopathic magic follows the principle that “like produces like”, this folk belief follows the idea that if you step on a book, then you are disrespecting that book, and thus you are disrespecting knowledge itself. Like placing pins in a voodoo doll to inflict pain on another person, placing your foot on something–which is seen as disrespectful–then there is a greater significance. Books are often placed in front of the god Ganesha, who is god of knowledge and wisdom, so disrespecting books would thus also be disrespecting this god. This is a hallmark of the “like produces like “ phenomenon.
The rumor/myth: “The author of Ben-Hur, whose name is something Lane I think? (The only book ever written in Crawfordsville, Indiana.) His house is in Crawfordsville, and they say that on the grounds of this house is like every tree that’s like native to Indiana. I don’t actually know if it’s true though, I heard it from my 5th grade teacher Mrs. Harris. She was really weird.”
The informant, originally from Crawfordsville, told me this about the author of Ben-Hur, actually named Lew Wallace. He has never actually read the novel, but his teacher told their class about Wallace’s house in Crawfordsville. I think she told 5th graders this story to give them pride about their hometown, as it is a very small rural town that isn’t very famous to people that aren’t from there. Its truth value doesn’t seem to matter, and one could even say that it’s a sacred truth to the inhabitants of Crawfordsville. I imagine Mrs. Harris would be a bit offended if anyone challenged her on the verity of this statement, since it represents the mythology of Crawfordsville.
The superstition: “If you step on a book or piece of paper, then you have to touch it to your forehead because otherwise it’s disrespectful. It’s because books are like instruments of learning which is next to God and practically sacred so to put it to your feet shows disrespect so you put it to your forehead, which is a sign of respect, to counteract that.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it.The gesture of putting to your forehead to negate it seems similar to another Indian superstition, that people can’t step over you, and they have to reverse their step to negate it. Although the informant isn’t religious, she still follows this religious superstition, since she is still rooted in Indian culture. I imagine education is very important in India and in Hinduism, since learning instruments can be likened to God, and sacred. Both of the informant’s parents are doctors, and she herself is studying engineering and computer science, does a lot of research, and tutors children; so I think it’s fair to say that she takes education very seriously herself. This may also be another reason she follows this superstition.