USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Hinduism’
Festival
Holidays
Myths
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Diwali

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore, particularly about holidays and celebrations.

Piece:

Diwali is called the Festival of Lights. This is kind of associated with on of our mythologies, which is Ramayana, where Rama, who is a prince, was sent to exile for fourteen years. Rama’s father was a king, married three times. By rule, what happens is the eldest son is successor to the throne. But, what happened was, the middle wife goes to the king, who in the past helped him a couple of times, and the king had said, “I want to grant you two wishes, since you took such good care of me.”

And she said, “I don’t need anything now, but when the time comes, I’ll ask you for my wishes.”

So when her children grew up, she went to the king and said, “Now you have to grant me my two wishes.”

So the king goes, “Okay, tell me what you want me to do.”

She says, “I want you to send your oldest son to exile for fourteen years, and I want you to make my son the king.”

The king was very upset, he’s like, “That is unheard of – you cannot do that.”

But she says, “You said you would grant me two wishes, those are the only two wishes I have.”

And the oldest son, who was very respectful of his father, says, “You know what? If that’s what you had promised her, I don’t mind. I’ll go into exile for fourteen years, and I’ll come back after that.”

So he goes into exile, and there are a whole bunch of stories about what happens when he’s away. But, the day that he comes back to his kingdom after being in exile, the whole country was lit up with diyas to welcome him back, since he was such a good person. And that’s the day we also – since it was believed that, when he comes back to the kingdom, there will be wealth and prosperity – worship the goddess of wealth, since it is believed that, on Diwali, that is the day that wealth and prosperity will come to your house.

So you will see all Hindu households light candles, exchange sweets, exchange gifts and clothes: it is a huge time of celebration. There is one thing we also do, and it is kind of related to your Halloween. We also light a lot of fireworks that day, because we say we are scaring away the evil with the fireworks; and we are welcoming the good by welcoming the candles and the diyas.

 

(Later, after asking about the religious nature of the holidays)

 

RB: We call it religious, but they are more social religious than just religious, because it all involves inviting people, having dinners, lunches, dressing up, having music and dances. There’s a lot of culture that is associated with these festivals, so it is not that you’re just in the temple, reciting hymns or chanting. That is a very small part. It’s all about dressing up, looking good, and eating food. That is how we keep in touch with each other. At these festivals, at these religious ceremonies as we call it, we go visit each other. We keep in touch with each other and socialize with each other. I think we use it more for socializing and less for religion, which is how it should be.

One thing I want to clarify is that Hinduism is not a religion. It is mostly a way of life. And that is why you can’t be converted to Hinduism: because, either you are born one or you’re not. And if you are born one, you are taught the way of life since you’re born. But, you can still marry into it. We do not require people to change their religion when you marry, because we just think that when you come to a Hindu household, you will learn the way of life. Hinduism does not require that you go to a temple everyday, or pray everyday. They just teach us that everything should be a part of your life: that you clean your house and take care of each other, etc.

 

Analysis:

It was very interesting to hear how RB views Hinduism – not as much of as a religion, but more as a culture and lifestyle. Hearing the mythologies of these holidays with this context explains why there is seemingly more variation in the ways people tell these stories. It seems as though Hindus really value large social gatherings, and will use religious holidays as excuses to throw large social celebrations. It seems that the point of many religious occasions is much more social than it is religious. I feel that this is likely the result of a seemingly much more inclusive and accepting religion, that values socializing and lifestyle over religious and social boundaries.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Myths
Narrative

How Lord Ganesha Got His Head

Context:

My informant is a 18 year old student from the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, she tells the story of how Lord Ganesha, a Hindu god that is distinctly known for his elephant head, got his head. She learned this story from her mother, who told this story to her and her sister as a child. In this transcription of her folklore, where she is identified as P and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

P: Okay, yes, okay, this is story of how… my mom told me how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head.

K: Wait, who?

P: Hinduism [laughs]. Lord Ganesha. So, background: He has the body of a human and the head of an elephant, so the story of how he got his head was his, I guess his mom? Wait wait wait, let me restart.

    Ok, so, Parvati wanted to have a bath. So, she was like “I need someone to guard the door while I’m having this bath,” so she creates this human child out of the earth… to guard the door! [Giggles] So her husband, Lord Shiva, comes and says “Let me in, little boy!” The little boy was like, “No, Parvati’s showering, you can’t go in.” And this man was overcome with anger, that he cuts off the head of this… this boy… this guard boy, who was made from the earth. Anyways, so Parvati comes back outside, and she goes, “What did you just do, you just killed my… ‘guard boy,’ my son…? I don’t know… Um, I need you to fix this!” So she makes Lord Shiva go down to… the earth? Go down I don’t know where, but go down to kill the first animal that he sees and bring the head to her. So the first animal he sees in an elephant, cuts off the head of the elephant, brings it to her, and magically creates Lord Ganesha with the head of the elephant that got killed and the body of a human. Yep, that’s the story [laughs].

K: Did she tell it to you, like in what context?

P: Um, she’d always tell the story if we went to the temple, and we’d walk past Ganesha, and then she’d tell me about the story and everything.

 

Thoughts:

As my informant expressed, this story was most likely told to children to teach them a moral or a lesson. I’ve always been fascinated with how certain cultures and religions have their own special stories to tell to children to help shape their values to be the same as the people that share their culture. After telling the story, my informant told me that her mom often told her this story as a child when she was especially upset or made a rash decision out of anger.

This story seems to serve the purpose of reminding us that we should never let anger overwhelm us or dictate our decisions. For example, I did more research on this story and I read another version where Parvati, upon learning that Shiva had cut off Ganesha’s head from his unreasonable anger, became so enraged she decided to destroy the world. Shiva then realized his mistake and gave Ganesha not only a new life by giving him the elephant head, but also granted him a status of a god just to make Parvati happy again and prevent her from destroying the world. Here, we see that Shiva realizes his anger was unreasonable. He realizes that his rash decision to cut off Ganesha’s head resulted in even the greater consequence of the potential detroyal of the Earth. This story would teach a child to never act on their initial ideas when they’re overcome with anger, because they never know what consequences they may have to face as a result.

 

For other versions of this story, please refer to the citation below:

Cartwright, Mark. “Ganesha.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 23 Apr. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Ganesha/.

Sekar, Radhika. Lord of Beginnings: Stories of the Elephant-Headed Deity, Ganesha. Vakils Feffer & Simons Ltd, 2004.

Sharma, Richa. “Corporate Lessons from Lord Ganesha.” Speakingtree.in, Speaking Tree, 10 Sept. 2018, www.speakingtree.in/allslides/corporate-lessons-from-lord-ganesha.

Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Diwali

“Diwali, the festival of light as we call it in India, is one of the most renowned festivals in the Indian culture. Diwali is a symbolic victory of light over darkness and to celebrate this my family surrounds our house with lamps to honor the light present in our lives which has guided us to where we are. The fun part of the festival is the fireworks. We celebrate Diwali with a lot of fireworks and decorate our house with new things. Diwali is more than a mere festival for us because it signifies a renewal and letting go of the past and welcoming the future with hope.”


 

This particular interlocutor has celebrated Diwali his entire life, and he mentioned that he remembers celebrating Diwali throughout his childhood. Because of its popularity throughout the entirety of India, it was hard for him not to acknowledge its presence, not that he would want to. He stated that this is one of his favorite holidays because of the grand celebratory acts and the happy disposition of the general public in his community. This is also a time in which one is able to reflect and project their wishes for the future, something he does with the utmost sincerity and unwavering faith.

When light prevails over darkness, in most cases, people generally rejoice in its victory. The Diwali festival utilizes this light and joy to celebrate how good is much more powerful than evil. The various lights, especially through the many lamps, represent this victory while also providing hope for those who feel they are consumed by darkness. One who is immersed in so many lights would not be able to sulk in their troubles for very long. The lights also serve to guide, as the interlocutor mentioned, leading people toward a stronger and better path while also redirecting those who are astray. In this sense, the myriad lights protect, uplift, and guide. The fireworks also contribute to this uplifting as well, symbolizing the pockets of kinetic joy that surprises all humans. Though their duration is limited to mere seconds, they bring about lasting joy that is unforgettable. By way of this, Indian culture is revealed to prize moments of exultation in the midst of darkness; this also illustrates the incredible resilience that is present in Indian culture.

Myths
Narrative

Origin of the Elephant Head: Mythology

So there’s this God named Shiva and his wife and they were married – obviously, since wife (laughs) – so apparently his wife would always take showers in the middle of the day and then her husband Shiva, the God, would walk in and she hated that because she felt as though it was very disrespectful and so she decided one day to create a protector -um- that was gonna be her Son.

 So she basically built him up out of I can’t remember what, but I… and this boy was really strong and, like, the husband got very upset because the kid wouldn’t let him into his own home when he wanted and the kid just wouldn’t let him in so one day he decided, fine! I’m gonna have to be the one to kill this kid and get rid of him and so he ended up slicing off his head and then his wife, the mom of the child, got super upset. So the only fix was basically… the way she fixed it was getting an elephant head stuck on the kids head and that’s how Ganesha was formed.

The Informant, my housemate, is of Indian descent, but was born and raised in the United States. She learned this Hindu myth along with many other Hindu mythologies through her parents and when she was visiting her grandparents in India. To her, it’s just a story. She doesn’t follow the Hindu religion or believe in the sacred myths.

The sounds like a brief summary of the Ganesha origin story, but with one discrepancy. In the Hindu canon, Shiva is angry because Ganesha won’t allow him into the bathroom while his wife is showering. He uses his divine powers to kill him right there and then.

I’ve always been interested in Hindu mythology because of the dramatic and vibrant origin stories for the Gods. Even for someone who isn’t Hindu, the mythology is a fun read and has interesting ways to impart wisdom.

general
Myths

Birth of Ganesh

Informant KM is a sophomore studying Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is of Indian descent and moved to America at a very young age; however, she is very proud of her Indian heritage and considers herself to be very knowledgeable in regards to Indian mythology and religion. She is also fluent in two Indian languages, Hindi and Marathi. This piece of folklore is her recitation of a very common Indian folktale to me (AK).

KM: Shivji and Parvati are married. Shivji is the God of destruction and one of the top 3 gods of Hinduism. Parvati is a big goddess and she’s an embodiment of the Indian God Devi. Parvati is showering and she wanted to be protected while she was in the shower, so she used the dirt of her skin to make Ganesh. And Gan, these men, are like little minion kind of looking things that stand outside the door, so Ganesh was standing outside the door. Then Shivji came, and it’s not really sure why and Shivji got really pissed and out of anger he cut Ganesh’s head off. Parvati got pissed, and she threatened to — like tear the world apart if Shiv doesn’t fix the situation. So Shivji went and decided to cut the head off the first thing he saw which was an elephant, and he placed it on the Gan’s head.

For reference (Ganesh):

Ganesh

AK: Woah… that’s a crazy story, anything else you wanted to add?

KM: Yeah, actually what’s controversial about this story is that the idea of her taking the dirt off her skin was the product of adulteration, or it wasn’t Shiv’s child which was why he was so pissed.

AK: Cool, similar questions again, where did you hear this story from?

KM: I heard this from multiple people, my grandma, mom, dad, and I’ve read about it.

AK: What does it mean to you?

KM: I like this story because it shows people as flawed, even Gods.

I personally enjoyed this story because I was very well acquainted with the God Ganesh, but I never knew his creation myth. For this reason, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece because I learned something very relevant to my own life. Obviously, I could have just researched his creation on my own, but it was very nice to hear the story verbally.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Signs

Don’t Step on Books/Paper

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.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Monk and the Mouse

The tale: “So this monk was sitting on the beach when a kite fly, which I don’t really know what that is, but he saw a kite fly carrying a mouse and the mouse fell on the monk. So the monk wrapped the mouse with a leaf and took it home and prayed that the mouse would turn into a girl. And the mouse turned into a really beautiful girl, and the monk and his wife adopted her, so she like grew up and um, when she was an adult the monk told her that she should get married. And he told her to choose a man to marry, and the girl said she wanted like the most powerful man in the entire world. The monk thought she meant that she wanted the sun, so he went to like look for the sun and he found the sun and asked him if he wanted to marry his daughter. But the sun was like there’s someone more powerful than me…it’s um this cloud that covers me up during the day. So the monk left the sun and went to the cloud but the cloud was like there’s someone more powerful than me too, it’s the…um…oh yeah, it’s the wind. Because it blows me around. So the monk went to find the wind but the wind was like there’s someone EVEN MORE POWERFUL THAN ME, it’s the mountain, because it doesn’t move when I try to move him. So the monk went to find the mountain and the mountain says that the rat is more powerful because he can dig holes in me. So the monk finally goes to the rat and asks him to marry his daughter, but the rat says that he can only marry a mouse, right? So then the monk prayed that his daughter would turn back into a mouse, which God answered, and the mouse and the rat lived happily ever after.”

 

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. When I asked her where she heard this story, she said “The story is from The Panchthantra, which is an Indian book of myths and stories, and I used to have a comic book version growing up.” So the story is clearly a folktale that was transcribed into authored literature, which then became many different versions, one of which was a comic book. It follows traditional oral tradition, the most prominent of which is only two characters in a scene. The monk only speaks to one person at a time. I think the message of the story is to remain humble. The young girl wants the most powerful husband in the world, but it ends up being a simple rat. And even then she cannot marry him unless she is reduced to her original state; so regardless of her transformation into a beautiful woman, and her wish for a powerful husband, she herself is humbled by her transformation and her final choice of husband. I think another message is that power is not where we’ll expect it, and there are many different forms of power. This tale is probably a good one to tell to children who become to over-arrogant.

Folk Beliefs

Karma

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that’s an important part of her culture.

“We believe, or like, in general, not like I’m a crazy person…bad things happen to you because you’re paying for deeds that happened from your previous life/your previous birth. And so, shit happens now because you did something bad in a previous life. It’s also like karma.”

Q: Is karma related to reincarnation?

“Karma means you pay for every deed. So, this is a form of karma.”

Q: What would be an example of karma?

“Well, the way we interpreted it was when my dad got sick, it was because in a prior life or a prior form he had done something bad and this was… he was paying for it now.”

Q: How widespread is this belief?

“Pretty universal in Hinduism”

Q: Where did you first learn about karma?

“From my parents. It was one of those principles I grew up with. So, it was like, don’t be mean to people, because it’s going to come back and bite you. What goes around comes around. That’s how it started, because when you’re little you’re like ‘What is reincarnation, I don’t know’ And then when you learn about reincarnation…it’s applied on a larger scale

 

 

Customs
Festival
Humor
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Drowning Man’s Appeal

Item:

“A Hindu man is in a rowboat in a particularly stormy section of the river. All of a sudden, his boat rams into a boulder, and he goes flying into the icy water. The rapids are carrying him away, and so he holds onto a small fragment of the wooden boat, trying to stay afloat. This doesn’t help him for very long. Just as he’s about to drown, therefore, he has the brilliant idea to pray to Ganesha, the deity of overcoming challenges and obstacles. Ganesha appears before him, and asks him what he wants. The man tearfully begs the elephant-headed god to get him out of the water, to which Ganesha replies – ‘Hah! You drown me every year, without even asking me what I want, and then when you’re drowning, you expect me to help you out of the water? Yeah, right!'”

Context:

The informant, a devout Hindu and an avid joke-teller, related the history of this joke – “This is one of the most hilarious jokes I have ever heard. A lot of Hindus know the joke, and know the significance of the joke. It’s funny because it puts the festival and rituals of Ganesh Chaturti into the perspective of the god himself, turning the joke around on us and making us wonder what the gods actually think of what we do to them.”

Analysis:

This joke mocks the rituals of Ganesh Chaturti, a traditional Hindu festival in which earthen idols of Ganesha are immersed in the nearest holy river or lake, symbolizing his return to his mother, the goddess of the earth Bhumi Devi, amid a spectacular celebration. It personifies the idol of the young, elephant-headed god, and switches the positions of the drowner and the drownee, putting Ganesh in the position of power here. In addition to this, the god is portrayed hilariously immature and vindictive, diminishing his deified dignity and showing him to be actually disgruntled by the rituals of a festival which celebrates his birth and ascent to heaven, a situation which people don’t really consider when performing these grand and honorific traditions.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Wealth And Character

Item:

“If Wealth is lost, something is lost. If Character is lost, everything is lost.”

Context:

The interviewee was very open about her experience with this proverb – “My father used to tell me this all the time. He told me that an individual’s greatest asset is their character. And that if they lose everything else in life – their dignity, their money, their house, their family – as long as their morals, integrity, and humility are intact, nothing will shake them. He stressed the importance of being a good person over being a rich and materially successful person. And so I’ve tried to live by this philosophy.”

Analysis:

This is a Vedic proverb, which conveys a very Hindu ideal. The main purpose of the Hindu faith and its various scriptures, including the Vedas and the Bhagvadgita, is to teach people how to live a simple, honest, and fulfilling life. It accomplishes this through preaching moral values and highlighting the importance of a strong character (Dharma) over wealth (Dhana). In fact, one of the best ways to attain moksha, the ultimate state of being, where a person can be as close to the gods as possible, is by giving up all worldly attachments, including money, fame, and love, and focusing solely on living a simple, Spartan life that tests one’s willpower and devotion. Therefore, it would make sense for strength of character to take precedence over wealth in a society where such values form the backbone.

 
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