Loss of Knowledge Conversion Superstition Ritual

Context: The informant, A.V., is an 18 year old student with parents who immigrated from Gujarat and practice Jainism. This isn’t necessarily specific to North India, as she has seen South Indian people do it. However, she’s never seen anyone non-Indian do it. She was taught to do this from a young age by her parents, and continues to do it even when on her own/living away from home.

Text: The informant explained that every time she accidentally touched anything containing the written word with her feet, she would have to touch the item and, with the same hand, touch her forehead immediately after. These items could include books, loose papers, and iPads, as long as the written word was directly on the item.

Growing up, she was told that the reason they did this was because if anyone touched the written word with their feet, they were disrespecting knowledge. If knowledge was disrespected, the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, would take it as an offense and leave; knowledge would abandon you. By this, her parents meant that one’s intelligence and opportunities would disappear. Touching your hand to the item and then to your forehead would allow you to apologize, making it clear that you had not intended to do that.

Analysis: This is a conversion superstition ritual, done to rectify or invalidate actions that would normally result in bad luck in the future. Feet are considered dirty, and touching something with one’s feet is seen as a way of saying that whatever was touched doesn’t matter enough for you to treat it well. Knowledge, being a goddess, is held sacred in Indian culture, and books/words are seen as an extension of her. Much in the way that like produces like in homeopathic sympathetic magic, disrespecting items of knowledge with one’s feet is an imitation of disrespecting knowledge itself and will convey that message unless some apology is made.