My informant is a young Indian-American woman who told me about an important symbol of deference in Indian culture.
In India, it is customary and a sign of respect to touch the feet of people who are considered to be your social superior. This includes mainly elders, teachers, and highly respected individuals. One generally greets the person, kneels down, and touches their feet before standing back up again. Occasionally, the person might stop this individual from touching their feet, insisting that they do not need to be so formal. My informant tells me that it is then extremely awkward if the individual then insists on touching the person’s feet, so they usually drop the matter then.
Naturally, this gesture carries over to the gods when Hindus pray. However, the gesture is a little different when interacting with gods than when doing the same to other people. The act of symbolically touching a god’s foot is known as Namaskar in the north, or Namaskaram in southern Indian regions.
During this process, one does not actually touch the god’s foot, but it is implied through action. Men and women perform this task differently. Men lay flat on their stomachs in a prostrating position, with their arms in front of their head and hands put together in a pointed shape. Women curl over in a face-down fetal position with their forehead touching the floor and their hands laid flat in front of their head. This is a very important form of Hindu prayer.
My informant tells me that a common theme in Hindu mythology includes the negative ramifications of not touching someone’s feet, especially the gods. One particular example of this includes a story of Vamana, one of Vishnu’s incarnations. Vamana has the appearance of a poor old monk, and one day he visited the home of a demon king who used to be kind but had become arrogant and dangerous. Vamana showed up to this king’s home and pretended to beg for alms. The demon king boasted about how he would be glad to give the monk anything he wanted, because he would be able to do so. Vamana then asked for four steps of the demon king’s land, to which the king readily agreed. Vamana grew to a massive size, and made three steps that encompassed first heaven, then earth, then the underworld. When he asked for the fourth step, the demon king realized that there was nowhere left for Vamana to stand and so he offered up his head, thus redeeming himself and restoring his humility. This story has significance to the practice of Namaskar because offering oneself to come into contact with another’s foot is an intense sign of humility. Feet are gross, and furthermore are at the lowest possible point of a person. By willingly touching the foot of someone else, you are lowering yourself in respect to their position.
I always find it fascinating to see the intersection between mythology and cultural practices/values.