Some things appear silly while some others scare us silly. Read and decide for yourself which is which.
If you have driven behind a truck on one of the highways you would surely have come across interesting legends inscribed on the back. While ‘Horn OK please’ and ‘Ma ka aashirwad‘ are the most popular, another one that one can see on one out of every two or three trucks is ‘Buri nazar wale, tera munh kala’ (may the face of the one with the evil eye be blackened) – though for the life of me I can’t understand why someone would cast an evil eye on an ugly truck!
When one builds or buys a house, it is customary to hang a white pumpkin at the entrance where it would be prominently visible. It is sometimes painted with fierce features to resemble a rakshasa or just hung with black rope. This is ostensibly to draw away the gaze from the beauty of the house to prevent the buri nazar of random people.
Then there is the custom of putting a black dot – kala tika – on the chin/cheek of a little child, as also on his palm and feet to make them look ‘flawed’ so as to not invite envious looks and negative vibes. And grandmothers routinely ‘remove’ the effects of the evil eye on babies and children with a handful of salt or camphor, which they wave clockwise and anti-clockwise in front of the children.
It is also to ward off this ubiquitous buri nazar that many south Indian homes have the picture of Ganesha with extra large eyes prominently displayed on their front doors (kann drishti pillayar or shubh drishti Ganesha).
Not just in India but elsewhere too, this ‘evil eye’ plays a very large part scaring people. Nor is it religion-specific and confined only to Hinduism. It is synonymous with curse and bad luck both in Christianity and Islam. In fact talismans and charms are worn and the custom of ‘touching wood’ are both supposed to ward off the evil eye. Jews have the symbol of the open palm with an eye in the centre, called hamsa, which is hung at the entrance and plays the same role as that of the picture of Ganesha. Muslims wear taveez (talisman) with inscriptions from Quran. The Chinese system of Feng Shui says that one should fix a mirror that is visible to the visitor when the front door is opened.
So what is this evil eye exactly? No, don’t hasten to dismiss it as being superstitious hogwash. Admiration is very different from envy. While the former is a positive feeling, the latter is charged with negativity. It is this negativity that harms as there can be nothing evil about someone’s look. And by negativity one does not just mean thinking ill of someone, but even feelings like jealousy, hatred and sadness — all being negative emotions, can also result in negative actions to harm the object of envy.
Today it has become a fashion to share everything on social media – from the exotic locales visited to the pictures of one’s children. Some even record every stage of a child’s growth and share it online. While the settings are regulated as to who can view the pictures, there are hackers and unethical people galore who can misuse any of the pictures for nefarious and criminal activities. Why invite such a fate?
While the use of talisman and charms or even ‘removing’ evil eye can be debated and either accepted or junked as superstition, I think the use of a mirror at the entrance of the house is a brilliant idea. When one looks at oneself in the mirror, what emotions can one have except positive ones? What an idea, sirjee!
Then we come to the auspicious and inauspicious symbols. Black is considered inauspicious, due to its connection with death. Though in India, even white is the colour of death. So for us, both black and white are inauspicious and even hint of the colours are avoided for weddings and other such celebrations. But Tamilians give a black sari during the god-bharai to a girl expecting her first child. This is supposed to work like the kala tika, to ward of the evil eye, so it is not inauspicious for that particular occasion!
Death is generally considered inauspicious, so much so that in many Indian communities periods of quarantine is observed when the bereaved family members seclude themselves and don’t partake of any celebrations for stipulated periods. In villages and small towns, the custom of washing one’s front yards after a funeral passes that way, still exists.
These practices have at least some validity, as there are chances of infection by touching or even being close to a dead body, which requires purification and to enforce this, our ancestors decided to scare people into believing it was inauspicious and so not good.
But what about good and bad omens?
The Tambrahms believe that if one sees a funeral when going out on an important work, it is a good omen! So much for considering death a negative thing! Was it some philosophical soul who thought of this one, I wonder – someone who believed that death was a passing on to another, better plane and so was a thing to celebrate?
There are any number of beliefs that Christians have, though the Bible is supposed to forbid superstitious beliefs. Tossing a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder after spilling salt, not walking under a ladder leaning against a wall, knocking on wood, crossing one’s fingers, calling out ‘Bless you!’ when someone sneezes….many of the above are associated with a fear of Satan. You can read about these and more such here and here.
Good omen or bad, good luck or bad, things that are destined to happen will happen. We are only tying ourselves into knots by worrying about them. Unlike negative feelings, these are mere beliefs. But some of them have become so ingrained in our psyches that we act involuntarily.
That brings me to the term auspicious. When we say something is auspicious, we mean prosperity, joy, growth and peace. Attributing this characteristic to things depends upon what we feel symbolize these. Traditionally things like flowers, chandan, turmeric, kumkum etc are considered auspicious. Likewise in the south, plantain trees with the bunch of fruits a flower at the end of it are considered auspicious, as the tree stands for the progress of generations – with a new one growing from the roots of the old one. Therefore one can find a pair of these trees or even small plants at the door to a wedding hall or tied to the chowki bearing the deities during special pujas at home.
But what I find unacceptable is the term inauspicious when applied to people, especially women. A widow is considered inauspicious while a suhagan is auspicious. Likewise, a woman without children is excluded from ceremonies like god-bharai and namkaran.
How can one presume so unerringly that a married woman is content and happy and therefore will have nothing but positive emotions and a widow by inference would be so unhappy as to wish ill? And this is not just in Hindu culture but also in Islam where a bewa (widow) is considered inauspicious.
The thinking is so flawed as to make it sound not just callous, but also silly. I know of any number of supposedly auspicious suhagans who are so full of ill will and discontent that they can easily spread negativity and just as many wonderfully positive widows who should be gracing all such functions for the positivity they carry. Likewise, I know of many childless women who are so full of love and affection for children that they can never bring anything but love and be epitomes of auspiciousness. Barring people from participation on the basis of assumptions is cruel to say the least.
Why attach such stigmas to simple negative emotions, which can emanate from any source — men, women, young and old? And while we are singling out those who are supposedly negative, let us also learn to separate the real and false and the pretenders, for there are many of the last two lurking around us under the cloak of positivity.
How do you feel about all this buri nazar and good omen business? And while you reply, let me cross my fingers for good luck!