I am sure it must bring a lot of pride to every Indian when the iconic greeting of the Indian culture, ‘Namaste’, went global and was adopted by world leaders! However, on a deeper level, it highlights the role that culture and lifestyle can play in tackling such a contagious disease like Coronavirus.

‘Social distancing’ has become such a popular term these days. With the absence of any specific and effective vaccine or medicines, this practice has been projected as the panacea for this epidemic. The proper implementation of such practice calls for major upheavals as part of one’s culture. The definition of culture and the elements it entails is varying but it is evident that it involves age-old traditions and norms. Culture is affected by factors, inter alia, like values and societal norms. Examples of this would include the Indian spiritualism as opposed to western materialism. This article seeks to study the impact that different cultures around the world have created in the effort to contain the spread of the virus.

During my childhood, I recall laughing at one of the domestic maids at my maternal grandmother’s house when she said that she would always wash her hands and feet upon waking up in the morning. My grandmother appreciated it and so did my aunt but, the naïve 14-year-old me found it ludicrous! Little did I know that it is these seemingly small traditional values that will go on to have such high importance. In fact, if one uses a broader lens, one would realize that several practices underline the importance of personal hygiene. I may even be bold enough to declare that it is not an understatement to say that the Indian culture has invariably emphasized the importance of personal hygiene. Mahabharata, as an epic, can be taken as a reflection of the societal conditions of that time to a certain extent. Various verses of it bring out a revulsion towards poor personal hygiene practices. The Anushasan Parva, in particular, has several shlokas on the topic of pollution:

“One must not release excrement in a field or near a village. Both urine and excrement must never be released in water.” [13.107, Vol X]

“If a person passes urine or excrement towards the sun, towards a fire, towards a cow, towards a brahmana or along the road – then his lifespan is destroyed.” [13.107, Vol X]

“One must always pass urine at a spot that is far away from habitation. After this, one must always wash one’s feet at a distance. Those who desire benefit must throw away food that has been partially eaten by others far away.” [13.107, Vol X]

“Those who follow dharma do not release urine or excrement on a royal road, amidst cattle, or in the midst of a cow pen.” [13.148, Vol X]

This perfectly encapsulates the general desire to maintain a good level of sanitation in the community. By warning people against performing ablutions near one’s house, near a habitation or in a water body, Mahabharata underscores good sanitation practices. It also advises people to wash their feet before returning. Given the nature of this epic, it can be said with some certitude that the actual societal practices and perception weren’t too far away from the actual practices. Moreover, these are all quite sensible pieces of instructions that would definitely not be out of place in any twenty-first-century manual of personal hygiene, certainly not when an epidemic is going around! Apart from this, several other texts mention practices like the burning of dead bodies as part of the last rites, which are also very effective in handling contagious diseases.

I am reminded of my 12th class History teacher telling us about the matrilineal community in Kerala where the woman had several partners. Whenever a man came to her house, he would leave his shoes outside as a sign to the other partners to know that the woman is currently occupied. To us, it may sound strange but that’s beside the point. The argument also shows that by not letting the shoes-worn outside the house- inside, principles of hygiene were followed.

However, it would be incorrect on my part to only mention the customs and traditions involving hygiene. There was a very important focus on the aspect of community living. One might hear several leaders and figures reminding people that they live in a community and must, wherefore, show responsibility towards their communities. The multi-faceted culture of the subcontinent is riddled with such examples. The practice of organizing langar in Sikhism is the archetype of ensuring equal access to resources in the community. The rather unique system of land ownership in medieval and modern India, that ended up baffling several foreign travelers, can also be extrapolated to highlight the sense of community responsibility that people had. This feeling is perhaps also evident while granting a divine status to natural resources like rivers and forests.

These traditions and cultural practices make one feel the need for introspection. We must understand the rationale behind seemingly laughable traditions and perhaps try to find its modern equivalent that is crafted to today’s lifestyle. If all Indians inculcate civic sense then, it can truly change the face of our communities. Simple habits located in our historical traditions like washing hands regularly can literally go on to save lives! Always keeping in mind the sense of community living and acting in line with one’s social responsibility, as done by our forefathers, can potentially solve the obnoxious problem of hoarding of essential items. Coronavirus has disrupted the entire country and while rebuilding, it is important to look at the mistakes we committed and learn from them.

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