"It seemed to be a necessary ritual that he should prepare himself for sleep by meditating under the solemnity of the night sky...a mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe." - Victor Hugo
One of the first rituals I encountered in India was the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, incanted 5 times a day to call Muslims to pray in their mosques. The lilting and meditative sound of the muezzin's chant broadcast over loudspeaker woke me at sunrise on my first full day in India. At sunset, it reminded me that my first day was winding down toward its end. Each day after was the same, awakened by this hypnotic song with no need to set an alarm clock and reminded throughout the day of the inevitable passing of time. The adhan was only the first of many beautiful rituals I encountered during my travels throughout the country.
While staying in my friend's ancestral home in a rural area of Kerala, she taught me how to light the diya. The diya is a brass oil lamp found in the front hallway of all Indian homes that is lit at dawn and sunset as a pious gesture to appease god. Because many of the households around us did not have electricity, you could look out and see the glow of the diyas in the front hallways of the neighbors. If I had been able to stay in that house for a longer period of time, standing on the front porch in the evening and watching those lanterns light up one by one would have become my own ritual.
Namaste, the traditional Indian greeting, is a ritual that honors the divine spark within each of us that Buddhists and Hindus believe is located in the heart. By bowing your head and bringing your palms together over your heart and under your chin you are honoring the spark or soul in the other person with the spark that resides in you. Greeting someone with Namaste also reminds us that we are all one when we live from the heart. When I think of the meaning of Namaste, I have always imagined the act of lighting one candle from a flame and then using that candle to light another candle. By sharing our light with others and through acknowledging them, we also spread light.
During a trip on a houseboat down the lush riverways of Kerala, I spied a beautiful old man - bare chested, wrinkled from years of life, burned a chestnut brown from the sun, wrapped in a simple cotton lundi - smiling broadly at me from the riverbed as I passed by. When our eyes met, I was sitting at the front of the boat in my traditional whites, and he honored me with a deep gesture of Namaste. He not only bowed his head and brought his hands together over his chest, but he then also spread open his palms and opened them toward me as if fanning the spark of his soul in my direction. After I had returned the honor, I asked Lakshmi what his extra gesture meant. She told me it was an awknowledgement of beauty. His lovely gesture succeeded in lighting me up and making me feel like a true citizen of the world.
Rituals offer those of us caught up in the rattle and hum of life a welcome respite. Daily rituals can act as little anchors that ground us in quiet meditation inbetween the ticking off of our to-do lists and our incessant processing of information. The Indian culture is overflowing with simple reminders to breathe, honor the present, and remember your place in the great universe. Sadly, Americans don't participate in many rituals to ground us, honor each other, or act to remind us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. As I discovered the country and culture of India, my eyes were opened to the positive power that practicing simple, daily rituals can provide.
*Photo of the author taking a break from her daily ritual in India - drinking Masala Chai and writing