Saturday, January 9, 2010

Feet in Hinduism

Why no shoes in a Temple

Feet hold a powerful symbolism with Hindu culture. You take off your shoes when you enter a temple. When sitting you never point your feet towards people, especially seniors, and you never spread your feet before an altar or towards fellow worshippers. We can say the feet of people are considered low. In fact one of the greatest insults you can make is to throw shoes at someone. And yet the feet of God and seniors are special. God’s feet and even a guru’s feet are often called “lotus feet” and in some temples even a small set of shoes belonging to the Deity (shathari) is touched to the head of worshippers. We even drink the feet bathing water of God as a prasada and sprinkle the bathing water of a guru’s feet on our heads.

The basis for feet symbolism goes back to the Vedic conception of the universe as the body of God. Just like a body has high and low parts so this universe has high and low, pure and impure places. Up is high, down is low. Feet touch the ground, which is low, and so when you enter a temple you leave your low part at the door. We take off our impure part, our feet, symbolized by leaving our shoes at the door as we enter sacred space. You might say we leave our materialistic side at the door when we enter spiritual space.

Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?

Along with this question one might also add ask: Why do we not blow out a flame with our breath? The answer to both these questions has to do with one of the most fundamental features of Hinduism, namely personification. Hinduism personifies virtually every aspect of life. The wind is not just air blowing from high pressure to low pressure. It is a God, Vayudeva. The sun is not just a great nuclear reaction in space. It is the sun God, Suryadeva. Similarly, the rain is a God, the moon is a God, all the planets are Gods and every other aspect of reality is subject to personification. Therefore, all things of learning: papers, books, musical instruments, pens, typewriters and even computers can be seen as an aspects of the Goddess of learning, Sarasvati. And we since already know the symbolism of feet in Hinduculture, it is obvious why we do not touch our feet to these items. Similarly, we do not blow a flame with our breath because it would be impolite. The flame is Agni, the fire God, and to blow in his face is impolite! To the Western mind this may seem difficult to understand, but there is great power in personification. Personification gives one the ability to communicate with the God and therefore perhaps control or at least get favors from the Deity. Personification is the basis of puja.


Post a Comment

Newer Posts Older Posts