(The following are questions I’ve frequently been asked and the answers are based on my own knowledge and experience. They by no means, encompass every explanation about South Asian culture and Hinduism in general!)
South Asian culture is beautiful, but very complex. Over my lifetime I’ve gotten so many questions about my cultural practices, some that I didn’t even know the answer to! I love how curious people are, its awesome to see people exploring and appreciating other cultures! There are some questions I get asked quite frequently that I thought I could explain away quickly on one page for y’all. Let’s get started!
Q1: Why do Hindu’s worship cows?
A: Ah, this one. Okay my dear friend here is your answer. We don’t. The cow is considered a sacred animal by people of the Hindu faith. It doesn’t mean we worship them, it means they have religious significance in Hindu culture. Shiva, the Destroyer, who is a God of the Hindu Trinity has Nandi the bull, as his mode of transportation. Animals associated with Hindu Gods like Nandi have a special place in Indian culture, and therefore are not harmed or killed for their meat. Other sacred animals include monkeys, as they represent Hanuman, a hero in the Hindu epic, the Ramayan, and snakes, as Lord Vishnu’s primary companion is the snake deity, Adisesha.
Additionally, cows have a very loving docile nature. They just want to be fed well and protected, and in return they give their milk for humans to drink, and make dairy products like butter and cheese. Animals that have such a giving nature are admired and revered, and this is another reason why many Hindus do not eat beef, the belief is that the creature that gives so much deserves mercy and respect. Some Hindus are fully vegetarian and some are not. There is a spectrum based on individual beliefs!
Q2: So, why do Indian women wear bindis? Is it because they are married?
A: I wish I had a dollar for every time I selfied with a bindi on! I am not married. I don’t know where this question came from in general! Bindis symbolize Lord Shivas third eye. They were traditionally worn by Hindu women and girls to ward off the evil eye, but now they are more of a fashion statement. Almost all women and girls wear them to cultural events and religious ceremonies, they are not only for married women. Married women often do wear a red power on their hairline called sindoor. Sindoor is a mark of a married woman. In some cultures, women wear sindoor everyday, in others, they wear it in their first few days as a newlywed, and for religious ceremonies. It is strictly meant for married women though.
Q3: So, will you have an arranged marriage?
A: Like I mentioned in my previous post on arranged marriages, the concept of romantic love is actually very recent. Arranged marriages have been happening for centuries and they still happen all over the world today. And yes, they do happen all the time, right here in Edmonton Alberta. Remember there is a difference between arranged and forced marriages. Within an arranged marriage, both the bride and groom have the agency to accept or reject a match all on their own. Usually, the parents of a bride or groom introduce their child to someone they think might be a good match. These two have an opportunity to get to know each other, and if they like each other, onto the wedding preparations! Dating and falling in love happen gradually, once the couple is engaged and committed to each other.
People used ask me all the time if I will have an arranged marriage. Again, its my choice. I have friends who have made the decision to have their marriage arranged, and they are perfectly happy and in love. Currently I have a boyfriend, but I might have been open to the possibility of an arranged marriage at some point, (having my parents introduce me to people they think I might like). That’s just me though. It’s a personal decision and just because someone is South Asian does not mean they will automatically be subjected to an arranged marriage.
Q4: Why are South Asian weddings usually elaborate and expensive? Why do brides wear red instead of white?
A: Depending on where you are from, South Asian weddings involve many unique and special cultural elements. People who have seen Bollywood movies or have attended a South Asian wedding are often blown away by the opulence of a 10-day event, complete with everything from luxury cars to elephants. They are a time for family and friends to get together, wear their best clothes, celebrate love, and even show off a little bit 😉 They are a time to meet new people, potential spouses, to dance and sing, and let loose. They are also considered a “send off” gift to the new couple before they set out to start life on their own. For this reason, weddings are intricately planned and elaborately executed. There is enormous cultural pressure in the South Asian community to host a wedding bigger and better than ever before. Weddings are sometimes considered a time to make a statement about a families’ financial affluence etc. They say the average wedding cost is $100 000. In the West, although huge South Asian weddings still exist, there is a wide range. There are stunningly beautiful South Asian weddings that are on a budget and only 2 days long.
As for the second question, generally the color white in India is worn during funerals. As such, it is considered an inauspicious color for weddings and other joyous events (Except for in Kerela, where many brides wear beautiful and traditional white saris for their weddings). Red, symbolizes fertility, vibrancy and celebration, so it is a very popular color for many South Asian brides. Nowadays, particularly in the West, can wear any color they like and any style they like! However pink, magenta, red, orange, purple, and yellow are still very popular.
Q5: Why do Hindus have so many Gods?
A: Okay, so let’s get a little philosophical. Hinduism 101. First of all, Hinduism is more of a lifestyle than anything else. It is not an organized religion, and there are many different ways it can be practised. Para Brahman, in Hinduism is considered the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe, the main concept of goodness and purity and truth (The”God Force” or Holy Spirit). Para Brahman is hard to understand. Hinduism and the Hindu Gods represent the various forms of Para Brahman. Shakti is a feminine representation of Para Brahman, while for example Shiva represents the destructive nature of Para Brahman. Ultimately, Hinduism and the Gods of Hindus are not like the Greek Parthenon of Zeus, Athena etc. They are representations of a higher force. And a Hindu can choose any form (God or Goddess) of Para Brahman they like to focus on.
Everyone is different. Many Hindus have a patron God they relate to most. Some are only devotees of Shiva, and some are only Devotees of Vishnu. Sometimes certain Gods are recognized at certain times of the year. Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth is recognized on Diwali, while Holi, the festival of spring is the celebration of Krishna. There are many different variations of religious stories, some people are vegetarian, some are not. Some worship all the Gods, others worship one. Some do not celebrate certain festivals and others do. But what all Hindus hold close to their hearts are a few core principles
- Karma: What goes around comes around. In other words, the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated
- Ahisma: The principle of non-violence
- Reincarnation: The belief that the soul never dies. According to how you lived your life and served humanity, you will be reborn as a higher being or a lower being. If you continue to be a good person, your soul will reach the purest form, and you will be able to attain Moksha, and escape the cycle of reincarnation
The bottom line is: Be a good person. It’s the same message as every other religion that is practised. Hindus have been discriminated against for being “idol worshipers” or “polytheists”. But the core principles of our religion align with the values of every other. Hindus believe there are many paths towards God, and all the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism represent different paths that may be taken towards salvation. Hindus respect and appreciate all religions, as they all represent different paths. Picture a bicycle wheel. If each religion/outlook is a spoke, they all lead to the same place, which is be a good person and serve humanity.
Q6: Why do people love Bollywood so much? Its so cheesy!
India, despite its rapid growth and development, is still a Third World country. A large percentage of people who live there are still only earning $1 a day. Bollywood movies are popular with every Indian demographic, no matter how much they make. Although they can be cheesy and surreal, they represent an escape from reality, just as any cinema experience does. They weave action, romance and culture together to deliver a world that may be far out of reach for some. It gives many people hope and happiness for the future, seeing circumstances beyond what they currently experience. For the Indian diaspora who live outside the country like me, it’s a link back to our roots and our culture. Bollywood movies and music bond us with other South Asians despite language, culture or religion. When everyone breaks into the same Bollywood iconic dance steps during weddings and celebrations, when everyone knows the lyrics, the actors the cheesy plot lines, the dialogues… it’s a cultural bridge that’s more powerful than meets the eye!
Q7: Languages and religions: Do you speak Hindi/Punjabi? Are you Hindu or Muslim? Are you Gujarati or Tamil?!
There are 22 scheduled languages within the Indian constitution, and hundreds of dialects and variations. And yes, two of those are Hindi and Punjabi. So just because someone is from India does not mean they will understand your Hindi/Punjabi curse words or random phrases. Every village you visit in India will have its own unique take on language, culture and religion. It is completely incorrect to assume that all South Asian people have the same language and religion and culture. It may make things confusing for some people but its actually kind of cool don’t you think; every South Asian person has a different identity for you to get to know! India also has many different religions. The 2 majority ones include Hinduism and Islam, but there are also many practitioners of Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Zoroastrians, Jainism, Tribal religions etc. Each religion, combined with language and geographic area produces a unique and special identity. That’s what makes India so special, it is a mosaic of many beautiful cultures and peoples. It is also a reason why India has had political and sectarian struggles since the 1947 partition. With so many different identities, sometimes its hard to get along!
I hope that clarified some common questions people have about some aspects of South Asian culture! Let me know if there’s anything I haven’t covered that you would like to know!