By Kathirasenar

One of the things I noticed this Deepavali was the tendency to greet everyone with a hug, and not with the traditional vanakkam. The hug is common among youngsters, but I noticed that some older people were also doing this.

I have nothing against people hugging each other in greeting. I do it too. It shows your care and your love. All the young people who met me during Deepavali, hugged me. Not one of them said “vanakkam” by placing their palms together and bowing slightly.

Is the “vanakkam” or “Namaste” disappearing just like the kallu urundai (rock balls) and the old Deepavali greeting “Ganga snanam seithaachaa?” (Have you bathed in the River Ganga?)

When I was younger, a celebrant would greet another celebrant on Deepavali day by asking “Ganga snanam seithaachaa” and the other person would answer “Seithaachu”. This is because taking an early morning oil bath on Deepavali day is considered as auspicious as bathing in the River Ganges. It was only after this that the celebrant would say “Happy Deepavali”. Today, everyone says “Happy Deepavali” or “Deepavali Vazhthukkal”.

Also, I don’t see anyone making the kallu orundai these days and fewer people are making the nei urundai (ghee balls).

But my concern is that the vanakkam greeting may disappear. For some time now, its use has been limited to functions such as weddings and festivals but today it is no longer as popular even at functions, especially with youngsters.

It would be a tragedy if the vanakkam greeting were to disappear. I belief that if people knew the philosophy behind the vanakkam greeting, they would not only use it but also encourage others to do so.

The Philosophy Of Vanakam

The vanakkam gesture is symbolic. When Hindus pray, they bring their palms together in the vanakkam gesture. When I bring my palms together and bow slightly at the temple, I am in effect saying: “I bow down to you, God, in humility and bhakti (faith).”

A fundamental pillar of Indian philosophy is that God resides in the hearts of all beings. So when I greet you with the vanakkam, I am in effect saying: “I recognise the divinity in you and bow down to God in you”.

When I say vanakkam to you and recognise the divinity in you, it changes the way I interact with you for I cannot think of hurting you as you are a part of the divine. My attitude towards you would be, or should be, different.

If God is in you, can I cheat you or be arrogant towards you? Can I abuse you verbally or physically? No. I will have to be honest and sincere and caring. I have to help you and not cause you trouble, This turns me into a better person.

When you too recognise the divinity in me, you will reciprocate, setting the stage for more friendly living. If everyone thinks and behaves this way, a better, harmonious society will develop.

The vanakkam gesture teaches me that as God is in me, I must treat my body well. I have to eat healthy food, have adequate sleep and take adequate exercise. This means, for instance, that I must avoid drugs, cigarettes and liquor which harm me. In addition, I have to have healthy, uplifting thoughts.

Now, if my body is a temple of God, so is yours. In recognising this, I must not abuse you. If couples were to follow the vanakkam philosophy, there would be fewer cases of spousal abuse. The husband, for instance, will realise that in abusing his wife, he is abusing the God within too.

The vanakkam gesture suggests that my destiny is in my hands. The same hand that can slap a person can be brought together in prayer or to help someone. The vanakkam philosophy tells me the choice is mine. I can change my life and make of it whatever I want to make of it.

The five fingers on one hand represent the nyana indriyas (sense organs) – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin – that help us perceive and understand the world. The five fingers on the other hand represent the karma indriyas (organs of action) – hands, legs, voice box, anus and the sex organ – through which we act in the world.

The vanakkam philosophy reminds us of the need to control our nyana indriyas and karma indriyas by bringing them together in prayer or in performing divine deeds. Our sense organs and organs of action can run wild and cause irreparable harm to us and others, so there is a need to watch over them.

There’s even more in the vanakkam philossphy but I think this would have given you an idea of its richness and why it would be a tragedy if we were to forget it. I hope more people will start saying vanakkam and living the vanakkam philosophy.


Kathirasenar is a veteran editor and columnist with an interest in culture.

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