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Hindu Omens

(Shakunam)

"Neither by explaining omens and prodigies, nor by skill in astrology and palmistry, nor by casuistry and expositions of holy texts let him (a Sanyasi) at any time gain his support." (Mann, vi, 50.)

THE belief in omens has existed in all ages and countries. Traces of it still linger in the most civilized and enlightened communities, and such belief pervades all classes in India. The most unobservant traveller cannot fail to be struck with the peculiar objects, some most grotesque and some most obscene, that are placed in gardens and fields to protect the crops from the evil eye. In order to protect her child from the same baleful influence a mother decks it with charms or some peculiar ornaments. The obscene figures that are sometimes seen over the gateways of Hindu temples are placed there from the same motive. Such superstitions as a belief in the good or evil influence of certain stars or the conjunction of certain planets have a wonderful hold upon the Hindu mind amongst men of every rank and station. The influence of certain numbers is largely believed in by the people ; odd numbers are thought to be lucky, whilst even numbers are unlucky; so it becomes a matter of very great anxiety to a candidate in any public examination whether his number in the list of candidates should turn out to be an odd or an even one. Certain gems are believed to have a good or evil influence on the wearer. Mann says :—

"Together with all his food let him swallow such medicinal substances as resist venom; and let him constantly wear with attention such gems as are known to repel it " (vii. 218).

Any one who has had occasion to sell a horse to a Hindu will have noticed with what care the animal was examined to see if it had certain marks. These marks are not, as one might suppose, signs of breed or soundness ; but certain configurations of the hair, showing whether the animal is a lucky or an unlucky one. The position and number of certain natural twists in the hair are taken as an indication of the real value of the animal. A horse with unlucky marks is thought to be certain to bring misfortune, and hence it is very difficult to sell one to a Hindu if it is deficient in these marks. These and numerous similar things which might be alluded to, serve to show how superstition-ridden the Hindu is, even in these days of intellectual progress.

The Sanskrit word used for an omen at the head of this chapter is shakunam, which means primarily a bird, and comes to mean an omen from the fact that in ancient days omens were largely decided by the flight of birds. The old Hindu writings contain passages referring to portents and omens, and the passage quoted from Manu at the head of this chapter does not mean that the art or science of explaining omens is a disreputable one. All that it means is that a Sanyasi, being one who is supposed to have finished with worldly affairs, must not, for the sake of acquiring gain, ever engage in what are ordinarily considered sacred employments.

A knowledge of omens is considered an art or science amongst the Hindus generally, and there is a book in Telugu, translated from the Sanskrit, upon this subject. The three divisions of this book are palmistry (smudrikam), or the interpretation of spots on the body and of creases in the hands ; enquiry (prashnam), or divination tried by dipping the hand into the " Ramayanam "; and omens. There is a class of people who are learned in omens and kindred subjects ; the chief of these are the astronomers or astrologers (jyotishka) who, as their name implies, are learned in the stars and occult matters.

The following account of a variety of omens is taken from the book to which I have referred.

OMENS ON SETTING OUT ON A JOURNEY

There are no less than forty-three different things enumerated as prognosticating good and thirty-four evil, if any of them should happen just as a person sets out on a journey. For instance, it is a good omen to overhear a pleasant conversation, to hear musical instruments; to see a good. blaze of fire ; to meet a company of dancing girls, or a few young women, to meet an elephant, a horse, or a bullock, or even a corpse, to meet two Brahmans, or four Komaties, or a Sudra with a stick in his hand ; to see in front of one an umbrella, fans, mirrors, a harp, diamonds, gold, weapons, fruit or flowers; to bear the braying of an ass from the east, south, north or north-east. It is lucky, if a crow, a parrot, a stork, a heron, or a jackal. passes from the left to the right ; if a brahminy kite, a hawk, an owl, an iguana, a deer, a musk-rat, a dog, or a mongoose passes from right to left ; and if a lizard's cry is heard from the right, or from overhead.

It seems strange that it should be a good omen to meet a corpse, but it is the case. To dream of a corpse, of a blaze of fire, of flowers, of fruit, of having stepped into filth, or of having any filth fall on one's body is considered to be a good omen. To dream of any thing red, such as red flowers, a red cloth or blood is bad.

It is a very anxious time when a good Hindu leaves his ,home to start out for a journey. He will naturally look and listen carefully for some good sign. A pandit friend tells me that there is no definite distance laid down beyond which bad omens have no effect ; but perhaps twenty or twenty-five yards, or even less, may be considered enough as a test. After the traveller gets out into the main street, if the house started from is in a side street, it will not matter much if anything of the nature of a bad omen happens. The setting out, therefore, is the anxious time. It is a bad sign, if any one tries to persuade the departing traveller not to go, or says he had better take some food before starting, or offers to accompany him, or enquires as to where he is going, or pulls his garment to keep him back. It is considered a bad omen when a person sets out, to meet, or to see in front of him, any of the following :—a woman with plaited red hair 1, a widow, a new pot, a whirlwind, drops of rain, a bundle of firewood, a single Brahmin, an oil-monger, a pariah, a lame man, men quarrelling, men in suffering, men with dishevelled hair, a hunchback, a leper, invalids, buttermilk, oil, empty pots, grass, bones, a bundle of dirty clothes, smoking fire or various other things which are mentioned. It is not a good sign to see an ass either to the west, the north-west, the south-west or the south-east with its head hanging down and braying ; or to see a crow, a parrot, a stork, a heron, or a jackal pass from the right to the left.

If any of these bad omens appears to a pious Hindu when he is setting out on a journey, especially if the journey is an important one, he will certainly turn back home again. On entering his house he will carefully wash his feet and then perform achamanam, which is sipping of water three times, repeating the following names of Vishnu, Keshava Svala! hail Krishna, Narayana Svaha hail Narayana, Madhava Svaha ! hail Madhava. After this is over, and after spending some time in quiet meditation, he will again set forth. If after a succession of attempts he still meets with bad omens the journey will be deferred entirely for the day, if not altogether given up. If the traveller is a Sudra, he will not be able to repeat the words mentioned above, when performing his achamanam, as they are taken from the Vedas, and none but a twice-born must take such holy words within his lips. The Sudra will sip the water and say Govinda! Govinda! or Siva! Siva! according as he is a Vaishnava, or a Siva, a worshipper of the god Vishnu, or of the god Siva.

SNAKE OMENS.

In a country like India where serpent worship is so common, the movements of these reptiles are looked upon as ominous. The vital statistics of the Indian Government show an annual loss of life by snake bite alone, averaging from twenty to twenty-five thousand. It is not then to be wondered at that the serpent should inspire a dread which leads on to propitiatory worship. They thus form a natural subject for omens.

To see two snakes fighting denotes a quarrel between the beholder and his relatives ; to see two snakes making off in the same direction forebodes poverty. One snake swallowing another is a sign of famine. It is a good omen to any one who sees a serpent climbing up a green tree, for he is sure to be an emperor. It is a sign of coming misfortune to a king, if he sees a snake climbing down from a tree ; but the same thing is to other than kings a good omen. The entrance of a snake into a house denotes wealth to the householder ; but just the reverse if it is seen departing from a house. If a cobra is seen with its hood expanded and its tail erect, going across from the left to the right, it is a good sign ; if only its hood is expanded as it thus proceeds, it denotes a good meal for the beholder. If a snake comes towards a person from the right side it foretells success ; but it is a bad sign if it should come from the left. If anyone sees a snake crawling about in the road in front of him, it denotes success to his projects ; but evil will follow if the person halts. If when the snake sees anyone it expands its hood and erects its head, it foretells wealth and prosperity ; but, if it crawls into its hole, it denotes wealth to the poor, but poverty to the rich. To see a dead snake lying on the ground foretells news of death. Should a farmer on arriving at a field see a cobra with hood expanded and head erect, it shows that the field will yield a good crop; but if it should crawl away on seeing him, it denotes a bad crop. It is a sign of a good crop, if a cobra is seen with hood expanded and head erect when the farmer is sowing his seed. A snake crawling into the entrance of a village denotes good to the villagers ; but it denotes evil to them if it is seen running away from a village. To hear a serpent hiss on entering a village is a good omen ; but when on a journey it is bad to hear it hiss. If any one sees the trail of a snake on the ground, he must walk backwards along it, rubbing it out with his foot.

LIZARD OMENS.

There are two ways in which a lizard is supposed to exercise a good or an evil influence, and these are its cry and its falling upon anyone. With reference to the cry of a lizard it is said that, if on entering a town, anyone hears a lizard's cry coming from the left wand it denotes prosperity ; but if it should be heard from the right it bespeaks delay in the accomplishment of the designs of him who hears it. If the cry is heard from the front, it is a good omen ; but it is bad to hear it from behind. If a number of lizards cry out together, or if one should cry many times it is a good sign. If when any one is considering about any business a lizard's cry is heard from the right or from above, it bespeaks well for the hearer's designs ; but it would denote disaster if it were heard from the left side.

Every dweller in India knows how universal the ordinary lizard is ; it is everywhere both indoors and out. It is a very harmless thing and many of its ways are rather entertaining than otherwise ; especially its dexterity in pouncing upon the insects which form its food. Many lizards are very pretty, and the effect is very pleasing 'when they are seen darting about in the sunlight, or along the white walls by lamplight. Some of them, it is true, are not so engaging in appearance ; but others have most beautiful colours and markings, and their feeble little " tweet " " tweet " is by no means unpleasant to the ear, though not very musical. In its movements here, there and everywhere, up the walls, along the beams and in and out among the rafters, seeking what it may devour, the silly thing must very often go very carelessly, or else get giddy from running along horizontal beams with its natural position reversed as to its legs and back. It is no unusual thing for it to fall on the floor, and to be stunned. It is, however, soon up again and off like a dart, as if nothing had happened. The Hindu has very superstitious notions about the fall of a lizard, that is, if it should happen to fall on his person ; and he will try all he can to prevent such a thing happening. Although under certain conditions, such a fall may be a token of good, the chances to the contrary are so great as to make it worth while to take every precaution against such a contingency.

In a book on omens there is a list of no less than sixty-five places on the person which may forebode good or evil, if touched by a lizard in its fall. If it falls upon the centre of one's head, it forebodes a quarrel or disease ; if on the temples, evil to one's brother ; if on the front of the head, evil to oneself ; if on the head covering, evil to males, death to females; if on the tips of one's hair, death ; if on the right cheek, good for males, evil for females ; if on the left cheek, good for females, evil for males and so on through the whole body right down to the toes, and even to the nails on the toes. For instance, if a lizard falls on the toes of the right foot, it denotes wealth ; but if on the nails of the same foot, a quarrel; if on the edge of the nails of the same foot, annoyance or suffering is betokened. If in the fall it touches either the toes, or the nails, or the edge of the nails of the left foot, it is an omen of wealth and good fortune.

The chapter from which these remarks are taken concludes as follows " Upon whatever part of the body a lizard may fall, it is the best thing to at once bathe and, having lit a lamp fed with oil, pray to a favourite god for the prevention of any evil that might otherwise happen." To this it may be objected that the omen might be a good one, hence why this deprecatory action. The reply to this would probably be that, owing to the possible uncertainty as to the exact spot upon which the reptile alighted, it would be safer to assume that the omen is a bad one, and so at once provide for the possible contingency.

Separate information is given as to what is denoted by the fall of a chameleon—the large lizard usually called a bloodsucker. Strange to say, some of these omens are the opposite of those of the ordinary lizard. For instance, if a lizard falls on the nose, it betokens disease ; whilst a fall of the chameleon on the same place foretells the cure of a disease. Enough, however, has been said to show what a very portentous creature a lizard is in the eyes of the Hindus, and to account for the anxiety they evince to prevent one, at any time, falling upon them.

CROW OMENS.

To one at all acquainted with the Indian crow, it is not at all a matter of surprise that the ways of that wily bird are thought to be highly ominous. The very glitter of its wicked beady black eye is suggestive of evil. The Hindus think, from the peculiar squinting way the crow has of looking at a thing—turning its head from side to side in a most uncanny fashion—that it can only see with one eye at a time, but that it has the power of transferring vision from one eye to the other at will. According to this theory, one eye must, for the time, be only a dummy. As may be. expected, the crow is a proverbial bird amongst the Hindus. They say, for instance, " The crow's chick is dear to the crow," or, as the English proverb has it, " Even a beggar loves her brat " ; " The crow is black at birth and black when grown," or, " What is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh" ; " To kill crows and throw them to kites," or, " To rob Peter to pay Paul."

Though the crow is certainly interesting from some points of view, and perhaps in personal appearance somewhat deserving the high sounding name (corvus splendens) with which naturalists have endowed him, the moral character of the Indian crow is truly of the lowest. He is a very Ishmaelite amongst birds. For cunning craftiness, for untiring pertinacity, for fiendish cruelty, and outrageous impudence, perhaps no feathered creature in existence is its equal. The jackdaw of Rheims would be far behind in competition with it, either in cleverness or in wickedness. It is, therefore, perfectly natural that the crow should be placed in the Hindu list of creatures of augury. Thus, if on setting out for a journey a crow comes in front of a person and caws, it denotes the defeat of the object of the journey. If it caws first on the left hand side, and then on the right it shows that robbers may fall upon the traveller in the way ; but if it caws first on the right side and then on the left, it foretells wealth and the accomplishment of one's designs. If a crow caws on the left hand, and. then follows after the person, it prognosticates an access of riches ; but if, after cawing on the left hand, it comes towards one from the front, it foretells difficulties on the journey. On the other hand, this last omen is good for those who are not setting out on a journey. If a crow coming towards a person caws and then goes behind to the right, it foretells suffering from ulcers. If anyone is fortunate enough to see one crow feeding another, it bespeaks happiness to the beholder.

DOG OMENS.

The dog of the country, the ordinary " pariah " dog as it is called, is such a poor miserable thing that it is rather surprising to find so much space occupied with them in the book on omens. There are good dogs in India and sometimes specimens of really well-bred creatures are seen. A thoroughbred brinjari dog or a really good poligar is an excellent animal and suits the country ; but the dog of the East is a miserable creature, and the word dog is univerally used as a term of contempt. Such terms as " a lucky dog " or " a jolly dog," with the implied strain of compliment rather than reproach, are unknown in India, and probably the same may be said for the East generally.

It is a good sign, if a dog comes near anyone with a piece of old shoe in its mouth ; and it bespeaks wealth to a person who sees a dog with some flesh in its mouth. If a dog passes by with a raw bone in its mouth it is a lucky sign ; but if a dog has a burning stick or a dry bone in its mouth, it foretells death. If a dog enters a house with a dry bone in its mouth, the householder will be in great danger of death ; if on so entering it has ropes, or leather straps in its mouth, it shows that the householder will be put into prison. It is good, if a dog comes from the right towards a person about to start on a journey ; or if it should come towards him from the front when actually on a journey. If a dog shaking its ears jumps upon a traveller, or walks behind him treading in his footsteps, it denotes that difficulties may happen. When a dog stops a traveller in the way and prevents his proceeding, it means that he will fall among robbers or be stopped by enemies. If any one sees a dog scratching itself, it denotes disease to the beholder. Evil also will happen to anyone who sees a dog lying down with its tail cocked up. A journey is foretold to a person whose shoes a dog smells. It also predicts danger from enemies or from robbers if a dog smells a person's shoulders.

CAT OMENS.

A cat is evidently not thought to be such a very portentous creature, as but little is said about it in the book on omens. The following is a free translation of all that is said there :—" Should a cat be in front of anyone when he may be considering any business, that business will not prosper. If anyone sees a cat, just on awaking in the morning nothing he may do that day Will prosper. A cat coming towards anyone who is leaving home shows that the object he had in view will fail. Should a cat follow anyone who is leaving the house, the object in view will be accomplished without any hindrance. It is a good omen to hear a cat cry from the side towards the west."

JACKAL OMENS.

The jackal enters largely into Hindu fable ; but very little is said of it from the omen point of view. The following are the chief things mentioned as portending good or evil. It is a good omen for a traveller when a jackal crosses over from the left to the right. It is also a good portent when a jackal's cry is heard from the east or the north ; but it predicts great calamities if it cries exactly at midday. If it cries from the south or when turning towards the sun, evil will happen to the town or the army. If one jackal cries out towards the south in reply to another, it portends an execution by hanging ; if it so cries in reply to another turning to the west, it bespeaks death by drowning. If a jackal cries out so loud as to deafen the ears of a person, but when another begins to cry, lessens its own cry, it foretells wealth and prosperity and also the safe return of friends and relatives who may have gone on a distant journey.

SNEEZING REGARDED AS AN OMEN.

A sneeze at the important rite of a marriage ceremony is regarded as an unpropitious sign.' If a good Hindu sneezes he snaps his fingers and then makes some earnest exclamation like chiranjeeva (live a long life) or shatayussu (live for a hundred years) in order to avert any evil. It is said that to sneeze many times denotes the accomplishment of one's desires ; it is also a good sign to cough after sneezing. On -the other hand, it is a sign of evil to sneeze just once and then stop. A person must not blow his nose immediately after sneezing, as that would be a sign of death. After a single sneeze, or if a man unwittingly blows his nose immediately after sneezing, it is well to cease thinking about any business that may have been occupying his attention and immediately to lie down and be quiet for a time, having first expectorated ; in this way the evil may be nullified. It is a good omen to hear sneezing when taking betel, or when about to take food, or upon going to bed. If when thinking about some important business, any one hears a fourfooted beast sneeze, or if such a thing occurs when he happens to be contemplating a journey, it would be a sign of death, or some equally great calamity. It is a good thing to get up whilst sneezing ; but it is an omen of delay in one's business to sit down whilst doing so. It is a sign that his object will be accomplished, if he sneezes whilst holding in his hand bell-metal, copper, or gold ; but it is the very opposite, if the metal in the hand should be of iron or silver.

It is good to hear young children, infants, prostitutes, pariahs, or the lame sneeze ; but it is a sign that many troubles will happen to any one unfortunate enough to hear any of the following women sneeze:— a married woman, a widow, one who is blind, dumb, or maimed, a washerwoman, or one of the toddy drawer caste, a Madiga (workers in leather) woman, a woman of the Yerukala caste (gypsies), -or one carrying a burden. It is also a bad sign if a person when sneezing should -happen to see a woman.

There is no importance to be attached to sneezes caused by snuff, red pepper, or a cold, nor to sneezing heard in the bazaar. Probably the reason for the latter is because the small dust in the bazaar is often charged with particles of pungent articles like chillies and spices of various kinds ; this is apt to cause sneezing which seems to be considered unnatural, and is, therefore, devoid of any import.

BIRD OMENS.

The flight of the Indian blue jay is consulted "as an omen. It is an auspicious sign when birds fly from the left to the right, except in the case of the jay and the brahminy kite. It is a good omen when a jay flies from the right to the left, but bad when it flies from the left to the right. If it should sit in front of one, it is a good sign ; if behind, it is a sign of evil. To see a jay to the east denotes evil to the beholder ; to the south-east difficulties ; to the south, or to the southwest, or the west wealth ; to the north-west happiness; to the north, death ; to the north-east, sorrow ; if it appears on the right hand side it denotes health to the beholder.

If a brahminy kite flies from the right to the left, it denotes wealth and an abundant harvest ; but when it flies from the left to the right it prognosticates evil. It is exceedingly auspicious to behold a kite flying from the right to the left with anything in the shape of prey in its bill. The sight of a jay, a kite, or a jackal, either together or apart, is said to be always propitious.

The king crow, a black long-tailed bird, rather small in size, is considered very clever by the Hindus. It is very swift in its flight, and may often be seen perched on the backs of cattle. Its Indian name is bharadvaja. It is said of this bird : " If it is seen in front of anyone it bespeaks good, if the male bird passes a person from the right to the left, it foretells difficulties ; but if the female so passes, the omen is a happy one ; if the pair should so pass it is considered as very auspicious.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF BREATHING.

The Hindus have a most curious idea with reference to breathing through the nose. They distinguish between breathing through the right and the left nostril. The right nostril is called suryanadi, or that of the sun, and the breath that comes through this is supposed to be comparatively warm ; whilst the left nostril is called the chandranadi, or that of the moon, the breath coming through this being considered as comparatively cold. It is believed that a preponderance of breath comes through one nostril for a period of two hours, after which this preponderance changes to the other nostril. Not only so, but actions performed or things happening during one or other of these periods are thought to be influenced thereby. A list is given in the book on omens showing what it would be well should happen, or not happen, during the prevalence of either the suryanadi, or the chandranadi. There is said to be a book on this subject, " Svara Shastram;" but I have not been able to procure a copy. At six o'clock in the morning of the first day of a certain month in the year, the suryanadi commences and from this calculations can be made. When a man desires to consult this oracle he breathes hard down his nostrils on to the back of his hand, and having thus determined to his own satisfaction, by the excess in volume of the flow of breath from either nostril, the auspiciousness or otherwise of the time, he forms a judgment thereupon and, if action is called for, acts accordingly.

It is propitious if it is suryanadi, when first marching forth for war, or when commencing any important commercial transaction. It should be at this period that the marriage bath should take place (mangalasnanam) and also the ceremony at the coming together of a married pair when arrived at a suitable age (garbhathanam), It is well if during suryanadi food is taken, or if a person should be frightened, or defeated in any way. It is a propitious sign at the commencement of any affliction. It is recommended that, on starting out for any of these enterprises, a person should start off first with the right foot.

Persons are advised to fix upon the period of chandranadi for setting forth on a journey, or for a marriage ; for first putting on new jewels, or for commencing to plough the fields ; for beginning to build a house, or to plant a garden. It is necessary to put the left foot first on starting out to do any of these things.

THE TINGUNG OR THROBBING OF LIMBS OR MEMBERS.

There are no less than twenty-two parts of the human body, in which a tingling is auspicious, or otherwise. The throbbing of any part of the right hand side of the body is auspicious ; whilst that of the left is less so. A throbbing of the centre of the top of the head bespeaks good food, and that of the nose is also a good sign. A throbbing of the right cheek is ominous of evil coming from a ruler, whilst that of the left cheek shows that employment will come. It is a good thing, therefore, said an Indian friend to me, if on setting out to seek for employment one should have a tingling sensation in the left cheek. The list goes on downwards from the eyes to the lips and chin and thence on to the shoulders, the chest and the arms, right down to the feet. The tingling of the calf of the leg foretells the possession of jewels, and that of the sole of the foot happiness generally.

YAWNING.

Yawning is not properly speaking regarded as an omen, but Hindus have some very peculiar ideas about it. It is thought that when a person yawns, the life may leave the body ; whether merely from the effects of the spasmodic action, or from any other cause is not clear. Hence it is usual on yawning, to snap the fingers and say Krishna! Krishna! or Siva ! Siva! in order to avert any evil that may otherwise result: So strong is the belief that the life may leave the body through a hearty yawn, that. to yawn' is sometimes used as a euphemism for 'to die.' If a baby yawns, the mother, or someone near, who has observed it, snaps the fingers saying, Krishna! Krishna! or Siva! Siva!

It is probable that the superstitious ideas with reference to yawning, and sneezing' also, had their origin in the fact that any spasmodic action may be of itself physically somewhat dangerous. This presumption is strengthened from the fact that a slokam on the subject also includes falling down. It is as follows :—

"On sneezing, falling, or yawning,

Snap the fingers and say, live arise

It is fit even for a younger to do this to an elder.

This is for the reviving."

The third line in the verse is an allusion to the well-known impropriety of a younger person presuming to bless an older one. In the three possible events mentioned, the danger is considered such as to warrant this departure from what is ordinarily considered to be right and proper.

There are many more omens ; but I have given enough to show how the Hindu people are tied and bound with the chains of superstition. Doubtless there are many who pay little heed to these things ; but, taking the people as a whole, this belief in omens is universally prevalent throughout the country, and exercises great sway over the daily life of the masses. The material harm this superstition does is great, for a fatalistic belief in impending evil often brings about its own fulfilment by paralyzing the endeavour that might prevent it.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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