Sea Voyages in the olden days - A taboo for Hindus!!

Sea voyage
Sea voyage
 It may sound ridiculous and even funny, but It is true in the bygone days in the 1800s and 1900s  and even long  before that period in the conservative India, orthodox Hindus, in particular Brahmins, never ventured to travel overseas, because crossing the ocean or sea voyage was not conducive to good religious practice and it was considered a taboo! What stood in their way? Religion. Sections of the Hindu Dharma Shastras, and religious practices ban taking a voyage by sea or visiting the lands beyond India. The ancient orthodox religious practitioners strongly believed that Hindu travellers could not maintain their daily rituals and worship while travelling, and would be polluted by the influence of foreign religion and  western culture upon arrival at their destination.

The Baudhayana Sutra, one of the Hindu Dharma Shastras, says that "making voyages by sea" (II.1.2.2) is an offence which will cause pataniya, loss of caste. It offers a rather difficult penance: "They shall eat every fourth mealtime a little food, bathe at the time of the three libations (morning, noon and evening), passing the day standing and the night sitting. After the lapse of three years, they throw off their guilt."  In the Baudhayana Sutra, the ban is discussed in the context of a description of the geographical limits of India and  concludes that within its boundary "spiritual preeminence is found."

They were supposed to practice their religion within the confines of India. Because they feared people who wanted to go abroad would pick up altogether different western dietary habits of eating beef, pork, sea food, hot dog, beef burger and what not.  Further, they believed that vegetable food items were rare in the western culture. 

For ardent Hindus daily pooja,  after morning ablution was a must and it was difficult to get pooja materials in foreign lands. Living near a river or temple would help them engage  in some  daily rituals, but in a strange land,  the harsh climate and absence of temple would not be helpful. Distractions were so much, Indians, in course of time, would start losing interest in religious practices and western life would take a grip on them.

 Those Hindus who crossed the oceans would not only lose their religion  and sanctity  but also become  a 'melachaan'( in local parlance sort of  'social out cast') in the eyes of the natives. They might even be excommunicated. This punishment is harsh in villages in those days. It means they have to spend their life in seclusion, not mixing with other people and participate in social activities. Besides, their daily life will become miserable as they will be denied access to certain public services such as grocers, milkman, washer man, barbers, et al who keep a distance from such people who have lost their religiosity. Even the great spiritualist Swami Vivekananda was, because of his international travel, denied entry to the temple where his guru Sri Ramakrishna  had served for 40 years

During the British Raj when the Hindu Sepoys – soldiers of higher caste  were asked to go to near-by Burma by sea for military service, they bluntly refused to oblige the military orders of the high command on grounds of religion. However, they agreed to go to Burma taking over land  route via Assam. The British military senior officials got mad  for disobedience and dereliction of duty on the part of petty soldiers. In 1856 Hindu soldiers who refused to go to Burma by sea were court-marshaled and severely punished. After 1856, Hindus were inducted into the army only upon their written commitment to serve military abroad failing of which they would face extremely serious punishment. The British India military high commands' over reaction to Hindus' sensibilities was also a factor for the ''Sepoy rebellion'' in the following year (1857).

Today the Hindu diaspora  is responsible for the presence of  fairly large Hindu communities in many countries  of the world where they have built Hindu temples and need the services of trained temple  priests and spiritual leaders to serve the communities. The most popular  Thirupati  Sri Balaji temple and some other temples train  and prepare people for priesthood and send them overseas for temple jobs. But these temples here won't allow their priests  who attend to daily pooja protocol,s to travel abroad for religious duties. 

The Chidambaram Dikshithars (a subsect of Brahmins; also known as Thillai moovathars) who run the administration of the famous Sri Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu belong to a conservative community and won't allow marriage outside  their community. Nor do they allow the temple priests to go abroad for temple assignment; as for others, purification is a must upon return to the native soil. Likewise, for the great Hindu religious heads and scholars of Mutts such  as Sankaracharyas, Madhvacharyas and  Vaishnava Acharyas - such as Jeers or Andavan Swamigal of Srirangam sea voyages  or foreign trips are strictly prohibited and the Mutt traditions and regulations will not allow them.
The above practices in the olden days were prevalent among high caste Hindus in particular. There is a misconception in some foreign countries that in India, all the Hindus do  not eat non vegetarian food. Mostly Brahmins and other higher cast Hindus don not eat NV food. As a matter of fact, most of the Hindus do eat NV food. However, during certain periods or months and also on certain  religious days, they avoid NV food. Almost all Hindus avoid beef  and pork. In India, Hindus consider cow  as a sacred animal and it has a special status in the Hindu culture. Right from birth till death,entirely we depend on cows for our requirements of dairy products which are essential for the growth of kids.

One can practice one's religion by being true to himself and at the same time caring for others. The religious isolation in the last several centuries saw India in retrograde mode. In spite of intellectual competence  in various fields in ancient India,
sea voyage
 Indians lacked vision and future security of the nation. Older conservative ideas, deep-rooted traditions and customs in the name of religion took precedence over innovation and exploration of frontiers of science and this resulted in foreign invasion from NE and later take over of India by the British. In the wake, we were caught in the cross current of utter helplessness, slavery, plunder, religious persecution and degeneration.

Clearly, in those days, the Dharma Shastras' ban on ocean travel was intended to maintain the religious strength and purity of the individual, and to prevent negative external influence from non-Hindu cultures.  Rigid Hindu religious tradition is now gradually changing in tune with the change of time and easy mobility across the globe as the Indian diaspora has a strong presence in the western countries. 

                                ( Re modified July 14, 2015)