Sunday, January 2, 2011

In which I learn about paring toenails

On facebook, a friend posted this photo, which explains the right way for a devout Muslim to trim their nails.


Toe nails are easy. You start with the smallest one on the right foot, then work your way in an arc towards the smallest one on your left foot.

Fingernails are a little more complicated. For some reason, you do four fingers of the right hand in one arc, then four fingers of the left hand (but starting with a different finger), and then finally the thumbs (see photo above for better understanding; the fingers have been helpfully numbered in the right sequence).

As if this elaborate sequencing isn't enough, there's also a recommended frequency of nail paring (not more than 40 days between trimmings), a recommended disposal method (burial) and several other injunctions (for example, you can't wear nail polish, but you can put henna on nails and make them orange).

I then looked up a Jewish resource site, to find out what they had to say about nails. As it turned out, the Jewish way is equally specific. There are rules for the frequency with which nails should be cut (every week, or once in two weeks). There are days on which nails should not be cut (Thursdays). There's a recommended sequence (adjacent fingernails can't be trimmed one after another). There's also another rule that says you can't clip fingernails and toenails on the same day.

Both religions say that it is important to dispose of or destroy nail clippings. I think it stems from this old underlying belief that nails have "power" of some sort, and if you leave them lying around, someone can cast a a spell on you or do you harm.

I then looked up Hinduism and Christianity on the subject of nails. In Hinduism, I found that there isn't much other than an injunction not to cut nails after dark (I found lots of complicated rules about haircuts and tonsuring, and a total obsession with bathing!). Christianity doesn't seem to have anything much to say on the subject of nail cutting at all (or bathing, or haircuts or any other form of personal hygiene). Or maybe I just didn't look hard enough.

The more I read, the more I wanted to smile, especially when I laid all the "rules" side by side. They were all written in earnest religious tones; and each writer seemed convinced that they had got it right.

Actually, some of this stuff may have been right at the time it was written - for example, not cutting nails after dark was probably sensible in the pre-electricity era. Not leaving nails lying around is definitely sensible, no matter what era you are in.

But not all the rules make sense today. By and large, I find that the elaborateness of religious ritual borders on the absurd.

I have never had much patience with it; primarily because I grew up without any customary daily prayers or weekly fasts or what have you. I agree that rituals do have their uses. Having set patterns for things can aid in calming the mind. But hello? the "right" sequence for paring toenails? What were they thinking? :) :)

20 comments:

Kathleen said...

I'd like to know the same thing! And no, Christians don't have any rules or regulations for nail clipping or bathing or hygiene. We just take care of our bodies and do whatever we need to remain neat and presentable. The reasoning behind that is that we are to be holy as God is holy, and that we are to be salt and light to the world.

Sherryl said...

This was worth a chuckle. Apparently, in the religious household (Jewish) that I grew up in, no one ever heard of these rules... nor in the religious schools that I went to. I am so glad I am not burdened by these! Hahah.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Kathleen, I'm all for religion teaching people hygiene; in fact I think it is a very good thing indeed. It's a darned sight more useful than teaching catechisms.

Kathleen said...

Deepa, you have a point there!

Deepa Krishnan said...

Hinduism's focus on bathing and personal hygiene (with lots of taboos around what is clean/unclean etc) is probably why Indians bathe and 'purify' themselves daily. There are also rules about keeping surroundings clean (therefore Hindus clean their houses to a sparkle). Unfortunately, there's really nothing that says you ought to keep your village/city clean. Which explains why we have no civic sense!!

iamyuva said...

grow up I was innocent enough to call myself atheists but now whatever little of wisdom, i consider myself agnostic.. and I would be least qualify to comments on religions.. but my 2cents: I always thought in Hinduism, there isn't any one definitive source which dictate do's or don'ts... and those were passed thru generation have or had unexplained reasons.. for example: When people cut nails or hair at that time, people cannot trace the hair or nail on the floor due to lack of brightness. people thought that these might mix with the vegetables that they cut thereby poisoning the dish. Hence the statement was made " Do not cut ur nails or hair after 6pm"..
may be like this things/beliefs had reasons which we might for 'good' reason but weren't explained and in the name of religion those were passed on, to achieve certain desired objective/behavior
(or may be i just naive to think this way..;)

Aadil said...

So many Hindus bathe in the same old dirty water of a tank or river which is really polluted and then enter the temples as they have purified themselves after bathing in that water. And Christians have no such thing like not going to Church if you have not bathed!!! About cutting nails, the Islamic and Jewish rules are almost the same for many things like halal food and kosher food which are also somewhat similar since they were from the same region initially and the Muslims also talk of the same Jewish prophets in their history like Moses(Musa) and Abraham(Ibrahim). So there are bound to be similarities in their customs even though they may be dead against each other nowadays.

NoisyThinkeress said...

This got me thinking about bare feet and temples. There is a Hindu temple here in Malibu (California) where visitors are requested to remove their shoes beyond a certain threshold. However, there are many walkways exposed to the elements beyond that area. So, these areas are as dirty as the bottom of my shoes. It doesn’t make sense to me why shoes should be removed. My feet or socks will get dirty in this space.

Also, there are several indoor areas where pigeons have taken roost, so there are bird droppings in the interior. Why are the bird droppings ok, but my shoes aren’t? Just wondering, maybe some time you can address the shoes issue on this blog. It’s interesting to this westerner.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Thinkeress, I think it is a mix of several things:

1) The temple as a sacred space: The no-footwear rule is about keeping the temple clean and "pure"; about not allowing you to bring dirt or disease from outside into the temple. Since our footwear has been God-only-knows-where, we leave it behind, so when we step INTO the temple, we step in clean. As you can see, the focus of this is the temple. It's not in any way about *you* or *me* or what's comfortable for us. The temple is not built for our pleasure, it is built to strict purity rules. We don't matter, our feet don't matter; and bodily comfort is quite irrelevant. The underlying assumption is that it is the sanctity of the temple that is primary. Even in really hot places in South India, where the soles of the feet literally burn on the granite floor of temple compounds, the no-footwear rule applies.

2) Size of temple: Most temples are small affairs, you leave your shoes at the threshold; step over the threshold and bingo! you are inside the prayer area or the garbagriha (sanctum). So normally the no-footwear rule is sensible. It is only in large temple complexes that you have to walk in uncovered areas. Even in this case, I have seen temples where you can bring footwear upto the "last possible" point. Temple grounds and inner halls are swept and washed daily and it is not expected that feet will get "polluted". Note that I say polluted instead of just dusty. It's ok to get dusty. That's what feet are for :) Which brings me to the next point below.

3) Attitude towards bare feet; purity, etc: In India, children and adults walk barefoot often and are perhaps more accustomed than Westerners to getting feet dusty or dirty. I played barefoot as a child. We are not as fussy about this as you would be. We understand that feet do get dirty daily because of contact with the ground. In fact, because of this, on the purity/sancitity scale, feet are considered among the "lowest". As a result if your foot even accidentally comes into contact with someone, it is considered an offence and we will immediately ask for forgiveness. We do not place our feet on books on paper for the same reason. In a traditional home, you are expected to wash your feet before or as soon as you enter the home. Sikh temples provide water to wash feet before entering the temple.

4) Attitude towards leather: Anothe reason for the no-footwear rule is that footwear is made from the skin of dead animals. This is usually not acceptable, especially in Jain temples, where even belts, wallets and purses are to be left outside. Again the idea is about the sanctity of the sacred space and not really about whether you have something else to hold up your pants at that time or not :) :)

You're right - this should have been a separate post! I might do that anyway.

Deepa Krishnan said...

And I suspect there is more to it as well...I need to rethink some of this :)

Aadil said...

Some people who do not wear any footwear may walk in with dirty feet and no one will question them since they are barefoot. There is no rule for washing feet before you enter the temple unlike Sikh Gurudwaras in the Punjab where there is a system to walk through a trough of water which automatically washes the feet.

Deepa Krishnan said...

You're right Aadil, no one will question.

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, temples are always built near water, either a pond or a temple tank or river bank, and you are expected to bathe and then go straight to the temple.

In Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa also I have seen the same practice. I have not visited interior Andhra so I don't know for sure how that works.

I was in Rajasthan recently where of course in many places there is no water, so naturally this system doesn't work. I wonder what the system is in UP/Bihar etc.

Deepa

Deepa Krishnan said...

You're right Aadil, no one will question.

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, temples are always built near water, either a pond or a temple tank or river bank, and you are expected to bathe and then go straight to the temple.

In Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa also I have seen the same practice. I have not visited interior Andhra so I don't know for sure how that works.

I was in Rajasthan recently where of course in many places there is no water, so naturally this system doesn't work. I wonder what the system is in UP/Bihar etc.

Deepa

Aadil said...

Well, there are water taps for washing your feet in many temples which people use to wash their feet before entering the temple but it is not there everywhere. I have seen that at the entrance of the Mahalakshmi temple in Mumbai and many others too. Don't know much about the scene in Bihar but in UP and temples in the northern region there are usually tanks in the temple complexes.

Uma said...

Even Malibu temple has a tap outside to wash our feet and hands before entering the temple.

NoisyThinkeress said...

Oh no, what have I started? ;-)
Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

Hola, Interesante, no va a continuar con este artŠ½culo?.

Super Babe said...

Thank you for the great read!!! I had never heard of rules for nail clipping!!! :)

Anonymous said...

I guess most of these prescriptions are like BF Skinner's pigeon's behaviour. Something worked the first time in a given set of circumstances, got adopted, then got hijacked by some poor soul intent on holding on the to the power of 'knowing'.

Anyway I don't cut mine on Wednesdays;-) Just saying!

Kiran

Divya Shankar said...

I used to get irked when my granny insisted that I cut my nails only in the morning - never had time in schooldays for it .. and used to be adamant abt doing it in the evening. My dad laid even worse conditions - bindi of some big, minimum diameter,substantially above my nose bridge - never of black color - I used to love on the contrary - small, black bindi kept little above my nose bridge. There are so many of these rules followed even today - guess it will never end.