When Indians first arrived in numbers in United Kingdom, there was general amusement that they avoided hand shaking. Now, hand shaking is de rigour in India. Indians have brought western habits into India instead. Coronavirus, interestingly, is bringing back the practice of social distancing, a practice that was characteristic of Indians before modern times. It may well reintroduce an Eastern cultural practice throughout the world.
Another Indian habit that amused Europeans was the constant hand washing after eating, or touching anything. Clearing the mouth with a quick gargle or rinse after every meal was also common. Handwashing is the other main advice to reduce coronavirus spread.
Social distancing has been part of almost all Eastern cultures. Rarely was intimacy expressed in public in the form of hugging, hand shaking or otherwise. In Japan, people greeted each other by bowing as they still do. Maintaining a healthy distance between individuals is a Japanese cultural practice. The Chinese too traditionally bowed as greeting.
Pranaam, or folding hands with a bowed head, was the traditional Indian greeting. It is still the practice but for some reason it is immediately followed by a hand shake. In some parts of India, especially the North, it is often followed by a hug between close friends, relatives and between adults and children especially if they haven’t met for some time.
When did the hug become part of cultural practice? It is intriguing because there isn’t much evidence of it in historical accounts. The handshake certainly started with the British arrival. Early British envoys maintained Indian practices of either bowing, or Pranaam. But as colonialists settled in, handshake became a common form of greeting among the western-educated Indians and the elite. Now it is a universal Indian practice.
Why eastern practices avoided intimacy may have many reasons. Western scholars often blamed caste as one culprit, pointing out that intimacy between higher and lower castes was forbidden. Others suggested a system of general hierarchy. However, even people of same caste and similar hierarchical status avoided intimate greetings. Thus these theories do not stand scrutiny.
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Perhaps the habit of avoiding intimacy in public may have arisen from similar pandemics in Indian history that has now gripped the world. The world and Indian history has had quite a few pandemics. Cholera in ancient times and the Bubonic Plague are well known. Smallpox had swept India in ancient times as well (shitala). Bubonic plague is estimated to have killed some 25 million people in India and China around 1340s. The 1817 Cholera epidemic claimed hundreds of thousands of Indian lives and spread to other countries.
Earlier around 540 AD, the so called Justinian Plague had also claimed nearly 15% of world population in Europe and Asia, if not more. The plague had claimed lives both in China and India in large numbers.
It is possible that these experiences had led to the precautionary habit of social distancing in Indian and other Eastern civilisations. In South East, the practice is a combination of Pranaam and bowing, such as in Thailand and Cambodia.
Although some epidemics, such as plague, are carried by fleas and are bacterial and therefore social distancing is unlikely to make much difference, others such as small pox and influenza are restricted by social distancing.
Coronavirus has also spread with speed in countries like Iran. Its possible because greeting with cheek-to-cheek touch is a common form of greeting in the Middle East between equals. In others, touching the upper arms and forming gestures of cheek to cheek greeting is common. Both reduce the distance between individuals and introduce an element of intimacy that is a free ticket for transmission for a pandemic like coronavirus.
Social distancing is the first line of defence now being promoted across the world in corona virus pandemic. Out goes the hand shake. In comes elbow for the time in western countries. But why not Pranaam with folded hands and a healthy distance between the greeters. Prince Charles did that in the Commonwealth meet.
So out also goes the Modi hug and in comes the traditional Pranaam. It seems Corona virus has given an opportunity for Indian culture to become universalised in one form at least. Bowing in Chinese and Japanese style may be too much for most of the world. But Pranaam with a reasonable distance isn’t difficult.
It will be interesting to see what happens to the Maori nose to nose greeting. If any executive class passage can be offered to Coronavirus, this is one that beats all.
Of course once a person gets corona virus, it is western technology to keep the lungs going that will aid recovery. Many traditional herbal doctors and ayruvedics are claiming treatments options, but there is no evidence anything works other than their bank balances.
Isolation is another strategy for these forms of pandemics. Isolation and bed rest were the treatment of choice in pre vaccine days in India. People lived in smaller villages rather than big cities. Before the current craze for mega cities, over 80% pf Indians lived in manageable villages. Modern mega cities offer unbound opportunity to a virus such as Corona virus.
It seems every few decades a pandemic sweeps through the world, decimating the population. So far it seems epidemiological knowledge and drastic actions have contained the deaths in China. It remains to be seen what happens when coronavirus invades western countries that put greater emphasis on profits than social welfare such as USA. The cuts in social welfare in the UK along with Brexit may now reveal the cracks. Generally it is thought that the medical systems in both countries will not be able to cope with as much speed and efficiency as China.
Irony will be if both countries, USA and UK, ask China for assistance to build facilities and protective measures. Whereas it takes a year to build a hospital facility in most western countries, China built isolation facilities with machine etc within 2 weeks. Who else has the capacity to do this?
However, it is India that now worries most epidemiologists. The infrastructure, the availability of ITU beds, lung machines, testing facilities will be a challenge that will test the Modi Government. Once it starts spreading, India’s capability will be truly on line. A hope is that Indians may have greater immunity than others.
In the absence of vaccines and other antiviral drugs for this, the two human practices that now are effective in reducing the incidence of spread is social distancing and hand washing. Better bring Pranaam back into India and get rid of the hand shake and restart washing hands frequently even after eating with knives forks and spoons. This virus may go away after a few months, but new ones will emerge. A cultural change in the way we greet and maintain personal hygiene and going back to tradition could be more effective than anything else.
It seems the ancients had evolved practices with care and from experience. Pranaam to them and to all our readers.