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"Cleanliness is next to Godliness"
Most of us have traversed our school corridors and often read this quote plastered over walls. To some, this was a quote that stared at them daily, headlining the classroom blackboard. As inspirational as it sounded at school, it became equally confounding when its implementation at home came with a string of conditions attached. Depending on which religious faith or custom one identified with, its interpretations became that much more varied.
One such condition was the practice of not sweeping the floor at home post-sunset. Those who were brave enough to put up resistance to keep their surroundings clean irrespective of the time of the day had to deal with stoic rebuttals from house elders. The rebuttals more often than not invoked the call of tradition than provide a convincing voice of reason. You wouldn’t be alone if you've grown up then to blindly believe that you’ll be inviting bad luck and upsetting Goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) if you swept your house past sunset.
So how did this superstition come into being?
Such superstitions do not have logical theories to support them and often have their origins rooted in logistical or environmental compulsions of the times they originated in. In ancient times there was no electricity and lamps were the only source of light. In such dim light, the chances of ornaments and precious household items being swept away with the dirt were high, so people swept their house floor only during daylight and abstained from sweeping post-sunset. Despite complete electrification of homes over time, the superstition survived as it was handed down over generations in the form of a belief system and became a tradition.
Digging deeper into its origins would reveal its acceptance not only in India but places as far as Mexico, West Africa, Nepal, and the Philippines where homes are yet not swept during evenings or night lest they sweep away their good luck and house wealth. The connotations become that much more colorful as it transgresses geographies. The task of sweeping and its time-dependent impact is not limited to inviting bad luck alone. It began to be believed that if you sweep after dark, it will bring a stranger to visit. If a wife would sweep a circle around her husband, it would keep him eternally true to her. Alas!
General awareness over time has helped stem the wider spread of this superstition to some degree. Some people started maintaining day-long hygiene but were careful not to throw the trash out of the house and parked it in a corner so as not to let “Lakshmi” (wealth) leave the house. A family I spoke with for researching this piece justified this practice citing a wider acceptance in their entire society where cleaning houses post evening was banned. So how then could this be just a mere superstition when everyone unanimously practiced it, was their retort. Upon further investigation, I found that what they considered a community-wide acceptance was in fact a by-law of the society which prevented tenants from using vacuum cleaners and electronic cleaning devices past evening to avoid disturbing their neighbors relaxing at home after a hard day at work!
Another key aspect that is furthering the spread of this superstition is Vastu Shastra. A traditional Indian system of architecture, Vastu Shastra, is the textual part of Vastu Vidya, which is a collection of ideas and concepts for the organization of space and form within a building based on their functions in relation to each other.
However, in contemporary India, consultants who include greed-induced "quacks, priests and astrologers" have marketed Vastu Shastra as pseudoscience and colored it in "religious tradition", rather than practice it just as an "architectural theory." As per their interpretations of Vastu Shastra, it has come to be widely believed that the first four 'pahars' of the day is the right time to broom the house and that it is inauspicious to use it after five o'clock in the evening. Not sufficing at this alone, their mind-bending interpretations of Vastu Shastra also advocate theories such as one where the floor should be swept at least after 1 hour of a guest leaving your house lest they meet with an accident on their way home.
The Fear Factor
Despite improvements in education levels, technology, and general awareness over time, it is puzzling how such a superstition that defies all logic has survived the test of time and continues to be practiced. The one big factor that helps justify it is FEAR. Fear of violating tradition, fear of upsetting parents, fear of upsetting the apple cart of one’s good life by needlessly inviting bad luck, etc. This holds true to not just this, but many other superstitions that remain alive over generations by feeding off our individual fears.
Such time-honored practices are like stones that were rolled down the mountains thousands of years ago and have gathered a lot of moss around them. As with every non-scientific belief system, it is eventually up to you to either embrace and pass it further down to your progeny or discard it just as folklore that has outlived its utility.
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