The sacredness of the cow is expressed in the proverb that tells us that the “cow feeds on grass, but even her tail is worshipped.” God-worship affords a striking instance of the discipline of tribulation in the proverb, “Without being hammered, the stone cannot become god.”
There are many proverbs referring to the restrictions of caste. The typical instance of an absurd request is “to ask a Brahmin to kill a snake.” Water, stone and leaves tremble to see a Brahmin” is an allusion to the frequent ablutions of that caste and their practice of using leaves as dishes for their food.
The common caste rule against receiving food or drink from the member of an inferior caste is illustrated by a proverb that says, “First to drink the water, and then to ask the caste, is like giving your daughter away and then inquiring about the family.” In both cases, if a mistake has been made, the evil is without remedy.
There are many superstitious proverbs warning us against certain actions. It is unlucky to wear new dresses on Monday, new shoes on Saturday, and new dhotars on Tuesday. To bake dhanee on Tuesday or Sunday is to invite misfortune.
A large number of proverbs refer to social customs and the internal arrangements of Hindu household. The custom of the maternal uncle bringing the bridegroom to the place of marriage, explains how it is that “A squinting uncle is better than no uncle” comes to be the Hindu equivalent for “Half a loaf is better than no bread.”
The misery of widowhood is expressed by the saying put into a widow’s mouth, “When my husband lived, I was under a benevolent ruler; when the son succeeds to the throne, I am under the rule of a boot.”
“The serpent in the well sleeps at ease, and the son whose father is alive,” indicates the unhappy lot of an orphan.
Several proverbs illustrate the subjection of the young bride in her new home to the mother-in-law, who often uses her power tyrannically. “Get up daughter-in-law and take rest. Let me spin and you grind the corn.” This cynical piece of advice shows that the daughter-in-law has the lion’s share of the work.
The same fact is indicated by another proverb, which says that “in the month of Posh the mother-in-law is very angry, while the wife is contended.” This is because Posh is a winter month, in the short days of which much work cannot be got out of the young wife. One or two proverbs relate to the practice of boring the ear for earrings.
“Anybody else but the mother will pierce the ear,” is an expression of the tenderness of mother’s love. A Behar proverb, “You must eat this sugar and have your ears bored,” shows how sweetmeats have to be given to induce a child to undergo the necessary operation.
Numerous proverbs refer to the eating of sweetmeats. A wise maxim against excess in pleasure is conveyed in the Gujarati proverb, “If you want to eat the whole of a laddu at a time you will not be able to take even a half of it.” A laddu is a sweetmeat which is a great favourite among the Hindus.
As ghee is better for cooking purposes that oil, the preference often given to strangers is expressed by saving, “The family chaplain’s pudding is cooked in oil, a stranger’s in ghee”. Another indication of the value attached to ghee is that “eating plantains and ghee” is equivalent to luxurious living.
But it would take a volume to exhaust the number of proverbs drawing illustrations from Indian manners and customs. Let us conclude with one in rather a higher strain, referring to the universal practice of chewing betel-nut.
A Canaries proverb which reminds us that “the honour lost for a betel-nut cannot be recovered at the cost of an elephant”, is an impressive warning to those who are inclined to trifle with their good name.