Of the several Hindu customs, the one of prostrating before images of God, elders and great personages is unique and worthy of consideration and notice. Although the custom of mutual salutation is one exclusively peculiar to the Hindus but is shared by the other nations as well. But it is very important to notice that the mode of performing it, is peculiar with the Hindus as the same is peculiar with the other nations. The basic principle underlying the custom is the same with regard to 'mutual salutation,' among all nations. It is to denote the recognition of soul and soul-force. It is believed that the force generated by the soul in its field of electricity and magnetism is stored in three important centres of the body and made to radiate from there to different parts, just as the nerves in the body are made to radiate from the ganglionic knots.
When people raise their hands joined together either to the chest or to the forehead when saluting, the action is intended to mean 'I recognize and revere the soul- the spark from God manifesting through these centres.' When they simply repeat certain formal expressions of salute, they mean that they go to the root and recognize the soul itself directly, and revere it.
The Hindu custom of prostrating before elders admits of diverse meanings. In the first instance, when one prostrates before his elders, he means that he recognizes the wisdom of experience in him due to his age. Whereas when the custom is taken and viewed from an ordinary standpoint it expresses humility. It tantamounts to saying 'I am like dust of your feet.'
When viewed from a higher spiritual standpoint, the custom is intended to ask for a blessing from the mouth of the elder. Vox populi, vox Dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God. So when a number of people bless or curse an individual, it amounts to a blessing or curse emanating from God. But these customs may not appeal to the modern youths who have begun to neglect this custom in to.
Moreover, a personage saluted is under an obligation to bless the individual saluting him. The very act of blessing emanating from the mind agitates matter and this force or rather the wave of matter surcharged with the force of love and good-will. These should pass over the whole body of the person blessed. So a posture that is the most favourable for receiving the current or wave of blessing can be mentioned as the prostrating posture.
Different persons view a field with different feelings. An agriculturist would view it from his own standpoint of raising corn on it. An engineer would consider whether a railway line thrown across it would not serve a particular purpose of facilitating transport of goods and people. A mineralogist or geologist would think of the possibility of striking a gold mine or a diamond vein underneath. Though the field looked at is the same, the feeling inspired by it in different individuals is not the same. The feelings are almost seemed to be different. Similarly among men, the love borne by a mother towards her child is quite different from the love she feels for her husband. The feeling inspired by one in a mother is quite different from that in his teacher. The mother views him perhaps as a portion of her body and takes a pride in him, whereas the teacher takes stock of him from a mental standpoint and with admiration. Hence the blessings emanating from people would not be of the same feeling.
A mother would perhaps bless him with long life and happiness, with a strong and healthy body. The teacher may bless him with further enlightenment, and a relative with general well being and prosperity. From this perhaps has arisen the custom of raising the joined hands to the belly, to the chest, to the brow, above the head and so on, according to the individuals saluted and the nature of blessings solicited. It is ordained in the Hindu Shastras that a mother should be saluted with the joined hands placed at the pit of the stomach.
The Institutes of Manu on this subject makes some of the points that can be mentioned as follows.
'When a superior sits in a couch or bench, let not an inferior sit on it with him; and, if an inferior be sitting on a couch, let him rise to salute a superior.
The vital spirits of a young man mount upwards to depart from him when an elder approaches; but by rising and salutation he recovers them.
A youth who habitually greets and constantly reveres the aged, obtains an increase of four things; life, knowledge, fame, strength.
After the word of salutation, a Brahman must address an elder saying, "I am such an one," pronouncing his own name.
If any persons, through ignorance of the Sanskrit language, do not understand the importance of his name, in that case a learned man should say to them that, "It is I" and in that manner he should address all classes of women.
In the salutation, he should pronounce, after his own name, the vocative particle bhoh; for the particle bhoh is held by the wise to have the same property with names fully expressed.
A Brahman should thus be saluted in return, "May'st thou live long, excellent man!" and at the end of his name, the vowel and preceding consonant should be lengthened, with an acute accent, to three syllabic moments or short vowels.
That Brahman, who does not know the form of returning a salutation, must not be saluted by a man of learning, as a Sudra, even so is he.
Let a learned man ask a priest, when he meets him, if his devotion prospers; a warrior, if he is unhurt; a merchant, if his wealth is secure; and one of the servile class, if he enjoys good health; using respectively the words, kusalam, kshetnami and drogyam.
He, who has just performed a solemn sacrifice and ablution, must not be addressed by his name, even though he be a younger man; but he, who knows the law, should accost him with the vocative particle, or with bhavat, the pronoun of respect.
To the wife of another, and to any woman not related by blood, he must say, "bhavati and amiable sister."
To his paternal and maternal uncle, to his wife's father, to performers of the sacrifice, and to spiritual teachers, he must say, "I am such an one" he or she should rise up to salute them, even though younger than himself.
The sister of his mother, the wife of his maternal uncle, his own wife's mother, and the sister of his father, must be saluted like the wife of his father or preceptor. They are equal to his father's or his preceptor's wife.
The wife of his brother, if she were of the same class, must be saluted every day; but his paternal and maternal kinswomen need only be greeted on his return from a journey.
With the sister of his father and of his mother, and with his own elder sister, let him demean himself as with his mother, though his mother be more venerable than they.
Fellow citizens are equal for ten years; dancers and singers for five; learned theologians, for less than three; but persons related by blood for a short time. That is, a greater difference, of age destroys their equality.
The student must consider a Brahman, though but ten years old, and a Kshatriya, though aged a hundred years, as father and son; as between those two, the young Brahman is to be respected as the father.
Wealth, kindred, age, moral conduct, and fifthly, divine knowledge entitle men to respect; but that which is last mentioned in order is the most respectable.
Whatever man of the three highest classes possesses the most of those five, both in number and degree, that man is entitled to most respect, even a Sudra if he had entered the tenth decade of his age.
Way must be made for a man in a wheeled carriage, or above ninety years old, or afflicted with disease, or carrying a burthen; for a woman; for a priest just returned from the mansion of his preceptor; for a prince, and for a bridegroom.
Among all those, if they be met at one time; the priest just returned home and the prince are most to be honoured; and of those two, the priest just returned, should be treated with more respect than the prince.