10 Cultural Universals: Rituals, Seeing Darkness in a Whole New Light

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it brings happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in their rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are unique to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals reaffirm their identity and demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.

10 Cultural Universals: Rites of Passage & Familial Roles

Last week in our ten-part series of the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about family structures.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion of family by identifying the roles of family members and rites of passage across two cultures.

Let’s travel to Mexico and Algeria to experience them both.

Familial Roles

Roles of family members form the structure and the line of authority within a family.

Mexico

The Mexican family is patriarchal and follows traditional gender roles. The father is the authoritarian figure, while the wife is generally submissive.

This cultural trend is believed to have developed from the 16th century Spanish conquistadors’ treatment of native women. After they’d been impregnated, they were treated with violence and threats of abuse in order to be made subservient.

The resulting “mestizo” children grew up with this devaluation of women normalized, which evolved the roles that exist today, particularly the concept of “machismo.”

Algeria

In Berber culture, traditional gender roles also reign supreme, with men working outside the home and women tending the house and raising the children. The eldest son steps into the authoritarian role of financial caregiver in place of the father, when he retires or passes away.

Grandparents, as well, play an important story-telling role in Berber society.

In the recent past, the entire family – often three or four generations – would gather around the elkanoun (fireplace) and listen to stories of morality told by the grandmother and grandfather.

The stories served as educational guides for their family, especially the young children.

Rites of Passage

Mexico/Latin America

A quinceañera is a rite of passage in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South American countries.

During this huge 15th birthday party, which is both a social and religious event, the family celebrates the young woman’s passage from girlhood to womanhood. The celebration is also meant to highlight how meaningful society and family are in the life of women.

A mass, attended by her family and godparents, commences the celebration, followed by a large party with music, dancing, and food.

During the party, the young woman might present her younger sister with a doll as a symbolic gesture of passing from childhood to adulthood.

Algeria

In Algeria, a boy’s first haircut is celebrated with a big party to which all of the family is invited.

The wisest, oldest male member of the family – usually the grandpa on the dad’s side – cuts the first strand, and a traditional bread called lamsemen is cooked and placed on the young boy’s head.

Often, the grandma says to the child, “You will be strong and fat, like the bread.”

During Carem (Ramadan) the first time a child fasts, they are placed on the roof of the house during the Call to Prayer. There, they eat their meal – a special dish of eggs and bercoukes.

These are just a few important rites of passage and familial roles across cultures. Next week, we’ll talk about FCTS (food, clothing, transport, and shelter), some of the very basic aspects of culture.

The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.