Social distancing and Quarantine: Part of Traditional Practices

Jyoti Sharma and Sanjeev Kumar Varshney, Senior Scientist1, Head & Advisor2, International Bilateral Cooperation Division (IBCD), Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Govt. of India

2020-04-25 11:38:08

Social distancing  Credit:

Social distancing Credit:

During the current pandemic, we are bound to think about our ancient practices as per ‘Dharma’. This word has a long and varied history and represents laws, teachings, virtues, experiences and duties.  Though, the root of the word dharma is "dhri", which means "to support, hold, or bear”. Dharma is not a religion, but the practice of certain beliefs based on scientific principles that prevent chaos, behaviours, and actions necessary to all life in nature, society, family as well as at the individual level.

In the time of COVID-19, we are forced to think about many traditional practices that we are leaving to adopt the western culture without knowing the facts. There were many traditional practices in our society which give a sense of social distancing and quarantine for our and other’s wellbeing.

Namaste, which is also known as Namaskaar, Namaskaaram, and Pranam, a gesture in yoga used to greet people and convey the cultural expression. The meaning of namaste means, “I bow down to the divinity within you”. Namaste originally originate from a Sanskrit word, “Namah”, which means ‘I bow to’, or in other words “salutations or prostration to” and ‘te’ or ‘twam’ means ‘You’. The joining of both palms together express togetherness, acceptance, coherence and gratitude. As one of the madras in the yogic tradition called ‘Anjali mudra’ also explains that when fingers of our both palms touch together, it linked our upper body with nerve circuits of the brain. This process immediately descends the feelings of calmness and wellbeing. It also gives the belief that emotions and spirit are more important to make a true connection between individuals.

It is behaviour practice where there is no need for physical touch between two individuals to show their gratitude, respect, inclusiveness and integrity. The scientific reason behind this to minimise the transfer of any kind of germs and diseases and stops to spread the negativities that can be in the form of spiritually or as a form of individual energy.

Today, the whole world is using the term ‘quarantine’ to fight with the COVID-19 which is a communicable disease. The word ‘quarantine’ was derived from the Italian words Quarantagiorni which means 40 days. The book of Leviticus in the Bible refers to restrictions for leprosy and the word quarantine was used to try and prevent the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century. Quarantine is practiced in our society since ancient times during birth and death when chances of contamination are high. As per old traditions in India, the term ‘sutak’ and ‘patak’ were used in place of isolation or quarantine and recommended during the time of birth and death of someone in society. In the most part of India, people are used to knowing it as ‘sutak’ in both cases. The science behind ‘sutak’ signifies that the proposed isolation for the next 40 days was necessary to prevent immunocompromised mother and child from all possible contamination. ‘Sutak’ recommends keeping new-born baby and mother in isolation for ten to forty days. Modern science also uses an incubator to keep immature infantsin isolation until their adaptation in the new environment.

The period of ‘sutak’ helped the mother to recover her weakness or revitalised herself after delivery. Otherwise, it might not be possible during those days when tradition to have a joint family was quite common. After the delivery, the mother was not allowed to mix with people and remains be isolated in a separate room for a period of ten to forty days, depending upon her caste which defines her workload. As in medieval times, women of Shudras were used to do a lot of physical work as compared to women of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. This was the reason that their ‘sutak’ period was for the forty days, the longest one so that their bodies completely recover to sustain their specified duties. It was followed by sixteen to twenty days for Vaishyas, twelve for Kshatriyas and ten days for Brahmins. During the ‘sutak’ period, the other family members were also restricted to visit the holy places, attending ceremonies or other mass gatherings. This practice further avoids any external infection.

Observation of ‘patak’ after the death of a family member isa highly meaningful ceremony. This is also a form of thirteen days quarantine which includes a restriction to any kind of participation in worship, recitation of holy books, visiting holy places and other’s house, attending a public function or a ceremony and exchanging of gifts. People were used to organise recitation of some holy book like ‘Garun Purana’ for family members during these days so they can keep themselves busy, calm and spiritual. The science behind ‘patak’ explains that death may occur due to long sickness, contagious disease, old age or some miss happening. If a person dies from a contagious disease, the belongings of that person and other family members may become a contact for others. The fumes and ashes present in cremation ground also increase the chances of contamination. A compulsory bath after the cremation of the dead body was recommended to avoid any kind of infection during cremation. Chewing of Neem (Azadirachtaindica) leaves which is recognized as a medicinal plant and well known for its antibacterial, antimalarial, antiviral, and antifungal properties was also an essential practice after the cremation. Simultaneously, women were responsible to clean the house and discard all personal belongings of the dead people. The period of ‘patak’ may recognise as quarantine period for contacts and help to stop the spread of any possible contagious disease, among others.

Food is another important factor to be considered during these days. Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine also offers extensive insights about the relation of food and holistic health. According to Bhagwad Gita and Yoga Shastras, food has been divided into three types based on their properties termed as gunas. They are Sathva (satoguna), Rajasa (rajoguna), and Thamasa (tamoguna). Sathva means like goodness, Rajasa means like aggressive/active, and Thamasa means like inactive. A satvik diet is meant to include foods and eating habits that are natural, vital & energy-containing and provides calmness, purity and promote longevity, intelligence, strength, health & delight. Examples of satvik food items are fruits, vegetables, leaves, grains, cereals, milk, honey, etc.

Based on the above explanation, there was a prohibition to cook food for the next three days in a home where someone died. Afterward, there was a tradition to follow the satvik diet for the following days of ‘patak’. The science behind this tradition explains that this tradition prohibits the chances of any kind of contamination through food/ kitchen among other family members. The first three days are crucial for the propagation of bacterial contamination if it persists in that house. The satvik diet for the following days will certainly help the family members to keep calm, rejuvenate and healthy.

Our traditional practices are indigenous, based on knowledge, research, skills, and long experiences. These have been developed scientifically and rationally to cope up with differing situations. These ancient practices are always given priorities by scholars and conventional scientists who look for sustainable solutions.  But with time, our society believes that these are superstition and have started losing them from one generation to another. However, the current pandemic is giving a message to revisit and revalidate the customs which are authentic even in the present scenario and based on scientific principles.


1. Garuda Purana, Geeta Press Gorakhpur 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not of the organisation they belong to.