Hindus and the Ocean taboo

Posted by Maddy Labels:

It is very interesting to note that in India’s medieval maritime history, the real seafarers were rarely Hindus. There were many mentions of sailors from Malabar, Coromandel, Gujarat and Bengal in earlier times though. In those days the concept of borders was not definite and people of many nations intermingled, primarily at the ports of India. Calicut and Gujarat (Cambay) were considered great ports. Vedic text recounts the sea farers and recent discoveries cement that line of thought. Like the ports of Muziris and Calicut, Mahabalipuram was a port where the Kalinga ships ventured out into South East Asia and perhaps even the Pacific. From early times the inhabitants of Gauda in (Murshirabad) Bengal were known as seafarers. So ancient Hindus had a very good knowledge of the oceans, possibly even magnetic compass and star charting, resulting in brisk maritime trade. But with the Indian Ocean trade that continued, and focusing on the Arabian Sea ports, it is again curious that the trade & sailing was carried out by Chinese or various types of Moors and low caste Hindus. The question why has a simple answer – religious taboo. So how and when did the ocean taboo come about? Pires was one of the first to confirm its existence in Malabar in his Suma Oriental.

I must however mention though this taboo gained support in the medieval periods, the richer merchant (banias or vanias) had no qualms about sea crossing (albeit not too often) and on return carried out the required ‘prayaschita poojas’ to retain caste, according to many accounts. It was finally sometime around1850 the taboo lost support due to many Bengalis traveling abroad.

The first thing to note here is the belief in Hindu mythology that the Ocean is a resting place for gods and they shall never be disturbed. So one may not venture out into the oceans and incur their wrath and thus face fierce demons & monsters. Both Manu Smriti and the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra specifically dissuaded Brahmins from sea travels, and the penalties and penances if one did so were very severe. You could lose caste on that one account and the expenses incurred in doing the required penance were imposing to say the least. Manusmriti (written circa 200BCE, Chapter 3, verse 158) mentions the rules - if a Brahmin did cross the waters, he is to be denied a Shrardha (the annual appeasement of spirits - Shrardha - serves to remind one at important times throughout one's life that death does not severe the link between the present and the past, between the living and the dead). Such an offender is grouped with prisoners, sellers of soma, one who eats food given by the son of an adulteress, a bard, an oilman or a perjurer. Now if you do read the Manusmriti you are sure to find it pretty rigid and sometimes preposterous compared to today’s laws!!

However these rules formally applied only to the highest of castes and thus the lower ones were allowed to cross the seas. Nambuthiris in Kerala later instilled similar rules on Nairs, not even allowing movement out of ones districts!! It was even more strictly applied to women who could not even leave their general dwelling area.

With these strictures in place, noblemen and higher castes lived well away from water. Looking at Malabar, you would see from historic days that only houses of Muslims, Mukkuvars and foreigners were located close to the beaches or coastline.

Some who have incurred religious wrath for crossing the seas are notables like Tagore, Gandhiji, Vivekananda and Ramanujan. However it must be pointed out that this became a noteworthy issue only around the time when white foreigners came to India and trade contact ensued. This was probably when (13th to 20th century) the Hindu clergy started to impose the strictures of religion on the masses. In the later part of the 17TH and 18th century, the English suffered in their attempts to get labor across to Africa and West Indies due to this reason. They finally took large cauldrons of Ganges water on board to keep these men contended. The crossing of the seas was termed crossing the dark waters or Kala Paani. The taboo was in force till the end of the 19th Century when the Bengali elite broke it, which was ‘avante garde’ in many respects

A Brahmin explained the taboo as follows - This because one cannot perform his daily ‘pujas’, the three time ‘sandyavandans’ because the sun and moon was "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Moreover, people lived only within their community and did not "touch" anyone else. If one goes out, he would have to compromise on those religious practices, ‘touch’ many unclean people and eat food prepared by "mleccha’s (non Aryan or non Vedic follower)". Another reason stated was that India is a "Punyabhoomi (Holy land)" and the rest of the world is “karmabhoomi (Land of duty)”. Furthermore, such a departure from this land entailed the end of the reincarnation cycle, as the traveler was cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges (thus the English solution of carrying Ganges water on ships). It also meant the departure from family and social ties, besides caste dissolution especially among the higher spheres of society.

KM Panikkar the historian however does not concur that this taboo had any real effect, "Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Babylon, as well as the Levant." He goes on to assert that Hindus had in use a matsya yantra (magnetic compass) and possessed the skills to construct ocean-going ships, sturdy enough to venture into the distant reaches of the Arabian Sea. Debunking the commonly held belief that all Hindus had a religious objection to crossing the seas, he says, “It was never true of the people of the South." Panikkar then recounts the continuum of colonisation as well as cultural and religious osmosis by sea from India's east coast to SE Asia. Starting with the Mauryan emperors, he traces Indian maritime activism through the Andhra, Pallava, Pandya, Chalukya and Chola dynasties. He concludes that Hindu influence could not have prevailed so far from home from the 5th to the 13th century without resolute and substantive maritime sustenance from the mother country.

Rig Vedic references to early seafarers - The oldest evidence on record is supplied by the Rig Veda, which contains several references to sea voyages undertaken for commercial purposes. One passage (I. 25.7) represents Varuna having a full knowledge of the sea routes, and another (I. 56.2) speaks of merchants, under the influence of greed, sending ships to foreign countries. A third passage (I. 56.2) mentions merchants whose field of activity known no bounds, who go everywhere in pursuit of gain, and frequent every part of the sea. The fourth passage (VII. 88.3 and 4) alludes to a voyage undertaken by Vasishtha and Varuna in a ship skillfully fitted out, and their "undulating happily in the prosperous swing." The fifth, which is the most interesting passage (I. 116. 3), mentions a naval expedition on which Tugra the Rishi king sent his son Bhujyu against some of his enemies in the distant islands; Bhujyu, however, is ship wrecked by a storm, with all his followers, on the ocean, "where there is no support, no rest for the foot or the hand," from which he is rescued by the twin brethren, the Asvins, in their hundred-oared galley. The Panis in the Vedas and later classical literature were the merchant class who were the pioneers and who dared to set their course from unknown lands and succeeded in throwing bridges between many and diverse nations. The Phoenicians were no other than the Panis of the Rig Veda. They were called Phoeni in Latin which is very similar to the Sanskrit Pani.

This is just an introductory article on the medieval taboo and not one covering details on the seafaring Indians. Those exploits will be covered later. And all this is again in the news with the discovery of the reed boats from the Indus valley civilization.

Food for thought - There are some kinds of parallels for this sea taboos in Ming dynasty of China (My previous blogs on Zheng Ho – Cheng He) where the Confucian bureaucrats forbade overseas travel, Korea was known as the Hermit Kingdom at one time and Tokugawa Japan had also banned overseas travel.

Hindu Wisdom – Seafaring
At Sea about Naval History – Adm Arun Prakash
Some thoughts of crossing the Ocean – AVN Murthy
A history of Indian Shipping – R Mookerji

Pics – Wikipedia & Mookerji’s book cover


  1. Anonymous

    Discovered your blog quite recently and it's a fascinating read. And it's great you put up the biblio too. Keep going.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    I would accept Sardar Panikker's interpretation. After all, Rama himself had crossed the ocean in pursuit of Ravana. Before him Hanuman did the same feat. Yet, we worship both of them.
    Incidentally, Manusmrti is not at all a reliable text. We dont find any reference to it in the mainstream works like Gita, Mahabharata etc.
    When the colonial masters with their Benthamite zeal wanted to provide a 'modern' administration to the Indians, they started looking for texts which laid down the local law. They got together some moulvis and pandits from Benares and nearby places and asked them to codify the Islamic and Hindu personal laws. It was easy to codify Islamic law, as the Holy Quran and the hadiths were available. But, not so the Hindu code. The clever Brahmins introduced Manu Smriti to the gullible British and Sir William Jones himself translated it in 1794.
    The text which was designed for Brahmin-Kshatriya domination suited the purpose of the interpreters. It explains that crossing the ocean is taboo for the Brahmin - naturally, as otherwise they would be taken to the Carribeans as indentured labour! One can find many similar opportunistic verses in Manu Smriti - like eating Rohu (rohita) fish is ok for the Brahmin provided he has first consecrated it by sprinkling water!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Uma for dropping by - hope you enjoy reading the other posts too..

    Thanks CKR - In many ways our caste system was the reason for most of the problems of India's past and even the present. It certainly explains the mainstream Indian breed - the lazy babu's. Wonder if you read my post on Vivekananda's comments. I have very little regard for much of the Manu codes.

    Each time i read Sardar Panikkar's writings I marvel at the genius he was.

  1. Thyagarajan Subramanian

    I just came across your blogs. They are excellent. Wonder what your connections are to Kozhikode? I am a 25 year Kozhikode resident, now, living in N. America for the past 20 years.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks TS for visiting & feel free to browse - To answer your question, I lived much of my life in Calicut - primary school years & college. My wife is from Calicut & my great grand father was the Zamorin in the 1912-1915 time frame. And finally, I visit Calicut almost every year.

  1. Anonymous

    shucks what an informative blog. I am still reading. Incidentally I am also a mallu ..My Uncle Subbrayan menon had some connections with Sardar Pannicker but exactly what I do not know. Anway great blog.

  1. Tony George Puthucherril

    Great analysis. Actually I am working on India's martime policy and I personally feel that this Hindu taboo prevented the rise of India as a super maritime power like England. Were it not for this belief, it would have been India and not England that would have conquered the world.

  1. Maddy

    Tony - thanks for visiting and do keep coming. I wish i could agree with you on this but it would not be right. Even the Kalinga seafarers had only trade in mind and never went beyond the basic requirements of shipping as vehicles for trade. The need for power and might over a searoute or land mass was not necessary in those times and everything was nicely divided and in place (in the Indian ocean trade) till the Portuguese came and started to demand a monopoly. We were docile in those matters then as we are now. Live & let live was our motto then and still is, thankfully.

  1. Jack Cutterswine

    Fascinating and invaluable information for my current film project. I was watching "In The Footsteps of Marco Polo" on PBS the other night and was struck by the Hindu belief that "To cross the sea is a sin and the act of a man in despair." The film I'm producing is about a circumnavigation of the globe by sea, investigating a discovery that I have made about the structure of the earth itself in regards to alchemy and sidereal/Vedic astrology. Tragedy, death, madness and endless complication surround this project that I've been working on for the past three years. Yet also irresistible synchronicity, dreams and hard-won researched evidence progress the project onward. It is the classic devil and angel on the shoulders routine. This piece here is clearly very interesting to me, but also frightening. I don't know which shoulder to trust... do not desperate times call for desperate measures? The "sin" of "disturbing/arousing" the gods I can handle. And if my despair is matched with the desperate state of the world, then perhaps perseverance in the face of hopelessness is the perfect cure.?. Thank you for your blog and now I'm going over to find out what you have to say about the Portuguese/Azoreans. My film blog can be found at http://alterman47.wordpress.com

  1. Ramdas Iyer

    The Ramayana and Mahabharatha in my opinion predated the Manusmriti. Thats the reason why it is not mentioned in those Puranas

  1. Maddy

    are you sure ramdas?
    manu predates all humans.a modern version of manusmriti may have been written after the epics right? but then these are all still vague theories..

  1. Vishal Sathyan

    There are millions of Indian children, in which majority are Hindus, including me, who are willing to cross seas and for that we study very hard. Never shut us in our homes. We will not become impure if we cross ocean. Lord Rama and Lord Hanuman themselves crossed ocean for killing Ravana and taking Sita. Still, we worship both of them. We should go everywhere and for that, we should have to study harder and then only you can go to higher studies.

  1. Naveen Gupta

    Today the logistics of world Humanity have undergone a sea change with the scientific and technology advancements, that it is impossible to convince about our past oldest mythology of 7000 years and older than that and concept of rebirth.A Hindu majority INDIA in Governance itself is not ready to give its due recognition,may be reluctantly allowing to pursue Hindus to pursue their ritual pursuits the way Hindus like.But our Dharam revered RAMAYANA,BHAGVAD, GEETA gives real messages to all Humanity to live in peace, harmony and an ethical life.Hindus need to do much more to keep this SACRED DHARM ALIVE FOR THE GOOD OF WORLD HUMANITY AS NO OTHER DHARM CAN EVER DO IT.

  1. ajay

    All this ks history. History does not demamd follow what our fore fathers did because they did what was right for them at that fime .

  1. ajay

    All this ks history. History does not demamd follow what our fore fathers did because they did what was right for them at that fime .

  1. Tejaswininimburia

    Indian history too much relies on Rig Veda/Manu Smrithi/Epics/Puranas. This is absolute nonsense. If crossing the ocean was taboo then there could not have a number of words for boats in Sanskrit and Tamil. The term Vanga is explained in Tamil Literature as sea full of ships. The term SULKA itself means PRESENT and transliterated into English as CUSTOM PRESENTS. Even in the pre Mauryan period people from as far as Kamboja travelled to East Indies. Even now there is a dispute whether Swarnadweepa means Srilanka or East Indies. When Devas and Vidyadaras travelled through sky as per Buddhist/Jain records where was the taboo? Manu Smrithis/Puranas/Epics originated in fifth century AD in South coastal Karnataka during the reign of KADAMBAS/CHALUKYAS. The Satavahanas issued coins with SHIP AND MAST. Thus The Satavahanas entered South west India through coastal towns of Karnataka and brought BABYLOANIAN/SUMERIAN LAWS in Sanskrit. Manu Smrithi is nothing but combination of PLATO"S REPUBLIC AND HAMMURABHI"S LAWS translated into Sanskrit. Probably the persons who arrived in South West coast feared that the priestly class will return back to Middle East leaving others in lurch. It is high time that Indian historians should discard Sanskrit literature/Rig Veda for history.

  1. Ramu Kaviyoor

    Indians were not docile, as you suggested. Tamil kings had reached the far east Asian lands; they had in mind only conquests.

    Manusmriti must have been written post-Ramayana and post-Bhagavatha. Incidentally, Ezhuthachan's works/loose translations do not mention anything about it.

    We still follow the practice of banning overseas travels - by boat or airplane....I wish you had added the controversy over poet Vishnu Narayanan Nampoothiri's London visit. (http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/kerala-debate-on-foreign-travel-of-priests-ends-tamely-as-tdb-takes-control/1/276448.html).


    ramu kaviyoor

  1. Dinesh

    nice post! we all should respect eachother religions, weather hindu,muslim or christian we are one.By lingashtakam Team.

  1. Veerendra Jamdade

    In India many logical actions were always embedded in religious belief. The reason for the van could be on helath cause. Today also we take precautions when you travel to African countries. You need to get tested for sickness like yellow fever.

    There would have been such instances and that would have caused such ban and then for for making public at mass to believe it, it would have been named as Sin.

    Caste would have been included in it to protect elite.

    But, this kind ban has really caused big damage, otherwise today Indian culture would have been there globally.

    This kind of ban could have been reason for Cheramal Perumal to accept Islam which doesn't forbid sea voyage.

    These are my own inferences.

  1. Unknown

    Lord Rama crossed ocean by walk constructing a bridge . Lord Ram could ve crossed it by flying with the help of hanuman but he didn't. Once the bridge was laid and crossed by foot to a foreign land one can return from there even by any other modes like flying. As Lord Ram returned frm lanka in pushpaka vimaana. Crossing ocean is not a taboo to hanuman bcoz he is a vanara not human