A long, long time ago in an unnamed village in India, there used to live a famous, old pundit in a large hut with his wife and their two children.
One day, the old man was sitting in the veranda of his house reciting his evening prayers when he saw a white cat trying to tiptoe her way into the household.
The pundit didn’t pay her much attention and kept chanting the mantras until he heard the bellowing voice of his wife. “Get out of here, thief. Get out, get out !!!” The cat flew out of the main door followed swiftly by objects of various shapes and sizes thrown at her. A few moments later, his wife herself came up to the doorway.
“Now, now, now. Stop this nonsense.” the old, wise man tried to reason with his wife. “It is just a poor animal.” He gestured at the cat sympathetically.
“She was putting her dirty paws in the prasadam I had prepared.” The cat cowered behind the pundit on hearing the scornful tone of his wife.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” He tried to calm both his wife and the cat. “She’s probably just hungry. I will give her some food. You take care of the prasadam.”
“Okay. But if I see her anywhere near my kitchen, I will break her back.” With a warning glance, his wife went back inside.
And this is how the cat came to become a part of the pundit’s household. The old man quickly grew very fond of the animal, and always made sure that she was well fed. The cat grew quite fond of him too. So much so that she never left him alone, even during the time of his daily prayers, which became one source of constant irritation for the old man.
A few days later it was the first full moon of the new year. The entire village was invited in the evening to the old pundit’s household to witness the holy rituals followed by distribution of prasadam.
The old man came out of his house at the designated time in the evening. The holy idol was placed in the center of the veranda, surrounded by incense, fruits, jaggery, scriptures and all the other necessary things required for the rituals to be completed. Almost the entire village was present, waiting with bated breaths for the ceremony to start. But before he could take his designated place in front of the idol, the cat sneaked in from between the legs of the old pundit, and seeing the variety of flashy items on display, her small green eyes lit up in excitement. She jumped on the idol, causing it to tumble down, which in turn excited her even further. Before anyone could understand anything, the cat was breaking everything in an alarming and quick fashion.
“Stop her, stop her !!” the old man’s wife started screaming at the top of her voice, forcing several of his pupils to run after the cat, and they captured her after a few unsuccessful attempts. “What do we do with her?” one of the new kids asked the obvious question.
“Take her inside the house.” The old man told him. But his wife blocked the door. “I will not allow this beast inside my house on this holy occasion.”
Frustrated, but knowing that there was no way through this impasse, the old man thought of an innovative solution. “Tie the cat to one of the pillars.” He instructed the new pupil, and threw a piece of red thread towards him “Use this.”
The kid did as he was told to do and the ceremony continued on without any commotion. From then on, whenever he sat down for any religious work, the old man first made sure that the cat was securely tied to one of the pillars in the veranda.
Many years later, the old pundit passed away quietly in his sleep. The cat also died a few days later. The world kept on running without them, as it has always been. After a few more years, the village once again prepared itself for the first full moon of that year. Coincidentally, that year’s ceremony was going to take place in the household of the same pupil who once helped the old man to control the cat. He was now the chief pundit of the village, having learned his lessons from the old man.
All the preparations were put in place and as the evening drew near, the entire village gathered, waiting for the new holy chief to come out and start the rituals. But the new pundit came out with a worrying look on his face. His pupils were all distraught. “What happened, great teacher? Have we done any mistake in the preparations?” they asked, trembling in fear of his notorious rage.
“Yes. Yes.” the new pundit shouted. “Where is the cat? Where is the cat?” he asked.
The pupils had a confused look on their faces. “Which cat, great teacher?”
“The white cat. There must be a white cat for the ceremony to start.” he explained in exasperation.
“Because….”, the new pundit was suddenly at a loss for words. “Because my old teacher always used to tie a white cat with red thread to one of the pillars of the veranda before starting the ceremony. Maybe it was part of some ritual, maybe he used the cat to ward off the evil spirits. I don’t know. But since he used to do it, we must do the same. Everything should be just like he taught me. Which includes the cat. So now go, and find one. Or else I won’t start the ceremony.”
The pupils all looked at each other’s faces, and then gave a shrug. “As you say, oh great teacher.” they spoke in unison and went in different directions to search the entire village. They searched each and every nook and corner until they found a white cat. It was brought and tied to the satisfaction of the new pundit, and only then did he start the ceremony.
Centuries have passed since that white cat first entered the veranda of the old pundit’s house, but to this day in that unnamed village of India, no ceremony has ever started before a white cat is tied with red thread to a pillar in the veranda of the house.
This story originated from a discussion I had today with someone about the oddball rituals that we come across different religions. My counterpart told a small anecdote about a sage and his pet cat to supplement his argument about the utter futility of many such arcane practices, whose origins may have been purely accidental, but have become an important part of our religious identities today. Which begs the question is, do the rituals make the religion or vice versa?