Three Takes On ‘Superstitious India’

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Photo by Amit Misra

I usually say that we as a people are not a scientific community. I still maintain this opinion. I do not concern here with what might be the reason behind such a mindset of Indians. May be in a future post we would delve deeper into that issue. Today I restrict myself with what makes me form such a strong opinion against intellectual health of Indians. Of course, you could argue and cite Aryabhatta to INSAT series to PSLV, GSLV, and Chandrayaan. You could name Raman, Narlikar, Mukunda, Sudarshan. I do not in a least bit belittle the marathon run of ISRO which is the pride of India; and do deeply and sincerely bow to the intellectual geniuses that this land has produced. Or you may also quote the epics and announce that the glorious achievements of ISRO and DRDO are nothing special; we had always been a frontrunner in space and missile technology with Pushpak Viman and Brahmastra. Of course, India had already mastered IVF because Sita was a test tube baby, and also successfully carried out surgery on Ganesha. A lot has been said already on this subject, and several writers and commentators — both from within the science community as well as outside of it — have taken enormous pain and effort to elaborate upon what are indeed the greatest achievements and contributions of ancient Indian science, technology and mathematics.

My question is simple in statement. Can the whole country take credit for the achievements of a few individuals or institutions? Feeling pride is one thing, credit is quite another. In other words, just because a runner from Jamaica wins an Olympic gold, can we say that the Jamaicans are good runners? No. In such cases, the achievement belongs to the individual — of course, with support from various institutions and people, from society and the government. This is specially true for India, where just naming Tendulkar and Dravid, we cannot say Indians are a healthy people. We do know that they are not. Half of the nation is facing hunger and poverty, other half from heart diseases and blood pressure. All illnesses are unfortunate, but here I am considering only those that are mainly due to lifestyle. When we see things from this perspective, then it becomes easy to see that we Indians do not possess a scientific mindset. It is not a problem with our make-up, in fact when we see fine and little things in our daily lives, they reveal to us the signatures of the scientific genius we were once upon a time. But India is an old civilisation. And in its long journey through time, somewhere down the road, she got old and tired, unable to carry her bag and baggage, so had to drop few of them. And it turned out to be the most precious things — science and logic.

How else would you explain the various superstitions that prevail in society? That such practices took birth is bad, but even worse is the fact that they continue to exist. If we did not know that a certain practice is wrong and illogical, we could be excused on the name of ignorance. But what to say when it has been told time and again, repeatedly, that such practices are wrong, illogical and irrational. Government, electronic media, and scholars have gone to enormous lengths in their fight against such practices. But one does not see any change. Our medical professionals are sought by international community and sent to countries like Nigeria to eradicate Polio, TB and so on. And back home, our gentleman returns home just because a black cat chose to go hunting exactly at the same time and the same place. In the middle of the night, a lizard lost her balance, and fell down. Fortunately, she is used to such accidents and didn’t suffer any injuries; but the child in the house was made to take shower immediately. And what about sneezes?

We had C.V. Raman. But we also have work and regular routines changed or postponed because of cats and sneezes. As I said in an earlier post, being scientific does not mean that you have to play with pendulum or lenses, mix reagents or wash beakers. Being scientific simply means to think logically and rationally about our every habit and practice. We should know why we are doing whatever we are doing. The key is to keep asking questions, even if we do not find any answer. Perhaps that is the answer to my quest. One of my schoolteachers used to say — ‘Fungus grows in water which stands still. If you do not use your brain, it would soon become non-functional.’ Perhaps that is what has happened to us. Somewhere down the road, we stopped thinking, stopped using our mind and brain. And in such fertile but unused land, weeds grew.

Whatever progress we make in agriculture, technology and sports, the superstitions drag us back and in a way ensure that we do not dare make any noticeable progress. It would not be wrong to call them shackles which have chained our hands and feet. Some of these superstitions are downright nonsensical as a simple argument would reveal. For example, in a short story published in children’s magazine Chandamama, an old man stopped his son from going to office because he had sneezed. He asked him to wait and go after some time. The old man’s grandson was sitting there and he asked very innocently why his father can’t go. On this the grandfather replied —
— Because he sneezed.
— Does it hold for the person who is going?
— No. If a person is going somewhere and someone else sneezes, even then he should postpone his programme.
— But in this whole world, every moment one or the other person must be sneezing. That way, nobody would ever be able to go anywhere for work!
— No, not like that. Only those sneezes need to be taken into account which you hear.
— Our grandmother is deaf. She can’t hear a single word. Then how this theory holds in her case?

— Shut up!

Yes, nearly all our reasoning and inquiries are stopped and discouraged by asking us to  keep our mouths shut. Another way to discourage such inquiries is to attribute all these practices to culture and tradition. The reason is simple: these inquiries reveal the bankruptcy of intellect. But if there is some truth in any custom or ritual and we are convinced of its validity, then we should be ready to face any inquiry on them. In fact, as Swami Vivekananda said, we ourselves should reason and examine all our customs and rituals before following them. We should never follow any practice unless we know the logic behind it.

You know what is the essential characteristic of scientists? They know why they are doing what they are doing. So, on this litmus, what is your assessment of yourself? Are you a scientist?

Take 1: Taking Superstitions Head On

We have a long heritage of superstitions. Only when we start counting, do we realize how many of them do we have. And then India being a complex society, each culture contributes its own superstition. But then, we also have a long tradition of reformers, saints and leaders who had fought all these superstitions and ill-practices. Right from ancient times, when we had saints raising their voices through poems and songs, over to modern India when reformers were more active in their approach, and to the present times when print and electronic media have been providing their contribution in this seemingly never ending battle against intellectual bankruptcy (At the same time, I want to point out the double standards of electronic media which on one hand launches a crusade against such practices, and on the other telecasts programs and shows which justify and encourage such way of thinking). It makes me sweat whenever I think of the long battle these reformers have been fighting. However, the result and outcome is negligible in comparison to the strength, courage and effort that these people had put in. Perhaps it is a never-ending battle, and would continue till the day comes when we start thinking for ourselves instead of following any practice blindly. Following is a humourous take on some of the superstitions.

Take 2: When The ‘Faith’ Is Shaken

Some of the superstitions are passed on to us by society, and some we invent ourselves. The latter are mostly acquired during childhood, a time when the innocent child is still trying to make sense of the mad and crazy world, and trying to look for simple solutions to problems and logic behind phenomena. But as the child grows up, most of these invented superstitions fall off. How does it happen? And then what happens next? This picture is addressed in this beautiful short film Aai Shapath (in Marathi, with English subtitles). The central idea is simple: It is said that if you take false vow on somebody’s name, that person will die. This film depicts the dilemma and inner conflicts of a child who was a witness of such a ‘wrongdoing’. An absolutely must watch.

Take 3: The Origin Of Superstitions

In the last paragraph, I mentioned ‘invented superstitions’. In fact, it is not just children who indulge in such thoughts and practices. Sometimes, even adults also get caught in unscientific line of thinking. But sometimes, when I am in a more generous and tolerant state of mind, I think that the situation is not all bad. Have you wondered how could any superstition have started in the first place? I think — and I may be wrong — people must have tried to look around for causes behind interesting happenings in their lives. For example, their lives were in mess, nothing going well, all tasks and work stuck up, repeated failures. And then suddenly, problems get resolved, all of them one by one, order returns. They get confused and curious about such a sudden change in their life. And then they start their analysis and look for explanations and connections which might have caused the change. Then comes forecasting. And of course, now that they have a hypothesis, they only pick up those events which corroborate their hypothesis and drop those which do not. If we look at it this way, then in fact the situation was not that bad. The person was in fact thinking and looking for answers, it is another thing that the inquiry went into a wrong direction. Accidents do happen, you see. But then, when counter-arguments and further examinations demonstrated that the conclusions were wrong, these should have been dropped. But they weren’t. Following short film takes up this line of thinking in a humorous way.


For other articles in this series, click here.

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