Psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Matches-walla still remembers the young woman that walked into his south Mumbai clinic in 1990, exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia — and large bruises all over her body.
He began treatment, but he couldn’t get the patient’s family to discuss the bruises. Finally, they admitted that they had first taken her to a tantric, who said she was possessed by an evil spirit that had to be beaten out of her. It was only when this approach proved to have no positive effect that the family decided to turn to a medical doctor.
Today, not much has changed. “Every few days, I still see patients who come to doctors only after they are robbed and cheated by so-called godmen,” says Matcheswalla.
In a culture where such practices go back thousands of years, and are still considered valid and in some cases preferable to modern science and medicine, doctors, rationalists and social activists believe that the anti-superstition bill recently passed as an ordinance by the Maharashtra government will come as a much-needed step in the right direction.
But in a culture where social and educational systems do not foster, and in fact discourage, questioning minds, they are also asking whether legislation alone can wipe out this deep-rooted blind faith and its harmful after-effects.
“In the case of exploitative superstitions, the law could help,” says Pune-based anthropologist Ramchandra Mutatkar. “Social legislations such as those against dowry and child marriage, are important. But by themselves, laws have never been enough. They have always been most effective when combined with awareness, education and the empowerment of women and other marginalised sections at the grassroots level.”
In addition to empowerment, anthropologist Mutatkar says the education system can, and ought to, play a large role. “Our education system does not address the issues of rationality at all,” he adds. “It is very skills-focused and does not attempt to encourage people to question or to think for themselves.”
The ordinance, meanwhile, does not seek to address what constitutes faith and what, superstition, instead addressing only specific practices that are clearly criminal offences, and happen to be related to superstition. “Only 10% of what we fought for has been included in the law, because it cannot go against the constitutional freedom of religion,” says Shyam Manav, founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. “The government, therefore, must work to educate people as well. Today, a lot of policemen also believe in black magic, so they don’t end up helping victims. So vigilance officers will have to be properly trained and educated.”
While Manav and other anti-superstition activists have been fighting the slow pace of the government’s involvement in their movement, social scientists argue that only a graded approach will be effective.
“We need to question and give up certain practices, but sensitively, over a period of time,” says Prabodh Parikh, a professor of philosophy, literature and culture. “The law has been framed so as to address only those practices that are misused, leaving matters of faith to the individual.”
There are also those who caution against falling into the trap of developing an ‘arch-rationalist’ attitude.
“We need to ask ourselves if rationality and science are the only modes of questioning,” says Delhi-based sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “What we really need is education, so that we learn how to question all our fundamentals.”
Some experts are also keen to differentiate between godmen who practice black magic and faith healers who bless or pray for devotees.
As part of her PhD on the interface and approaches to mental disorders in India, Tina Chakravarty, a Mumbai-based researcher at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, for instance, found that almost all the mental health patients and caregivers she interviewed felt comforted by visiting faith healers, even though they were also seeking treatment from medical doctors.
“People trust faith healers because they tend to relate to the patient at a deeper, an emotional and cultural, level,” says Chakravarty. “And while it is true that such trust can be abused, the abuse of trust is not limited to faith healing and in fact also occurs in modern medicine.”
In fact, given the widespread tendency of Indians to approach faith healers first, some medical practitioners believe there might be a way to counter blind faith with their help, from within. Mumbai-based psychiatrists Dr Manoj Bhatawdekar and Matcheswalla often have patients referred to them by faith healers. “If more healers were ready to give up their vested interests, they could even be trained to recognise ailments among devotees and to refer them to doctors,” says Bhatawdekar.