To combat superstition, run rationality classes in school
As the Burari tragedy demonstrated, it is wrong to assume that blind faith and superstitions are a class issue, inflicting only the under-educated and the poor who fall for babas and tantriks operating out of roadside tents in working-class neighbourhoods.columns Updated: Jul 09, 2018 11:50 IST
On July 1, Delhi woke up to the horrific news of the death of 11 members of a family in Burari. Nine of the 11 bodies were hanging from an iron grille attached to the roof. They had their eyes blindfolded, their mouths covered with tape and their ears plugged with cotton balls.
Relying on the autopsy that ruled out murder and scouring handwritten notes found in the house, Delhi Police said the deaths could have been the result of an occult ritual gone horribly wrong.
If the police theory is indeed true, the most intriguing factor was how all 11 family members, including four school and college-going students and a young professional, got on board so willingly. Although such rituals were apparently being practised for 11 years, none of them let the family secret out.
Superstitions such as a black cat crossing the path or a broken mirror bringing bad luck may seem innocuous but tragedies such as this underline the fact that so many of us willingly bet our lives on occult and black magic.
Delhi hadn’t gotten over the Burari shock when on Friday, an 18-year-old man died of snakebite in the neighbouring town of Ghaziabad. Instead of rushing him to a nearby health centre that was well stocked with antidotes, his family wasted 78 hours ferrying him to quacks, occult practitioners and snake charmers who promised to “bring him back to life”.
As the Burari tragedy demonstrated, it is wrong to assume that blind faith and superstitions are a class issue, inflicting only the under-educated and the poor who fall for babas and tantriks operating out of roadside tents in working-class neighbourhoods. A report by my colleague Manoj Sharma in HT this Sunday showed that scores of faith-healers, ‘vashikaran’ gurus, Bengali babas and such others were freely conducting their businesses online, promising to help the gullible get their lost love or job back, treat a chronic illness or even buy a house. Their clientele included the educated youth.
For many, engaging in superstitious behaviour gives a sense of false control and reduces anxiety. This is why levels of superstition increase at times of stress and angst, stated an article in The Conversation that quoted a study on superstitious practices in World War-1.
Here in India, some use a lucky charm, a specific number or colour, a certain stone. Others feed a particular animal or bird, fast on certain days and remodel their homes. But there is no stopping once you are on this slope. Anything that puts our sense of control outside ourselves, says British psychologist Chris French, can be dangerous.
Indians should know better. Data by the National Crime Record Bureau revealed that in 2016, witchcraft was the motive behind as many as 134 killings across India. Although not logged under a specific head, there are numerous cases of tantriks instigating murders and faith-healers sexually abusing women and children. Many of those who get duped by these conmen don’t even bother to report it to the police.
In 2013, Maharashtra became the first Indian state to pass an anti-superstition law that criminalised black magic, human sacrifice and prescribed police action against individuals who claim and broadcast the ability to perform miracles and prevent people from seeking medical advice on illness or injury. Since the law came into force, around 500 cases have been lodged.
Last year, the Karnataka legislative assembly followed suit and cleared a bill that criminalised 23 superstitions. But it has been criticised by rationalists for omitting Vaastu, astrology and telecast of such programmes on television.
The state-specific laws have limited impact, says Avinash Patil, the president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. “The Centre should identify common concerns and work on an all-India anti-superstition law so that the whole country is on the same page,” he says.
Fighting superstitions, which has long been defended as a part of culture, tradition and religion, requires an overhaul in thinking. Schools, for instance, can be a good starting place. But merely teaching science may not be enough.
The Delhi government, which launched a happiness curriculum in its schools last week, could add focused lessons to fight superstitious leanings. The courses may well be complementary. Because where fear is, said philosopher Seneca, happiness is not. And fear, added Bertrand Russell, is the main source of superstition.
First Published: Jul 09, 2018 11:48 IST