Irrational exuberance

Earlier this week, the main accused in the assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was killed just over a year ago, was taken into custody as a suspect in the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, who was shot dead during his morning walk five years ago. This reminder of the assassination of a rationalist who fought to eradicate superstition from Indian society comes at a time when the cause of science and rationalism has been under siege in an embarrassingly public way over the past decade. 

Then there is this fascination for taking mythical tales as literal truth. Prominent leaders representing various hues of saffron have boasted, without bothering to avail themselves of such details as empirical evidence, of ancient India’s apparent breakthroughs in plastic surgery, nuclear power, aviation technology, and so on. Those who have questioned these statements — or laughed outright at them — have been dismissed as “sickular liberals”, the favoured pun-laden insult, or anti-national. When senior political leaders endorse these views, it is easy to see why India’s reputation endures as the world’s most superstitious society.

Superstition is a natural inclination in even educated societies. In most cases, it involves subscribing to such harmless fallacies as attracting bad luck from walking under a ladder, never proceeding along a path crossed by a black cat, never leaving a room if someone sneezes and similar practices. Certainly, even the most profane sportsperson will confess to iron rationality. In India, however, superstition has deeper social, political and economic roots. Inadequate social infrastructure, in terms of health and education, only serves to perpetuate medieval beliefs, which then harden into regressive social practices. The impact is impossible to quantify in hard numbers, given the inevitable overlap between superstition and religious beliefs that are steeped in theories of karma. The public hysteria over Ganesh “drinking milk” or a statue of Jesus weeping (a case of faulty drainage it turned out) showed the depths of Indian society’s religious gullibility. But more seriously, the latent undermining of the socio-political fabric cannot be ignored. Superstition often becomes an alibi for perpetuating caste prejudices. 

Even in 21st century India, Brahmins of a certain inclination feel the need for purification if the shadow of a lower-caste person crosses his or her path. In parts of India, women that incur the disapproval of society have been burnt as witches as late as 2006 — a form of disguised sexual harassment. Evidence of the growth industry that stems from superstition is prominent everywhere in India. All manner of charlatans roam the countryside, offering black magic services in lieu of modern medicine, miracle-producing “Godmen” appear in legions to milk rich and/or gullible Indians, and astrologers offer businesspeople and politicians — from presidents and prime ministers downward — “advice” based on astral alignments that Jayant Narlikar and other prominent Indian scientists have long dismissed as arrant nonsense. 

In Uttar Pradesh, recent reports highlighted instances of non-criminals voluntarily undergoing jail sentences on the advice of their astrologers, surely a unique example of the taxpayer paying for somebody else’s private superstition. Last week, in Varanasi, 160 men performed the last rites of their divorced wives — all alive — and also conducted an apparently tantric ceremony to tackle “the evil of feminism”. A ‘pishachini mukti’ puja, usually considered a tantric ritual, was also conducted; ‘pishachini’ in everyday language is a female evil spirit. Various states have passed laws banning certain kinds of superstition, but they work only as far as they are reported (almost never) and law-enforcement agencies are inclined to enforce them (also rare). Dabholkar’s tragic death offers a grim reminder of the difficultly of countering this retrograde trend in Indian society. Enlightenment, as Europe’s history teaches us, is a long-drawn process.