What Makes Us Superstitious?

And why it is more dangerous than believing in a lucky number or the evil eye

What Makes Us Superstitious?

HAVE YOU THOUGHT, long and hard about what your lucky number is, but can't risk revealing it? I've been wondering whether my prayer beads falling apart had something to do with bad energy directed at me. Of course, you might say the breaking of two sets of my beloved beads had more to do with the wear and tear on the thread than a bad omen, but I'm hardly alone in worrying about the evil eye. From young mothers to CEOs, truck drivers to entrepreneurs, film-makers to doctors, we are enveloped in superstitious beliefs in varying degrees. We barely notice touching wood or our heads, with relief and hope when a situation is simply out of our control. Only, if the grim consequences of superstition did not stare us in the face.

A study by the University of Kerala found that 48 per cent of post-graduate students responded positively to superstition-this in a state that claims 94 per cent literacy. There was no difference in students from the social science stream and those studying science. Also, students from rural societies had shown lower superstition rates than urban, so education and exposure seem to have little to do with rationalism. Superstition is, in fact, a cross-community preoccupation in India.

What is It Anyway?

According to Dr Kamala Ganesh, a leading sociologist in Mumbai, "Superstition encompasses different practices, some cultural or cosmetic habits with no harmful consequences, some that are downright harmful to health and well-being, and others that discriminate against certain categories of people." Many of these, she explains, have evolved from times when the uncertainties and dangers of life and threats to survival actually made people create symbolic and metaphoric ways of dealing with them psychologically.

Adds Dr Sumant Khanna, a Gurgaon-based senior consultant in psychiatry, who specializes in treating obsessive behaviours, "The more primitive a society, the more prone we are to superstition. To some extent, superstition is a part of the process of evolution, as it has prevented us from being reckless."

Ganesh goes on to explain that not everything constituting superstition is irrational though, and neither is rationality the only logic available to humans. "It is just one dimension of our thinking," she says. However, according to her, many such customs and practices are born out of ignorance, fear or are a ploy for some to make money from the gullible.

The Lure of Superstition

It seems we continue to be drawn to it for multiple reasons-social indoctrination, and to find some control over the unpredictability of life, being key factors. Experts say that the lack of definitive knowledge has driven society to develop alternate models such as superstition. Says Shujoy Dutta, whose debut novel Like a Pinprick to the Heart deals with a family of psychics: "We're always telling ourselves stories either to explain phenomena, or to deal with life, and of course because we don't have the answers, we prefer the better story to the more rational one."

Take, for instance, the case of a lady doctor from Rajasthan who told her daughter, a young mother and former TV journalist, to burn dried red chillies "to remove the evil eye," when she had a minor viral infection. Not quite a believer, the journalist did it, just to be sure. No harm in covering all bases, right? The lady did get better, but possibly because of the medicines that were going in.

Also, turns out it's not just us Indians. A 2007 Gallup poll of Americans found that 13 per cent would be uncomfortable staying on the thirteenth floor of a hotel, and 9 per cent would actually ask for a change! Clearly then, this isn't some Eastern-world preoccupation.

There are common beliefs about walking under a ladder and black cats being bad luck. Plus, India has picked up England's superstitions with sighting a single magpie (replacing magpies with mynahs that are common here) and there are also cross-cultural obsessions with fingernails and hair! Some believe they are of particular use to those practising the tantric arts, while in the olden days in Europe, they were also believed to be crucial for 'witches' to use in their potions and brews.

Writers have lucky pens and notebooks, athletes have specific pre-game rituals and practices and actors are also prone to irrational beliefs. Most famously, theatre actors in England don't say the name of the play Macbeth on stage, only referring to it as The Scottish Play, or any of a wide variety of phrases.

How it Works

We may be drawn to certain habits and behaviours, through conditioning, but it is repeated coincidences that ensure we become believers. It's like me going from, I wore this shirt twice and got good news! to It's my lucky shirt, I absolutely must wear it to that job interview tomorrow.

Of course, sometimes, it works! Goa-based psychologist Arpita Anand  weighs in: "The way we think affects the way we feel and behave. So if you think you have something that is lucky, it probably impacts your mood and that in turn enhances motivation and affects behaviour positively." She has a caveat, though: "If one is anxious about a situation, then a belief like this helps lower the anxiety by allowing a sense of control." This explains studies that have found that nearly 70 per cent of students show superstitious behaviour before or during an exam. This is really, what psychologist and Harvard professor Dr Ellen Langer calls, the "illusion of control."

It may backfire, though. Just as you can work yourself into a confident frame of mind if you carry your lucky pen, you can get a little panicky when you let yourself be led by that entirely. How will I land that job if I've just gone and lost my lucky earrings?

You feel shaken, your confidence plummets and you might just blow the interview, which could seem to justify that ultimately self-fulfilling belief. Conversely, Langer studied how you may get a false sense of confidence because of that lucky mascot, and overestimate your chances of making a killing on the stock market, for instance. Who doesn't want a little extra boost, though, whatever might trigger it. You'd think it's harmless enough when it comes to navigating luck and protecting yourself and your family, but superstitions and folklore can quickly turn into tricky territory especially when in involves life.

When It Is Dangerous

Sanal Edmaruku, president of Rationalist International, warns of a much darker side to the story: "The dangerous influence of superstitions keeps a large section of people under permanent fear. This leads to human rights violations, exploitation and crime. We have hundreds of mob murders of so-called witches in India where people think that illness or death is caused by them."

In fact, data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2014 states that Jharkhand rates highest in murders in this category, followed by Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. "Practi-tioners of black magic and tantric rituals are active in villages and urban areas. Many tantric rituals involve violation of human rights, sanctioning crime; some even promote rituals with organs of children. Thousands of missing children every year in India are connected with these rituals," says Edmaruku.

There are also the horrific consequences of superstitious beliefs or blind faith being substituted for medical practice: An eight-month-old baby suffering from malnutrition, pneumonia and asthma died in Odisha in February. He was brought to a hospital only after the family tried a traditional cure, a "wild fruit healing". He weighed just 4 kilos.

Instead of seeking medical help,a large number of Indians still rely on tantrics, faith healing and miracle cures that have been practised down the ages in the belief that these are acceptable. Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Puneet Bedi notes it is alarming how the so-called educated elite insist on an 'auspicious' date and time of a baby's birth, guided by astrologers and their forecasts by the stars. People persuade doctors to perform Caesarean sections accordingly, sometimes putting the lives of both mother and child in danger. "Of course, there are doctors who are catering to this 'market'. There are cases of premature births at seven and a half months as a result of this," he adds.

Some superstitious practices during pregnancy seriously compromise the diet and nutrition of the mother, Bedi points out. "Women are told to become vegetarian or satvik, or to avoid particular foods," he says. The fact is, early nutrition during gestation and in the months following the baby's birth, is critical. Women, with their families, should only check with their doctors, on their pregnancy and in the months after. The same goes for child nutrition.

The Fight Against Superstition

Edmaruku and other rationalists have fought to highlight that many dangerous superstitions are taken too lightly in India, protected under the garb of faith and belief. "No civilized society can protect fraudulent practices, miracle-mongering, violence, human rights violations and crimes even if it is presented under the cover of tradition or religion," he says.He and his colleagues are facing a chilling backlash for those statements, with the counter-argument descending into violence. Edmaruku's friend, Dr Narendra Dabholkar-known for his campaigns against black magic and superstitions-was allegedly murdered in broad daylight in Pune in August 2013. Eminent Kannada writer and scholar M. M. Kalburgi was allegedly killed in August 2015 for his fight against superstition and blind faith. Edmaruku himself is in self-imposed exile in Helsinki, Finland, for nearly four years now, fearing for his life if he were to return to India.

The rationalist has spent decades busting myths around supposed "miracles" in India. His work has triggered a series of events and multiple complaints under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code [that punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs]. Edmaruku recounts that there have been many attempts at intimidation and threats of bodily harm.The final trigger for his departure from the country was the lack of protection, despite a warning that assassins had been paid to kill him. He left for a lecture tour to Europe in 2012, and never returned to India. "When I was planning to return to India one year later, my friend in Maharashtra, Narendra Dabholkar, put together a protection plan for me. Some days later he was murdered by an unknown killer."

Laws to the Rescue

In fact, it was shortly after Dabholkar's murder, that his home state passed the Maha-rashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, with other states like Karnataka looking to follow suit. Following the murder of Kalburgi last year, there was a renewed call for the state to bring in legislation, the draft Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill (2013), which has seen prolonged debate and rather vociferous opposition from various groups. Rajasthan though, has passed the Rajasthan Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act, 2015. It provides for life imprisonment for murderers and an imposition of a collective fine on the residents of the area where witch-hunting has taken place.

If it weren't for these cases, which have become a lightning rod for conversations on rising intolerance, we could perhaps laugh off irrational thinking as our personal foibles and beliefs.

The obsession with purity has resulted in women being barred from temples during menstruation. But there are voices challenging this and other supposedly preordained gender bias, including that of Trupti Desai, fighting for the right to enter a temple in Maharashtra, which she won recently. There are others fighting the ban against the entry of women into the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai, with the backing of the Maharashtra government now.

Can We Change?

Arrayed against them are the forces resistant to change, forces speaking on behalf of patriarchal systems, speaking for "tradition", at times gaining dangerous ground, as they justify violence to win the argument. That is the scary truth of modern-day India, once home to so many different traditions through the ages: the materialistic, atheistic, sceptical philosophy of Carvakas back in the 7th Century BC.

The flip side: if you're not a believer in superstition, do take into account people who "hear voices" or "see ghosts". There may be a larger psychiatric problem at hand. Or those who are compulsively superstitious may be prone to anxiety disorders, depression or stress, finds research by B. J. Zebb and M. C. Moore.

Experts say those with the anxious aversion personality type are more prone to superstition and obsession. Turns out, often superstition can turn into an obsessive compulsive disorder. Khanna mentions a patient who believed that he had to wash every part of his body with extreme care (due to an obsession with purity). "So much so, it took him four hours each day to do this. He had developed the belief that he was unclean and used chemicals like toilet cleaners to wash himself," says Khanna.

Khanna warns that some people may start with a superstition, but when they feel their beliefs are not working, they may even feel persecuted and anxious, leading to clinical depression in the long term.

But for those of us who touch wood and hope to steer away from our dependence on the 'lucky mascot', know that it's never too late to change our behaviour and beliefs. Psychologist Irving Lorge found that only the speed of learning, rather than the power to learn, decreased with age. So while there's nothing wrong with having your personal set of rituals to set your mind at ease, it's not a bad idea to rethink some of your behavioural patterns.


-With inputs from Mamta Sharma

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