A Skeptical World

No, let us not condemn villagers’ practices

Superstition is practically a condition of living. Phobia of the number 13, unwillingness to walk under ladders, paranoia about cats crossing our paths: we all hold these tiny little superstitions. Therefore let us not cast stones at poor villagers in Tamil Nadu burying children momentarily or village women in North India dancing naked seeking divine succor from drought. Let me ask: How do you know this didn’t work? Can you prove this didn’t (or couldn’t) cause rainfall?

I ask because we are not quite as rational as we think we are. Many who swear by the scientific method are vulnerable to slick, smooth talking charlatans. Look at American religious cults. Jim Jones who made his followers commit mass suicide. The evangelist who made his flock give him $10 million or else “God would call him home to heaven.”

In Bangalore, in August 2002, a well-marketed Filipino quack named the Rev. Alex L. Orbito allegedly performed “psychic surgery.” Hundreds, including ministers, the chief of police, professors, doctors, et al. were fooled by this man’s chicanery, which apparently included his “plunging his bare hands into the patient’s abdomen to remove ‘negativities’” which were allegedly bloody pieces of tissue. The great man wouldn’t let anybody examine these tissues, and nobody was actually “healed.” So much for the scientific method.

On the other hand, there are technologies that we may have forgotten all about except for ritual. Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Although his context was a savage tribesman being overwhelmed on first seeing a television, it applies more broadly. In the 1750s, the British in Bengal banned the “barbaric” native practice of smearing themselves with cowpox pus. Turns out this technology, that of inoculation against smallpox, was too advanced for the British: they thought it was magic!

Similary the Khasis of Meghalaya maintained sacred groves untouched, which in hindsight was brilliant forest husbandry; missionaries cut them down, and caused massive deforestation, soil erosion and general environmental havoc.

Strangely, middle class Indians only look askance at native superstitions. There are many imported superstitions, too: for instance a Christian cult that refuses medical attention, instead praying over the patient; I had a neighbor who died of a minor illness as a result. There is a thriving “faith healing” Christian practice and chanting and “laying of hands” at a place called Divine Nagar in Kerala. A true skeptic would question these as well, but oddly enough they are tolerated while the poor villagers in Tamil Nadu and North India are hounded by “rationalists” and “human rights advocates.”

Selectively condemning the practices of villagers while accepting on faith western idiocies merely shows how many Indians are still intellectually colonized.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Bangalore, India.


Yes, pointless beliefs need to be discarded


We often hear horror stories of what people do because of superstitions. Some bury children alive in order to please the rain gods. Others sacrifice children to a deity because they believe the deity will give them riches. Men infected with AIDS rape young girls because they believe that sex with a virgin will cure them.

A long time ago, American Indian tribesmen were convinced by a priest that he could make them invulnerable to the bullets of white settlers by smearing them with sacred ash. Thousands went out to fight against the whites. Unfortunately the bullets killed them.

All this is done out of ignorance. Sometimes the results are not so dangerous; they are funny. What about the cucumber whose seeds appeared to spell a holy word? Or the monkey-man who supposedly terrorized North India recently? Or the face-chewing “muh-nocchwa,” the flying object, that seems to only attack drunken men in Bihar and U.P.?

Similarly, some women conducted a prayer in which they ploughed the fields naked to invoke rain. Why? The science of weather is well known. This year’s drought is because of a seasonal El Niño. It is also due to many real factors such as pollution in the atmosphere, deforestation, etc. Scientifically, it has nothing to do with the rain god. We humans are the main cause of changing weather patterns.

We can help the rain god by regenerating forests and working on energy conservation and rainwater harvesting rather than dancing naked. Global warming is now a serious threat. Carbon emissions are a major polluter. This is what we should focus on, by cutting down on unnecessary burning of plastics and other activities that are contributing to the brown haze that lies 3 kilometers thick above Asia. Then the rain will automatically fall.

Horoscopes are another major waste of time and money. Despite advances in science and technology, it’s amazing that people still check horoscopes. What possible effect could a faraway planet’s position at the time of your birth have on your future life? It is absurd. What about Ripan Katyal, murdered in the Kandahar hijacking immediately after his honeymoon: why didn’t his horoscope foretell that he would die weeks after he married?

If people want to hurt themselves for stupid ideas, I suppose they have the right to. But what about animals? Animals are sacrificed to fulfill man’s desires. We recently read the story of a monkey that wandered into a Hanuman temple and died–probably because the crowds frightened it to death.

When superstitions, even in this day and age, hurt people and animals, I have no sympathy for those who believe in them.

Bindu Raghavan is a software engineer in India.




Rajeev Srinivasan
Rajeev Srinivasan considers San Francisco and Kerala his two homes. His columns also appear in Rediff on the Net and The Sunday Observer.
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