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How ignorance fuels superstition and black magic

By Dinesh C Sharma
August 26, 2013 17:07 IST
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A nation that aspires to be a superpower and wants to join the ranks of global leaders in knowledge, science and technology should declare an all out war on ills like superstition and black magic at all levels, says Dinesh C Sharma.

The brutal killing of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune last week has brought into the focus the prevalence of superstitious practices and black magic in the country. In deference of his sustained campaign, the Maharashtra government has enacted a law to curb the menace of black magic and superstitions.

The problem of superstition is widespread in India and even in parts of Europe and the western world. Contrary to popular perception, superstitions and black magic are practiced not just among the uneducated or illiterate or those living in rural areas. Such irrational practices are common among educated urban folks and even among scientists.

Here are just a few examples to prove this point:

  • A Balaji temple at Chilkur village about 30 kilometres from the technology hub of Hyderabad is more famous for its ‘visa power’. In the serpentine queues leading to the presiding deity of this temple, one can see hundreds of young men and women clutching passports and visa papers in their hands along with usual offerings. It seems a visa is assured if one visits Chilkur temple -- the abode of ‘Visa’ Balaji as the deity is now famous -- before appearing for immigration or visa related interview at US consulates. It is almost as if ‘Visa’ Balaji has a hotline with consulates of America and other sought after destinations for software engineers.
  • India may have made its mark in the field of space science and technology through string of successful launches of satellites from its state-of-the-art spaceport at Sriharikota, but part of the credit belongs to another Balaji at Tirupati.  At least, this is what top scientists of the agency trust. Before every major launch from Sriharikota, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation seeks divine intervention from Lord Venkateswara by offering a replica of the launch vehicle and satellite. Going by the number of launches we have had, temple authorities may well consider opening a gallery on Indian space programme where they can showcase all the replicas.
  • When Pallam Raju took over as India’s human resources development minister in October 2012, an elaborate ritual including a havan was performed, by priests flown in from his home state,  to ‘purify’ his official chamber in Shastri Bhavan.  The furniture in the room was rearranged according to ‘vastu’ as well. It was only after all this that the minister -- with degrees in engineering and management from American universities -- took over his office tasked with steering Indian education in the 21st century.
  • In May 2013, the German embassy in New Delhi -- which usually showcases German prowess in technology and engineering -- hosted a cow named Geeta during an event to discuss European club football. Geeta was brought from Faridabad to kick footballs to predict a winning team for the tournament, just like ‘Paul the Octopus’ did during the World Cup in South Africa 2010. Geeta was made to pose with the German ambassador Michael Steiner.

Clearly, superstitions are not the sole domain of the illiterate or the uneducated nor are restricted to Indians.

Often people confuse or mix superstition with religious faith and spirituality. No religion ordains or justifies black magic, superstition, human sacrifice or occult practices. Any opposition to superstition or black magic should not be construed as anti-religion or against the freedom to practice religion. One can be faithful to one’s religion of choice without being superstitious.

The problem arises when religion becomes a tool in the hands of vested interests to propagate or promote superstition and irrational practices such as visa power to Balaji or predictive powers to parrots and cows.

It becomes a serious issue when a so-called miracle is attributed to a deity or a living person (guru or so-called godman) to boost following. That’s why we keep getting chain messages over Facebook, email and mobile phones (it used to be post cards in 1970s and 1980s) on ‘miracles’ of one deity or the other and asking the receiver to spread the message.

More followers also mean more money for the guru concerned. It would appear deities and godmen are competing with each other as to who is able to offer more miracles and cures, just like competitive populism being practiced by our political parties. No wonder, we keep hearing about which temple is earning more than others. At this rate, we may soon have a Forbes list for India’s wealthiest gods and godmen.

Dr Dabholkar’s killing is a chilling reminder of the gravity of this problem. By opposing superstition and black magic, he was challenging powerful business interests of the superstition industry. Yes, it has become an industry which is part of the underbelly of the Indian economy.

Public lands are grabbed to build abodes of godmen, donations are received in hard cash, money is held by private trusts with no accountability, ‘miracles’ are marketed through television, newspapers and the internet, and opponents are killed (as evident in Dabholkar’s killing).

Like other sectors of industry and business, this industry too enjoys considerable political patronage. In this context, by passing the new law -- though much belated -- the Maharashtra government has shown political courage.  I would suggest that the new law should be named in the memory of Dabholkar.

At the same time, law is just one part of the solution. We must have necessary will and machinery to enforce the laws effectively. We already have the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954, under which claiming or advertising a magical remedy is a crime. It is outdated and has loopholes, yet it is a legal tool already available.

A ‘magic remedy’ defined under this law includes “a talisman, mantra, kavacha, and any other charm of any kind which is alleged to possess miraculous powers for or in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any disease in human beings or animals or for affecting or influencing in any way the structure or any organic function of the body of human beings or animals”.  

A total of 54 diseases and ailments are mentioned in the schedule of this law. If this law is enforced, our jails will be full of babas, sadhus, sants, fakirs, ojhas of all hues who claim to cure everything from stomach ache to cancer and mental illness. One can also argue that such remedies thrive in remote rural areas, particularly by ojhas, because of the poor health infrastructure. In some cases, it may be true.

At the same time, it has been found that these practitioners are actually dishing out powerful steroids and antibiotics as ‘magical remedies’ by removing packaging and mixing them up with bhasma (ashes) or sugar -- a trend which is even more dangerous. 

A nation that aspires to be a superpower and wants to join the ranks of global leaders in knowledge, science and technology should declare an all out war on ills like superstition and black magic at all levels. Let’s not waste the opportunity that the Dabholkar assassination has given us.

Dinesh C Sharma is a science journalist based in New Delhi.


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