nd1Narendra Dabholkar became a martyr for a  reason when he was shot dead by unknown assailants   on 20-Aug-2013. The 68 year old rationalist had been fighting against superstitions  for major part of  his life. His single-minded devotion to the cause had earned him many enemies. He had been twice attacked violently in 1990’s. While there are many areas were one can and have to disagree with the warrior of rationalism, none can deny his sincerity and commitment.

He had striven all his life  for a healthier, stronger Hindu society in his own way.  The crime against this voice of reason is a blot on the culture and society. We all need to condemn it in one strong voice. The Anti-Hindu forces have made use of his campaign to malign Hindu culture. Repeatedly we are told that the very Hindu culture and religion are rationally deficient and hence the abundance of superstition and charlatanism in Hindu culture. Somehow the shallow rationalists want Hinduism to follow the path of the Western history of rationalism, where every triumph of science and reason had to be won through a hard battle with the religious authority. The West has already traveled the path that we are struck in and we are struck in because of the mess called Hinduism, which does not have the inherent strength to fight against superstitions. This is the general understanding of the narrow rationalist.

But how much of this stand is real and how much is actually the result of an inferiority complex that has been cultivated in us since the colonial period?

Popular culture of the West, teems with superstition

A child is held by a man in the sanctum of  the altar of a solar deity.  The adult holding the child takes out an ornamental dagger. To save all things good, he has to kill the child in a ceremonial way, with multiple daggers. Each dagger should enter the child’s body in a ritual manner. As the screaming child attempts to free himself the adult raises the dagger to murder the child before the deity… No. This is not a scene from some barbaric superstitious religious rite of the cannibals. nd2

This is a scene from ‘The Omen’ – a Christian cult film of 1976 in which the act of ritual child murder was emotionally and dramatically condoned.

The film and its sequels ran to packed shows throughout the world and also in India. It justified the ideas that a child can be devil incarnate and such a child should either be eliminated or segregated from the rest. The films received rave reviews and  turned out to be box-office hits. They went on to win international film festival awards. Three years before that, another Hollywood blockbuster had hit the screens – ‘The Exorcist’, which was based on a novel, which in turn was allegedly based on a true incident. A girl was tied to a bed and two priests slashed her body with holy water and went on with the medieval ritual of exorcism even as the girl writhed in supernatural pain. Again, this movie too was widely acclaimed and was recipient of many international awards. It also ran to packed houses in Indian theaters.

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Each of these movies was made in modern times with the latest special effects and the best of the technology available in the field. Each of these movies produced immense waves of irrationality and human suffering. For example, to this day ‘the Omen‘ trilogy has spanned a Christian movement in many regions in Africa where the children are blamed for any tragic deaths in the family and the children are subjected to worse kind of torture in the name of cleansing the devil by Christian preachers. While BBC ‘Dispatches‘ episode brought to the world the extent of the abuses perpetrated on such ‘devil children’ by African evangelists, carefully avoided the obvious influence of Hollywood and tried to portray the phenomenon as if it is an indigenous African phenomenon.  

Three years after the release of the film Exorcist a young girl Anneliese Michel lost her life to the exorcism authorized by Catholic Church. The ritual ended in the death of the girl. Undeterred, in 2005, Hollywood came out with another movie ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose‘, loosely based on the life of the Anneliese Michel defending the death of the girl through the rites of exorcism. Then there is the movie Dracula which apart from providing a supernatural yarn also reinforces racial prejudices against the Gypsies and East Europeans.There are countless reports of bodies dragged out of the coffins after being suspected as vampires and the dead bodies being disfigured. Even today vampire slaying packages are sold and prejudices against Gypsies persist in the Western mind.

In other words, the popular culture of the West, teems with superstition and deficiency in scientific outlook, is not culture specific as claimed by many.  None can deny the fact that India has been teeming with superstitions.  However there is a major difference between the Indian superstition and the superstition as seen in the Western nations.  Indian superstitions are mainly, not completely, the result of social anxieties which in turn are the result of the colonial impoverishment, missionary influences and additionally the failure of the Nehruvian state apparatus.

The Western superstitions are essentially (though not entirely) the result of a calculated theological assault  on reason and they aggravate the dark aspects of the human psyche. This aspect needs an explanation. For example, a survey of the major superstitions would reveal that they come from the anxieties over the child health or health of the near and dear ones in the family. This is the result of the failure of the State to take a good humanistic medical network to the people in backward areas.

Another recent phenomenon in India’s backward states is witch hunting. Poor rural and tribal women are accused of being witches and are killed. However a survey of Indian folk and classical literature shows that the idea of witch –women practicing black magic- is conspicuous by its absence. The very concept is derived from western religion and folktales which abound with evil witches.

The children are taught to fear such evil witches who lure the children only to turn them into toads. It is not an accident that most of the witch hunting happens in and around the places where missionaries took the western education and culture. One does not have to convert to an alien religion to internalize the concept of witches. Almost every western educated and semi-educated person knows witches. And this mixed with family feuds, the fear at female spirituality etc. can become effective breeding ground for witch hunting.

Usually when a Hindu moves from the impoverished state to a better socio-economic condition most of his or her superstitions cease to exist. But in the case of the West it is the affluent who churn out superstitions like anti-Christ incarnating as a child, blood sucking historic monsters in your backyard and worse the achievements of non-western civilizations are attributed to aliens from other planets and not the forefathers of the non-European civilizations.  The Western superstitions are the children of a theo-racial arrogance coupled with abject scientific ignorance.

Then there is  the problem of fake godmen.  Throughout history all humanity has needed spiritual counselors, perceptors and leaders and the cultures world over have produced genuine sages as well as incredible charlatans. Even here there is a marked difference. Even the worst of the charlatans in India have not led their followers into mass suicides as in the case of mass suicides reported in the Western culture with almost cyclical regularity.

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Jonestown to David Koresh to Heavens’ Gates – the mass suicides or homicides can be traced to the Biblical idea ofapocalypse internalized by the cult leaders who considered themselves the promised messiah and the particular period they live to be ‘end-times’.

Here the Indian pseudo-secularists would be quick to point out that ‘Aum Shinrikyo‘ was not a Western group but a Japanese cult that killed people by poison gas. But a study of the life of Shoko Asahara-the cult founder- shows that his idea of the deadly attack with poison gas in a Japanese subway came after he was influenced by the end of world scenario of the Gospels.  There are also video games and novels like the notorious ‘Left Behind’ where the player is awarded points for converting and lesser points for killing those whom he cannot convert during the ‘end-times’. One can extend this to the nuclear arms build-up initiated by US and the West who may be unconsciously driven by the Biblical vision of Armageddon again an idea which is highly popular in the psyche of the Western mind and Abrahamic theology.

That brings us to the tragic death of Narendra Dabholkar and his controversial bill to end superstition.

One man’s superstition is another man’s faith. So where shall we draw the line? How much right can the State have to decide what one person believes is superstition or not? Dabholkar belonged to the socialist school of thought which considered the State to be the ideal representative of the collective will of people. In a country like India with a rich cultural knowledge base the line between the indigenous knowledge system and superstition is a thin one.

  • Is panchagauya indigenous knowledge or superstition?
  • Is Bharatanatyam an obscene social perversion which needed to be banned as claimed by missionaries and Dravidianists or is it a wonderful spiritual art form as proved by Rukminidevi Arundale?
  • Is fire-walking a superstition or a therapeutic system which helps people to walk through the tests of life in hard times providing them self-confidence?

At the same time can we allow abject exploitation of our people in the name of religion by charlatans? The beating and chaining of women in the name of exorcism happens in many temples, churches and Islamic holy places. These women who are actually in need of psychiatric treatment or are victims of abuse are treated worse than animals by charlatans who fleece their relatives. No god picture that is not framed in glasses oozes out holy ashes. ‘Materializations’ of objects by these god-men are invariably within the size of their palms. Miracle stories of even genuine saints and sages, who lived exemplary transparent lives, are narrated by fraudulent people after their Samadhi and marketed by corporate houses and Maths.

While one can never tolerate, much less condone, superstitions which exploit the helpless situation and emotional trauma of the people by religious conmen, one needs to be extremely intelligent, wise and sensitive to the psyche of the nation at every level to create such a legislation. This legislation is laden with innumerable possibility for abuse and harassing people. The solution should never become a problem worse than the original problem.

The bill should have initiated a major debate and discussion in the Hindu society. Dabholkar fought against superstitions all his life.  Of course he is often accused that he only targeted Hinduism. That is because Hinduism is the only religion that can flourish vibrantly after being cleansed of all superstitions and blind beliefs. Swami Vivekananda was also forthright when he said that the religion should submit itself to the test of reason. In his lecture titled ‘Reason and Religon’ he said:

Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other concrete science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion, this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen. All that is dross would be taken off, no doubt, but the essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of this investigation. Not only will it be made scientific, as scientific at least, as any of the conclusions of physics or chemistry, but will have greater strength, because physics or chemistry has no internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which religion has.

Let it also be said that it was not only Dabholkar who felt that way about resorting to legal means to reform Hindu society so radically. The following writer for example, singles out Hinduism and demands strict legislation for curbing fraudulent tendencies in the name of religion:

The Indian state has shown a marked timidity in dealing with social evils that are practiced in the name of religion and tradition. On account of narrow political considerations, almost all political parties that have been in power in the Centre or the States have ignored the fact that the freedom of religion, guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution, is not an unfettered freedom. It is subjected to ‘public order, morality and health’. … In view of the deplorable conditions prevailing in the country even after 62 years of independence and facilitating provisions of the Constitution, it is incumbent upon the Indian state not to procrastinate any further and assume an active and vigorous role. It should list all social and other evils which have so far remained under the protective cover of interpolated and misinterpreted Hinduism, and ban them legally under a special law to be enacted specially for the purpose.

The writer is Jagmohan the former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir and the year of writing this was 2010. (Reforming Vaishno Devi and a Case for Reformed, Reawakened, and Enlightened Hinduism, Rupa, 2010). 

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However the cleansing has to be done by an enlightened selfless leadership. The present pseudo-secular polity which is based on caste and minority vote banks is far cry from such an enlightened leadership. Scientists, free-thinkers, psychologists, sociologists, Hindu Acharyas, Hindu nationalist organizations, community leaders, women representatives, the leaders and educators of tribal communities, medicine men, shamans etc. – all stake holders with no vested interest,  should sit together and form this legislature in the spirit of a common goal of making Hindu society healthier and a real guide to the world community to follow. That shall be the real shraddanjali to the fallen martyr of reason and humanism.

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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