Thursday, May 04, 2006

Superstitions and religion

In his book Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda has said that religion cannot be the subject of debating societies or school boy clubs. Perhaps that applies to a student of School of Management of IIT Bombay, but I'll take the chance !

My two-and-a-half year old niece had her head tonsured in Tirupathi. People usually resort to tonsuring the head as a matter of quid pro quo. Now, If people are really devoted, why do they offer their hair, of all things ? Why not their hands or legs ? Surely, there is bound to be something more valuable than dead-tissue that grows back rapidly ! I also wonder what God is supposed to do with this hair ? And who let people grow the hair in the first place ? :-) I wonder who is fooling whom ? Are we fooling God in getting the better of this "bargain" or are we fooling ourselves ? If people claim faith in God, really speaking, they should be asking - "What is the most valuable and unique thing that I can give God ?" and not "What is the cheapest that I can do, so that God is satisfied and I don't make much of a loss". To put it bluntly, this is a sham.

It is often assumed that the uneducated or unintelligent are superstitious ... in my opinion, education and intelligence don't have much to do with superstition. Soccer players believe that their success depends upon the shirt numbers printed on their back. Chess players wear a "lucky suit", the dress they wore in some game that they won.

It is when superstition gets mixed with religion that things start getting funny. For instance, no good work is supposed to start on tuesday. But, confusingly, in vernacular language, Tuesday is "mangal vaar" literally meaning "auspicious day". After completing my final semester BE exams, many of my friends did not join work on 1st July 2003, because it was a tuesday. They joined either on June 30th or on July 2nd. And these were highly intelligent people, among the top in Karnataka in their respective engineering streams, and placed in top IT companies. I was born on a Tuesday and I am seriously prejudiced against someone calling this inauspicious !

Even more of a headache is this concept of raahukaal - a supposedly inauspicious time everyday, where no important thing has to be performed. No wonder our country is like this, because we have been accustomed to avoiding work. I wonder if this is a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who believe in it...

Because religion is such a petrified thing and no one questions religious beliefs (or rather, people are encouraged not to question), explaining away beliefs in the name of religion is very easy. If you ask something, the reason given is "it says so in shastras", though if you persist in asking, they don't know what these shastras are and what they are supposed to do and what is the reason behind these beliefs.

I've found that behind every belief there is a kernel of truth covered by layers of stupidity. For instance, I was told not to cut my nails in the night. It might have made sense back when there was no bright artificial lighting and safe nail-cutters that we have today, that there was a risk of injuring myself. I don't think it holds true any longer. So my hypothesis is that, superstition is created by someone doing something sensible repeatedly and others following, till nobody knows why it is done, except that traditionally it was done that way. That brings me to the point of tradition - while rebellion for the sake of rebellion is stupid, even more stupid is to follow tradition for the sake of it.

It would also be instructive to understand why superstitions exist and why people follow them.
The essence of all superstition is
a) a belief that there is an unseen force or power that influences all successes and failures and
b) we are afraid of this force or power
c) We don't know how this force works, and therefore, we can propitiate this power by tiny bribes or simply by not getting into the "wrong side". In other words, it is the fear of the unknown.

Fear kills reason, and superstition is an irrational thing. People confuse superstition with faith, and try to justify superstitions as a matter of faith. But, really speaking, superstition is a lack of faith - lack of faith in philosophy, lack of faith in God and most importantly, lack of faith in ourselves. The message of religions has been twisted to make us afraid of God, and therefore we end up trying to appease God. We also end up projecting our fears and inabilities on our imagination of God, and try to enter into a sort of business transaction !

Much to blame for this is the fact that in our society, in our culture, we are taught to obey elders unquestioningly. I beg to differ. Elders are to be respected - after all, they have survived in this world for longer than we have, so they must have atleast a little bit of wisdom. But, obedience because of "I say so" ? It is not only elders' fault - we youngsters unquestioningly accept whatever is taught to us, either even in education. We youngsters are the propagators of the beliefs - so I suppose, much better than blaming the society, we who can choose what to follow and what not to, so that we create a society where we are no longer meek and timid.

82 Comments:

At Saturday 6 May 2006 at 9:19:00 PM IST, Blogger P H Karthik said...

Very interesting article. In fact, I also agree that supersitions first came into being in order to teach simple lessons to less educated people.
For ex:
Superstition: People say that walking below a ladder brings ill-luck.
Logic- the person using the ladder may drop something down.

Superstition: Because in Mahabharata, the Pandavas lost the dice game, we should not play any game after the lamp has been lit.
logic: In this age of tough academic competetion, just imagine what would happen if children keep playing till late in the night.

Superstition: You should not stand in doorstep in evenings because Hiranyakashapu was killed there
Logic: When sun is setting, UV rays is maximum, which might affect us.

Superstition: New born babies should be shown to the sun god after they are born
Logic: Remember the only source of Vitamin D for our body?

Superstition: you should not step on the pillow.
Logic: Pillow might become dirty and dirt might enter our hair.

Superstition: If someone steps on your cut nails, you will become poor.
Logic: If someone steps on cut nails, wont it pain for them?

Like this many examples I have come across. I am sure you can also think of examples.


So all superstitions once had a meaning.

 
At Sunday 7 May 2006 at 1:54:00 PM IST, Blogger Aravindan said...

i guess yeah! u hv given a very logical construct!

frankly....i dont analyse much....like the way i am. superstitious as i am....unless its a real pain to ur heart, its okay i guess....well....

 
At Sunday 7 May 2006 at 10:56:00 PM IST, Blogger Chilli-In-Summer said...

Good and logical attack on superstition ; Liked the sentence " why dont people offer their hand and leg ?" Good logic and what the hell God is doing with otherwise useless hairs of our . Tonsusure and get gift from the God..Gaurantee pakka..

GYAN

 
At Monday 8 May 2006 at 5:39:00 PM IST, Blogger K7 said...

You took the words out of my mouth in the last para ..........

 
At Friday 12 May 2006 at 12:31:00 PM IST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written..Usual Sridhar style!
Wonder what your sister will have to say, if she reads this, or for that matter, your mom! ;-)
-Shruthi

 
At Wednesday 17 May 2006 at 2:52:00 PM IST, Blogger Sridhar Narasimhan said...

@shruthi:
Didn't know there was such a thing called Sridhar-style ... that means I'm getting very predictable - need to correct that ASAP ;-)

 
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