Despite 1957 national science policy, which among others, intended to provide for growth of scientific temper, the development of the same has not been achieved. Surprisingly, even our scientists have generally failed to inspire scientific temper among the people, writes M.Y. Siddiqui
India, an ancient civilization, has been home to the largest number of superstitions and myths in the world. Indian society, amidst regional variations, has always been very conservative and superstitious. Mindset of people has hardly changed despite great reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Average Indian consciousness is mostly clouded by obtrusive superstitions and prejudices. The country presents a bewildering picture about the prevalence and practices of superstitions, myths and illusions. Social sciences reveal that 98 per cent of the adult population of the earth carries some baggage of superstitions, myths and illusions over their inborn and inherent prejudices. The remaining two percent are rationalists, who also are not completely free from some prejudices or the other. The Indian sub-continent has been the greatest treasure house of art, culture, literature, religion, medicines, science, folklore and mythology. It is also the most fertile breeding ground of superstitions and myths, supported by hundreds of religious sects and institutions, thousands of self-styled god men, astrologers, palmists, numerologists, Vastu shastra practitioners and others. Rise of RSS Pariwar since 2014 has reinforced all such superstitions and added some more myths. Even the majority of scientists have fallen prey to such superstitions.
India’s superstitious myths go against the 1957 national science policy, which among others, intended to provide for growth of science, technology and scientific temper in the country. It also goes against Article 51A of the Constitution of India, which directs all citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform, (i) to safeguard public property and to abjure violence, (j) to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual, and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavor and achievements. The very basis of scientific temper is rational outlook, analytical mind and test of reasonableness.
Unfortunately, development of the scientific temper has not been achieved. On the contrary, all rationalities are lost in the quagmire of religious fundamentalism. Surprisingly, even our scientists have generally failed to inspire scientific temper among the people. In fact, a 2007 survey, “World views and opinions of scientists in India” conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture of the Trinity College along with the Centre for Inquiry (India), revealed certain startling facts about scientific temper. Accordingly, out of 1100 scientists from 130 institutions surveyed, 69 per cent approved strongly introduction of astrology in the courses of universities, 67 per cent supported seeking blessings from Tirupati before rocket launches, 38 per cent believed God could perform miracles, 24 per cent admitted that god men could do miracles, 16 per cent believed in faith healing and 14 per cent believed in Vastu.
A dangerous myth circulating has been the magical power of tiger meat, bones, skins and testes. Consumption of tiger meat and bones is believed to enhance the muscle power of the body. Yogis believe doing meditation sitting on tiger skin gives them enormous yogic power. Eating a tiger’s testes is aphrodisiac. Result, illegal trade in tiger body parts thrives in major cities worldwide so much so that this majestic animal is now on the brink of extinction. Added to this, three most important events in human life are birth, marriage and death. For all such occasions, superstitions and prejudices have been structured into compulsive rituals like the visit of eunuch for the new born babies being considered auspicious, which cannot be deviated from the average Indian like many other people of the world carries the burden of superstitions from birth to death. There is no denying the fact that a large number of average innocuous superstitions provide spice to daily life.
Superstitions like breaking coconut on various occasions, choosing a favourite number for the new vehicle, not eating eggs and bananas before going for exams, giving a spoonful of curd or putting a tilak of dahi and chandan before embarking on a journey, asking a person to sit down if he sneezes while leaving the house, putting lines of sandalwood paste on the forehead, putting the right foot first for men and for woman left foot first while stepping out of the house, not to accept money with the left hand, particularly bribery, hanging of a garland of lemons and chilies at the doors of shops, trucks etc. have become common superstitious practices that may not go away. It would be germane to mention, out of hundreds, a few most popular superstitions and myths in our society are, Rahu Kalam, each day in a week for special God, washing of sins, Ganga water, cremation at Manikarnic Ghat.
Rahu kaal is considered the most inauspicious part of the day and shunned for ceremonies, journeys, etc. Millions of people in Southern India and many in the North, will never take bath, assume charge of a new assignment, start a journey, or conduct any ceremony like marriage and so on during the Rahu Kalam period. All days in the week have been assigned to various Gods and certain days and times are considered more auspicious than the others. Day of Lord Shiva is Monday, Lord Ganesh Wednesday, and Goddess Lakshmi Thursday, are considered special. Saturday is considered inauspicious and generally people don’t buy articles made of iron or start any ironwork. Similarly months of the year are assigned to various Gods and some months are considered auspicious for various ceremonies.
Millions do believe in the myth that a dip in the Ganga especially at the Triveni Sangam during the Kumbh will wash away all the past sins of life. There is age-old belief that the sacred river Ganga can never be polluted and Ganga water stored in copper vessels for years would not collect sediment or bacteria, has been proved as a myth as the Ganga water is highly polluted after certain portions of Uttarakhand, and not fit for bathing, not to speak of drinking. Yet another myth highly ingrained in people is that cremation at Manikarnika Mahashamashan of Varanasi, especially with sandalwood will enable the soul to rise to heaven.
More dangerous have been illusions about life, death, health, after-life, heaven and hell, salvation, road to prosperity, created by the religious sects, god men/god women, astrologers, palmists, occultists, Tantric, and fortune tellers. Besides, several god men and god women have crowned themselves as avatars (incarnations) to be worshipped like gods and goddesses. Their large followers have made them rich and they live in grand style with a retinue of volunteers, security staff and companions. Crimes, rape, sexual abuse, even murder in secrecy are not uncommon in these organizations.
It is a great irony that when a majority of Indian gods are women, our women folks have been the most suppressed lot. Infant girl or girl child is murdered at birth or before birth. Crimes against women like sati or bride burning for dowry are still rampant. There is also no parallel how widows are maltreated. Even today, in rural areas, widows are especially ostracized, not allowed to participate in religious rituals, wedding and entertainment programmes. Widows are supposed to wear white clothes, eat only vegetarian foods without onions and garlic that too once a day, observe all fasting rules, not to go out, and sleep on the floor.
Modern Indian history is replete with instances of the relentless fight against suppressions, obscurantism, bigotry and social evils spearheaded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Henry Derozio, Swamy Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, with Governor General Lord Bentinck, succeeded in banning Sati; Vidyasagar could stop child marriage and introduce widow remarriage. Swami Vivekananda stressed on liberal education for all men and women as the gateway to freedom and enlightenment removing the darkness of superstitions and casteism. But despite reform movements and India having the most liberal Constitution, the ground situation about social obscurantism, superstitions and discrimination is grim. The rationalists, a small minority in the country, are looked upon as the enemies of religion, live in fear. We have witnessed how some leading rationalists were killed in the recent past. Given all these facts together, the question is, will the era of scientific temper or reason ever dawn on us! Will we be humane and wholesome?