Why are superstitions a part of public life in India? The modern mechanisms for risk-management or “disciplines” ranging from statistics to modern medicine exist side-by-side with superstitions in the country. The answer to why these disciplines have not penetrated into the pores of Indian society lies in the history of political power in India.
It is difficult to use the word “superstition” without imagining quotation marks around it. For, one person’s “superstition” is another person’s “religion”. But broadly speaking, we can use the word “superstition” to refer to practices marked by two features: (a) they entail human beings appealing to supernatural, extra-human forces for positive or negative interventions in their lives, and (b) these forces cannot be systematised into a set of religious doctrines. The second feature is the one that I find most interesting about superstitions.
You can believe in the death of god, the coming of a secular age, the Age of Reason, but you find superstitions in all societies. The little gods or goddesses or demons and devils – or whoever or whatever they are – that we hope will intercede on our behalf when we are in trouble, are so many in number and so indeterminate in nature that you cannot extinguish them all. They are by nature inconsistent and profoundly heterogeneous. That is why they cannot be refuted all at once. You may be superstitious in one context – in a completely secular context like a baseball game, an examination or a job interview – but not in another. Superstitions speak of some perennial and primitive condition of the human being, our deep sense of vulnerability in this world and our hope that miracles can happen at any time that we might in small ways even help in bringing them about. Superstition seems to be a human universal.
The moral-political question is: should superstition be a part of public life? Our private superstitions cause no public anguish. Often, for example, when flying, I steal a glance at the monthly predictions about my life published in the in-flight magazine, while taking care not to let the person next to me see me doing this, for I do it with some sense of shame: it perhaps does not quite go with my image of myself. But then I comfort myself with the thought that the horoscopes are there, not just for myself, a “superstitious Indian”, but for the average airlines passenger. Market research must have shown that people feel curious about their own future, that this will make them look at the magazine. (This fact may have even been a factor in determining the advertising rates charged by the publication.) This is superstition as my “private” indulgence in my own hopes and fears. Unless your vision of a desirable society is one made up of hyper-rational atheists, there is no problem with private superstition.
Reason and Public Life
Problems arise when people bring “miracles” into modern public life. We are, understandably, uncomfortable with the president of a country announcing that instructions from god had influenced his decision to go to war (Bruce Lincoln has written a fascinating book on the topic).
We feel uncomfortable because we think that public life is best based on Reason. There is a famous episode in the history of the nationalist movement in India that occurred after an earthquake devastated the state of Bihar in 1934. This was a historic debate between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, undoubtedly two of the finest products of the Indo-British cultural encounter. Gandhi described the disaster as divine retribution for the sin of untouchability that existed in Indian society. Tagore, no less a critic of untouchability, found this remark outrageous as he felt Gandhi was taking India back to the middle ages. Gandhi, on his part, actually made it clear that it was his hope that Indians would be superstitious enough, like him, to believe genuinely that...