Dubai: To packed audiences across India, they demonstrate the impossible - placing camphor on people tongues and setting it alight, pulling rupee notes from thin air, and materialising gold chains from vapour. They earn no money from these antics, neither are they out there to gain followers. They are simply proving the science behind the chicanery. They are India’s rationalists, a small band of crusaders making earnest attempts at appealing to people to discriminate between fallacy and fact.
They are the modern interpreters of a Sisyphian task, pushing back a tide that has been in ceaseless flow on the Indian mindscape for thousands of years - the tide of superstition, blind belief and the desire to seek irrational causality for actions that do not find logical reinforcements.
To these people, the average Indian’s reverence for superstition is deeply disturbing. But rationalists are in a minority in a country ridden with godmen and holy masqueraders, whose hold over the hopes and dreams of millions of Indians cannot be easily prised away.
This hold is strengthened by myriad factors that damage India’s sociocultural fabric, of which poverty, lack of education and subjugation of women are of particular significance.
What makes an individual susceptible to superstition? Sanal Edamaruku, President, Rationalist International, an organisation that is incessantly battling the scourge of superstition, says, “During early childhood, we are not able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. But as we grow older, we learn to be able to distinguish between the two. We overcome this weakness and develop the faculty of reasoning.” But in some people, he says, insecurity and fear drive them to cross the line of logic and reason. And if there is a godman in convenient distance of this insecurity, who is beguiling the stricken mind with promises of happiness, it is not hard to see which way the mind will tilt. “In India, we see an environment of superstition with godmen, astrologers and corrupt politicians as well as irresponsible media persons reinforcing superstition.” This is where, he believes, rationalists need to step in and fight.
Pushpesh Pant, Professor of Diplomacy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says, “A majority of Indians are not bound by superstition. But since India has a large population, even if 0.01 per cent people believe in it, that makes for the entire population of a small country who are superstitious. I am 67 years old now and in my life, I have seen a large percentage of Indians shunning superstitions.”
So why are there relatively few rationalist movements in the country? “The reason many people are reluctant to take to anti-superstition campaigns is because most of our politicians – to put it crudely – are illiterate and conduct rituals that encourage superstitions,” says Pant. “They deliberately overstate the case of superstition to scare the masses, especially the uneducated and economically backward classes.”
As for the anti-superstition Bill that was introduced by the Maharashtra government last week, Pant wonders if it will have an impact. “We have laws against murders and thefts, but have these stopped?”
But the efforts of the rationalists continue. They continue to receive death threats, just like Dabholkar did, but they are persevering. That is the only way forward for India.
- With inputs from Nilima Pathak, correspondent, New Delhi.