World | India

Pushing back the ceaseless tide of superstition

India’s rationalists appeal to people to discriminate between fallacy and truth

  • By Malavika Kamaraju, Associate Editor
  • Published: 21:00 August 24, 2014
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Niño J. Heredia /© Gulf News

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.

What the law says

Some of the areas covered by the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill/Superstitious Bill are:


  • • Those who use ‘tantra-mantra’ to cure snake and dog bites and serious illnesses.
  • • Doing inhuman and evil practices and black magic in search of precious things, bounty and water resources.
  • • To perform Karni and Bhanamati (both are forms of black magic rituals).
  • • To perform magical rites in the name of supernatural powers.
  • • To offer ash, talisman, charms, etc., for the purpose of exorcism and to drive out evil spirits or ghosts.
  • • To claim possession of supernatural powers and to advertise this claim.
  • • To defame, disgrace, the names of erstwhile saints and cheating gullible people.
  • • To claim to be possessed by evil power and then perform miracles in the name of such powers.
  • • To punish and to beat mentally ill patients in the belief that they are possessed by evil spirits.
  • • To perform black magic and spread fear.


Nilima Pathak, correspondent, New Delhi.

Comments (9)

  1. Added 13:35 August 25, 2013

    I agree with Mr. Tarun, Please remove this photo it makes look like superstition is only there in Hinduism. Whereas all religion has some or other types of superstition beliefs. So don't try to relate it to one religion.

    Buddy, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 13:14 August 25, 2013

    Is it India News or Gulf News???

    Ain, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 12:46 August 25, 2013

    I dont understand why Asaram Bapu's name has figured in this article. It seems that associate editor has not done her homework. No charge against Bapuji has been proved as of now. The editor may have never bothered to publish Asaram Bapuji's great social activities and his profound discoureses so beneficial to life however any complaint which has not even litigated becomes a top story of gulf news. It is sad that Gulf News does not do any due diligence before printing their articles. Yes, superstitions have to be eliminated but who defines what is superstition and what is not? Also, there are so many superstitions, masonry, sorcery in cultures other than Hinduism however there is no mention of the same.

    Anil, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  4. Added 12:12 August 25, 2013

    I fully agree with views of Mr. Hyder Jaffer.

    Suresh Kumar, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 12:12 August 25, 2013

    I agree with Mr Tarun Agarwal's comment..Superstition is by no means limited to any particular religious faith, but practiced by followers of many religious faiths.

    Hyder Jaffer, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 11:52 August 25, 2013

    superstition is basically a tool of Satan in trying to decieve people from leading a normal life and in accordance to God's commandments.

    zaid, sharjah, India

  7. Added 11:35 August 25, 2013

    The cowardly and cold blooded murder of Shri Narendra Dabholkar is very sad and the nation has lost a gem to the pseudo-spiritual mafia. The assailants deserve capital punishment. Superstition is hard-wired in a section of uneducated and also some educated Indian masses. It becomes a problem when people tend to mix up spirituality with superstition. The practitioners of superstition sugar-coat the poison of superstition with spirituality . It is heartining to see the efforts put in by the team of Rationalists Organisation headed by Mr Sanal Edamaruku in trying to eradicate the menace of superstition in India where superstition is patronised by a large section of politicians.

    Hyder Jaffer, Dubai, India

  8. Added 11:30 August 25, 2013

    To - Gulf News, Please change the pic...this pic denotes a religious belief and does not relate to superstition. I appeal to the reputed news paper to do the requested.

    Tarun Agarwal, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  9. Added 11:01 August 25, 2013

    Those who judge it are unaware of what it is, to know whether there is any truth hidden or direct, behind many practices!The knowledges we lost thus due to neglect are so many in the past! This will add to that if simply brand as superstition! Life is beautiful with all its varieties! Why limit it? Any exploitation is a crime in itself and all we have to do is to ensure there are laws on that respect than blindly kill an ancient system of knowledge going down to the soul (athma)

    Sukumaran P K, Kothattukulam, India

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