The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s and do not in any way reflect the views of the organisation.
The Oxford dictionary defines superstition as a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief. Some of us are superstitious while others find the related practices ridiculous. But believe it or not, many superstitions have some logical explanation behind their origin. Here are a few of them.
1. A cat crossing your path:
I am sure you have heard, or probably even said something like ”Today isn’t going to be a good day for me; a cat just crossed my path.” Have you ever wondered in what possible way can that little creature harm you or bring you ‘bad luck’?
Well, in olden days people used to travel by carts that were pulled by domesticated animals. When passing through forests at night, the carriage animals used to get scared and act chaotic when they sensed wild cats such as leopards, cheetahs, and tigers crossing their path. The travellers warned others not to proceed when a cat passes their path.
Today, this is of no significance and we are afraid of black cats for no reason. Groucho Marx once said “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”
2. Hanging a lemon and seven green chillies in shops:
Source: Satish Krishnamurthy/Flickr
Ever seen a lemon along with chillies, seven to be precise, hanging from the doors of shops, houses or from the bumpers of cars? As weird as it seems, there is a logical explanation behind this one too. The cotton thread that passes through the lemon and the chillies absorbs the acids, vitamin C and the other nutrients present in it. Then, by slow vaporization, it is released into the air. This is said to have significant health benefits and our ancestors made it an essential part of ceremonies to increase its use.
These days it has turned into a superstition that it keeps the god of misfortune, Alakshmi, away from the shops. The odour is also said to keep pest and insects away, making it a natural pesticide. But this hasn’t been scientifically proven yet.
3. If a mirror breaks it brings seven years bad luck:
Source: Emilian Robert Vicol/Flickr
Have you ever broken a mirror and been convinced that the next few year are not going to be so good? Fear not!
In olden days, mirrors were extremely expensive and of also very low quality. To avoid carelessness when handling them, the years of bad luck was used as a scare tactic. They also believed that the reflection in the mirror was the person’s soul itself and that it takes seven long years for a broken soul to replenish itself. They even avoided using mirrors and preferred pools and ponds.
4. One should take a bath after attending any funeral:
Source: Aviva West/Flickr
When a person dies, the body starts to decompose. This is basic biology. And when you attend a funeral, you are exposed to the germs, bacteria and the chemicals released by the body and present in the air due to decomposition.
5. Why Indians throw coins in holy rivers:
Source: Emilian Robert Vicol/Flickr
Throwing coins in fountains and other water bodies for good luck is now done all over the world. Again, there is a scientific reason for why this started. In ancient times, the coins were made of copper, which is an essential element for our body’s well being. Rivers used to be the main source of drinking water. When the copper coins remained in the water for long, it became beneficial for those who drank it. Copper also helps to kill bacteria present in the water.
Once you know the reasons behind these superstitions, they don’t seem all that weird, do they?
– Tanvi Hegde
Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: email@example.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter (@thebetterindia).
About the author: Tanvi is a current 12th grader mentored by Ivy Aspire to achieve her educational goals.
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This article is about superstition as a social issue. For a list of superstitions, see List of superstitions in India.
Superstition in India is considered a widespread social problem. Superstition refers to any belief or practice which is explained by supernaturalcausality, and is in contradiction to modern science. Some beliefs and practices, which are considered superstitious by some, may not be considered so by others. The gap, between what is superstitious and what is not, widens even more when considering the opinions of the general public and scientists. This article notes beliefs or practices in India, which have been deemed of being superstitions or pseudosciences, though opinions may vary on some issues.
Superstitions are usually attributed to a lack of education. But, in India educated people have also been observed following beliefs that may be considered superstitious. The literacy rate of India, according to the 2011 census is at 74%. The beliefs and practices vary from region to region, with many regions having their own specific beliefs. The practices may range from harmless lemon-and-chilli totems for warding off evil eye to serious concerns like witch-burning. Some of these beliefs and practices are centuries old and are considered part of the tradition and religion, as a result introduction of new prohibitory laws often face opposition.
Main article: Sati (practice)
According to Commission (Prevention) of Sati Act 1987, Sati is defined as the act of burning alive or burial of a widow (or any women) along with the body of her deceased husband (including relatives, or object belonging someone like that), irrespective of whether it was voluntary. After he watched the Sati of his own sister-in-law, Ram Mohan Roy began campaigning for abolition of the practice in 1811. The practice of Sati was abolished in British India in 1829 by Governor General Lord William Bentinck.
On 4 September 1987, 17 (or 18) year old Roop Kanwar of Deorala village in Sikar district in Rajasthan, who had been married for only 7 months, burned to death on her husband's pyre. It was alleged that the victim had tried to escape, but she was drugged and forced on to the pyre. On 1 October 1987, Rajasthan legislative assembly passed an ordinance against Sati, which was later turned into an Act. It was followed by pro-Sati rallies and protests in Jaipur. On 3 January 1988, the Indian parliament passed a new law, Commission (Prevention) of Sati Act 1987, based on Rajasthan's legislation of 1987. This act also criminalised glorification of Sati. Police charged her father-in-law and brother-in-law of allegedly forcing her to commit the act, but they were acquitted in October 1996.
See also: Human sacrifice in India
Although, human sacrifices are not prevalent in India, rare isolated incidents happen occasionally, especially in rural areas. In some cases, human beings have been replaced by animals and birds. But after backlash from animal rights groups, in some places they have been replaced by human effigies. The beliefs behind these sacrifices vary from inducing rainfall to helping childless women conceive. It is alleged that some cases often go unreported or are covered up. Between 1999 and 2006, about 200 cases of child sacrifices were reported from Uttar Pradesh.
U. R. Rao, former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, has criticised astrology noting that astrology is more popular than astronomy, which may be affecting India's recognition in science.Meera Nanda, historian and author, has written that India cannot become a superpower in science, unless it eradicates its various superstitions including astrology. Others who have criticised astrology include, Jayant Narlikar (astrophysicist),P. M Bhargava (founder of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology), Ram Puniyani (former IIT professor) and Yash Pal (physicist and educator).
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist, has argued that astrology should be considered a science and it is considered superstition only due to modern science being defined from a western viewpoint. In the Judgement, Supreme court of India in 2004, said that teaching of 'Jyotir Vigyan' can under no circumstances be equated with teaching of any particular religion. Court further said that it was for the pupil concerned to select any particular field or subject in furtherance of his future career, and merely because the subject has got its basis or origin traceable to some cult, it cannot be held that the same would only result in propagation of a particular religion.
- In September 1951, responding to a newspaper article about an astrologer predicting an imminent war with Pakistan, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru expressed his desire to pass a law against astrology and sooth-saying.
- In January 1962, Indian astrologers predicted a global catastrophe on Sunday 4 February 1962. People took refuge in hills to escape the event. The Maharajah of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal postponed his marriage to Hope Cooke to 1963 on the advice of some astrologers. Business and travel also slowed down. People organised mass prayer meetings. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it a "matter for laughter".
- In January 1981, several astrologers predicted 12 more months of Iran–Iraq War, an Indian general election in 1983 and a world war in March 1984. A doomsday prediction was also made by an astrologer for 1995, when 70–80 percent of the world population would be destroyed.
- In June 1981, an astrologer made the prediction that Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, would be assassinated in September 1981. Her son Rajiv Gandhi would also be assassinated shortly afterwards. Then, following these events H. N. Bahuguna would become the Prime Minister. The astrologer was arrested in December for questioning. Indira Gandhi reportedly consulted astrologers herself.
- In October 2004, several Indian astrologers predicted that John Kerry would win the 2004 US presidential election. They also predicted it would "rejuvenate" the United States, and bring peace in Iraq, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
- In January 2012, several astrologers predicted that there will be no doomsday in 2012 and it will be a good year for India and the Indian economy.
Challenges and empirical tests
Godmen and faith healers
Main articles: Godman and Faith healer
The word godman is a colloquial blanket term used for charismatic spiritual leaders in India. Locally, they may be referred to as baba, swami, guru, shastri, bapu or bhagat. Many of them claim to have magic or psychic powers and perform miracles. On the other hand, some only provide spiritual advice. There are also female gurus. Many of them are worshipped by their followers as avatars or living gods. Many of them belong to ancient ascetic lineages or claim to be successor to some previous spiritual predecessor. Some of them have built large pan-Indian or international networks. Their recent success has been attributed to the use of mass media and public relations techniques.
Notable persons and incidents
- Originally from Sri Lanka, Swami Premananda moved to India in 1984 and founded an ashram in Pudukkotai, Tamil Nadu, in 1989. In 1996, one of the girls living the ashram escaped and reported that she was raped and was pregnant. In view of the so-called spiritual powers of the accused, which included doing miracles like materialising vibhuti and regurgitating small Shiva lingams, an illusionist was invited to the court and he performed both the miracles in the open court. In 1997, the Swami was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined ₹60 lakh for 13 counts of rape and a murder.
- Chandraswami, astrologer and spiritual guru, was a close associate of former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. He was indicted in several lawsuits including in the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India fined him ₹9 crore (US$1.4 million) for multiple violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA).
- In December 2002, Santosh Madhavan defrauded an Indian expatriate woman living in Dubai of DH 400,000 (₹50 lakh) by claiming he had supernatural powers, and disappeared. The Interpol issued an alert for his arrest on the advice of Dubai police. Later in 2008, his photograph was recognised by the woman in a magazine and she realised that the person was living in Kochin pretending to be a godman called Swami Amritha Chaitanya. On learning of the Interpol alert, he denied the allegations, but the local police were suspicious and decided to search his properties. The police discovered CDs containing child porn from the premises. He was convicted of raping under-aged children and sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment in May 2009.
- In August 2002, when psychic surgeon Reverend Alex Orbito visited Bangalore from Philippines, some rationalists file a case in the city case. The city court declared psychic surgery to be a trick and ordered the organizers to stop the event. The organizers ignored the order and decided to go ahead. The court ordered arrests for contempt of court but Alex Orbito evaded arrest and escaped from the country. Bangalore police has stated that there are no plans to extradite him but he will be arrested if he tries to return to Bangalore.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, has criticised TV channels broadcasting shows featuring godmen. Narendra Nayak, president of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, has stated that politicians patronising godmen serves to sanction superstitions of the general public. Nayak has also debunked several so-called miracles of godmen like psychic surgery, materialising vibhuti, money, jewellery, and fire eating. He travels through villages demonstrating the tricks behind these miracles.
Some people, mostly in villages, have the belief that witchcraft and black magic are effective. On one hand, people may seek advice from witch doctors for health, financial or marital problems. On the other hand, people, especially women, are accused of witchcraft and attacked, occasionally killed. It has been reported that mostly widows or divorcees are targeted to rob them of their property. Reportedly, revered village witch-doctors are paid to brand specific persons as witches, so that they can be killed without repercussions. The existing laws have been considered ineffective in curbing the murders. In June 2013, National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, 768 women had been murdered for allegedly practising witchcraft since 2008, and announced plans for newer laws.
Between 2001 and 2006, an estimated 300 people were killed in the state of Assam. Between 2005 and 2010, about 35 witchcraft related murders reportedly took place in Odisha's Sundergarh district. In October 2003, three women were branded as witch and humiliated, afterwards they all committed suicide in Kamalpura village in Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. In August 2013, a couple were hacked to death by a group of people in Kokrajhar district in Assam. In September 2013, in the Jashpur district of Chhattisgarh, a woman was murdered and her daughter was raped on the allegation that they were practicing black magic.
1995 Hindu milk miracle
Main article: Hindu milk miracle
On 21 September 1995, a Ganesha idol in Delhi was reported to have drunk the milk offered to it. Soon, as the news spread, similar phenomenon were reported from all over India and a few from abroad. Other idols, like those of Nandi and Shiva, were also reported drinking milk. The price of milk soared due to shortage and policemen had to be placed at temples to maintain order. Yash Pal, scientist and educator, called it an illusion. National Council for Science & Technology Communication (NCSTC) scientists demonstrated that it was caused by capillary action by mixing red dye with the milk.
2012 Sanal Edamaruku and the Jesus statue incident
Main article: Sanal Edamaruka blasphemy case
On 10 March 2012, Sanal Edamaruku investigated a so-called miracle in Vile Parle, where a Jesus statue had started weeping and concluded that the problem was caused by faulty drainage. Later that day, during a TV discussion with some church members, Edamaruku accused the Catholic Church of miracle-mongering. On 10 April, Angelo Fernandes, President of the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum, filed a police complaint against Edamaruku under Indian Penal Code Section 295A. In July while on a tour in Finland, Edamaruku was informed by a friend that his house was visited by the police. Since, the offence is not bailable, Edamaruku decided to stay in Finland.
Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India (2007)
In 2007, a survey was conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture of the Trinity College with the help of Center for Inquiry (India) called "Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India". 1100 scientists surveyed from 130 institutes. 24% admitted to believing that holy-men can perform miracles and 38% believed that God could perform miracles. Whereas belief in faith healing was 16%, in Vaastu it was 14%, and in astrology it stood at 14%. 69% strongly approved introduction of astrology courses in universities. 67% strongly approved the tradition of seeking blessings of Tirupati before rocket launches. However, a majority of them agreed that the aim of development of scientific temper, which is a fundamental duty according to the Constitution's Article 51A (h), is not being fulfilled.Y. S. Rajan commented on this saying that most Indians don't feel there is a dichotomy between science and spirituality. Other the hand, Innaiah Narisetti, chairman of Center for Inquiry (India) and Pushpa Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, pointed out the lack of scientific temper among Indian scientists.
Superstitions at Workplace (2012)
In a survey, titled "Superstitons@Workplace", carried out by a staffing company called TeamLease in 2012. The survey covered 800 companies in 8 cities. 61% of respondents admitted to having in a superstition and 51% admitted to following a superstition at their workplace. 48% believed that these practices had a positive effect on their productivity. It was noted that managements didn't object to the practices as long as it didn't affect productivity. Most practices were related to Vaastu Shastra or Feng Shui, but other personal practices were also observed. 80% of female employees were comfortable with the practices being followed in their workplace, while it was 68% for males, and 63% admitted thinking that female employees are more superstitious.
Article 51 A (h), Constitution of India
The Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution of India, lists "to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform" as a fundamental duty for every Indian citizen. Rationalist Narendra Nayak has argued the Article 51 A (h) is contrary to IPC 295A and the constitution should be held over to IPC 295A. There has been calls to implement this article more widely (e.g., 2011 Janhit Manch vs Union of India, Bombay High Court).
Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954
Main article: Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954
This act prohibits advertisements of magical remedies, like amulets or spells, for certain diseases. The law lists 56 of these diseases. The law also curbs sales and promotion of so-called miracle drugs and cures. But, the law is rarely enforced and several such products are freely available to the public. The law is considered severely outdated as 14 of the diseases in the list are now curable, and newer diseases like AIDS are not on the list. Some advertisements of these categories are also known to appear on cable television channels without much repurcussions. Proposed amendments to this law has also raised questions regarding the status of traditional medicine systems like Yoga and Ayurveda with respect to modern medicine.
Indian Penal Code, Section 295A
Main article: Hate speech laws in India
The Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code criminalises "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs", it includes "words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations". The offence holds a maximum penalty of three years of prison. It has been argued that this law is unconstitutional under Article 19 (freedom of expression) in the past (e.g., 1957 Ramji Lal Modi vs State of Uttar Pradesh, Supreme Court). It has also been stated by rationalist Narendra Nayak and T. V. Venkateswaran of the Vigyan Prasar that IPC 295A is being used with a very wide definition to prosecute critics of religion, anti-superstition activists and rationalists.
The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act of 1999 outlaws witch-hunting in Bihar. It has also been adopted by the state of Jharkhand. It carries a sentence of 3 months for accusing a woman of being a witch and 6 months for causing any physical or mental harm. In 2005, Chhattisgarh passed the Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act. It holds a sentence of 3 years for accusing a women of being a witch and 5 years for causing her physical harm. The upcoming Women (Prevention of Atrocities) Bill of 2012 in Rajasthan also covers witch-hunting. In December 2013, Odisha passed the Odisha Prevention of Witch-Hunting Bill which has a maximum penalty of seven years. Also in the same month, the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act was passed in Maharashtra.
2001 P. M. Bhargava vs UGC, Andhra High Court
In 2001, following the UGC announcement of introducing astrology courses in universities, P.M. Bhargava, founder of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and others, filed a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court against UGC. The court dismissed the case on 27 April 2001, stating that it has no expertise in the subject and thus it cannot interfere unless UGC has clearly violated a law.
2004 P. M. Bhargava vs UGC, Supreme Court
In 2004, P.M. Bhargava and two other petitioners, filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court of India challenging the UGC decision to introduce astrology in universities. It argued that astrology is considered a pseudoscience, several members of the Indian scientific community have opposed the move, and it would undermine India's scientific credibility. The Government of India responded by stating that the course was not compulsory, but optional and several western universities allow astrology as a course choice. It sought dismissal of the case stating that the petitioners' concerns were unfounded. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on 5 May 2004.
2011 Janhit Manch vs Union of India, Bombay High Court
In 2010, Janhit Manch, a non-profit organisation, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Maharashtra High Court seeking legislation to make teaching of scientific temper in schools compulsory, under Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution using Article 266, which defines the powers of the High Courts. It also requested that a disclaimer be added to advertisements about astrology, Vaastu Shastra, Feng Shui, tarot cards etc., under The Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, stating that these are for entertainment only. On 3 February 2011, the Bombay High Court disposed the plea citing the 2004 Bhargava vs UGC, Supreme Court case. It further stated that Article 51 A (h) was too vague to be implemented using Article 266.