Yogesh Vajpeyi is a senior journalist with over 40 years of experience of working with leading newspapers like National Herald, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Telegraph and The New Indian Express. He is currently writing in various journals and teaching journalism.
On May 26 when Narendra Modi took oath of India’s 15th Prime Minister, his perennial detractor and former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav was quick to predict disaster. “Modi has taken oath at an inauspicious time and his rule will be punctuated by a series of national calamities” he said and has gone on reminding the people of this from time to time.
Lalu Prasad has carved a special place in Indian politics for his antics and his strong belief in the power of the supernatural. Just before filing his nomination for 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he had got a pond located inside his sprawling 10 Circular Road residence filled with a mix of mud and sand as per the advice of astrologers and vaastu experts.
A strong believer in the power of superstition, Lalu Prasad’s refrain that Modi’s installation at a supposedly inauspicious time spelled doom for India illustrated the use of the people’s belief in the supernatural as a tool for political mobilisation, provoking Modi and his supporters dub him as a leader of the “Jadoo Tona party”.
Though somewhat quixotic for the bland display of the power of the supernatural in shaping people’s opinions, Lalu Prasad is not the only politician who believes in using superstitions to further his end and beguile people into falling in his trap. Rife with superstition and irrationality, the echelons of our politics and bureaucracy make for an interesting case study.
Gods and Security
The belief that it is the gods and not men who decide their fate is so deeply entrenched that contestations for politicians are reduced down to a contest between supernatural powers. It is decided by whose god, or godman, is more powerful! From the PMs occupying and vacating 7 Race Course to filing nominations to swearing-ins, to ministers moving into their new offices, auspicious times are the norm and so are havans, yagnas and offerings to gods.
In fact every election offers a bizarre spectacle. While filing their nominations candidates seek advice on the auspicious time from soothsayers. Some wear multiple layers of clothes, others gaudy rings on all their fingers to propitiate the deity. They even match their underwear with the colour of their birthstone and some have tried to file the nomination stark naked.
Politicians and power seekers are not the only ones who practice and promote superstitions. From breaking mirrors to hanging lemon and chilies, we see them all around every day. A black cat crosses our path and like a dead statue, we stop and wait for someone else to pass first. The worst part about the country is that we continue to practice them even if we know nothing is going to happen.
Cows and Peacocks
Coupled with the belief in superstitions handed down through generations are weird attempts to explain them away in scientific terms. Recently, the Rajasthan Education Minister, Vasudev Devnani, emphasised the “scientific significance” of cows to us by asserting that the cow is the only animal that inhales and exhales oxygen. Not to be left behind, high Court judge offered his sage advice that a peacock is a lifelong brahmachari (abstinent).
Some time ago, the then Union Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani, who officially headed almost all the scientific institutions, universities and colleges in the country, was reported to have spent four hours with an astrologer in Rajasthan. At around the same time the media reported that Indian scientists had succeeded in placing Mangalyaan in Mar’s orbit in the very first attempt.
However, prior to this the then Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), K Radhakrishnan, responsible for the feat, performed a puja with the replica of the Mars Orbiter Mission at the Sri Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati!
Such acts challenge the scientific temperament as encompassed in the Constitution in the Directive Principles under Article 51 A(h), which urges every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” In the era of technological and communications revolution, one would have expected that the concept of scientific temperament would get a boost, but the contrary seems to be the case.
In India, of course, superstition and intercession by gods and spirits are a part of not only public life – even “witch hunts” go on in some parts of the country – but of political life as well. About a decade ago, the country was rife with rumours that images of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, were found to be drinking milk offered by devotees. Some political parties tried to cash in on the phenomenon. About a couple of years ago, it was reported that a part of the Arabian Sea around Mumbai had lost its salinity through pollution and people rushed to the beaches to hail this as a miracle and to collect, for use at home, bottles of this sea-water miraculously made “fresh”.
Superstitions, by their very nature, have to do with increasing our life-chances. They are always worldly: we expect miracle-making powers to intercede in the competition that is life, to enhance our chances for success or survival in whatever is the competitive exercise we are engaged in. The matter at hand could be related to politics, battles, jobs, games, fame and recognition, and so on.
Superstitions are the most ancient mechanisms we have for taming chance and managing risks that threaten life and survival. Risk perception and management is innate to the human being. Superstitions represent the oldest understanding of powers that govern our life chances. The question is, why would – in a modern country like India –superstition survive or even triumph over the assault of all the modern mechanisms we have developed for risk-management.
Apart from the traditional astrological predictions, many more profitable forms of astrological services are proliferating, thereby making this a low-cost-high-profit business without any liability or accountability to customers. Newspapers, magazines, television channels, a host of babas and their disciples have all strategically pitched astrological predictions into people’s daily lives and are reaping profits through it.
Side by side call centres testifying to our prowess in information technology sector, astrological centres are mushrooming. The modern mechanisms for risk-management or “disciplines” ranging from statistics to modern medicine exist side-by-side with superstitions in the country.
Why are superstitions a part of public life in India? The answer, perhaps, 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 super-natural, 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 rub is that the little gods or goddesses or demons and devils are so numerous and so indeterminate in nature that one cannot extinguish them all. Superstitions survive on 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, which we might in small ways even help in bringing them about. Superstition seems to be a human universal.
Normally, our private superstitions cause no public anguish. The problems arise when we seek to impose them in public life. We feel uncomfortable because we think that public life is best based on reason. An altercation between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore illustrates the point. The Mahatma attributed an earthquake that devastated Bihar in 1934 to “divine retribution” for the sin of untouchability that existed in India. 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 the quake was god’s punishment. What worried, Tagore, however, was the public nature of Gandhi’s stance and the fact that he, Gandhi, wanted others to share it.
In a historic essay documenting rumours by which peasants attempted to describe the power of Mahatma Gandhi to one another as they responded to his call for nationalist action in the early 1920s, Shahid Amin shows that the peasants assimilated Gandhi’s power with that of village gods and ghosts. In other words, they attributed to him miraculous powers that could affect their life-chances.
Nationalist novels often saw modern medicine and the modern doctor as the antidote to superstition. Yet these disciplines today exist side by side with ancient methods of managing powers that be. The modern doctor does not displace the faith-healer. Vaccinations against small pox coexist with the small-pox goddess. Strategies for passing examinations or obtaining jobs could include both secular instruments such as “made-easies” or cheating or bribes and, at the same time, a trip to the temple.
If the disciplines of modern science have not penetrated into the pores of Indian society and replaced earlier practices that served their function, the answer has to be sought in the history of “political power” in India. Power in the domain of politics was assimilated in Indian nationalism and democracy to imaginations of the powers that were seen as governing people’s life chances. Politics, in other words, became yet another resource in the pursuit of wellbeing and not a separate project by which the state and its rule of law could be expressive of a new idea of India as a “moral community”.
The role of the divine power in impacting outcomes in Indian politics has resulted in growth self-styled godmen and tantriks acquiring political count on their own. The cases of Dhirendra Brahmachari during the reign of India Gandhi and Chandraswami during the reign of PV Narasimha Rao, are classical examples. Both interfered in the process of governance and made money for themselves.
Pupul Jayakar, the former Czarina of Indian culture, wrote in her biography of Indira Gandhi that she had performed Laskshachandi Path, a ritual where 1,00,000 verses were recited to invoke the primordial power and energy of Chandi and long life of her son Sanjay Gandhi.. These rituals were held in the Kali temple of Jhansi. The yagna and the recitation of the verses were conducted in secret from 1979 to 1983. It seems that shE continued to do it after Sanjay died to disqualify a rival using the “evil eye”. According to Jayakar, she had received “secret reports of tantric rituals and black magic rites, being performed to destroy me and my sanity”.
This is one of the reasons why Indira Gandhi turned to Dhirendra Brahmachari, who “was one of those people who frightened Indira by evoking dark tantric rites practised in secret sanctuaries by those who wished to destroy both her and Sanjay. Brahmachari doubtless spoke to her of other equally powerful rites and mantras that could protect her from these evil forces”.
Brahmachari was eased out of the Gandhi household in 1984, after the death of Indira. But other tantrics were used by top politicians in the 1990s.
Chandraswami admitted to holding different powers corresponding to three kinds of ritual —to conquer death, to eliminate enemies and to do harm to one’s adversaries.
Chandraswami used his status as an “eminence grise” to serve as an intermediary in all kinds of affairs. With disciples in the business world, he was well placed to intervene in transactions between them and Indian politicians. In his circle were Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi arms merchant and, via him, the sultan of Brunei, as well as the al-Fayed brothers, Egyptian businessmen who bought Harrods of London in controversial circumstances.
The post-liberalisation phase has brought a radical change in the role of godmen in the public sphere. Instead of acting as intermediaries to political powers, they are turning into entrepreneurs. Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali’ which boasts revenues of more than Rs. 5,000 crore is the most prominent manifestation of this species.
The politico-entrepreneurial babas or gurus who earlier basked in the company of the rich and the powerful, or attracted disciples in the form of Bollywood stars searching for nirvana, have now arrived on the national stage as an independent stakeholder.
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