Faith versus science

Rakesh Shukla has more than three decades of engagement with law, constitutional jurisprudence, human rights and justice, along with training and practice in psychodynamic therapy. Explorations in the interface of law, social movements for change, and psychoanalysis are the major areas of his work.

'Spirits and demons are only projections of man's own emotional impulses.'
– Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud (1913)

Failure in Love, Evil-Eye of the Enemy, Lack of Progeny, Loss in Business, Alcoholism of Husband, Dispute of Property, Daughters' marriage, Neighbours' Envy …All Problems Solved! Contact the Famous Tantrik Mia Abu Hasan aka Bangali Baba! In Town Just for Ten Days.

Pamphlets, wall writings and megaphone announcements like this are fairly common, not only in small moffusil towns and villages across the Subcontinent, but in the big cities too. In India, the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act of 1954, undoubtedly enacted as a result of the pernicious Western influence, today lies unremarked in a corner. From all accounts, babas, tantriks and pirs are flourishing, as people flock to seek solutions to their ailments, real or imagined. It is not just the ignorant who flock, either; physicists, doctors and professors can be found performing pujas during eclipses, pleading for Shani (Saturn) to release the moon.

Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of modern India, with its famous reference to dams as modern temples, is reflected in the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper and spirit of enquiry under the Constitution. Dozens of engineering colleges, science institutes, IITs, medical colleges and research bodies are today scattered through the length and breadth of the country, along with temples, mosques, dargahs and gurudwaras. Mythology and history coalesce in secular India – at times, archaeological evidence looks like a bit player in comparison to the power of legend.

One of the best-known recent incidents of the collision between mythology and history took place in 2007. At that time, the Indian government was planning to break a hole in the Ram Setu (Adam's Bridge), the chain of limestone shoals off the southeastern coast of India and northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, in order to facilitate the passage of ships. There was a public outcry against the 'destruction' of Ram Setu – believed to be built by followers of Lord Ram for his armies to cross the sea to fight Ravan in Lanka. Some used satellite photographs from the US space agency NASA to 'show' an old, man-made bridge between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka, and a public-interest petition against dredging the shoals was filed before the Supreme Court of India. The court not only entertained the petition but granted a stay, directing the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to examine the matter. The ASI filed an affidavit stating that there was no historical or scientific evidence of the existence of Lord Ram or Ram Setu as a man-made bridge, but this led to an uproar led by the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The government hurriedly withdrew the affidavit and, in a further effort at damage control, suspended two ASI officials.

The controversy over the exact birth-place of Lord Rama (Ramjanmabhoomi), the rathyatra led by L K Advani as the leader of the opposition, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the subsequent communal riots and killings – each of these events is well known. What is not so prominent in public memory is that the central government had, in 1993, referred the issue of the existence of Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid to the Supreme Court as a question of public importance. The following year, the court, to its credit, declined to go into the matter, returning the Presidential Reference unanswered.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid resulted in an upsurge of Hindu religious sentiment and catapulted the BJP into power at the Centre. Jagmohan Malhotra, the tourism and culture minister in the BJP-led government, launched a massive initiative involving the ASI in excavations and satellite tracking of extinct water channels to prove the existence of the Saraswati River. While the Saraswati might well have existed at one point as a waterway, it is as myth that the river is important. According to Hindu belief, the Saraswati, originating in the Himalaya, is the gupt, the secret invisible third river that meets Ganga and Yamuna at the triveni sangam (confluence) at Prayag, in present-day Varanasi. Thus, Malhotra's project was an attempt to establish that the river, deified as the goddess of wisdom and learning, was the magical nerve centre of India's original glorious civilisation. After the change of government, funding was stopped and the project abandoned entirely by the Congress cabinet.

Cosy coexistence

The assimilative power of Hinduism ensures no sharpening contradictions between the age of rationality and science and the world of spirits, myths, superstitions and religion. Satellite photography goes hand-in-hand with Ram Setu, Ramjanmabhoomi and the Saraswati. In fact, the age of science has made everything in India 'scientific'. Astrology, looking at the influence of planetary movement on human lives, has always claimed to be a science, and efforts were made to obliterate the distinction between astronomy and astrology during the BJP era. Each and every form of therapy, irrespective of the religion on which it is ostensibly based – from the invisible healing rays of reiki travelling through space, to the sidha system of medicine, which offers channels of energy – offers a 'science'. Vastu, a system of architecture and design based on directional alignments, is now likewise a vast 'science' spanning interior decoration, sculpture, art and aesthetics. It has spawned numerous experts, consultants and professors contributing to our well-being and happiness.

At the level of the individual, newspapers abound with stories of people duped by offers from sadhus to turn brass into gold, along with the modern version of converting wads of black paper into dollars by treating them with a costly chemical to be paid for by the victim. Similarly, stories are widespread of young women being taken to 'holy' men to be cured for some ailment and, instead, being sexually harassed; these clearly underline the deception and exploitation inherent in the arena.

However, it is the phenomenon of cures by visiting pirs, dargahs and temples that offers a particularly interesting interface of faith and science. Some time ago this writer, as part of a group of students of psychotherapy, visited the Balaji temple, near the town of Alwar in Rajasthan. The main deity here is Balaji, known commonly as Hanuman, and he attracts a large numbers of pilgrims for the healing of psychosomatic and mental ailments, such as dramatic alterations of personality and behaviour – those diagnosed in popular parlance as possession by bhut-pret, malignant evil spirits. Hanuman is associated with bravery, and there is local legend as to his divine healing powers. The temple is famous for the exorcising of the evil spirits, and involves inflicting punishment to drive away the bhut. The Indian psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar gives a brilliant exposition of the processes at play at Balaji in his book Shamans, Mystics and Doctors.

On reaching the temple, we found a large board, prominently listing directives from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). For instance, the commission has outlawed any form of chaining a patient or placing heavy objects upon them, traditionally used all over India to drive away evil spirits. As we entered the temple, our clothes, body language and behaviour quickly proclaimed our metropolitan identity; as we stood together, an island alienated from the people who milled around, we were the very picture of NHRC inspectors, come to check for malpractices. Feeble attempts by a few of us to talk with those who had come for healing resulted in very little conversation.

So, I decided to change into a traditional North Indian dhoti with a saffron top; together with my beard and long hair, I began to fit in immediately. So decked out, I went with the others towards the house of the Mahant's elder brother, a few kilometres away, to discover that the curative action had all moved out of the temple due to the intervention of the modern secular state in the shape of the NHRC guidelines. Groups of people singing bhajans were all along the road. One set of patients predominantly comprised swaying young and middle-aged women, all in a trance. Around them were mostly men and a couple of older women, singing bhajans accompanied by the manjira and dholak.

After a short distance, the group stopped by near a peepul tree, believed to be the abode of bhuts and prets as well as of the female counterparts, the chudails and dayans. At one point, two of the women lay down on the ground, while the onlookers piled incredibly large, heavy stones on their frail bodies – all to drive out the bhut. Some were crying, others laughing, still others angry and hurling abuses. The women were being constantly egged on by the onlookers to 'let go' and enter a trance. On watching this scene, I found a part of myself outraged: rather than empowering, the 'exorcism' seemed to offer a safety valve by which to vent pent-up fury, to hurl abuses at husbands and mother-in-laws, and then to return again to the same restrictive life. Another part of me realised that intervention would serve no constructive purpose but to invoke the ill-will, if not wrath, of the community.

At this point, I was deliberately standing apart from the rest of my group, which was looking as alienated as ever. I started talking with a young man from a village in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh. Having grown up in Agra, I was familiar with the area, and he informed me that the visit was an annual occurrence. Each year, family members and the patients from neighbouring villages and some regulars get together to hire a truck and come to Balaji. There are a number of dharamshalas and cheap eating places around the temple for the pilgrims. This particular group had a young hysterical man swaying, as well. Suddenly, he fell at my feet and began begging me for forgiveness. The modern progressive secular within me rebelled at such a sight, but my upbringing in a Hindu household had sufficiently cued me; so, I lifted the young man, embraced and 'blessed' him.

My group again started walking. I felt increasingly at ease and contemplated joining in the singing of bhajans, as the group stopped near a tap. It was searingly hot and, welcoming the break, I bent to wash my face and take a drink. The hysterical young man was next to me and, as I straightened, he directed a young woman in a trance to lie at my feet, who promptly lay down with her forehead on my feet. Again, I pulled my foot away instinctively, feeling extremely uncomfortable and unnerved at the prospect of more women falling at my feet. I slowly extricated myself, aware that too abrupt a departure could well precipitate some reaction.

Who did I represent for the young man? Who was he seeing while looking at me? Perhaps his father or grandfather, whose forgiveness he might have been seeking. What was the young man projecting on to me – omniscience and omnipotence? He was, after all, lying at my feet and looking up to what to him would have appeared a towering figure with long white hair and beard. Perhaps it may have appeared to him and the woman to be Mahakal Bhairav, the deity at Balaji, who doles out the punishment to the bhut.

Taking dictation

The incident at Balaji gives a glimpse at an experiential level of the psychological processes which may offer an explanation within a rational framework for the cure and improved emotional health of those seeking the help of pirs, babas and gurus. Far more people suffering from mental illnesses are helped by the traditional healing methods in India than by the tiny number of clinical psychologists in the country. Clearly there is a kind of regression of an adult to an earlier state. This could make for a receptivity and child-like faith which contributes to the therapeutic success of the suggested course of action – tying an amulet to ward off evil, putting rice grains in a certain pattern or forming certain sacred words or verses in a vessel and drinking water from it or a myriad other methods. Along with feelings of being 'little me' would be projection of great power, strength and wisdom on to the pir, baba or guru. This would imbue the actions like putting the hand on the head of the supplicant with great mystical power contributing to feeling better. At times blessings may expiate feelings of guilt for perceived transgressions committed by the individual. Akin to the process in a psychoanalytic setting, along with projection may be a degree of identification with the Baba contributing to improved emotional health of the suffering soul.

Interestingly, the origins of psychoanalysis lie in hysteria, which constitutes the bulk of the patients who come to Balaji. Individual hysteria apart, India sees periodic outbreaks of mass hysteria, too. In 1995, a devotee offering milk to an idol of Ganesh in a temple in south Delhi reported that the deity had drunk the milk. Word spread like lightning and, suddenly, deities all over North India were reported to be drinking milk. Inevitably, millions thronged to temples, resulting in mile-long queues and massive traffic jams. The news even crossed international borders, with deities in temples in Nepal, Britain and Canada following suit. Scientists talking of capillary action and surface tension were unable to sway most of the pilgrims, with many people testifying to having personally observed the occurrence. In a similar instance in 2001, mass panic spread in Delhi about a 'monkey man' attacking people while wearing a helmet with glowing red eyes; reportedly, he was seen by dozens of people. The police even circulated a description of the monkey man in efforts to catch him. The sighting of the monkey man at diverse locations simultaneously seemed to establish the imaginary nature of the creature.

Quite apart from such occasional phenomena, Sathya Sai Baba, who passed away in April, had a huge following, which devoutly believed that the Baba produced not only vibhuti (ash) but also watches and other objects out of thin air. Sigmund Freud looked upon the belief in such 'omnipotence of thought' as akin to the immense belief of primitive man in the power of his wishes: 'The basic reason why what he sets about by magical means comes to pass is, after all, simply that he wills it.'

The co-existence of science and irrational beliefs is probably true in all societies. According to surveys done in the heartland of scientific research, a sizeable section of people in America subscribe to creationism and intelligent design. In fact, teaching of evolution-versus-creationism in schools has been to be an ongoing debate. Similarly, regression, projection and identification are processes at play in the human psyche. However, it is the pantheon of gods, the pirs, babas, dargahs and the SUVs, i-pods, Macs which constitute the special flavour of the Subcontinent. In the middle of gleaming cosmopolitan New Delhi is a dargah with hundreds of clay pots tied to trees – Matka Pir. Each day hundreds of people come and tie a matka to the tree for the fulfilment of their wishes.

Like Pandora's Box, the cocktail of magic, spirit, rationality and logic throws up strange entities in India. In a recent interview, Justice P N Bhagwati – a former chief justice of India, a pioneer of judicial activism and public-interest litigation, and a staunch devotee of the late Sathya Sai Baba – stated, 'As a professional, each time I would sit down to write a judgement at 5 o'clock in the morning, I was only writing what my god dictated. Bhagwan held my hand as I put pen to paper.'

Rakesh Shukla is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India.

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