By Kanaka Ramakrishna
People have always held irrational beliefs to ward off ill, to bring good, foretell the future, heal or prevent sickness or accident, believe in the evil eye or in the efficacy of amulets. These practices have been prevalent for a long time in every part of the world.
Many people believe in lucky and unlucky numbers, or some days of the week that bring bad luck. For example, Friday the 13th is a bad day and 13th is a bad number. It is bad luck to leave a house through a different door than the one used to enter. A dog howling at midnight when some one in the house is sick is a bad omen while wearing new clothes on a new year day may bring good luck through the year. If the right eye twitches, it brings good luck and if the left eye twitches, it is bad luck.
Individuals believe in good and bad omens. If a cat crosses one’s path from left to right it is good luck and if it crosses from right to left, it is bad luck; wearing a ruby results in good health and wearing opal brings bad luck. How these beliefs affect the future and how they destroy cause and effect, no one knows. There is no possible relation that future events may be influenced in some mystical way by one’s behaviour by believing in superstitions.
Why do superstitions arise and prevail? Human nature by itself is prone to superstition. It is the weakness of human brain. In nearly every brain is found some cloud of superstition.
Tendency to succumb to superstition is too deeply rooted in human beings. When ordinary human nature is exposed to stress and strain inherent in the humans, it succumbs to superstition. When the blows come to us, we find that we must seek help. The weakness and hopelessness without the future, makes us prone to irrational superstitions at the individual level.
In India, belief in superstition is like a cancer in each and every aspect of life in the name of religion and caste, for individuals as well as for the community. For example, certain communities believe it is auspicious that communal or certain kind of formal worship should be performed only by married couple barring widows and single women, though it is a belief incompatible with reason. Would God reject worship by such women?
Swami Vivekananda carried out a vigorous battle against superstitions. He said, “I am ready to give ten thousand lives if twenty persons would give up their superstition.” He declared that “we need reason to drive out an old superstition. A true belief as against a superstition is one that stands the scrutiny of reason and passes the test of truth. The test of truth is that it makes the believer strong in the sense of helping him to gain an appropriate orientation to his condition and thus deal with it boldly and effectively.”
Superstition distorts the nature of the world in the perception of the believer. It is a ‘cobweb in the brain’, said Swami Vivekananda. Many great and famous people believed in many such superstitions and could not shake them off, believing in the old traditions without inquiring into its truth or rationality.
Swami Vivekananda recognised the distinction between individual superstitions and collective superstitions. Individual superstitions are described as ‘defence mechanisms’ believing in the eccentric superstitious beliefs among the individuals not accepted favourably by members of one’s own culture. This is the innate superstition in every one.
Collective superstition is the belief that is reinforced by all members of the community. Since this mass superstition is reinforced, it is very difficult to eliminate it. Families are integral part of the community and ‘a package of superstitions’ is handed over to children automatically. This is carried over and passed on to future generations. Any new thought especially of a high kind of reasoning, creates disturbances. Therefore they resist any change.
Sometimes collective superstitions may help individuals to overcome stress of an immediate situation but does not help to solve the problem. “They create morbidity in the mind, make it weak, so that in course of time, it will be almost impossible to receive the truth or live up to it.”
Superstitions retard individual, social and cultural development. They scare the individuals for every change for betterment because the tendency to succumb to superstition is too deep-rooted in human nature and too widespread.
Though religion has been alleged to be the source of superstitions in India, her ancient religion is based on the experiences of the seers and the sages, which is open to all for scrutiny and personal verification. On this basis, superstition in India was social rather than religious.
Swami Vivekananda asserted that individuals can get rid of superstitions as they grow spiritually. Here is the best concrete example of Sri Sarada Devi, who got rid of her superstitions through her spiritual strength and showed the way for modern people. When her husband Sri Ramakrishna passed away, Sri Sarada Devi removed all her ornaments one by one, which were the auspicious symbols of a married woman. Finally, when she was about to take off her bracelets, Sri Ramakrishna suddenly appeared in front of her and told her, “have I died that you are removing the signs of a married woman? I have gone only from one room to the other”. She then stopped removing her bracelets.
Somebody brought a white saree without border for her to wear as a sign of widowhood as it was in practice. But even before it was handed over to her, Sri Sarada Devi wore a small red bordered white saree, which was a sign of auspiciousness and worn by married women.
Soon after the death of her husband, the grief-stricken Sri Sarada Devi went to live in the ancestral home of Sri Ramakrishna at Kamarpukur, his native village. She started her life there all alone and in extreme poverty and loneliness. The people in the village, steeped in old beliefs and superstitions, rigidity and without sympathy, started to tease and accuse her. Whenever she came out of the house, they censured and criticised her for wearing bracelets and bordered saree like a married woman. The hurt and wound was too painful for her to bear.
When it increased too much and unbearably vociferous, she wanted to remove her bracelets. Sri Ramakrishna appeared again and told her not to remove her bracelets. He asked her to go to Gauri-ma, who knew the Vaishnava Tantra very well and get advice from her. Sri Sharada Devi was advised that according to Vaishnava Tantra there is no such thing as widowhood since her husband’s body was a spiritual body. She was fully convinced and got over the fear of gossip and boldly faced the people and continued to wear the bracelets and red-bordered saree like any other married woman till her end. She was able to do this only because she had great spiritual strength. The scurrilous women of the village completely stopped criticising her again. Today, Sri Sarada Devi is the ideal role model and guide to all womanhood and she is worshipped by millions of people all over the world.
Spiritual growth, through proper understanding of our religion as propounded by ancient seers and saints of India, can overcome the perception of petty minded divisions and limitations. Otherwise we become selfish and resist to change. It is a lifelong learning process. Though hard and it takes a long time to displace superstition, it is possible to change.
Swami Vivekananda advocated the kind of education, which focuses mainly on individuals and not drastic and direct changes at the collective level, so that it can bring awareness among the individuals and avoid making life miserable by resorting to superstitious customs and observances. He recommended to strengthen the human psyche to ‘face the truth as it is’ at any cost. We must grow strong enough mentally and develop spiritual strength and not to go back into the darkness and yield to weakness and superstition and keep our minds open not falling into the old ruts. He upholds the truth of Vedanta as the only unfailing weapon against superstition.
We can overcome all superstitions and get rid of all ‘cobwebs in the brain’ by using our inner strength (latent spiritual power) which, if activated can enable us to overcome all superstitions. Religion as a force should help and sustain us in our day- to-day life and bring a sense of fulfilment within us. Swami Vivekananda believed that one can realise this truth here and now and overcome superstitions.
The spiritual power which is lying within every one of us will open to anyone by a little introspection and self-assessment. Thus our levels of consciousness can be raised to a new dimension, new understanding and mines of knowledge. Our scriptures, if properly understood, are our real guides in this respect, which help us in the growth of our inner strength, harmony, peace and happiness.