By Karthik Shankar:
Superstitions are so ingrained in our day to day life; we scarcely stop to even consider some of the mind-boggling stupid customs we kowtow to. My own grandmother tells me about how some family members were opposed to her marriage with my grandfather because their horoscopes didn’t align. When the wedding did take place, several prominent relatives did not show up.
Sixty years later, I wonder how much has changed. We raise a hue and cry when superstitions ‘cross the line’, read human sacrifices. In one such instance in Tanzania a few days earlier, a baby boy with albinism was recently abducted by five armed men. The one-year-old was later found dead with his arms and legs chopped off. The horrific crime is part of a pattern of ritual killing because of the belief that albino body parts have medicinal values. Since 2000, more than 75 people in Tanzania have been killed due to this perverse belief.
Human sacrifice has a storied past in Africa. In the Benin Empire, before it was wiped out by British colonisation, thousands of prisoners would be slain after the death of a King or Queen. In 1727 in Dahomey, more than 4000 slaves were killed as part of a mass voodoo sacrifice. Even modern day Africa has not escaped the barbaric influences of age old customs. Milton Blahyi, a military commander who gained an infamous reputation during the 1989-1997 when the first Liberian war was taking place, later admitted that he regularly killed children right before a battle. In one horrific instance he killed a young boy, carved out his heart and ate the pieces with his comrades for good luck.
A lot of people in India might look at such crimes patronisingly and consider it part and parcel of Africa, a continent we are only too happy to claim to be miles apart from. But that would be ignoring India’s tantric ritual sacrifices which still exist in pockets around the country and are a blemish on India’s 21st century aspirations. It begs the question – What other horrific crimes rooted in deep superstition still exist in India today?
In 2006, Khurja, a province in Uttar Pradesh, had close to half a dozen ritual sacrifices all to pacify the Goddess Kali. Several people all motivated by a desire to weed out problems in their personal lives relied on the advice of tantrics or black magic practitioners to kill children. The people were told that sacrifice would lead to various positive outcomes; for one woman banishing her nightmares, for another, unlimited wealth. All the people murdered as part of the sacrifice were children; some as young as three.
Even as recently as 2013, in Mumbai, tantric human sacrifice reared its ugly head again. Just a day after Mumbai passed its landmark anti-superstition act (The actual name of the act ‘The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013’ is quite a mouthful), a woman was killed by six people who were involved in a ritual tantric sacrifice for health, wealth and prosperity. Who can forget that it took the death of social activist, and architect of the bill, Narendra Dabholkar to get shot for the state government to actually pass the bill?
Let’s move beyond Maharashtra. It is time India had a nationwide bill to this effect. Superstitious beliefs can be easily looked at as problems when lives are taken away, but what about the quieter insidious ways in which they creep into our lives? Those need to be warded away, pardon the pun. Far too many self-styled Godmen use religion as a cover to peddle superstitious beliefs to the masses. Astrology, for one, is one of the biggest shams in our country, used from everything for matching a bride and groom to deciding when to do business. It is peddled as scientific fact when it has no actual basis in rational principles. Back in 1976 itself, 186 prominent scientists jointly made a statement in the magazine ‘Humanist’ challenging the “pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.” In India, such obscurantist beliefs have become ingrained in us.
These views don’t just subsist in the poorly educated sections of society. My own mother, a school principal and a PhD holder, admitted to me that she has consulted astrologers during times of ‘poor fortune’. They made a variety of predictions about my future career and love life, which didn’t please me too much.
We need to take an absolute stance against such nonsense. We can’t condemn ritual killing on one hand while still recommending Reiki doctors to people suffering from high fever. Reiki might work because of the placebo effect but there’s little that’s scientific about it. What’s more is that these smaller beliefs aid and abet these more horrific ones. It creates an environment where quackery is conflated with science. Let’s relegate such nonsense to the pages of fast-paced murder mystery novels. That’s where devil-worshipping cults, human sacrifice and beliefs rooted in dogma belong.