Faith: Source of Superstition

The whole movement of eradication of superstition revolves round this subject and all the brickbats and bouquets that are showered on us are related to it. Some consider our activities to be quite purposeful, beneficial and reasonable, while others take them to be just the opposite. Unless superstitions are eradicated we will not be successful in the 21st century; say some while others think that eradication of superstitions is actually a façade for destroying god, religion and traditions. What is superstition after all? They ask. It is much the same as blowing the ash that gathers on a burning piece of charcoal. Once blown the charcoal shines again. Therefore, it is necessary to blow away the ash i.e., superstition, occasionally but taking care at the same time, not to blow out the fire itself.

Relativity of Faith

Why are there so many opinions about eradication of superstitions? The reason is that one person’s faith is a superstition for another and what a third person considers to be a superstition, is a very strong faith, almost a question of life and death for a fourth one. It thus becomes necessary to clarify what is faith and what is superstition. However one faces a difficulty here, because as we have already seen before, faiths vary with times and individuals. Every one has seen the photograph of Satya Saibaba. To his disciples he is a great Baba, guru, sage and even Lord! What is so peculiar about this Baba? He just moves his hand in the air and gives you holy ashes, gold chains silver rings and what not. It is claimed in his books that he even gives his disciples gold lockets and necklaces studded with jewels. These miracles have won him the faith of innumerable men and women including the prime ministers and president of this country. On the other hand there also exist a number of individuals who consider these miracles nothing but fraud perpetrated on gullible people to boost idolatry and superstition. This can be called idiosyncratic relativity of faith.

The Meaning of Faith

The word faith has diverse meanings. Consider the following statements: I have faith in my mother and father: I have faith in my guru or Baba: I have faith in my family deity and religion: I have faith in miracles, supernatural powers as also the power of the mantras: I have faith in equality and the constitution of this country. In each of these statements the word faith has a different connotation, but very few people are aware of it. We generally accept that meaning of a word as it is commonly used. Suppose you come across a person, while strolling with a friend, whom you tell that the person approaching you is a ‘chamcha’ of such and such leader. Now chamcha literally means a spoon. But when used to describe a particular person, your friend has no difficulty in understanding what you mean. Similarly the word faith when used in every day affairs generally means religious faith, faith in the other world or in the liberation of the soul from the cycle of birth and death. Thousands of preachers from millions of temples have been drilling into our minds that we ought to have faith and faith alone can help us navigate safely the hazardous sea of life on this earth. Do not reason, they preach, for reasoning leads one nowhere. Let your emotions guide you instead. Do not allow your conscience or reasoning intellect hamper your religious path. What they preach and demand from you is certainly superstition and not faith. Let us consider another pair of words, here, before we dive deep into the discussion on superstition and faith.

Trust and Faith

See these statements now: I have faith in the fan in my room that it will give us cool breeze. I have faith in my pen that it will write letters on a paper. Are these statements true? Some say they are. Others say they are not because however strong your faith may be in your fan and your pen and whatever prayers you offer them, the pen won’t work when the ink in it is finished and the fan will stop if the power supply is disrupted. This cause and effect relationship is already established. Therefore, it is a matter of trust and not faith. Similarly the assertions such as – two multiplied by two is four; polio can be prevented by proper vaccination; zero was invented in India; Shivaji was a great king are all a matter of trust. If you observe the biographies of other contemporary kings, we notice that no other king can match the virtues and abilities of Shivaji. That is why I trust he is great.

I now give you a contrary example of distrust. It is a true story. A woman with three children lived in a village, while her husband worked in Mumbai. Someone prejudiced him about his wife’s character. He was furious. He returned to the village and confronted his wife. “If you have a spotless character”, he insisted, “then prove it by putting your hand in the pot of boiling oil in the temple and taking out the coin at the bottom of it. If your hands remain unscathed and your fidelity is proved I will accept you as my wife”. The poor woman was aghast and did not know what to do. Her brother, who knew that ANS workers know and perform this trick, approached us. We taught him the trick and the sister performed the miracle in front of the whole village and saved her marriage.

The point here is not that of the fidelity or infidelity of the woman and whether boiling oil will burn her hands or not when put in it. The point is whether there is any relationship between these tow occurrences. Of course there is no relation whatsoever. So a notion as silly as this without any basis of cause and effect relation is superstition. However one must keep in mind that every time it is not possible to arrive at such an indubitable conclusion as above. Yet we cannot afford to wait every time, till it strikes us and have to carry on our work, despite the uncertainty. When faced with uncertainty, most people turn to faith for support. So when one believes in the existence of a thing in spite of no evidence to prove it, and continues to perform activities pertaining to it, it is a matter of faith for him.

Faith in one’s Physician

Throughout their daily affairs, people are aware of what they do. They even examine their faiths. We often say that we have faith in our physician. It means that whenever anybody falls sick in the house, you take him to your family physician. The medicine he gives cures the patient. As this happens frequently, we develop faith in the physician. However, some time later, he fails to cure a sick child and the child had to be taken to a child specialist; a couple of months later, another patient of your family, after a week’s treatment by the same physician had to be removed to hospital as the illness aggravated; now if any of your family member’s illness aggravates under this doctor’s treatment will you still continue with this family doctor? No, you will not. Now whatever has happened to your faith in this physician of yours? You bank on your experience of the last several months and conclude that your physician is not effective now as he used to be earlier and you approach another doctor. However the important things that have happened during this period are: You examined your faith in your physician’s proficiency and concluded that it would not be proper to take any more patients to him. If despite your experience of repeated failures on his part, you keep approaching him, what would it mean? Faith? Superstition? The important conclusion, one can draw from this situation is: any existing situation that prevails even after being questioned on the basis of knowledge and/or experience, can be called trust or faith. If it ceases to be, after being questioned by knowledge and experience, it is superstition. The situation here is that your child is sick. Your experience is that earlier your physician was able to cure the child. The knowledge is that the doctor recently had stopped to be effective. Now you come to the conclusion that it is high time that you change your physician. Here we have obtained a method. We face situations, we get experience from life, i.e., from facing situations, we obtain knowledge, we then examine the situation with the knowledge and experiences obtained and then take a decision regarding our faith. Of course all this sounds very simple but is extremely difficult to follow. Taking decisions regarding one’s faith i.e., deciding whether it is a faith or a superstition is extremely difficult as it hurts one’s ego. So one tends to avoid it. That is why it is all the more necessary for ANS to pursue this movement vigorously.

Meaning of Faith – a Paradox

Now we turn to the most important point i.e., ‘my faith’ and what does my faith mean to me and also if my faith is superstition in your opinion and if so what does it mean to you. Since we respect individual freedom in this country, you are free to follow your faith. But at times two equally predominant faiths contradict each other, as is the case in our country. Some feel that our country ought to be a Hindu nation while others think that this nation should not be allowed to become a religious state at any cost and remain a secular one. ANS agrees with the later. The problem here is how does one decide which of these is faith and which is superstition? Here we have to take into consideration an important aspect of the chemistry of faith. Every faith is deeply coloured by emotion. A man cannot go by his intellect alone. Intellect as well as emotions forms the basis of his decisions. So his decisions are coloured by his emotions and thereby create the problem of faith and superstition. Make a continuum with trust at one end and superstition at the other, placing faith in the middle. Now trust is where thought predominates while emotion has no place at all in it. If someone tells you very emphatically that two and two do not make four, you will take him to be a fool and just ignore him. Here he is not challenging your faith. But in case of those who sacrifice a human being in order to obtain a male child, it is sheer superstition that has no place for thought what so ever. It is all entangled with just emotion. What is faith then? Faith is emotion that develops into thought founded in truth and translates into a motivating value.

We have already seen that man has intellect as well as emotion and he needs both. A train cannot run with just an engine (i.e., intellect) but needs fuel as well (i.e., emotion). Many a time human beings instead of reasoning let their emotions decide for them. But that should not obliterate thinking altogether. This tendency of letting emotions rule over you with no place for thought becomes superstition. However if the decisions taken on the spur of emotion are put to test by reasoning it means developing it into a thought.

Four Criteria of Faith

The first is verifying the facts or the truth. The faith that does not allow to be questioned on the basis of facts or truth is a superstition. What does this mean? Babasaheb Ambedkar gives an apt illustration. He says, ‘If you find a yellow shining piece of metal, do you burst with joy that you have found a precious piece of gold? No. You argue with yourself that when put to the test of fire, the piece will shine if it is gold and will not if it is only a piece of brass. You give so much thought while deciding about a piece of metal. Why don’t you take such a considered decision regarding your values that guide and sustain your life? You must take a decision about your values thoughtfully. It means that you ought to put your faith to the test of the fire of truth.’

The second criterion of faith is non-violence. In any society people have diverse faiths. They all should be allowed to preach and propagate their faiths as long as they confine their activities within the bounds of propriety. To allow people adhering to faiths other than ours to propagate, to consolidate and to persuade others to accept that faith is akin to reverence for others’ faiths. It is tolerance and is rooted in non-violence, the fundamental rule of life. And to insist that ‘those who adhere to faiths other than ours have no place here’ is in itself an enormous superstition. Thus the first criterion of faith is truth and the second non-violence.

What is the third criterion? It is being dynamic. It can be tested as below. Fear and lure are two drives that weaken a human being’s determination. For example, you believe in your religion. Your faith is strong and deep. Now some one asks you, ‘Come on, I will give you 20 lakh rupees cash down, will you change your faith?’ It is likely that you first make sure that nobody is around within a hearing distance and ask him, ‘will you really give me that much money? Then may be I need not fuss over my religion and do as you ask me to do.’ Similarly if someone puts a sword to your or your child’s throat and threatens, ‘either you change your religion or you (or your child) are dead’, how will you react? You will certainly think, ‘let me extricate my neck first, and then think what to do next. I can change my hats any number of times only if my head remains intact on my shoulder.’ You will then tell him, ‘my life is worth millions. I am prepared to change my religion as you wish.’ You also quietly contemplate, ‘Eventually as the situation improves I will be back into my fold again.’ This you may call a wise decision but you are certainly not faithful to your religion. In both these cases it is not the faith but lure and fear that drive you to action against your faith. Excepting such extreme situations, it should be the other way round.

The fourth criterion is that faith sublimates your value judgement while; superstition on the contrary, debases it. Whenever I accept something as part my faith, I have to accept its value content too. If Lord Ram occupies an important place in my faith, then the values- truth and constancy (to his wife despite the custom of the day of having several wives)-that he upheld should also be important to me. It would be quite interesting to find out whether those who extol Lord Ram so fervently accept and stick to these two values-Truth and Constancy, in their personal life. About truth less said the better in this country. ‘Truth alone triumphs’ is our motto that is engraved on our national emblem. But our everyday experience tells us that untruth generally triumphs. What we regard as faith, some of them call loyalty. Others describe it as sensible (or shrewd?) faith. The choice of the word aside, what is important is whether you examine your faith or not; whether you tolerate other faiths and do them no violence; whether your faith drives you to action.

The most important, whether your faith makes you a sublime human being or a debased one. So, these are the criteria that help you examine your faith. Insistence on such examination alone brings about human progress. Discourse on faith and superstition therefore is an important matter in the ideological discussions of the ANS movement.

Dr Narendra Dabholkar

(Translated by Suman Oak)