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The Power of Superstition in Public Life in India

Why are superstitions a part of public life in India? The modern mechanisms for risk-management or “disciplines” ranging from statistics to modern medicine exist side-by-side with superstitions in the country. The answer to why these disciplines have not penetrated into the pores of Indian society 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 supernatural, 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 second feature is the one that I find most interesting about superstitions.  

You can believe in the death of god, the coming of a secular age, the Age of Reason, but you find superstitions in all societies. The little gods or goddesses or demons and devils – or whoever or whatever they are – that we hope will intercede on our behalf when we are in trouble, are so many in number and so indeterminate in nature that you cannot extinguish them all. They are by nature inconsistent and profoundly heterogeneous. That is why they cannot be refuted all at once. You may be superstitious in one context – in a completely secular context like a baseball game, an examination or a job interview – but not in another. Superstitions speak of some 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 that we might in small ways even help in bringing them about. Superstition seems to be a human universal.  

The moral-political question is: should superstition be a part of public life? Our private superstitions cause no public anguish. Often, for example, when flying, I steal a glance at the monthly predictions about my life published in the in-flight magazine, while taking care not to let the person next to me see me doing this, for I do it with some sense of shame: it perhaps does not quite go with my image of myself. But then I comfort myself with the thought that the horoscopes are there, not just for myself, a “superstitious Indian”, but for the average airlines passenger. Market research must have shown that people feel curious about their own future, that this will make them look at the magazine. (This fact may have even been a factor in determining the advertising rates charged by the publication.) This is superstition as my “private” indulgence in my own hopes and fears. Unless your vision of a desirable society is one made up of hyper-rational atheists, there is no problem with private superstition.  

Reason and Public Life

Problems arise when people bring “miracles” into modern public life. We are, understandably, uncomfortable with the president of a country announcing that instructions from god had influenced his decision to go to war (Bruce Lincoln has written a fascinating book on the topic).  

We feel uncomfortable because we think that public life is best based on Reason. There is a famous episode in the history of the nationalist movement in India that occurred after an earthquake devastated the state of Bihar in 1934. This was a historic debate between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, undoubtedly two of the finest products of the Indo-British cultural encounter. Gandhi described the disaster as divine retribution for the sin of untouchability that existed in Indian society. 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.  

I will not pronounce on the question of who was right, Gandhi or Tagore. My examples will have shown that the name of god can be taken in public life by different kinds of people for different ends, as much in favour of non-violence and social justice as in favour of unjust and unilateral wars. As a historian, I only observe that, whatever our normative positions, superstitions exist in public life in countries, both “developed” and “developing”.  

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. To give but a very recent example, The Telegraph reported on March 11, 2008, that a man named Hemant Bohra, a small-time priest at a temple devoted to Krishna, the Hindu god, in Jodhpur had taken to worshipping the chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, in whose “energy, vigour, and control” and “dazzling” countenance, he had found the manifestation of “shaktiroop Kalyani Devi, the goddess of strength, riding a lion”. In 2007, Bohra also published posters that portrayed Raje as “Annapurna (goddess of harvest)”. Bohra started a week-long puja (worship) and a ‘havan’ (ritual ceremony involving the use of fire) on March 6 this year.  

The idea was not only to celebrate the chief minister’s 55th birthday but also to “wish for the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party to which Raje belongs) to win over 108 seats in the assembly elections” scheduled later for the year. Most interesting was the way Bohra’s behaviour was both attacked and defended on grounds of democracy. The opposition political party, the Congress, said “such acts (as Bohra’s) have no place in a democracy”. But the BJP defended Bohra’s democratic right to self-expression thus, “The worship is purely an individual’s perception. Neither the party nor Madame Raje asked them to worship her. They are doing it on their own.” It is even possible that the chief minister is using this to promote herself over other competitors inside the party, for journalists do report dissension within the BJP. “On June 19 last year (2007)”, it is reported that “Sheetal Kunwar, wife of BJP leader Jaswant Singh, …filed a complaint in a local court against Bohra and BJP MLA (member of legislative assembly), the publisher of [a] poster” that depicted Raje as a goddess showering blessings on not only her ministers but being blessed by party leaders such as L K Advani and A B Vajpayee, shown in the images of the gods Brahma and Vishnu, respectively.  

One could give numerous other instances. 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”. The question I want to raise, though, is this: How do we understand the resilience of superstitions in public and political life in India? Or to put in another way: What is the work that superstition does in Indian public and political life?  

Taming Chance

For reasons of time and space, I can only provide a short and summary answer, something like a hypothesis. 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. My grandmother even used to make her dead children “survive” in an age of high child mortality in India.  

They would sometimes visit her from the world of the dead. My childhood was full of stories she would tell of such visitations. Superstitions are the most ancient mechanisms we have for taming chance and managing risks that threaten life and survival. If you grant me the point that 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 – this understanding that I have called superstition survive or even triumph over the assault of all the modern mechanisms we have developed for risk-management in our worldly lives?  

The modern mechanisms for taming chance – just to recapitulate what we all owe to the insights of Michel Foucault and, following him, Ian Hacking – are the disciplines, ranging from statistics to modern medicine, the successful deployment of which across whole sections of populations and through suitable institutions constitutes, in Foucault’s terms, “governmentality”. There is no doubt that these disciplinary practices create new risks in turn but that only gives rise to newer disciplines or sub-disciplines. The important point is that in the Foucauldian model, governmentality operates within the ambit of another kind of power that, for the purpose of the present discussions, I will call “political”.  

Political power, in its modern form, is not necessarily new but its fundamental characteristics distinguish it from powers that threaten or enhance life-chances. It is thus not about taming chance. Its primary purpose is to work out provisional but workable answers to how a group of people, for all the inequality and diversity that mark them, could constitute and live as a “moral community”. Political power is by nature collective, for it is for the use of a community. It cannot be therefore privatised, whereas taming chance is not necessarily a communal activity – it could be, but is not necessarily so – and can therefore be a private, individual activity as well. Govermentality is effective, it could be said therefore, when the modern strategies of taming chance – the disciplines and their corresponding institutions – are subsumed into the larger project of political power; that is to say, when the task of forming a moral community – crystallised, for instance, in the nation state – assumes hegemony in our efforts towards a collective life. This situation occurs when you have an effective rule of law – an expression of a moral/communal project – regulating the institutions through which disciplinary powers operate.  

Superstitions do not necessarily die out as a result of this. The attempt here is to marginalise and confine them in the realm of the so-called private. In other words, both the historical development of a conceptual and real distinction between “political power” and “governmentality” and their subsequent articulation (with disciplinary institutions harnessed to the project of forming a moral community, however internally differentiated and unequal) are the necessary pre-condition for disciplines displacing superstitions as our primary instrument for taming chance in pursuit of well-being (Needless to say that what I explicate here is an ideal-type situation and its logic and not any particular historical reality.)  

In Indian modernity, the nationalist project of making political power the hegemonic form of power in public life never quite succeeded. The very nature of political modernity was such that the project of welding Indians into a moral/ political community – the question of political power – could never be properly distinguished from the various strategies of power that were and are about enhancing life-chances. Conceptually, these are different projects. Let me first of all quickly explain what I mean when I say that this distinction between political power and the powers that enhance our life-chances was never clearly articulated.  

The historian, Shahid Amin, once wrote an essay in an early volume of Subaltern Studies that by now has earned the status of a classic, an essay documenting and detailing many of the 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. Amin’s essay clearly showed that, in getting drawn into the sphere of “the political”, Indian peasants assimilated Gandhi’s power with that of village gods and ghosts, in other words, to miraculous powers that could affect their life-chances. Peasant descriptions of Gandhi’s power would speak of such power in terms of its capacity to affect a person’s well-being. People would lose their life and limbs; it was said for example in many of these rumours, if they did not follow the Mahatma’s instructions.  

Political Power vs Pleasing God

You might think it was simply the “ignorant” peasants who did that. Had they been properly educated, they would have thought differently. I would disagree and ask: What about Mahatma Gandhi himself? Why would he say in 1934, that he hoped that other Indians would be superstitious enough to think of the Bihar earthquake as divine punishment for the sin of untouchability? You may counter that that was Gandhi using “superstition” simply in an instrumental way to communicate his political message to the unlettered masses. But I would again have to disagree and point out that Gandhi’s greatness lay precisely in the fact that he was morally incapable of being instrumental in his use of reasoning. Making instrumental use of superstition would have violated his moral refusal to make a means/end distinction in either public or personal life. In fact, the logic of his statement runs exactly counter to Foucault’s on the relationship between political and bio-power.  

Disciplinary societies function as such, I have argued, because they subordinate bio -power, the life-enhancing use of modern disciplines, to political power, that of the forming a moral, self-governing community. Gandhi was arguing the opposite by subordinating political power to the powers that govern our life-chances. If we did not solve the problem of untouchability – that is to say, if we did not form the right kind of moral community out of Indians – then, Gandhi was saying, we would endanger our lives by courting divine anger. Pleasing god, in order to survive, was a higher objective in this schema than removing untouchability. That Gandhi thought of god himself as always moral, or at least as always opposed to untouchability, is a different question.  

Gandhi was and remains, of course, a unique individual, always atypical. However, if we take his stance as a symptomatic or even allegorical representation of the history of the modern political sphere in India, a deeper question arises. All the institutions that Foucault wrote about came to India during the colonial rule and after. There was also no dearth of middle- or upper-class leaders (including Tagore or Nehru) who desired the disciplines to work and become the new ways of taming chance. 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 threaten our worldly and physical lives. 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 have not penetrated into the pores of Indian society and replaced earlier practices that served their function, the answer has to be sought, I am suggesting, 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 continuing salience of superstitions in Indian public life thus invites us to ask questions about what constitutes “the political” in India.  

Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly

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