Monday, July 14, 2008

Superstitions

The other day my wife and I attended a small get-together with our friends. There were around 15 of us and after a nice dinner we were sitting in a room and watching a movie. One of my friends, A, was lying on the floor and others were sitting in the floor and on the sofa. Another friend, N, casually walked on top of him and suddenly three women in the group started shouting. According to them, you are not supposed to walk over a person lying down on the floor. The reason according to them – if some one walks over a person lying down on the floor, that person’s health will be affected. In this case, A’s health will get affected. The 3 ladies shouted to my friend, N, till he walked back over A in the opposite direction. If you do that then everything is fine – according to them.

I was so pissed off seeing this. If this reaction has come from someone who is uneducated I could understand that. Here are 3 married women, well educated and having been in US for over 1 year cannot understand that these are just superstitions. I was thinking at that moment – “How can educated people be so dumb?”

I believe people often confuse with belief and superstition. A Brahmin not eating non vegetarian or a Hindu not eating cow is part of their belief and I believe no one should question that. But what about superstition?

This is not the first time I am seeing educated people who believe in these kinds of crappy superstitions. This one happened when I was a Masters student in the US. I know an Indian doctor who came to US around 25 years back. One day we had to go out together for something. When we got out of her house a black cat crossed our way. She told it is a bad sign and we should not go today. According to her, “if we go today we will face lot of hurdles in the things we plan to do”. I have heard my grand mother (who had gone to just 4th grade) talking all these and here is a doctor who is practicing in US for the last 20 odd years telling me the same thing. I told her that I don’t believe in those things and went ahead and did what I had to do without facing any hindrance. I came back and told her that even after I saw a black cat crossing my way I went ahead and did what I was planning to do and nothing happened. Even after proving to her that this is just a superstition she was not ready to accept it and still continues to believe in that same superstition.

I used to believe that education and exposure to the world could make you understand the hollowness of these age long superstitions. But I find a lot of examples to the contrary like this doctor or the three ladies.


IF EDUCATION OR EXPOSURE TO THE MODERN WORLD CANNOT MAKE ONE UNDERSTAND THE FOLLIES ABOUT SUPERSTITION, WHAT CAN?

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20 Comments:

Blogger padmakumar said...

Brijesh,

Atleast for your son or daughter, remove 'Nair' from their last name. Why modern educated people need caste in their name?

Padmakumar

July 14, 2008 7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nair,

I live in Sussex County NJ a country area. you wouldnt believe the beliefs in this area. you thought its just ours. people out here believe in some of the following
the Evil eye and Cat crossings.
its everywhere..

prem

July 14, 2008 1:25 PM  
Blogger Prem said...

That's a very interesting subject Nair!
I am a big fan of Meta-Physics. After reading a few books about this concept, my understanding toward superstition is rather different than what you are portraying.

What is belief? A state of mind where the mind gets comfortable in accepting that it perceives reality. For example - Lets say I believe in ghosts. When I say this, I accept that ghosts are real and I am comfortable accepting that!
This acceptance springs out of past personal experiences or hear-say experiences from acquaintances!
So if I say I believe in ghosts, and somebody who admires and respects me believes in what I say then they too, believe in ghosts!

Believes are just ways of accepting reality and it differs from person to person! One person's belief could entirely contradict another's past experiences!

This said, I tend to think superstition is another form of hear-say belief. If I completely believe that seeing a black cat before I go somewhere is going to ruin my day's events, then the probability of that happening is high - because I believe in the outcomes of this "bad" event, hence your doctor's case.
On the other hand, you believe that seeing a cat does nothing to you and hence you are not altering your state of mind (your belief) because of this perceived event (which in your belief is not "bad").
Hope that shines the light on a different perspective!
Prem

July 14, 2008 3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy; the mad daughter of a wise mother"
-Voltaire.

July 14, 2008 3:57 PM  
Blogger Raghu said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 14, 2008 6:02 PM  
Blogger Raghu said...

Hi, it sounds nice ! Good Show !

July 14, 2008 6:06 PM  
Blogger Raghu said...

As far as modern day topics are concerned, 2 topics are supposedly " hot". 1) nanotechnology, 2) metaphysics. I think, my friend here, cares least about the applied science and molecular level of technology. He chooses metaphysics. Well, I'd just reckon that the esteemed writer is busy making this lovely looking site, busier. As far as the common intricacies in life are concerned, one does not have to waste his time trying to outsmart the almighty, by all means. Sometimes, man can causally perform the smallest deeds in his life, that would include the so called "superstitions". After all , he does that for his own security and psychological tranquility.
If at all he claims to disprove with confusing sciences, and say that he does not attain any mental equanimity by this, he can "simply" do this to please some others who envisage the "happenings".

July 14, 2008 6:07 PM  
Blogger scorpiogenius said...

interesting...

old habits die hard man. why mention those ladies?? Even Thomas Alva Edison and Louis Pasteur were superstitious..

To think it this way, even belief in God could be considered superstitious no?;)

July 14, 2008 6:30 PM  
Blogger jhanvi said...

One's belief could be other person's disbelief.. Education has absolutely got nothing to do with religious beliefs and practices. Theres a section of "educated lot" who call in question,the existence of God!! So just because they question it can the existence of god be regarded a Superstition?? And whatz the take on the phrase "Bless u" by the Americans, when one sneezes?? It is believed that ,when one sneezes he tends to let out evil spirits, and hence to ward off the evils such a phrase is uttered.... so aren't the so called educated being superstitious in this regard???

July 14, 2008 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Sarath said...

You are only touching the very surface of an issue which I would say is very very deep! Think about it this way. When you say 'education', I am sure you mean educated in 'Modern Science'. How old is 'Modern Science' ? Few hundreds of years old? How old is mankind? Easily few thousands of years old. Over the thousands of years of mankind's evolution; his style of thinking, the way he perceives the nature and things around him has changed due to the influence of many teachings which is popular or finds wide acceptance during that time. 'Modern Science' is just one and the latest among them. We are all taught 'modern science' and our brain is moulded to think in terms of 'modern science'. Its difficult or even impossible for us to think beyond that. There are many things which exists in this world which I believe is carried over from some older form of thinking which existed before 'Modern Science'. For ex. 'Astrology'...most of us don't understand it in terms of chemistry/physics/biology...but we never think its something beyond or totally different which just cannot be explained by 'modern science'. So we end up calling it superstition! Its like trying to explain something in Quantum Mechanics (say 'tunnelling') using the principle of 'classical mechanics'.

July 14, 2008 7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why dont you look at it as just bad manners? even though i dont belive in this particular superstition, i dont like any1 crossing over me when i am lying down on the floor. For the person lying down and looking up, its just a bad sight. Our ancestors (or whoever came up with these superstitions) were not stupid. They just associated bad outcomes with something they didnt want people to do. Like, they say cutting nails in the night is inauspicious. 100 years back, there was no electricity and safe nail cutters. if you were using a crude knife to cut your nails sitting in front of a dimly lit kerosene lamp, there was a a good chance of injuring urself.

A brahmin professor of mine, used to say that the only reason for wearing the sacred thread is to find out if a person is keeping his body clean. Imagine not bathing for a week with the white thread around your body.

Almost all the superstitions have good reason behind them. May be they are not good enough anymore with the change in our lifestyle. But a person who believes in one or more of them is definitely not more stupid than you are.

July 14, 2008 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Lekhni said...

Good question. Unfortunately,part of the blame also lies in our education system too, where we learn to memorize things and accept stuff unquestioningly. We are taught not to question. So even when we should know better, we stop questioning superstitions :(

July 14, 2008 8:58 PM  
Anonymous Sarath said...

@Anonymous

Good reasoning.

@Lekhni
Very true. But it should work both ways. You shouldn't criticize something as supersstition without knowing anything about it also :P. For ex. Many people don't believe in Horoscope matching for marriages and I am pretty sure all those who don't believe in that don't know anything about the reasoning/science behind horoscopes. They just say its a superstition without even bothering to analyze it further. Thats not what science teach us either!

July 14, 2008 10:11 PM  
Blogger Miles said...

Do you know why you had no hurdles after going about your business after a black cat crossed your path? Because it must have had some white on it you couldn't see. Or may it was only a dark brown cat.

I knew a guy who had a black cat as a pet and his life was nothing but problems. It turns out the cat crossed his path every morning when he feed it.

July 15, 2008 12:29 AM  
Blogger drsubbu said...

Dear Brijesh,
Your Blog on 'superstitions' is quite interesting one.
there is athin line between sceince,believes,habits,personal mental comfort and daily living.
I certainly will not accept and encourage superstitious customs.Certainly I won't worry about a poor black cat crossin my way. In fact if anyone worries about it in England no one can ever pusue any journey as cats are too many here.
Personally I am very very 'afraid' of dogs. This is a boy hood fear ingrained deeply into my mind after reading an article in'The Hindu'even before becoming Medical Student about the disease RABIES caused by dog bite. My scientic knowledge and Medical awareness clearly taught me that dogs can be effectively vaccinated and rabies can be totally prevented. Yet my fear about unknown dogs has not become any less. Because I won't know which dogs have not been vaccinated.Besides I know in a country like UK all household dogs are vaccinated. Inspite of that last year in England, there was a very tragic incidence of a small baby bitten,torn and killed by a breed of 'American pit bull Dog'. This incidence only increased my fear of dogs. I am sure you would not want to call this a superstitious belief. It is a fear which I believes makes me very uncomfortable.

The day to day life of average simple people lives are governed by beliefs and psychological comfort zone within which they want to live.

Certainly walking over a friend in front of so many other individual is an act of disrespectul and indecent behaviour ,however close that friend may be. Besides it is health risk. A perfectly healthy adult can easily sustain a Rib fracture with out much force, splenic injury and life threatening bleeding is also possible. So such habits should be condemned by all means. Superstitious belief may be an euphemism to tell people no to do it! Also think about asking people to go round the temple 108 times. It is an advise of physical excercise for fitness. Same way not eat non vegetarian foods on a day in a week is a traditional dietary advice. Asking young newly married girls to do traditional rangoli and(kolams)in standing posture is to help straighten the normally retroverted uterus so that she can happy conceive soon! These and so many other rituals have lot scientific basis to them.These have not been scientifically explained to us all.
But some of the bad rituals which have nave become social maldies need to be condemned and abandoned.

I would like recall the film 'APPLLO 13' BASED ON THE REAL STORY ABOUT THE CALAMITY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE SPACESHIP WITH ITS ASTRONAUTS 'APPOLO 13'. IN THIS FILM before the trouble in the space ship started the wife of the main astronuaght while taking shoer in her own bathroom will find that her wedding ring- which had in that fingers for so many years since her marriage-slipping out of her finger and falling down and slips irretrievably down the drain and she gets disturbed and then the bad news from space ship follows,etc and etc. Also remember No.13 is a bad number in the Western World. As you may know Friday the 13 th is a bad date for many Westerners.

Also I should take this opportunity to highlight somthing else you wrote. Please remember college education does offer good opportunity and opens the door for learning. But by education one does not become wise. Only those who want to be wise and modern and broadminded alone pursue further to become the good individuals they are.Besides life inthe West including US may offer an opportunity for better exposure but it does not guarantee better thinking. If it did Bush would never invaded Iraq or Americans should have learned the good lessons taught by Vietnam war. Or would learned from Gandhi that 'eye for eye' only makes more blind people.

It is not nice to be judgemental based on assumptions. But you have my full support to eradicate unhealthy superstitious habbits and social injustice.
Dr T SUBRAMANIAN

July 15, 2008 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Siva said...

Nair,

I could not agree with Prem's comment more. It is all perception. In my opinion, you just looked at this from your point of view which assumes that these practices are stupid.your Doctor friend's wife has every right to beleive that crossing black cat is bad sign for her as you have every right to beleive that it is not. I think we should not judge this by looking at just one single incident. Nobody has the statistics to show the probability of something bad happen when you see the black cat.I think it is futile to judge others just based on assumptions without having the backings of facts.

July 17, 2008 6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought I will share an interesting story about superstition, hope, science and belief.

Once over dinner at my friends place, these friends of ours( then a recently married couple) told us that an astrologer predicted that they will have a baby within three years. My friend was very serious when he told us about that prediction. Not going into the biological (read as XXX [;)]) aspects of the prediction, I thought that this prediction was interesting and insightful. I believe it was in 2005-2006 around. We then joked that he could prove the astrologer wrong by continuing to use those contraceptives past the 3 year mark.

This couple we were joking to and I am joking about now, are "well educated" (US masters and PhD degree holders), "highly accomplished" (wealthy and respected) engineers and the 3 year mark is fast approaching [;)] and my friend believes that they will prove the astrologer right; And I hope and pray [to the god who I believe in] that they will..

Similar instances leaves me wondering where and how we would draw this fine line that separates superstition, belief and hope which is all ingrained, hidden and entangled somewhere within our brains!!!

Like many readers who commented earlier, if those "superstitions" and "beliefs" of mine are not affecting someone else or if its only influencing in some positive way (no broken ribs, no chopped off finger tips) why bother and raise our BP and heart rate on that..

-- GS

July 19, 2008 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And some thoughts on your doctor story.. :)
So Brijesh, lets say for the worst, you did have a number of hurdles for example some everyday stuff-- a flat tire, your car tire blew up, someone rammed into your car on the free way, you went to an office and the person in charge was on vacation for a week, for what ever reason on that particular day they asked for a document they had not asked anyone else before and the list could go on an on.... What would have been your reaction? Would you accept that the doctor was right and she "proved" something beyond reasonable doubt??? So just like you failed to convince her, she might not have been able to convince you either.. I don't understand why you sound so surprised about that..

Its sort of like taking homeopathic medication. There are 2 sides of practicing that.. Some say the success rate of homeopathic medicines are just as much as a placebo. But others claim that it can even cure cancer. But people still follow it for the same reasons hope and a success they heard about..

Its also more like the type I and type II errors in statistics. Say for example a prey thinks that there is a predator and starts running for cover when there isn't a predator in reality. That is Type I error. Now consider the case where the prey fails to see the predator and does not escape. Which do you think is important,critical and fatal?? Believing in superstitions are more like making type I errors most of the time. Now try convincing the deer that the lion wasn't there and it doesn't have to run whenever it thinks there is a lioness nearby!!!!

--GS

July 19, 2008 9:22 PM  
Anonymous raj said...

beliefs and education are quite apart. While education helps dealing with rational, beliefs (not superstitions) provide strength to deal with the unseen.
How many times we have to look beyond conventional education in life for
stronger decisions.
http://www.decisioncare.org

July 21, 2008 6:32 PM  
Blogger Ajith said...

Superstitions can be seen in every walk of life. Most of the cricketers are superstitious.
Superstition is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. I would say even believing in God is a superstition.

August 22, 2008 8:58 PM  

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