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Scientific Temper~I 

Superstitions have been present throughout the history of England. The people’s beliefs in witches, the devil, ghosts, apparitions, and magical healing etc. were entirely based on superstitions. What was true of Britain was also largely true of European societies at that time


Nearly ninety-eight per cent of the adult population of the earth carry some baggage of superstitions, myths, and illusions in addition to inborn and inherent prejudices. The remaining two per cent who may claim to be rationalists are also not totally free from the influence of superstitions. The older the civilization, the bigger is the basket of superstitions and myths. By that count, the two living ancient civilizations ~ Indian and Chinese ~ should have the largest burden of superstitions. Every country, every community and every religion has its share of superstitions but new ones are added coming from other countries because of globalization. In fact, the list is endless; if one tries to compile all of them in a book, it may run into dozens of volumes.

Superstition is defined as “belief that is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, but is connected with old ideas about magic, etc.” (Cambridge Dictionary). According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning of superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance or a false conception of causation.” Whatever way it is defined, superstition has no scientific evidence or causal relationship with reality.

The irony is that in spite of being disproved again and again and strong opposition to them in all ages, superstitions don’t go away; all societies embrace them as parts of their culture passed on from one generation to another. No society or community wants to discard their belief system including belief in superstitions. Knowing full well that superstitions are irrational beliefs, people would like to give them the benefit of the doubt thinking they may bring good luck. Therefore, superstitions have a long shelf life. Many societies also believe that superstitions add spice to the dull human existence.

Contrary to common perceptions, no superstition or myth can be regarded as ‘harmless’ or ‘neutral’. Studies by psychologists have shown that superstitious beliefs, if practiced, have a definite impact on outcomes and have social cost. For example, if a surgeon believes that he should not conduct medical procedures on a particular day, it may cause unintended suffering to his patients. Occasionally, a superstitious belief may bring accidental good luck but that would only be a coincidence and has no causal relationship. Superstition has infiltrated almost all aspects and activities of human life ~ numbers, calendar days, timings of events (muhurtam), colours of garments, decoration, sitting positions in office, lay-out of residential buildings, food habits, arts, culture, entertainment, sports, adventure, business, religion, animals, Zodiac signs, etc. Certain superstitions and myths have crossed national boundaries and have become universal while the bulk of them are still country, region or community-specific. It is impossible to list out and explain the mountain of superstitions and therefore, I have confined myself to a few illustrative examples in this article.

Historically, superstitions are deeply entrenched in certain professions ~ the sailors and the Navy, medical personnel, theatre groups, businessmen, politicians etc. Irrespective of their origins, they spread across national boundaries and become international and permanent in the respective professional groups.

One of the common global superstitions concerns mathematical numbers. There are superstitions galore in almost all countries about the numbers from 0 to 9 and their combinations. Number 13 which has biblical origins (the apostle who betrayed Jesus was the 13th guest at the Last Supper), has been a dreadful number throughout the world. Millions of people fear this number and hundreds of cricketers have been dismissed after reaching a score of 13. Not only this, in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world, one may notice that number 13 is omitted from hotel rooms, lifts, floors, buildings etc. and the 13th day is avoided for all auspicious occasions.

Number 13 has acquired a special Greek name, triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the 13th) and paraskevidekatriaphobia (the fear of Friday the 13th). People are so afraid of this seemingly innocent number that the United States loses almost one billion dollars every time the 13th falls on a Friday. There is an opposite superstition about this number in some countries because number 13 had been extremely lucky for certain people like the German genius, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. Psychologists will say that there is nothing wrong with the number 13; it is the psychological pressure which the superstition exerts on the individual.

Similarly, there are conflicting views on numbers in various countries. As for example, in China, numbers are auspicious or inauspicious depending on the sounds they produce. Most Chinese believe that number 8 is auspicious because the sound has a positive meaning of prosperity whereas number 4 is phonologically negative similar to the meaning of death. Because of the Chinese influence, Japan has similar superstitions about the numbers 8 and 4. For the Japanese, numbers 4 and 9 are unlucky and number 7 which is an important number in Buddhism is considered lucky.

In modern popular culture, number 666 is recognized as a symbol of anti-Christ and known as the ‘devil number’ or ‘the number of the Beast’ (Book of Revelation). There are superstitions about odd and even numbers also. In India, no number is specifically considered inauspicious, but certain numbers are believed to be luckier, like the number 4 (because of four Vedas), the number 11 (known as the master number) and the number 18 (because there are 18 Puranas, 18 Parvas in the Mahabharata and 18 Adhyayas in the Gita). Numerology has been very popular in India and many Indians believe in predictive numerology. Even the greatest Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Man who Knew Infinity, played with numbers indicating various predictive consequences. Number 24 had been the magic number in his life and there was a strange connection of this mystery number with his Goddess Namagiri who appeared again and again in his unconscious mind. Another common global superstition is related to animals ~ cats, dogs, pigs, cows, horses, lions, birds, and snakes etc. Black cats are often considered as a symbol of Halloween or witchcraft and have typically been viewed as a bad omen. A black cat crossing the road is considered to bring bad luck and one should immediately take preventive measures to ward off the evil spirit ~ avoid taking the path or let another person pass before you or chant some mantras. Superstitions about black cats also vary from culture to culture. Among the Gaels and Celtic people (Welsh, Ireland and Scotland) and in Japan, black cats have positive associations, so also with the English mariners.

Good or bad luck is associated with a large number of animals in almost all countries. Lions representing power have become an auspicious national symbol in many European and Asian countries. Crow’s cawing and vulture’s presence on the house top or on the nearby tree are very bad omens indicating impending threat of death. Presence of a white owl (carrier of Lakshmi) in the house premises indicates prosperity will come. A cobra living in a property is believed to protect the owner’s wealth. India attributed godliness to many animals, birds, and trees and worshipped them like the cows, which was ridiculed by the West. Now the modern environmentalists and scientists have recognized the noble thoughts and holistic approach for the preservation of the environment enabling all living beings to live in peace and harmony. They have also recognized the supernatural powers of many animals and birds to warn about impending natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones.

Ancient India developed a system of preservation by designating sacred animals, sacred birds, sacred ponds, sacred forests, sacred places, and sacred trees, which were not to be harmed by humans realizing our indebtedness (Rin) to the natural and supra-natural powers.

Yet another common superstition relates to the breaking of glass, mirror, eyeglasses, photo frames etc., which is believed to bring bad luck. Coincidence of events like the one described below gives strong credence to the belief prevailing in many countries. Many years ago, just before my wife and I were to catch a flight for the Andamans, a small boy picked up my wife’s specs from the table and dropped it on the floor breaking the glass. The elders raised a hue and cry saying it was a bad omen which came true after reaching Port Blair. In the evening, while resting at the Corbyn’s Cove Beach, a big coconut fell on my wife brushing her head and she was thrown several feet away. She was rushed to the hospital in an unconscious state.

Fortunately, she survived, and the doctor was surprised to find that she suffered no physical damage. While I cannot believe that it had any connection with the breaking of the eyeglasses, others firmly believed it was so. Superstitions have been present throughout the history of England. The people’s beliefs in witches, the devil, ghosts, apparitions, and magical healing etc. were entirely based on superstitions. What was true of Britain was also largely true of European societies at that time. In modern Britain, a survey conducted by the National Science Week in 2003 and a poll carried out in 2007 revealed that out of many superstitions, “Knocking on the wood” is the most popular superstition followed by “Crossing the fingers” for good luck.

Owing to the influence of the Ottoman Empire, the popular Turkish superstitions and myths got wide currency in countries spreading from Morocco to Indonesia, including India. Some of the common Turkish superstitions are ‘knocking on wood’ to protect from all evils; breaking a mirror brings bad luck and seven years of unhappiness; repeating something forty times can make a thing happen; wearing an amulet (Nazar) is supposed to protect against the ‘evil eye’; if slippers are upside down inside the house, somebody will die; itching of the right hand indicates unexpected inflow of money and itching of the left hand possible loss of money; and the black cat may bring bad luck.

Certain superstitions, especially in the field of medicine and health, have over the years turned into modern myths and in spite of being scientifically proved wrong, they have never gone away. The myth that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac and has many health benefits has led to wanton killing of thousands of this endangered species all over the world.

The Scientific American reported (April 2017) about the brazen slaying of a white rhino in a wildlife reserve on the outskirts of Paris, pushing this endangered sub-species of the northern white rhino closer to extinction. Vietnam and China have been the largest and second largest blackmarket destinations for rhino horn which is sold for various purposes. According to a 2012 report of TRAFFIC International, “Use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac in Asian traditional medicine has long been debunked as a denigrating, unjust characterization of the trade by Western media. But such usage is now, rather incredibly, being documented in Vietnam as the media myth turns full circle.”

The writer is a former Dy. Comptroller &Auditor General of India and a former Ombudsman of Reserve Bank of India. He is also a writer of several books and can be reached at [email protected]