Scientific Temper~II 

Indian society, with regional variations, has always been very conservative and superstitious, and the mind-set has hardly changed in spite of reform movements in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The average Indian’s consciousness is largely clouded by obtrusive superstitions and prejudices 

Scientific Temper~II 

Representation image [Photo:SNS]

Adangerous myth circulating has been about the magical properties of tiger meat, bones, and skins. Consumption of tiger meat and bones is believed to enhance the muscle power of the body. The Yogis believe that doing meditation sitting on the tiger skin will give them extra yogic power. Illegal trade in tiger parts still thrives in the black markets of major cities of the world. Myths about the tiger have led to the near extinction of this majestic animal.

India presents a bewildering picture about the prevalence and practice of superstitions, myths, and illusions. Being an ancient civilization, the Indian sub-continent has not only been the greatest treasure house of art, culture, literature, religion, medicine, science, folklore and mythology, it is also the most fertile breeding ground of superstitions and myths, supported and sustained by hundreds of religious sects and institutions, thousands of self-styled god men, astrologers, palmists, numerologists, Vastu Shastra practitioners and others.

Indian society, with regional variations, has always been very conservative and superstitious, and the mind-set has hardly changed in spite of reform movements in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The average Indian’s consciousness is largely clouded by obtrusive superstitions and prejudices. Three most important events in human life are birth, marriage, and death and for all these occasions, superstitions and prejudices have been structured into compulsive rituals (like the visit of eunuchs for the new-born babies being considered auspicious), which cannot be deviated from. So, the average Indian like many other people of the world carries the burden of superstition from birth to death.


There is no denying the fact that a large number of apparently innocuous superstitions provide spice to daily life. Superstitions like breaking the coconut on various occasions, choosing a favourite number for the new car, not eating eggs and bananas before going for exams, giving a spoonful of curd or putting a tilak of dahi and chandan before embarking on a journey, asking a person to sit down if he sneezes while leaving the house, putting lines of sandalwood paste on the forehead, putting the right foot first and for ladies left foot while stepping out of the house, not to accept money with the left hand {meaning bribery), hanging of a garland of lemons and chilies at the doors of shops and trucks etc. have become rituals which will not go away.

It would be pertinent to mention, out of hundreds, a few most popular superstitions and myths in Indian society:

(i) Rahu Kalam : Rahu kaal is considered to be the most inauspicious part of the day and is shunned for ceremonies, journeys etc. Millions of people, especially in the southern States strictly adhere to this superstition. It has been observed that even high-ranking officers from South India and also many officers from the North, will never take oath, assume charge of a new assignment, start a journey, or conduct any ceremony (marriage etc.) during the periods of Rahu Kalam.

(ii) Days of Gods: All days of the week have been assigned to various Gods and certain days and time are considered more auspicious than the others. The days of Lord Ganesha (Wednesday), Lord Shiva (Monday) and Goddess Laksmi (Thursday or Gurubar) are considered special. Saturday is considered inauspicious and generally people don’t buy articles made of iron or start any iron-work. Similarly, the months of the year are assigned to various gods and some months are considered auspicious or some others inauspicious for various ceremonies like marriage etc.

(iii) Washing of sins: Millions of people do believe in the myth that a dip in the Ganga, especially at the Triveni Sangam during the Kumbh, will wash away all the past sins of life. (iv) Ganga Water: There is an age-old belief that the sacred river Ganga can never be polluted and Ganga water kept in copper vessels for years will not collect sediment or bacteria. It has been proved as a myth as the Ganga today is highly polluted from Varanasi to Ganga Sagar and it isn’t fit for bathing, not to speak of drinking. (v) Manikarnika Ghat: Another myth highly ingrained in a million minds has been that cremation at Manikarnika Mahashamshan of Varanasi, especially with sandalwood, will enable the soul to rise to heaven.

(vi) It is believed that throwing coins into sacred rivers and sacred ponds will result in fulfilling one’s wish. This practice is also universal at the Trevi fountain of Rome.

But much more reprehensible and dangerous have been illusions about life, death, health, after-life, heaven and hell, salvation, road to prosperity etc, created by the religious sects, godmen, astrologers, palmists, Tantriks and fortune tellers. A number of godmen and godwomen have crowned themselves as avatars to be worshipped like gods and goddesses. Their large followings have made them rich, and they live in grand style with a retinue of volunteers, security staff and companions. Crimes, rape, sexual abuse, even murder in secrecy are not uncommon in these organizations. It is a great irony and a matter of shame that when a majority of Indian gods are women, Indian women in general have been the most suppressed lot. Not very long ago, the girl child was murdered at birth or before birth in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer and in parts of Haryana. Crimes against women like Sati and bride-burning have no parallel in the world. Brideburning for dowry is still rampant. There is also no parallel of how widows are maltreated in India. Even today, in rural areas, widows are socially ostracized ~ they are not allowed to participate in pujas, auspicious occasions like weddings and entertainment programmes. They are supposed to wear white clothes, eat only vegetarian food without onions and garlic once a day, observe all fasting rules, not to go out, and sleep on the floor.

All this goes against Article 51A of the Indian Constitution. Article 51-A directs all the citizens of India “(h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform; (i) to safeguard public property and to abjure violence; (j) to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.”

Unfortunately, development of the scientific temper has not been achieved. On the contrary, all rationalities are lost in the quagmire of religious fundamentalism. Surprisingly, even our scientists have generally failed to inspire the scientific temper among the people. A 2007 survey called “Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India” conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture of the Trinity College along with the Centre for Inquiry (India) revealed certain startling facts about scientific temper. Out of 1,100 scientists from 130 institutions surveyed, 69 per cent strongly approved introduction of Astrology in the courses of Universities; 67 per cent strongly approved seeking blessings from Tirupati before rocket launches; 38 per cent believed God could perform miracles; 24 per cent admitted that godmen could do miracles; 16 per cent believed in faith-healing and 14 per cent believed in Vastu.

Modern Indian history is replete with instances of the relentless fight against superstitions, obscurantism, bigotry, and social evils spearheaded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Henry Derozio, Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita. Ram Mohan Roy, with the help of the Governor General, Lord Bentinck, succeeded in enacting a law banning Sati. Vidyasagar could stop child marriages and introduce widow re-marriage. Swami Vivekananda stressed on liberal education for all men and women as the gateway to freedom and enlightenment removing the darkness of superstitions and casteism.

But, in spite of reform movements and India having the most liberal Constitution, the ground situation about social obscurantism, superstitions and discrimination is rather grim. The rationalists who are a small minority in the country are looked upon as the enemies of religion: they have to live in fear. Narendra Dabholkar, the chief architect and campaigner of the Maharashtra Anti-Superstition Bill was brutally killed four months before the Act was passed on 20 December 2013. Another rationalist and activist, Sanal Edamaruku, who exposed the so-called Jesus miracle in Vile Parle in March 2012 had to flee to Finland as he was booked under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious sentiments. Section 295A of the IPC is clearly in conflict with Article 51-A of the Constitution but nobody bothered about it.

Eminent scientists and intellectuals including U N Rao, Yash Pal, Jayant Narlikar, Ram Puniyani, Innaiah Narisetti, Pusha Bhargava and Meera Nanda had opposed Astrology and were in favour of banning it from educational institutions. In two law suits ~ P M Bhargava vs. UGC, Andhra High Court (2001) and P M Bhargava vs. UGC, Supreme Court (2004) challenging the UGC decision to introduce astrology in universities, the courts held that Article 51-A was too vague to be applied in this case. In 2011, Janhit Manch, a nonprofit organization filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Bombay High Court for compulsory teaching of ‘scientific temper’ in all schools under Article 51-A of the Constitution and also requested the Court that a disclaimer be added in all advertisements of astrology, Vastu Shastra, Feng Shui, tarot cards etc. The Bombay High Court rejected the PIL citing the Supreme Court verdict in the 2004 case ~ P M Bhargava vs. the UGC. The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental work “A Critique of Pure Reason” in 1781 and 1787 (revised). Kant has maintained that one doesn’t need the church or God to tell what is right and what is wrong because every rational human is a sovereign republic, and he can legislate for himself and take ethical decisions coming out of his inner consciousness and good will ~ the ‘Categorical Imperative’. Since the times of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine and JeanPaul Sartre, much water has flown down the Rhine, the Seine and the Ganga. Will the ‘Age of Reason’ ever dawn on us?

(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 brahmas@gmail.com)