Tambe: The thin lines among education, faith, and superstitions


A lemon and chili pepper are tied to a car on July 16 in India. In India, it is sometimes believed that this practice wards off evil. (Aadit Tambe/The Daily Iowan)

When I returned home to India this year for summer break, the position of my bed had been changed. It was now placed perpendicular to the position I had left it in last year.

I asked my parents about it, and they said my father’s oldest aunt had been visiting from Mumbai and insisted that my bed be placed in an east-west orientation so that my feet would not face south.

She explained to my parents, in Hindu religion, dead bodies are placed with their feet facing south before cremation. This position would therefore be inauspicious and bestow evil on me.

Although my parents and I practice Hinduism, we are not as devout as my great aunt. However, when I asked my parents if we had to listen to her advice, they said it wouldn’t hurt to follow what she said.

A lot of people in India, just like my father’s aunt, have deep faith in certain religious beliefs. These beliefs help them by giving them confidence and keeping it going.

According to research from Stanford University, economic development tends to reduce religiosity in a society. In other words, when income increases, religious activities decrease.

India has a poverty rate of 25 percent in rural areas, 17 percent in urban areas, according to a report from the World Bank. The Government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs reports that approximately 99.9 percent of Indians believe in religion and participate in religious activities.

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Research from the University of Constanta says, “Vulnerability [to religious superstitions] is considered to be closely linked to asset ownership; the more assets people have, the less vulnerable they are.”

Most religious beliefs people in India hold today originate from religious scriptures that are based on reason and were written thousands of years ago. Since then, India has changed and modernized, and therefore these writings do not necessarily have relevance today.

However, because of a lack of education added to poverty in India, people have faith in religious practices without necessarily understanding that religious scriptures were written thousands of years ago.

People in India seldom try to understand the reasons and original traditions behind religious practices and follow the practices blindly.

Religious faith, however, turns into confidence and helps people lead their day-to-day life. This confidence results in positive outcomes, which in turn motivates people to keep following the religious practices.

For instance, Christians in India have an age-old practice called faith healing. A person who has an ailment is called upon by the priest. The person describes the ailment, and the congregation collectively chants prayers to give the person positive energy and thus heal.

However, there is a thin line between faith and superstition. When people blindly practice religion ignoring reason, religious practices often turn into superstitions.

According to research published in the book Problems of Indian Education, the uneducated typically become victims of superstitions. Because the literacy rate in India is 74 percent, a lot of people fall prey to religious superstitions.

Although my parents are educated, they gave in to what my father’s aunt suggested without trying to understand the reason behind her belief.

After doing some research on the position of the bed, I came across ancient Hindu texts that suggested that strong magnetic forces of the Earth affect the human body the most when sleeping in a north-south position. This leads to disturbed sleep and the risk of increased blood pressure in some cases and has been proven true scientifically.

This is the scientific reason Hindu texts suggest sleeping in certain positions. However, over the years, this reason has gotten lost and most people avoid sleeping in a north-south position, claiming that it is the position dead bodies are placed in before cremation.

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Growing up in India, my life has been influenced by numerous practices. I have been told to follow age-old traditional beliefs: not leaving the house immediately after sneezing, having something sweet before an exam, and not cutting nails after sunset are just a few.

Now that I think of it, in the last two years that I lived in the United States, I did not follow these practices, and nothing ill happened.

Unlike people in India, people in the United States believe in superstitions that are not based on religion but often on good luck.

According to a poll conducted by CBS News, in America, 51 percent of people knocked on wood to avoid bad luck; 16 percent of people did not open umbrellas indoors; and 10 percent of people avoided black cats.

Younger people in the United States are more likely to believe in superstitions than older people, a report published by Gallup states. In India, however, it is mostly the elders who believe in superstitions.

Superstitions can be overcome with education. Beliefs laid down by religious traditions can be practiced in a more meaningful way, when the science behind them is understood.

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