Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Beyond Religion and Superstition


Over half a century ago, behavioural psychologist B F Skinner conducted a study with a group of pigeons in order to understand superstitious behaviour.  He used some simple technique to produce a certain physical response from the pigeons.  It was a response like raising a wing on the application of a stimulus. When the wing was raised, the pigeon’s behaviour was reinforced by giving it food.  The stimulus-response-reinforcement combo was repeated many times.  Finally the bird began to associate the behaviour (raising the wing) with the getting of food.  It thought that it got food because it raised its wing.  A superstition was born.

Superstition is a mistaken understanding of the cause-effect relationship.  A few days back I was walking along the road when a cat, a black one at that, crossed the road in front of me.  There was only one other man walking in front of me when the incident took place.  He was rendered motionless as if struck dead by lightning.  He spat out hatefully and stood there until I walked ahead and moved on indifferent to the cat’s ‘insolence.’  The man walked behind me because his superstitious belief consoled him that the disaster brought by the black cat would fall on the first person to walk the road after it had crossed it.  His religion, like most, was altruistic enough to pass on imminent disasters to others.

There is absolutely no cause-effect relationship between a cat (black or any colour) crossing our path and the inconveniences that may impede our day-to-day activities.  At any rate, the man’s spittle could not have possessed the supernatural power to avert such impediments.  All absolutely misperceived cause-effect relationships. 

I remember a story I read many years ago.  There was a sage who was troubled incessantly by rats which attacked his puja samagri.  He solved his problem by keeping a cat.  But the cat became so fond of him that it started posing impediments during the puja.  The sage solved the problem by tying up the cat while the puja was on.  Eventually the rats became extinct in the premises but the cat’s affectionate relationship with the sage continued. 

Years passed.  The sage died.  The cat was succeeded by its kitten which also grew up into a big cat though it did not disturb the puja in any way.  The disciples of the sage had seen a cat being tied up during the puja and thought that tying up a cat during the puja was an integral part of the ritual.  Thus a tied-up cat entered the canons of the ritual. 

Faith moving the mountains of Bamiyan
Most religious practices have some such banal origin.  But faith can move the mountains, as Jesus said.  Though Jesus was not unfortunate to see his statement in real action, we have been: we witnessed the Taliban fundamentalists moving the Buddhas of the Bamiyan mountains with dynamite.  What brought the dynamite to the Buddhas was religious faith. 

Of late, we have been witnessing some such dynamism in our own country too.  “In the country of the Buddha and the Mahatma,” as our Prime Minister realised though a little slowly and late.  Since the Buddha and the Mahatma are not on the priority list of the people whose support Mr Modi cannot ignore, he picked up Swami Vivekananda as a prop.  "The principle of equal respect and treatment has been a part of India's ethos. We believe that there is truth in every religion," the Prime Minister quoted the Swami. 

Swami Vivekananda is one who went to the extent of saying that playing football might take one nearer to heaven than reading the Gita.  The swami was very rational in his approach to religion and spirituality.  He did not endorse or condone ludicrous superstitions, let alone the intolerance and hatred they generate. 

Every religion, including the ones that sought the Prime Minister’s active intervention yesterday for invoking the spirits of the Buddha and the Mahatma, makes prolific use of superstitions particularly in their rituals.  It may be impossible to have religious practices without rituals.  Yet, I think, if religions tried to understand their faith a little more rationally, there would be less of dynamite and its dynamism and more of understanding and tolerance among human beings.


16 comments:

  1. Very rightly said! Often ppl blindly follow things, causing inconvenience to them and others.

    religion's rituals have superstitions but as they are centuries old, they are followed as a part of our culture, heritage...

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    1. Nothing is justifiable merely in the name of heritage or culture, Amrita. Even culture should undergo evolution. As science advances our understanding of culture should evolve. It doesn't happen unfortunately because people refuse to open their eyes.

      One of my former students views me as a bitter enemy of Mr Modi merely because I question the latter all the time. What I noticed about the young man is that he refuses to open his eyes to the reality and hence thinks that what the darkness (caused by his shutting the eyes) is the truth. He refuses to see one side of the reality. Putting it positively, he sees one side of the reality. This is what superstition is about.

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  2. One of the many ills of social order is the fear in man to live on his own. This fear forces him to look upon his ancestors, peers or role models and copy their acts believing it to be a tried and tested path. Thus the birth of concept of superstition. Once we decide to chalk our own path through our own experiences we tend to ask questions on each blindly followed ritual..

    I liked the pigeon analysis :)

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    1. I summarised the pigeon study and hence may not sound convincing enough to some people.

      Fear. You said it. Fear is what keeps people superstitious. If only the man in my anecdote (para 2) dared to move on just to see what ill would befall him merely because a cat crossed his path, he would have realised that the cat was innocuous. But, of course, if he still nurtured the fear he would surely meet with disaster. Fear brings disasters. Self-fulfilment of prophesy, they call it in psychology.

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  3. I really liked your examples set for superstitions.
    Small acts as such can have a drastic effect on the new generation.
    What we do today because of a mistake, they might think of it as a good luck charm!

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    1. We have to create the new reality for the new generation. Most of them are already changing. They have begun to question a lot of things.

      Examples play a big role. The elders have to set the example. But the elders are superstitious, buying the lucky charm from the nearest shaman or priest!

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  4. I wonder how superstitions live longer defying the logic and rationality. A black cat has right for his way. He too has to go somewhere.

    It is more than religion for sure. I have seen people who are not religious and liberal but scared of black cat or similar things. Probably it is psychology of people and fear of bad luck makes them believe superstitions blindly.

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    1. Superstition and religion are closely related, Anand. Merely because of the refusal to use reason. Both refuse to apply reason. Both rely on faith. Religion may have the backing of theology or pseudo-philosophy as in the case of Indian religions.

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  5. Lovely post. Especially apt since we are living in a time where Inspite of the progress we are making, these things are keeping us behind.

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    1. A hearty welcome to you, Sunila, in this space.

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  6. That is an amazing research article. Just dumbstruck after reading it. When our admiration is getting so hackneyed, your blogs convey any familiar truth or idea in an unpredictably different way beyond a normal reader's knowledge and thinking. Wonderful write up, sir. Enjoyed.

    PS: The young reader by my side has started reading your blogs and started asking many questions which I'm not able to answer. Such questions. :)
    "He must be overloaded with many works. Still how does he find time to read or write so many things?" "Does he laugh?" "Do you think he even smiles?"

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    1. Not research, really. Memory, a gift I received from my genes. I read about the systems perspective in Fritjof Capra's book, 'The Turning Point,' in 1984. I just had to pull out a copy of it from the school library for verifying my memory. In fact, I'm just reaping the benefits of the past reading. So there's not much time involved...

      Tell "the young reader" that smiles haven't abandoned me totally yet. I'm glad she tries to read me.

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    2. Yes. I agree. You do have scholarly retention.

      Of course, she tries to "read you"!

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  7. Very aptly said Sir, liked the way you've explained the trivialities of religious rituals and superstitions.

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    1. Some things just cling on to us and we carry them along as unnecessary baggage!

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  8. Amazing eye opening points and wisdom looking from top view :)). Happy to read your blogs...

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