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|
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.