In the case of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, shot dead in Pune on 20 August 2013, two of India’s more problematic social phenomena — superstition and vigilantism — collided in gruesome fashion.
Dabholkar was out for his morning walk, according to police, when two men shot him down in the street and sped away on motorcycles. He’d spent years lobbying for the Maharashtra government to pass legislation banning superstition and black magic — not that legislation has stamped out dowry payments or child marriages in India, but as a rationalist, he would have wanted to direct his anti-superstition crusade down a proper legal channel.
Outside the corridors of power, Dabholkar also confronted holy men on the streets and spoke at rallies against black magic and other superstitious practices. Astrology and numerology are hardly minor entries in the overall belief structure of India, but Dabholkar criticised them openly. His overall aim was no less than a mass cultural and social shift away from faith in the metaphysical and towards a reliance on observable facts.
Superstition is big business in India — not in the sense that you could use it as the basis for a set of chain stores across the country, but you’ll probably have to pay a godman to bless the earth on which each outlet is built. As the wonderfully named Online Panditji puts it,
“Building of your office is should be sanctified by doing Vastu Puja, unless which evil forces may do damage to your business. If you have selected a site which has location problem, you cannot do well in your business. Location and construction of the office building may have limitation, because of which they must be purified. This will favor your business performance.”
There’s a big market for in-home pujas, too. In Kerala, a friend of mine lived in a small shack somewhere between the official poverty line and bare-bones survival with his mother, wife, brother, sister-in-law, and five children. He ate about one and a half meals a day, and smoked regular cigarettes to stave off hunger.
One night, he invited a Hindu holy man into his home to perform an all-night puja that would bring divine blessings and riches upon his home. The puja cost 25,000 rupees, enough to feed his whole family for months. Two and a half years later, his day-to-day financial struggle continues, just the same as it always did.
Apart from the individual practitioners, superstition also has its supporting industries. The puja material business whose bottom line has grown in the economic crisis, for example, or the gold merchants whose sales balloon on the holy day of Akshaya Tritiya each year. Or the Indigo Nazar Protection Centre in Mumbai, which offers trinkets and talismans for as much as 800 rupees to ward off ‘evil eye’ (a kind of personalised, envious curse bestowed by one upon another).
Somewhere along the superstition supply line, Dabholkar stopped being a customary opposing force and became a threat that needed eliminating. Shortly before his death, he reported to the Times of India that he had recently been told, “Remember Gandhi; remember what we did to him,” a reference to the assassination of India’s great freedom fighter by a dissenting compatriot. Dabholkar said he wasn’t too bothered — “I have been used to such threats since 1983” — but now he’s gone, his attempts to follow the proper legal course shot in their tracks by a superstitious vigilante mob.
In parts of India, some believe a dog bite can lead to the birth of puppies from inside the human body in a matter of weeks. Another belief, almost universally understood and accepted, is that menstruating women are unclean and should stay off temple grounds for the duration of their period. Dr Narendra Dabholkar proved, in his life and death, that whether or not you are right can be less important than the collective power of an idea. His hope, carried on by fellow activists like Sanal Edamaruku, was that rational ideas will someday overcome India’s long-held superstitions. Women would be allowed to prepare food at any time of the month; dog bites would be treated with a rabies shot; and my poverty-stricken friend would invest in sacks of rice and vegetables instead of an all-night puja.
I find it almost impossible to imagine this, and I wonder if it might destroy some of India’s charm. But, like everything else Dabholkar said, it seems reasonable.