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The Evil Eye

The Evil Eye

January 19, 2011

When something goes wrong, how do we best assess events?

At the start of this New Year, a time when we usually think about planning ahead, I got to thinking about an interesting subject that hadn’t really surfaced on my radar for some time. This was the notion of the evil eye, or nazar, as it’s sometimes known. Is this a traditionally cultural way of rationalising terrible things as they happen, or something we should pay more attention to?

I was coming home from work one evening last week, like I do most nights of the year. On this occasion I came face to face with a group of seven or eight teenagers. The site itself wasn’t out of the ordinary, so I just marched on through, only realising that they were more violent and opportunistic than expected. Perhaps the hoods should have been a give-away, though I’ve learnt to overlook some stereotypes. They collided with me and my ipod dropped. My music is something I hold very dear to me, so as a reflex I went to retrieve it, not really realising that I was putting myself in further danger. I don’t think people think rationally in such situations. I then felt a whack on the face, but I made away with my ipod, the headphones were sadly gone. They soon fled the scene and I took a moment to register what had happened. Not worried about pride as such, in fact in outrage, I called the police. I not sure what sort of retribution they could bring, and deep down I knew this incident was just going to end up a statistic. Still, the presence of blood, and the fact that the inside of my mouth was cut, was enough to convince me that a police report was the only sensible thing to do.

A few days on, there’s no visible sign on my face, except the inside of mouth hasn’t healed, smiling is a little bit painful and strong flavours are proving a little difficult. Though I’m quite ready to move on from this, the incident did bring up the ‘evil eye’ question. The first thing my mother did after hearing about what had happened was to circle my head with a spell of some sort. Perhaps something that would ward off ‘evil spirits’. Rationally, I tried to assess what the evil eye meant. It had been presented to me as an idea with two manifestations: Someone’s malicious, envious or bitter feelings towards another are so strong that they cause something bad to happen to that person. The other manifestation is when positive feelings of a person towards another are so strong, typically idolatry or doting – that they inadvertently end up causing something bad to happen too.

In either case, these ideas have existed in Indian history for thousands of years. Understandably before the unveiling of many scientific revelations, people sought to find explanations for terrible events. Natural disasters aren’t new phenomena in Indian history, so one can understand why crop failure or cattle death were thought to be the end result of someone falling victim to the evil eye. It could have been worse, society could have turned in on itself and a massive witch-hunt could have ensued if people resorted to blaming witchcraft. Though this only happened in the west. In India, where shamans and witch doctors would have been revered – our response to terrible events would have been to find ways of warding them off. As a result, over many years we’ve developed a series of rituals and superstitions that are said to help us. Some of these are plain silly, while others have an aura of mysticism and magic to them.

My favourite notion is that bad spirits can’t abide strong flavours, the use of lemon, salt and garlic to ward off evil spirits and negative energy is fascinating. It’s probably a derivative of systems and processes in the natural world. What’s also traditional, and a personal favourite of mine, is the black mask that takes pride of place outside many Indian homes. Sticking its tongue out, the mask prevents negative energy from entering the house.

The flip side to the evil eye, and another predominant Indian notion is that of Karma. Strangely, I don’t think Karma and the idea of Nazar sit well together. Karma supposes that things happen as a restorative balance of good and bad deeds. In which case, I suppose I may have done something bad at some-point, and my incident earlier this week was part of a wider equilibrium. However, Nazar, suggests that such events have occurred at the will and direction of another. Alternative to both these notions is simply the idea that there is no explanation behind anything, and that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time; something which the English annoyingly brush off with, ‘these things happen.’

Ultimately, everyone will have their own take on such situations and occurrences, depending on their personal inclination. What’s difficult is when public figures are victimised for following such a belief, particularly if it doesn’t conform to our understanding of what’s politically correct in the west. Sharon Stone’s remarks about the earthquake in China for example were highly questionable, though it’s possible to understand her intent in saying what she did. Though it’s unwise to make blanket statements in general, we can’t say that the floods in Pakistan were punishment for terrorist activity because it wouldn’t be true or fair to every Pakistani. Personally, I apply an equal measure of trust and cynicism to all of the ideas around Nazar and Karma. However, I also adhere to the idea that some things are purely coincidental and that risk aversion can be based on statistics alone. Still, I like the idea that a black smear on my person will some-how make me feel more assured as I leave the house. Funnily enough, I was recently appointed with a new phone from work just yesterday, I realised that it came with another pair of headphones.

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