[This is a documentation of the interactive session on Rituals and Superstitions held on 29.03.13 in New Delhi.]
We had an interesting interaction session on 29th March at our C.R. Park residence in Delhi on a contentious topic: ‘Rituals & superstition’. Our monthly interaction sessions on subjects/topics that are entirely apolitical, and predominantly spiritual (not religious), commenced in October, 2008 with only 12 participants to begin with. In the last session, the number of participants was 31.
Smt. Subhra Banerjee initiated the talk with several instances from the life of Ma Sarada, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna, to drive home the point that mind should be free from caste prejudices and all kinds of superstitions that tended to discriminate and humiliate fellow beings. Smt. Sikha Majumdar endorsed the above view, pointing out that we perpetrated several rituals blindly without applying our mind. Sradh ceremony came up for scrutiny in this connection. Smt. Mitali Ghosh particularly referred to Kumbh bath by several millions of devotees, she being one of them, posing a query whether Kumbh bath was a meaningful ritual or a superstition based on blind faith. Answering the query with reference to various philosophical texts including Vedas, Upanishads and Buddhist texts, Dr. Kalyan Chakravarty explained that certain rituals such as Kumbh bath or Sradh ceremony could not be dismissed as superstitious just because lay people did not find any satisfactory explanation for such rituals. Spiritual and metaphysical phenomena had to be understood at a different level of perception and logic. Smt Kabita Chanda was in favour of rational approach rather than blind observance of mundane rituals in our daily chores while Smt Kalyani Chakrabarti was also against blindly following any ritual that did not appeal to one’s conscience.
Shri P. C Jha emphasized that blind faith in God or any rituals such as Kumbh bath made one irrational and superstitious. Citing Stephen Hawking he pointed out that it was not necessary for us to accept a God to explain a scientific phenomenon. As for millions of people gathering to take a dip in Ganga during the Kumbh ceremony Sh. Jha was of the view that the administration ought to restrict the number of devotees just as it was done during the Haj pilgrimage at Mecca. He opined that most of the rituals had originated from unfounded belief or irrational faith in God. Dr. Suhas Majumdar, elaborately dwelling upon latest researches of physicists including the one on God particle that alone had mass, stressed that there were certain phenomena such as the implosion after the Big Bang that had eventually led to the creation of 10 to the power of 500 universes in the trillionth and trillionth and trillionth of a second that could not be explained by any perceptible logic. This is where the existence of God came into focus and made a scientist like Einstein believe in the existence of a super power or God. A scientist himself, Dr. Majumdar admitted to be a believer in God.
Sh. Asim Banerjee offered rational explanations for various rituals inter alia including Kumbh bath and stressed upon the effect of faith on human mind. Dr. Santosh Ganguly and Sh. Sujit Chatterjee covered some interesting facets of superstition prevailing in various countries, while Sh. Paritosh Banerjee highlighted the gap between the ideal and the real with reference to a poem of Tagore that depicted how a poor Brahmin learnt the lesson of renunciation from Sanatan, a Vaishnavite, to whom touchstone and ordinary pebbles had no difference.
Sh. Ashok Sengupta explained the import and implication of the mantras which needed to be correctly and appropriately pronounced and applied. Any wrong application may have disastrous consequence. This he explained with reference to a historic anecdote in the time of Akbar (16th century AD) when a junior priest in Visweshwar temple in Benaras committed the folly of chanting a wrong verse that amounted to praying to the LORD for residing in the temple for hundred years and not hundreds of years. It was predicted at that time itself by the head priest that because of this faulty prayer the Lord would desert His devotees after 100 years. Exactly after 100 years the temple was demolished by Aurangzeb. Sh. Sengupta also dwelt upon caste prejudices and superstitions and how qualitative caste system of yesteryears degenerated into hereditary caste system. Smt. Anjoo Chowdhury narrated a personal incident with a poser whether her belief in the super natural could be dubbed as superstitious.
I did the summing up. Citing from Bhagavad Gita it was pointed out that it was but natural that common people would follow the leader’s way of life, sermons and prescriptions which eventually became rituals. Thus faith in the rituals may indicate faith in the leaders who gave birth to those rituals. But Gita did not encourage blind faith. In fact Krishna answered all the doubts and questions of Arjun and never tried to shut him or browbeat his questioning mind. Therefore, taking a cue from the lessons of Gita, one should question oneself about the validity of a ritual instead of blindly accepting the same going against one’s conscience or rational mind. This would ensure one’s spiritual growth. Simultaneously, all of us needed to appreciate the loaded observation of Einstein: “Unless something is proved to be impossible, it is possible.” Thus the burden of proof would clearly be on a scientist or a scientific mind and not on a commoner. Obviously, therefore, there was no warrant to dismiss a ritual as superstitious just because we did not find any rational explanation for it. The above two views, apparently though contradictory, were not irreconcilable and with that consensus the session ended (Dr. Kalyan K. Chakravarty was congratulated by all on his recent appointment as the Chairman of the Lalit Kala Academy).