Rituals and Superstitions

[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).

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6 Responses to Rituals and Superstitions

  1. manimala Das says:

    Congratulations and thanks for creating this beautiful blog. Here, the non partcipants of the discussion meetings in your house also can express their opinions thoughtfully. It is an encouraging gesture.
    The discussion on Rituals and Superstitions was really informative and covered a wide range. With my little knowledge, I feel that originally all our rituals had a good meaning (as elaborated by your real explanations behind our many a day to day rituals). But in ancient times, as the Brahmans, the highest caste in Hindu society, performed religious rituals and prayed to God for blessings in this life, the rituals became esoteric by nature and essential part of life of the clergy and the aristocracy. The general mass , the lower castes of our Hindu society who were mainly uneducated and ignorant and essentially poor, (as education was the prerogative of the privileged high caste) had no choice but to follow the rituals blindly and never question them. Gradually the priest class and the warrior class of our Hindu society started edxploiting the masses through these rituals and free thinking paled into insignificance. Then came Goutam Buddha, who first taught that it is more important to know the meaning of a ritual than to perform it mindlessly .He also taught that giving offerings to the priest in order to perform complicated rituals so that one can acquire virtue and be reborn in paradise is total foolishness.Goutam Buddha tried to free the then religious thoughts from the vicios clutches of authoritarianism and ritualism. he taught that one must continually strive to develop oneself,overcome hardships and contribute to the well being of society by good deeds and thoughts. Goutam buddha said of the Brahman Fire ritual..” Nay, Brahmin, deem not that by mere wood laying comes purity… I lay no wood , Brahmin , for fires on altars. Only within burneth the fire I kindle.”..(The Book Of Kindred Sayings An early Buddhist scripture)

    • akraha1948 says:

      Thanks for your response & appreciation. Yes, you are right. It was indeed Gautam Buddha who stood against Brahminic exploitation & ritualistic Brahminism. But it’s also a fact that he had high regards for true Brahminic quality of self-effacement & sacrifice. It’s bizarre that travesty of Buddhism happened in the hands of his followers who made it ritualistic & to a large extent into an esoteric religion. The Lamas of Tibet often claim that while Buddhism for laity is meant to be exoteric, for the Buddist monks it is esoteric as they had been taught by the Lord to delve into the spiritual or noumenal world which is distinct from this phenomenal world. I do welcome your thoughts on Buddhism & look forward to share the same. Regards. A.K. Raha.

  2. Amitava Tripathi says:

    Good work, Asish. Keep it up. Our’s is a land of unquestioned, faith and belief in godmen, saints, charlatans etc without any exercise of reason, prudence or discretion. So anything that has not been scrutinised and either explained or rejected by science is viewed as a miracle , no matter how banal and circumstantial the event may have been. Likewise we seek rationalstion of the stupidest forms of rituals and superstitions and feel happy that our forefathers were not as foolish as the rest of the world thinks. We all love to be objects of special spiritual dispensation and revel at the prospect of a Super-mind or consciousness keeping a close watch over us, though why such obviously flawed and piteous creatures like us destined for eventual extinction should be of great concern to this Super-being totally eludes me. Amitava Tripathi.

  3. akraha1948 says:

    Amitava, your concern for blind faith in charlatans & tricksters masquerading often as God men is well founded. In fact none is more sensitive than you (having worked as Indian Ambassador in a number of countries) to the adverse publicity that our self-styled God men have earned for themselves as also for our country. At the same time you will surely be aware of the positive impact of our spiritual heritage on western mind, conveyed to the west through our spiritual masters like Swami Vivekananda, Swami Yogananda etc. and the Yoga Gurus like Sri Mahesh Yogi, Sri Sri Ravishankar etc. The blind acceptance of all unexplained phenomena and rituals is perhaps as bad as blind rejection of the same. The purpose of our studied interaction was to discern the meaning & significance of numerous prevailing rituals before we made up our mind to accept or reject them.

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