Consciously Superstitious Elite and Flourishing Superstitions in India


In a country where almost eighty percent of population live in rural India and at least sixty of India population is illiterate and uneducated, it is quite depressing to know that at least, ninety-five percent of Indian elite are deeply religious, ritualistic, god fearing and superstitious. It is against the logic of the co-relation between reason/rationality and economically, socially and psychologically secured lives, the religious orthodoxy flourishes among the elite. Despite being capable of keeping religion and superstitions at bay, the Indian elite, mostly dominated by Hindus and followed by elite of the other religions, has been behaving as a patron, custodian and promoters of superstitions. Why the elite are god fearing people and at the same time are most of them, if not all, are deeply decadent, unethical and immoral in terms of acquiring wealth if not in personal life or culture for that matter? What explains their deep religiosity, social orthodoxy, rituals and superstitions? what is the impact of their behavior on general society?

When we look at superstitions in contemporary India, we can come to a conclusion that it is the elite which provides continuity than the lower sections as it is usually believed or made out to be. In popular culture, the rural people are blamed for practicing inhuman notorious superstitions.   In fact, the reality is that the urban upper caste and class educated despite being capable distancing from and dismissing superstitions, intentionally or consciously act as religious, ritualistic and superstitious lot. Of course, they are genuinely religious. However, much of it is to do with the social and cultural identity that is provided by the religion than the need of religion and rituals for solace and peace in their lives. This can be called as intentional and conscious religiosity as offers social, cultural and political capital. To keep their social positions alive, they don’t mind being irrational, idiotic and stupid. Many in the general society might not understand the politics of educated acting as ignorant. But not the educated rational. Thus, it is not difficult to understand why the urban upper caste and middle class essentialize religion and rituals.

The Brahman priestly class, the first to benefit from the modernity in multiple ways, very cleverly, removed the inbuilt contradiction between the reason/faith and essentialized their co-existence as forces which might act as one and the same at times and might contradict each other just for sake of it in other times. A scientist Brahmin and priest Brahmin are two different personalities as their functions are determined by their jobs. But they both are rational/religious at the same time not because they are incapable being strict rational self and strict religious self but because they needed to be both at the same time as the religious self is an identity and rational self is a new avatar that is essential to capture opportunities offered by modernity. For Hindus a Brahmans life usually admirable and exemplary. If a brahman is capable of removing the contradictions at their individual and group level, it can be adopted by all pious Hindus. Same is the case with people of other religions, the life of the elite becomes exemplary. When it comes to religion based social norms, traditions, customs, culture, rituals and superstitions, the elite of the particular social group would set the precedent because it is the upper layer of that group which possess the ability to systematize, organize, provide patronage, act as custodians of the culture and so on. Moreover, the elite represent the culture of the social group. Therefore, the middle and the lower layers not only admire everything their elite does but also see it as their responsibility to follow the traditions so established.

Since the urban elite has its roots of rurality, they always reciprocate with each other. With the rural category of the religiously superstitious, there is an elite category exists. This category comes from rural upper caste and bourgeoise. Reciprocity of the urban elite is much higher with the rural elite than that of the rural innocents/ignorant. The rural elite is a bridge between the urban elite and rural innocents. The urban elite would need the rural innocents as an agency that could offer political capital when needed. Moreover, keeping the rural innocents as they are important for the urban/rural elite for two important reasons: one, if the rural innocents become conscious of their right or start understanding superstructures which keep them in submission to the power of the upper caste/class and two, they are needed for keeping the religion, rituals and superstitions alive. Their participation is very essential. Power of religions comes from the mass followers of the religion. Therefore, through clever philanthropy or ‘investment’ is it important for the urban/rural elite combine to keep the rural innocent masses alive.

In other words, the urban/rural elite on onside and rural innocent/ignorant on the other constantly engage with each other or work in tandem or act in tandem to keep the culture alive. However, in an attempt to maintain its urbanity, the urban elite would try to distance, in certain ways and forms, to maintain a minimal cultural distance. This distance was only limited to keeping residual or primitive forms of rituals or superstitions away only to show that the urban elite and the country fellow even in the same social group is not the same. But it does not mean that urban elite keeps superstitions away. Urban elite is deeply religious, ritualistic and superstitious and it makes many efforts to camouflage to hide religious orthodoxy, ritualistic and superstitious stupidity. It modernizes the method of conducting rituals thus brings some amount of sophistication and refinement. This automatically bring in some rural-urban cultural distance within the same social group.

Rural innocent and urban elite are one and the same in their strict adherence to religion, rituals and superstitions. For the rural innocent maintaining sophistication is not essential. However, the rural elite, unlike their urban friends, dominated by the upper caste Brahmins, would not be interested in modernization of rituals and superstitions. They believe that it is keeping the modernity way of modernity from the superstitions that is keeping religion, culture, traditions and customs pure and such a purity which supposedly to be maintained only by the rural elite. However, they would modernization of peripheral areas where such a modernization would strengthen traditions without causing any damage to the tradition. For instance, oil lamp/s outside temples usually placed on lamp holding holes kept in middle of the temple ( if it is big) or on the top of the temple (medium or small) could be replaced by electric bulb but the same lamp in Garhba Gruha would not be allowed to be replaced by the same. Purpose of the keeping these oil lamps is to feel the presence of God as the light is equated with God and darkness is equated with devil. However, the oil lamp in Garbha Gruha is treated with significance compare to that of the one in the outer. This peripheral modernization of traditions does not affect the core. Thus, both the urban elite and rural upper caste elite cleverly allow minimal modernization of the tradition to provide continuity to superstitions which they like the most or which they believe essential for their religious, social and cultural identity

To serve their superstitions, rural caste elite and innocent religious masses, for generations together are having customs and institutions which have been following methods which are violent, torturous and sometimes humiliating. Masters of the superstitions, in rural India, not just from upper caste but also from the lower castes but not from touchable castes. While the upper caste masters serve the needs of all caste, very rarely untouchables, the masters from the lower castes serves sudras and untouchables. Institutions of superstition in the rural areas are primarily dominated by the upper caste masters. They maintain some amount of monopoly and their services and institutions built by them would carry greater value compare to that their counterpart. The upper caste Brahman is the one who rules the rural social life. From birth to death Brahman hold monopoly over fixing auspicious time. The rural bourgeoise, dominated mostly by the Hindu Khatriya and Baniya/Vaishya have been providing patronage as these are essential for their social positions to be alive. In fact, for few Kshatriya, zamindar and new bourgeoise families, in every village family, identity and history closely connected to the patronage they provide to large scale religious festivals and rituals. It is this patronage that allows their popularity to go beyond village and become regional. And this popularity that latter generates essential political capital for them capture power. Therefore, their investment on superstitions is a calculated strategy to keep their social positions alive, to stay afloat in power and also to gain popularity as good-hearted people.

For most of the rural masses, the rural caste elite are equal to gods, great people, good men, families of name and fame and so on. For the helpless small-scale tenants and agricultural labor, rural bourgeoisie’s immoral and unethical accumulation of wealth is not a problem because they are programmed to believe that being rich and poor is more to do with Karma than with anything else. Therefore, they blame god/s for their situation and believe that it is through worshiping gods, their problems are solved. It is this innocence and ignorance which is an eternal source to keep these people in mental slavery that allows the rural upper caste elite and bourgeoisie to be at the helm of affairs forever. Patronage to superstitions is political. But the rural innocents would not be interested in understanding or worrying about it. For the rural Brahman caste elite, superstitions would guaranty their social position, for bourgeoisie they offer political capital and for the rural masses they keep them in mental slavery forever. It is not hard for the rural masses how the urban/rural elite combine is dominating them in the name of religion/rituals Yet, it is their vulnerable position and necessity of God which forces them to ignore politics behind bourgeoisie’s patronage to superstitions.

The urban caste/religious Hindu elite, too understand power of superstitions. At personal level they are superstitious for self-satisfaction and their participation in public events organized by someone else or sponsored by them is for social and political purpose. The urban elite once migrated from villages with the accumulated capital as business men/women and as seekers of power would not be able disassociate from the religious/caste identity in villages and would maintain such connection through their participations in rituals and festivals. These rituals could be worshiping family deities (Kula Dhaivam) once in year which are usually located in the villages they belong to and visits for thanking god/s for allegedly fulfilling wishes. They chose village temples because here they can perform rituals without compromising its orthodoxy. For an elite Hindu politician from city who wanted to enter into politics, these rituals on one hand could satisfy their personal beliefs and on the other might be used to generate social and political capital. Like the rural bourgeoise, they also would invest on general annual festivals and rituals not only in the villages they belong to but also in the neighboring villages which falls in the constituency in which they are going context in elections. They donate huge sums of money to annual temple festivals/rituals.

Hindutva Patronage to Superstitions

A society that is deeply religious would also be deeply superstitious. Without superstitions, religion cannot survive. India which neither allowed pre-modern Indian rationalist traditions to reduce the domination of faith on the thought process nor it let European modern humanism, enlightenment and scientific rationalism of the 18th century to impact Indian world view, continue to suffer from religious superstitions even in 21st century. Superstition has been private affair for long and it will be forever as long as India keeps scientific rationality at distance. Since majority of the Indian society, dominated by the majority of Hindus is deeply religious, rationalism would not play much of a role. Followers of all three major religions would be interested in being superstitious than being rational. Performing superstitions in public sphere is not new India. Being a religious and caste majority, Hindus essentialized public performance of superstitions. People of the rest of the religions not exception. However, Hindu majority, for long, employed superstitions as a political tool. It gained a lot of social, political and cultural capital that resulted in brining Hindu-right into power. There always existed a reciprocal relationship between religion and superstitions and politics. Not all superstitions must necessarily possess political functions. However, if religion used as division and dominance by the majority, the religious minority to would use religion and superstitions to build identities to counter the domination of the communal majority. In other words, when religious majority uses its religion to dominate, the minority uses its religion to fight for justice.  In this usage of religion, we can see some amount of positivity. If communal majority employs religion and superstitions to build identity, it certainly would acquire negativity because purpose of building such identities is for domination.  This is what explains the excessive display of religiosity, mass performance of superstitions and their essentialization by the Hindu communal majority in the last decade.

When superstitions serve political purposes, the unease that they could cause to the people who practice, performs and patronizes would not matter. In fact, they are performed with the intention of gaining some benefits. Therefore, even if performance of superstitions, endorsing hearsays and rationalization of the irrational cause insult and humiliation, the social, political and cultural values these deeds adds would encourages majority to do more. Insult, humiliation and becoming laughing stock are nothing compare to the multiple benefits offered by these stupid deeds. Performing rituals to proto-type of Polar Satellite Launching Vehicle (PSLV), Geo Satellite Launching Vehicle (GSLV) before launching, conducting ritual to globe in belief that it can reduce global warming, drinking cow urine in belief that it can cure cancer, apply cow dung to body in belief that it can keep Corona Virus away, use water of Ganges as a medicine or vaccine for Corona Virus, ringing bells and lighting  lamps in belief that  for sound and light the corona virus would go away are few of long list of absurd superstitious rituals performed during last decade. Entire nation become a laughing stock in the world.

For the Hindu-Right, it became essential to use religion and superstition to come to power and to sustain it. They did so. In doing so, they have developed infrastructural and intuitional network to promote traditions, customs, rituals and superstitions among other backwards castes, Dalits and Adivasis. Some among them are Hindus but not Hindutva Hindus. Adivasis are not Hindus but they being converted into Hindus and also being forced to follow Hindu religion. Unfortunately, all these who have been victims of Hindu religion are becoming the agencies of practicing rituals and superstitions of hardcore Hindutva variety of Hindu religion and also becomes the foot soldiers of poisonous right-wing Hindu ideology. Being the majority, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangha, All Indian Hindu Mahasabha, International Society for Krishna Consciousness and countless other Hindu organizations at national and international level have been rationalizing superstitions as their majority status allows them to involve in any act of propagating religion and superstition even such endeavors are violation of constitution. Though the constitution of India accords freedom of propagating religion to people of all religions, it only offered minority to establish their own educational institutions. It did not offer the same to Hindus as they are majority. But violating the constitution, the Hindu religious organizations have started educational institutions. These institutions are religious in nature teach less education more on religion, rituals and superstitions.

They equate their religion and its rituals with the national culture and uses state and its resources to perform them. Once into power, they effectively use state patronize the development of infrastructure and institutions of the religion with public money. In fact, in India, no matter what party was in power in the past and at present in states and center, the majority status of Hindu religion made it eligible to become the religion to which state gives priority. It may not become state religion but Hindu religion for long has been enjoying the patronage of the Indian government. However, there is a marked difference between in the patronage that was offered by the Congress and other secular governments at the state and center and the right-wing parties. As long as propagation of Hindu religion, even in the illegal means, was not troubling governments, they never troubled it. Therefore, it spread like water under the carpet. Yet, the Congress and other secular governments did not see it as trouble because it was version of Hindu religion that is not found to be problematic. But now, it is Hindutva version of Hindu religion and its ideology that is fast spreading and it is inherently dangerous to Muslims, Dalits, Christians, rationalists, humanists, secularists and atheists in this country.

All most all political parties and their leaders in this country, except very few parties based on minority religions, Dalits and Adivasis, are part of the Hindu religious/caste elite. Similarly, almost ninety percent of Indian bureaucratic elite that includes scientists, engineers, medical professionals, teachers, students and dominant business community are deeply religious at personal level. People in power among them would do anything and everything in their capacity as elite not only to facilitate government’s assistance to conduct rituals and to promote superstitions but also would feel responsible, proud and happy to be part of such programs. They intentionally eliminate the essential distance between state and religion that is obligated by the constitution in favor of their personal will and wish. We have Prime Ministers, Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Governors, Judges, Chief Ministers, public representatives of all levels, sports personalities and showbiz celebrities and musicians most of who belong to Hindu religion in this country, consciously chose to forget that it is a secular country and deliberately involve in spreading superstitions. People in public service knew that it unconstitutional and illegal to be part of a ritual or festival while on duty. But unfortunately, they use their position in the public office to do what they are not suppose to do. Special dharsan (seeing deity) to politicians or bureaucrats under the Very Important Persons (VIP) schemes at Hindu temples should have been a strict no. Instead, protocols are created for the facilitating dharshans for them. Their visit to temples cannot be treated as a visit of common worshipper. They acquire significance because of their position, power and statute. Every time they pay a visit and the kind of rituals conducted would get reported that automatically furthers the popularity of the temple. Public servant from any religious background publicly displaying their religiosity, especially using their power and position to facilitate themselves at places of worship is unconstitutional. However, compare to Muslims and Christians, it is the Hindu political and bureaucratic elite which has been normalizing the unconstitutional behavior. For a commoner, it might seem as a person is satisfying his spiritual needs. But it is not so simple. It is political. First, they are consciously violating constitution which gives us the impression that it is supposed to be common in Hindu majority country. Second, they directly and indirectly involve in the propagation of their religion not as common worshipper but as person in power. Third, their enthusiastic participation in rituals and superstitions justifies the common worshipper’s adherence to superstitions.

Unlike the superstitions of the rural masses and much like the rural elite, the urban caste/communal elite’s religiosity and rituality eliminates the relation between reason and education. They are higher educated people but compromise with the reason and logic in real life makes their education meaningless. Why is it that they completely ignore rationality inbuilt in the education they go through? In fact, most of the Hindu elite go through science, mathematics, engineering, medicine and philosophy. Yet, they cleverly dump what is learned from to university and what is practiced in a laboratory to priest, soothsayers, astrologers, human gods and seers. Einstein or C.V. Raman’s physics is nothing infront of the physics taught by Swami Nithyananada who very authoritatively says that the universe has no option except into trust him and that he delayed sunrise by forty minutes .Talking on science he says ‘chemistry in biology of the physics, physics and chemistry of biology, biology and physicality of the chemistry is one and the same’. This meaningless babbling is applauded by the urban Hindu educated elite who are mostly drawn from upper caste and caste Hindus of upper middle class. These are the places where these people seek to satisfy their hunger of superstition, cultivate it as an essential culture and propagate it as well. In its long history, India has witnessed the emergence of more than two hundred and fifty popular and known swamis, gurus, spiritual teachers, yogis, sanyasis, seers, hermits and human gods. There are countless not so popular or known to very limited area. Developing ashrams in thousands of acres either grabbed through illegal means or allotted by the governments, they have been creating empire of religions/rituals and superstition. Many rational/secular Hindus, of course, are concerned about such developments and fighting against them. But majority of the general Hindu society sees them as alternative temples/gods. Satya Saibaba, Sant Rampal, Asharam Babu, Swamy Nityananda, Chandra Swami, Swami Sadachari, Kalki Bhagavan, Swami Premananda, Sreemurtha Dwivedi, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Baba Ram Dev, Jaggi Vasudev, Amma Amruthanandhamayi, and Bangaru Adigalar, the list is long. Most of them are fraudulent, involved in crimes like land grabbing, killing people who knew their secrets, amassing enormous amount of wealth, wielding influence on the constitutional functionaries of state and raping women. Some of them are jailed for these crimes. Yet, the Hindu elites respect them. They could simply challenge to any government. Swami Nithayananda went to extent of announcing Kailash, a country for Hindus with passport which seems to exist nowhere. They can simply ignore Indian courts. They can do something that is considered illegal with all legal support. Most of the three pillars of the parliament, dominated by Hindu elite dance to the tunes of these swamis. Their products in the name of health, most of the fraudulent, are sold as spiritual and health products. They build empires which are impenetrable. Spirituality is just one aspect of their empires. They run their asrhams or muts on successful business model. Every mut or ashram consisted of shops of spiritual goods, educational institutions from LKG to MBBS, five-star hospitals and health spas and so on. It is here, the urban educated Hindu elite cultivate their superstitions apart from annual pilgrims to all known temples in the country and adhering to every single ritual in their life. It will be difficult to believe that all those who believe in all these swamis are incapable of understanding these swamis are fraud. Yet their patronage to these swamis is more to do with keeping culture alive.

They are quite conscious in practicing, promoting, propagating religion, rituals and superstitions. In the civilized world that respects inbuilt human rationalism and the one that is promoted and practiced by choice, consciously trusting, believing, practicing in acts of god and goddesses and their ‘consequences or benefits’ is political rather than spiritual. If an educated behaves as deeply religious, we call such a behavior as uneducated, idiotic, stupid, mindless, senseless, abnormal and absurd. It seems to me that instead of reducing the amount of irrationality among the educated elite, they are consciously promoting it among themselves with the intention of turning the nation into a land of zombies.

Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao ,M.A,Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of History, Bharathidasan University 

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