India is generally regarded as the home of superstitions. From the little child to the gray old dame, the people of India. And especially the womenfolk, are supposed to be crammed with superstitious beliefs from head to foot. The Indian religions are all held to be based on superstitions; our manners and customs are all tainted with superstitions; our faith and practice are both actuated and impelled by superstitious motives. This is what people outside India think. This is also what many educated Indian themselves think, strange though this may appear. Not often we hear Indian themselves denouncing this or that custom, and loudly stigmatizing it as base superstition.
The society and its beliefs:
Let us proceed to examine the situation with impartial eyes. There is a prevalent belief, for instance, that starting on a journey on the first day of a month is unlucky. Is this belief a superstition? Well, that depends upon whether it is really a belief or not, upon the question how deeply such a belief penetrates your mind. If you do believe, believe sincerely, that it is wrong to start on a journey on the first day of a month because our ancestors have forbidden it, or because such and such sacred book prohibits it, such a belief is no longer a superstition.
But an article of faith – a sacred thing which must be respected, which no one has right to call in question, of which you are not bound to furnish any reason beyond that such is your faith. Genuine faith is “above all fingering,” beyond all criticism. And it belongs to the spiritual world, where reason’s own wagging tongue becomes silent with awe.
Almost all our-called superstitions are in reality matters of faith. Had they not been so, people would not have incurred sacrifices for their sake. What nameless hardships our pilgrims cheerfully suffer year after year for the sake of bathing in the Ganges during the Magh Mela! The man of western idea pours ridicule upon the process of bathing in a stream, the waters of which have been made unsanitary by enormous crowds of bathers; but it is not the bathing in water that is the guiding principle; it is the deep and active faith behind it that dictates the bathing, elevates it to the dignity of a religious duty, and sustains the heart of the weary pilgrim through the long series of hardships he undergoes between the commencement and the close of the whole pilgrimage.
India the home of superstitions?
To those who know her, India is not a home of superstitions, but a land of faith. It is faith that guides all the manifold activities of the people. Whether those activities yield any visible and tangible product. Or are only believed to bear fruit in the next world. The most striking fact in proof of this characteristic of people is that there is no word in the whole vocabulary of Indian tongue equivalent to the English word ‘superstition’. This shows that the people do not regard any belief as unreasonable. And provided it is a sincere article of faith and is acted upon daily life.
Belief unsupported by practice is a despicable thing in all eyes; one name of its hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is an abominable sin in the eyes of the faithful people of India. The true test of belief, in the estimation of our people, is whether it constitutes an item of daily practice. And so far the Indians are absolutely right in their judgment. For the test of a thing is always a practical one and it should be a fair one. To test a belief by applying to it the canons of reasoning seems to be as unfair as to test steel by rubbing it on the touchstone. If therefore we test the beliefs of our countrymen by the proper criterion. We shall find that it is as wrong to condemn them as superstitions as to depreciate the value of gold because we cannot make rails of that metal.
Balance between science and faith:
If some educated Indians feel disposed to rail at their countrymen of their superstitious notions. Let them remember that some of their own enlightened views are regarded as worse than superstitions by their ignorant brethren, Superstition is really a relative term: the veriest of veriest may be impugned as superstition, and grossest fetishes venerated as divine faith. Where is the boundary-line to be drawn between worthy and unworthy beliefs? And who is to be the arbiter in a disputed case? Each party claims for its own beliefs an equal degree of infallibility, never mind what those beliefs are. It is not the theories of science along that occupy a place of supremacy in the world of thought: the blind faith of the unlettered multitude is, in their estimation, no less incontestable.
And the wonderful thing is that sometimes science itself, antagonistic as it is to unreasoning faith. And establishes, by a laborious process of research, a conclusion which had been accepted as true by ages of unthinking men.
The water of the river Ganges, for instance, has been regarded as sacred by the Hindu people for thousands of years. And the river has been worshipped as a goddess for the same length of time; and science had haughtily named both the belief and the practice, superstitious. Nevertheless, the faith of the people had stood unshaken. And science has now come round to perceive its rashness in condemning something before examining it and to acknowledge, with a modest confession, that the verdict of unreasoning faith had for once agreed with its own reasoned speculations. Modern chemistry, after a careful analysis, has discovered that the water of Ganges is the purest. And it is healthiest draught available in the east; that only is there for bacteria in that water, but that the water is an effective destroyer of poisonous germs. Superstition, in this case, had outstripped science.
In the end:
Who can say that there are no other superstitions that may one day be proved to be full of sound sense in as large a degree as they are now supposed to be devoid of? The investigation of science is still in their infancy. If compared with the long age that superstition has attained in India, Science is a puny infant. And how does science establish her conclusions? What is the ultimate test which tries the soundness of scientific theory? Time. Well, if that be so, our superstitions have been tried for a much longer time than the oldest theories of modern science. And if they had been unsound or pernicious, they would have been discarded long ago.
The proper attitude that an educated man ought to take towards the superstitions of his ignorant countrymen. Is that of toleration and respect, not condemnation and contempt. Instead of rushing to denounce them, we ought to weigh and consider; we out to make inquiries into the truth of things; we ought to detect what elements of a good many lies hidden in things outwardly evil. Above all, we ought to sympathize with the ignorant for their ignorance, wherever it is a case of honest ignorance; and we out to reverence the pure innocent soul, the seal of strong faith, the mainspring of acts of piety and goodness. Which are oftener done through blind instinct than through logical reasoning.