Why Indians Need to Eradicate the Superstitions in Their Midst

An excerpt from Narendra Dabholkar's book 'The Case of Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement'.

Note: This article was originally published on August 20, 2018 and was republished on August 20, 2021.

Today [August 20, 2018] marks the fifth anniversary of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar’s killing. The CBI on Friday arrested Sachin Prakasrao Andure, the alleged main shooter in the murder case. His interrogation led the to the detaining of Shrikant Pangarkar, a former Shiv Sena corporator, on Saturday. He was allegedly riding pillion on the motorcycle being driven by Andure when Dabholkar was shot and killed. Here is an excerpt from Dabholkar’s book, The Case of Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement, which is a vision document for, and a chronicle of, the battle that he and his co-activists waged against obscurantism, superstition, pseudo-sciences and blind faith in the scriptures.

Does Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANiS) Oppose Only the Hindu Religion?

This question is asked with the deliberate intention of discouraging ANiS activists and spawning prejudice in the minds of people. Across India, rationalist movements are confronted with the same question with respect to their role in eradicating superstitious belief. ANiS’s activities do involve critical appraisal of religious practices directly or indirectly. But those who scrupulously follow age-old religious practices firmly believe that what they practise is the true religion. Such people feel threatened by ANiS’s activities aimed at developing people’s critical faculties. When such thinking is enabled, people start criticising religious practices and religion itself. To avoid this, orthodox Hindu religionists want to keep people from ANiS. That is why they deliberately drum up allegations that we oppose only the Hindu religion. What is the truth of the matter? It is as follows:

The Case for Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement by Narendra Dabholkar, translated by Suman Oak (Westland/Context, September 2018).

Superstition is really black marketing in the business of faith. So what religion these black marketers (superstition-mongers) follow should be nobody’s concern, least of all that of ANiS. ANiS has always opposed exploitative buvabaji [practice of having a religious teacher and consecrating one’s life to him] and religious rituals that boost superstition wherever and whenever they occur. ANiS has various methods of its own for dealing with this exploitative trade. It has fought against many Muslim babas and buvas, and the details of these campaigns over the last twenty years can be found in the relevant magazines published by ANiS. The organisation has also fought against Christian priests who claim that due to their prayers, blind people can see again, the dumb start to speak and the lame walk. The organisation has also opposed the expensive but meaningless rituals of the Jains; and the ritual of dashing heads against the wall of a village temple, in the Phaltan taluka, practised by those who call themselves Buddhists. Again, all those who accuse ANiS of being anti-Hindu can peruse and verify the details of all these battles in ANiS’s magazines.

It is true that a majority of the struggles against superstitions involve Hindus. But that can’t be helped since Hindus constitute nearly 80% of the population of India. Consequently, 80% of the struggles that the organisation has fought are against Hindu superstitions; a large majority indeed!

People are provoked if their superstitions are criticised by outsiders. Even criticism of the superstitions of one caste by another caste causes hatred and ill feeling. Criticism of the thread ceremony of the Brahmins, of the banning of widow remarriage prevalent amongst the Marathas, or the animal sacrifice by the Dhangar community during fairs, by any caste other than the one that observes the superstitious custom leads to not only discontent, but also creates unrest. Since 80% of the population of India is Hindu, many ANiS activists are also likely to be Hindus. Naturally, when Hindu activists talk about Muslim superstitions, the Muslims are bound to be upset.

The caste structure is almost exclusively a Hindu socio-religious system. There are roughly 6,000-6,500 castes among the Hindus. In fact, caste seems to be more important than religion. Each caste has its own rituals and rites, its own customs and practices and its own traditions and mores. They may have been useful and necessary sometime in the past. But right now, most of these rituals, customs and traditions are useless and nothing more than superstitions. The Hindu religion, being much older than other religions, does not have one religious book, but a plethora of gods and goddesses and books. In comparison, Christianity is just 2,000 years old and has a single book. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost trinity signify more or less the same identity. Islam is even younger, just 1,400 years old and has only one Allah, one Prophet, and the Muslims revere only one book. The plethora of gods and goddesses, umpteen books of religion and innumerable customs and traditions of the Hindus make it a fertile ground for generating superstitions.

An important fact to be considered here is that, in the course of the evolution of Hindu religion, there have been many eminent social reformers who dared to criticise superstitions mercilessly. The Charvaka and the Lokayat tradition that existed 3,500 years ago is a conspicuous example of this fact. One can compile a long list of recent Hindu social reformers, among them Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Lokahitavadi Agarkar, Dr Ambedkar, V.D. Savarkar, Prabodhankar Thakre and Gadge Baba. (This is a list drawn exclusively from Maharashtra.) These great men, in fact, cautioned all humanity, not just one religion, to be humane and vigilant, but their teaching inadvertently largely addressed only the Hindus. Here, mention of the ruthless examination of religious books undertaken by Savarkar, the hero of the independence movement, and more importantly from our viewpoint, eulogised by his followers as the ‘ruler of Hindu hearts’, is a must. His pitiless scrutiny of religious books illustrates the long tradition of Hindu social reformers who endeavoured to eradicate superstitions. Progressive Hindu reformative sects, like the Prarthana Samaj, maintained that there is only one god and one needs no ritual or sanction to pray to him.

Here is what Savarkar has said about religious books of all religions: ‘The man who does not want to become just a telephone of religion and wants to possess a mind and intellect of his own, should overcome his belief in the “word” and nurture the opinion that despite there being respectable “Books” and matter for thorough study, the Vedas, the Avesta, the Bible and the Koran are but man-made tomes and should be studied accordingly … Four centuries ago, Europe was similarly enslaved by the unalterable supremacy of religion; but since the time Europe distanced itself from the Bible and adhered to science, it was freed from the shackles of ‘shruti-smriti-puranokta’ (codes of behaviour, morality, worship stipulated in religious tomes of supernatural origin) and became modern and up-to-date; Europe is now four thousand years ahead of us. It has conquered three continents! If the Indian nation aims to be like Europe, it should close the ‘book’ of the ancient era, forget the supremacy of shruti, smriti and the Puranas, keep them safely away in libraries and enter the age of science. Those old tomes are relevant only for telling us what happened in the past. But the science that is objective and experimental alone qualifies as the basis for deciding what is appropriate for today. Modernity contains the essence of all that was useful in past experiences; but the shruti-smriti-puranokta cannot have even a speck of modern knowledge. Therefore, we ought to be modern and up-to-date. Whether a thing is good or bad, and whether reform is beneficial or not should be answered, hereafter, only on the basis of one test, that is, whether it is useful or useless today. One should never ask the question whether something is sanctioned by the scriptures.’

There are religious powers in Maharashtra and in India, who indulge in selfish politics. They consider themselves to be the contractors of what is good for the Hindus. They claim the privilege to decide which reforms in the Hindu religion are necessary and which aren’t. ANiS is a progressive organisation, and its activists do not identify themselves with the religion and the caste they come from. They do not talk about religion, and are in a sense indifferent to it. Some Hindu organisations, self-styled protectors of Hindu religion, take advantage of the indifference that progressive organisations show towards religion, and issue edicts about which religious issues should be talked about and which are prohibited. They intimidate people into following their edicts. It is a way of declaring their monopoly as the protectors of religion. ANiS need not and does not recognise this monopoly, because it feels that such parochial self-proclaimed protectors and authoritarians have never been the spokesmen of the Hindu religion, which is liberal, tolerant and ethical. They are not and will never be the spokesmen of all Hindus. Secondly, most of the activists of ANiS are born to Hindu parents, and are Hindus in the sense that they have not converted to any other religion. So they do have the right to talk about the superstitions in the Hindu religion. There is no reason why they should surrender this right to the Hinduists.

Let us for a moment assume that ANiS works for eradication of superstitions only amongst the Hindus. But the important issues here are – whether the work undertaken by ANiS is good; whether it is desirable and whether it is beneficial to society.

ANiS is confident that its work is appropriate, desirable and essential. Even some religious Hindus agree that this work ought to be done. And yet they ask why we seek to eradicate only Hindu superstitions? The confusion in their minds is clear when they ask this question.

Superstition is like the trash and litter in a home. Let us assume for a moment that our nation is a ten-room house. So, the religion with 80% population will have eight rooms. Islam with 12 to 13% of the population will get one room. The remaining one room will go to the non-Hindu, non-Muslim population. Now, if ANiS, at its own cost, undertakes the cleaning of eight out of these ten rooms of the house, the major part of the house will, obviously, be free of garbage. Isn’t it illogical to take the stand that unless the ‘ninth’ room is cleaned first, we will not allow anyone to touch the other eight rooms? Eradication of superstitions is undoubtedly in the interest of the Hindus, and to oppose it is injurious to people. Those who oppose ANiS harbour the ridiculous notion that ridding Hinduism of superstitions will weaken Hindu pride, while superstitious Muslims will remain hardened fanatics. Hardened and fanatical Muslims will then easily defeat the emaciated Hindus whenever skirmishes take place, they believe. One can only pity those who proffer such flimsy and deceptive arguments.


‘Qamar Ali Darvesh ki Jai!’

On the Pune-Satara road, about thirty miles from Pune, near the turn that will take you to the village of Khed Shivapur, is situated the shrine of Qamar Ali Baba. People of all religions visit the Qamar Ali Darvesh dargah. Off and on, it comes into the limelight because a feature by the government’s Films Division or a TV channel.

An illustration of Narendra Dabholkar. Credit: Special arrangement

There are two stones in front of the shrine, one said to weigh ninety kilos, and the other, sixty kilos. It is said that, to lift the heavier stone, eleven men (and no women) need to use only one finger each, while the lighter one apparently needs only nine fingers. The team just has to touch the stone with their fingers and cry, ‘Qamar Ali Darvesh ki Jai!’ And the stone becomes as light as a feather. The number of people has to be eleven and nine, no more or no less. The cry has to be ‘Qamar Ali Darvesh ki Jai’ and nothing else.

There is an old myth behind this. Qamar Ali Darvesh was a fakir (Muslim mendicant) who had witnessed the manifestation of God. No one knows how and when he reached this place. But, having done so, he expelled all the goblins, spirits, fiends and devils from the village and at the age of seventy, attained samadhi by burying himself alive. The fakir cursed two demons, who lived in this place, and turned them into stones. It is these stones that people lift and hurl down on the ground.

The story has long generated great interest and curiosity. Mumbai Doordarshan telecast a programme about this miracle in June 1987 without offering any scientific explanation. ANiS then had to step in to try and demystify it. We received plenty of letters. Some letters taunted us, saying, “Here is a real miracle; how can you explain it?”,while others sincerely wanted to know whether a miracle like this was possible.

Seven of us, myself, Professor Arde, Sarvashri Mandape, Shinde, Pange, Dayal and Babar reached Khed Shivapur. We had to make our way to the shrine through rows of beggars, flower vendors and pilgrims, and up a short flight of stone steps that led to the gate of the shrine. The two big boulders are placed on either side of the main entrance. One boulder is sandstone, and the other, black granite. Both have been chiselled into the shape of a pressure cooker and have a diameter and height of about one foot each. At the entrance to the shrine, there is a board announcing that women are prohibited from entering the shrine.

A short youth with a red handkerchief tied round his head stood beside the stone. He explained to us as to how the stone had to be lifted.

We were seven of us. So with four others who appeared to be locals, we put the forefingers of our right hands to the stone. After a count to make sure that they were exactly eleven, we shouted in unison, ‘Qamar Ali Darvesh’ and attempted to lift the stone. The stone moved just half a foot up and then turned over on one side. We tried once again but the stone would not go up more than half a foot. The devotees were quite confused; then it suddenly dawned on them we had not removed our footwear! We were ordered to do so. Now, once again applying our forefingers, we cried, ‘Qamar Ali!’ The result was no better. The four who had joined us now became restless and withdrew. They were perplexed. How could the power of their sage fail them? In fact, there was no cause for confusion, since we had decided to just touch the stone with our fingers and not apply any force. But poor Qamar Ali could not help!

Then, we invited four visitors to join us, apply their forefingers and shout the slogan as required. To the surprise of all the devotees, we were able to lift the stone up to the shoulder. The pallid faces of the four men now brightened. More and more people gathered round us. Then we declared that we would lift the stone without shouting Qamar Ali. Someone from the crowd warned us, “Do not try to be too wise. Even wrestlers from Kolhapur tried to do so just a couple of days ago and failed. It is not as easy as you think.”

Mandape then said, ‘Let us see. It is worth trying.’ We all put our fingers again under the stone and shouted, ‘Mahatma Phule ki Jai!’ We lifted the stone much above the shoulder and hurled it down. The crowd now became restless. Next we attempted another tactic; why only eleven people, why won’t ten or twelve do? We tried it very successfully not only on the heavier stone, but also on the lighter stone, using eight or ten persons instead of nine.

The atmosphere was now quite conducive to exposing superstitions like the one in question. Two women onlookers too desired to put their fingers to the stone and asked us if they could try their hand at it. Actually, women were not allowed to even touch the stone. Often, devotees blindly support such irrational rules of religious places. They are scared of disobeying such rules for fear of inviting unnecessary problems. But we invited the women to try lifting the stone, regardless.

Now, ten of us – two women, four other onlookers, and four of us – put our fingers under the stone and exclaimed, ‘Come on, shout one, two, three!’ The stone was lifted very easily and quite high. The women looked thrilled. It was, by now, quite clear that there was no mystery behind the lifting of the stone. Once the causality of the miracle is understood, the mystery disappears. We put on our shoes and were about to leave when it struck us that we had not tried lifting the stone with our shoes on. So we lifted both the stones with our shoes on and hurled them down.

Here is the explanation of the so-called miracle. The fingers under the stone apply force on it. The force works equally on all sides so that it does not tilt and is held firmly. Shouting in unison helps apply the force simultaneously. Haven’t we all heard labourers singing in unison while moving large blocks of wood or raising water tanks to the top of a building? The stone gets lifted because force is applied from all sides. Moving up from the ground level requires the fingers to apply more force. But once it moves up from the ground all the load is borne by the muscles of the wrist and the elbow behind it. Thus lifting the stone up high becomes easy.

We do not know what actually happened to the ‘demons’ that were turned into stones by the fakir. But while hurling the stones which symbolised superstition, a thought did come into our minds, ‘When will we be able to throw off the yoke of the demons of superstition from the necks of our people?’

Excerpted with permission from The Case of Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement by Narendra Dabholkar, translated from the Marathi into English by Suman Oak, published by Westland/Context, September 2018.