Sunday, June 8, 2014

An Indian skeptic


On 5 June 2014 in Brussels, the Flemish skeptics’ society SKEPP  hosted a lecture by Dinesh Mishra, an eye doctor from the State Chattisgarh’s capital Raipur, since 1995 founder-president of the Andh Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti, or “Committee for Eradication of Superstition” (and Social Evils). He brought a positive message, testifying of a very necessary but generally successful struggle against backwardness.

From his profession, one might deduce that Dr. Mishra focuses on the instances of medical superstition. Many illiterate people in the backward villages of Chattisgarh forego taking their cases of illness to a far-away clinic but instead go to the exorcist (baiga) around the corner. These pretend to provide a cure by driving out the spirit who has caused the disease. Moreover, they play a trick on their clients by “proving” that they really have driven the spirit out by letting him bleed – producing a blood-like substance by mixing a chemical with water. It is, thus, needed to inform the common people of the irrationality at work behind this ordinary trick but mostly behind the belief that diseases are caused by spirits. What complicates matters is that even a “conversion” to real medicine need not end the superstitious attitude, e.g. the unnecessary reliance on antibiotics against all manner of ailments, causing the microbes’ increasing immunity to antibiotics. Another danger is the tendency to relapse into bad habits unless the commitment against superstition is regularly reinvigorated.  

The most important work Mishra’s association does, however, is protecting women against allegations of witchcraft and the ensuing “punishments”. A video was shown of testimonies by women who had suffered witchcraft allegations, or by murdered women’s next of kin. It appears that in Chattisgarh and the surrounding states, dozens of women are killed every year because they are suspected to have cursed someone and caused a misfortune that befell him. Thus, a woman had taken a bath in a kund, a bathing-pond. After that, a group of visitors had taken a swim, and the villagers who took a bath after that, contracted diarrhoea. Therefore, she was accused of having bewitched the well and caused the epidemic. So, it is a matter of life and death to expose and neutralize the superstitious assumptions behind these witchcraft allegation. Fortunately, Dr. Mishra’s and similar associations can claim quite a few successes where critical situations were prevented from coming to the worst.

Perhaps due to the limitations on his English, the doctor did not go into the wider cultural background of this problem. I would like to contribute the observation that the belief in witchcraft is not taken out just for the fun of persecuting these women, but is present throughout these backward sections of society, even among the affected women themselves. I have to emphasize this point against the tendency among Western and secularist Indian commenters who take a very naîve black-and-white view of this problem, as also against the skeptics’ typical prejudice that unscientific “healers” are only deliberate deceivers. This is not about wily charlatans versus hapless victims. Many of these exorcists genuinely believe that their initiation and training has given them real power to control disease-inducing spirits; deliberate deceivers are a small minority compared to self-deluded people. And more to the point in this discussion: many of the affected women, though entirely innocent of the misfortunes allegedly caused by their spells, do indeed believe in witchcraft. As a social worker once told me: if you give these illiterate people a little money, men will spend it right away on drink – and women on witchcraft.

One very commendable thing about Dr. Mishra’s work is that it is genuine. It is really directed towards saving women’s lives and eradicating superstition, and not a front for other agendas. It does not take money from foreign or internal sponsors. In particular, when Indians declare themselves skeptics (“rationalists”), they either really are, often as a corollary of their commitment to Marxism, or they are agents of the Christian mission, resolved to turn the sceptical plank against Hinduism: they highlight superstitions among the Hindu populace, link these for the gullible Western public with Hinduism, and keep the Christian superstitions out of view. These Christian superstitions are not just the belief in a bleeding Mary statue, though India does have its share of these too. Neither are they just the miracle healings staged during mass meetings by Christian preachers such as the visiting American televangelist Benny Hinn. The core itself of Christian belief, the Resurrection with its salvific effect on sinning mankind, is very much an untenable belief, criticized no end by the skeptical movement in the West. So, none of this improper use of skepticism for religious agendas here.

Dr. Mishra also had some Hindi booklets with him detailing different parts of his work. One of them is indeed a reasoned plea against the belief that some particular woman is guilty of some calamity by having pronounced a curse. Another is against the belief that solar and lunar eclipses are events caused by a heavenly monster. Already fifteen centuries ago, Indian astronomers gave the scientific explanations of how sun-earth-moon alignments cause eclipses, yet millions of villagers still treat eclipses like irregular events and bad omens. There, he really gives a positive message to these unnecessarily panicky people: take it easy, folks, there’s nothing to worry about!   




Sandeep said...

Slightly off-Topic question :

"Already fifteen centuries ago, Indian astronomers gave the scientific explanations of how sun-earth-moon alignments cause eclipses, yet"

Actually many Indian astronomers correctly calculated the eclipses and yet maintained that Rahu and Ketu caused them (e.g., Al-Biruni quotes Brahmagupta as saying so, if I remember right). Do you know what explains this apparent contradiction - did they really believe in Rahu and Ketu?

Turbolag Panja said...

Dr. Elst,
I wanted to ask whether I may have the permission to open a blog to just reprint verbatim some your blogposts and articles from bharatvani at Quora...(of course all being referenced, with a blog bearing your name and all this for only the purpose more of your writing in a website that is heavily becoming the intellectuals' facebook)

By the way I made a new answer about the historicity of the Mbh war and heavily refernced your writings as well as some wirtings from Radhakrishnan

here it is:

Koenraad Elst said...

@Turbolag: saw your Quora site, appreciate your initiative. So, go ahead.

pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

I've spent many years reporting on Chhattisgarh, both as a part of the state of Madhya Pradesh, and then as a separate state in its own right since 2000. Vast hinterland of the state is indeed a den of superstition, but I believe that the Nehruvian policies have a lot to do with it.
Verrier Elwin, whom Nehru was very fond of, first worked amongst the Maria and Muria tribes (both being a part of the larger Gond tribe) in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, and then, in the North-Eastern states like Arunachal Pradesh.

Elwin's insistence that tribals were a special class of people fit in nicely with the dominant theme of colonial British rulers that tribals were the original aborigine inhabitants of India.

In any case, his view informed Nehru's policy choices in tribal regions heavily. To be sure, a lot of Indians were superstitious at the time of independence, a tendency which abated only slowly. I still remember my childhood days when Jhaad-Phoonk was almost a given even in cities for the treatment of jaundice.

While the rest of India slowly moved on, tt's this segregation that's largely responsible for the situation changing little on the ground in tribal heartland of Central India. It was almost like the Indian reservations in the USA, which didn't do them any good either.

And as you've noted more than once in different pieces of your own, it left the field open for Christian missionaries to have a free run.

But all is not lost. Tribal communities have been making strides and catching up, albeit not at a pace we'd like. Sangh Parivaar has made impressive inroads. And, in Chhattisgarh's tribal areas, the Ramakrishna Mission has done some sterling work in the field of education.

Best regards,

Mayurica Biswas said...

hi. would like to get in touch with Dr Dinesh Mishra in Raipur. Would you have a number where I can reach him?