© Copyright First Draft

What Do Our Superstitions Say About Us?

India, the land that gave birth to astronomy and tantrism has a strong affinity towards superstition and paranormal activities. However, it is interesting to think about what these superstitions comment about the society we live in.

Rajeshwari Kashyap

We, in modern India, are notoriously superstitious. Our land has been populated for thousands of years, going back all the way, more than 3,000 years ago, to the Indus Valley Civilization. The culture of that civilization gave way to the culture of its successor, which in turn gave way to its successor, and so on. In other words, the Indian subcontinent has seen a series of cultures, and we, modern-day Indians, are inheritors of all this heritage. This heritage, rich, varied, idiosyncratic, is appropriated by us according to our present-day prejudices. How we transform our heritage, the cultural material of our past, into our contemporary culture, says a lot about us: our concerns, desires, needs, conscious or unconscious. One of the ways in which we transform the habits and practices passed onto us is through creating and enforcing superstitions. Our superstitions can tell you a lot about us. Let’s look at three popular Indian superstitions, and muse what they might mean, what they might be revealing about us:

1. Black Cat Crossing One’s Path is Bad Omen

While many think that this superstition is made up of Indians, It is the legacy of our British colonizers. The British imperial culture dominated our land not long ago and left us some of their superstitions that tell us not only about us but also about them. The superstition itself does not reveal anything about our society as such, but its origin does, as it is said to have originated in the Middle Ages in Europe when a black cat was said to have transformed into a woman who was accused of being a witch, certainly represents about the historically sexist and colorist cultures of both Europe and India. As the cat is black, the black color itself is seen as something having negative vibrations. However, what is interesting to note is how far can it be scientifically proven?

A cat crossing the road is considered bad luck.

2. Peepal Trees are Home to Spirits

Baital Pachisi is one of the most popular relics of our Indian story culture, even literature. One of its oldest versions found in literature is in the Sanskrit text ‘Kathasaritsagara,’ from the eleventh century. The spirit of Baital, in the story, lives on a peepal tree. To understand this in brief, in the Ram Gopal Verma horror film Vaastu Shastra, the spirits live on a peepal tree. Though it is uncertain what the social subtext might be, it is interesting that this item of mythos would endure as it has. To counter this, A scientific explanation has been offered for the possible origin of this superstition. That since trees give out carbon dioxide at night, it would cause breathing problems, even suffocation, to sleep under them at night. So the idea that dangerous spirits make large trees (like peepal) their home at night may come from this.

3. Menstruating Women Should Not Enter Temples

This has obvious sexist connotations, as this tradition from the Hindu patriarchy loudly messages the attitude that stigmatizes women’s bodily processes, often endangering their health, in today’s India. Some argue the reason for this tradition is that back in the old days, sanitary napkins, pain relievers, etc. were not available and temples would be away from home, so women were advised to stay out during their periods. In any case, this rationale is outdated. Whatever the case was back then, today it reflects our dangerous attitudes toward female bodies that not only reflects our disgust towards a biological process but also a crux of the era of patriarchal perspective that seeps in our psychology even today. However, the case of Sabrimala and the Supreme Court’s verdict seems like a light at the end of the tunnel and let us hope that we are not far from getting rid of this gender-based stigma completely.

Strange how Indian superstitions continue to influence people from various sections of Indian society, however, things are shifting as people have started to think more rationally than the old age beliefs taking over them. However, with the influence of the older generations in the decision-making processes in Indian households, can this thinking of being more rational sustain be interesting to think over.

Edited by Sanchit Pradhan and Priyam Sharma