Just as the new year dawned, the Rajasthan Education Minister, Vasudev Devnani, emphasised the “scientific significance” of cows to us — the cow is the only animal that inhales and exhales oxygen. The comment resulted in a few sharp intakes of breaths (all oxygen, I hope!) and a few guffaws. But no shock. And recently, a Rajasthan High Court judge informed us sagely that a peacock is a lifelong brahmachari. Sex with the peahen? Tauba, tauba! What are tears for?
Rife with superstition and irrationality, the echelons of our politics and bureaucracy make for an interesting case study. Whose god is more powerful? Or, whose godman? The 2013 Karnataka elections witnessed a bizarre tamasha by the candidates while filing nominations — one wore six layers of clothes, one 20 rings, some matched their underwear with the colour of their birthstone and one was suggested to file the nomination stark naked!
From the PMs occupying and vacating 7 Race Course to filing nominations to swearing-ins, to ministers moving in their new offices, auspicious times are the norm and so are havans, yagnas and offerings to gods. According to newspaper reports, while Lalu Prasad Yadav filled his pond with mud during 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Aadhaar architect Nandan Nilekani’s camp was furious that they couldn’t file the nomination at the auspicious time of 12.26 pm given by the astrologers. It might do well to remember that the top-notch astrologers had predicted a coalition government for Indira Gandhi after the Emergency, but she won a majority. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ex-President of Sri Lanka, called the elections two years in advance, following the advice of his favourite astrologer, and well, the rest is history. I don’t think he lost his faith in astrology along with his Presidency. Arre miyan, what are we if not considerate?
But why blame just the politicians and be outraged at their comments? In a country that is so divided, we stand as one in our superstitions. What’s more, we have been trained to “respect” the belief of others. We live in a democracy run by middlemen who come with their vermillion-smeared foreheads or multiple rings on their fat fingers. They smile at us with their paan-stained teeth and diddle us out of our wealth to give us what is rightfully ours. The crooks pay visits to temples and mazaars and make their offerings to help them continue with their disreputable businesses. Let me not say whom the gods prefer here. And so do we continue with our bribes to gods and godmen — to beget sons, to pass exams, to increase our bank balances, to raise the stock markets?
Whatever happened to hard work? To “karam kar, phal ki ichcha mat kar?” The University of Gujarat launched a course in astrology and vaastu last year. And why wouldn’t they, when it is such a thriving profession? Even our in-flight magazines have a few pages devoted to weekly horoscopes. My father, a naturalist, recalls one of his visits to the office of Jai Rajasthan, the only daily in Udaipur in the Seventies. A senior journalist passed him a paper and pen while he sipped his tea. “Uncle,” he said, “why don’t you write the horoscopes for the week for our readers while you wait? Don’t forget to put in a small road accident in one or the other rashi. That generally is spot on. If they have an accident, the prediction will be true. If they don’t, well, they would know it was the horoscope that warned them to be careful!”
We go to fortune-tellers and mystics to know our future or to the pandits to match horoscopes or open a shop or inaugurate a house at an auspicious time. What about all the divorces or dowry deaths and the businesses that flop despite kundali matching and mahurats? Do we turn on those priests then? As Walt Kelly’s popular character Pogo says, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Much to the displeasure of the Pope, the French in 1905 banned wearing all symbols of religion by those in the government. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had reportedly opposed President Rajendra Prasad inaugurating the Somnath Temple after its facelift. He understood that religion and politics made for a deadly cocktail; today, its hangover has left the whole country dazed and nauseated.
We need to teach scientific temper to children and encourage rational thinking in society. In an age when morality is the excuse of brigands, we should have Rational Studies as a subject in schools to foster a spirit of inquiry.
During a visit to China, my uncle-in-law, confused at a society that largely does not practise religion, asked his Chinese counterpart, “Tell me something, friend, when you’re facing a problem, whom do you pray to? What do you do?” It was the Chinese’s turn to look confused. He knitted his eyebrows and replied, “Why, my friend, we solve the problem.”