A badh tapasya for reason

Burari and India’s non-pursuit of the scientific temper

easwaran

SB Easwaran | July 17, 2018 | New Delhi


#Superstition   #Burari Mass Suicide   #Burari  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

Burari, a locality in north Delhi, has become synonymous with the bizarre after 11 members of a family living there committed ritual suicide. Investigators cite notes written by one member, 45-year-old Lalit Bhatia, to show that he led them into a pact to hang themselves, limbs tied, eyes and mouth bound or taped, as a route to salvation. The family did not appear to be under any financial distress, suffering from ill-health, or facing other trouble. As detail after freakish detail emerged, it seemed Lalit had convinced the others to follow step-by-step instructions for a ‘badh tapasya’: their bodies were to hang like the roots of a banyan tree (bargad in Hindi, often shortened to badh).

Their obedience was not won in a few days or even months. Since the death of his father, Gopaldas Bhatia, in 2007, Lalit had literally taken on the role of pater familias despite having an elder brother. He claimed he was communicating with his dead father and receiving instructions on family matters. On at least two occasions, he attributed developments to his father’s intervention: he said his late father miraculously helped him regain his voice, which he had lost for a long period, and that his father’s instructions helped him take decisions that improved the family’s lot. The elaborate ‘realisation’ of his delusion was the registers and copious notes police have found about instructions from the dead  man.

There’s an element of patriarchy at work here, as well as a crafty channeling of family members’ reverence for the departed Gopaldas into reverence for the one to whom his soul talks. Lalit also imposed seemingly insignificant disciplines, such as following a time-table, standing at attention after prayer, recounting mistakes and atoning for them. Such compliance rituals, common to various sects and indoctrination methods, may have helped in pushing the family into sharing his delusion.

This went so far that the whole family – right from Lalit’s 77-year-old mother to two teenaged boys – came to believe that the floundering souls of Gopaldas and four other relatives would achieve salvation only if they performed the so-called badh tapasya.

One of Lalit’s notes, which they believed was a message from his father, predicts doom. It says that if they perform the ritual, chanting a mantra to ward off fear as the earth shakes and the skies are torn apart, he would save them all. The family apparently rehearsed the hangings over a week before carrying it out fatally. None of the family members raised any objections – even the teenaged ones, of an age when asking difficult questions and rebelling is the norm. In all the years since Gopaldas’s death, no one seems to have thought of alerting relatives or friends to the abnormal and patently delusional behaviour of Lalit, and later, the rest. Or of seeking medical help.

Burari indeed is outre and one of its kind. It’s our own miniature Jonestown, where in 1978, more than 900 Americans belonging to the Reverend Jim Jones’s People Temple cult committed suicide by poison at his urging. Egregious as Burari is, it should force a society that prides itself on Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions to ask if it has done enough to inculcate the spirit of science even among the educated. For the Bhatias have been described as an educated family, though education itself is no guarantee against muddy thinking and superstition. Simultaneously, society needs to ask if its education system has been broad enough to explain the role religion has played down the ages.

For atheist-humanists who swear by science, religion and culture are by-products of fear of the unknown and what anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari calls the fictive imagination. This human faculty must be acknowledged as an important tool of survival: it allowed the creation of groups and identities through stories we told ourselves about us and the world we inhabit. As cooperative groups bound in identities created by these fictions, we have survived better the vagaries of nature and marauding rival groups. Power structures in society, too, for good or bad, are the products of such fictions combining with the relative economic values created by various occupations, as the Indian caste system demonstrates. Religion and culture brought psychological benefits, such as a sense of community, a sense of charity, a sense of gratitude. They also became a source of inner strength. If religion has inspired humankind to strive for noble ideals, it has also sent people into frenzies of violence, bloodshed, and war.

It must also be acknowledged that religions have given us some of our most sublime poetry, music, painting, architecture and cosmogenies. And there’s no denying the wondrous works of creativity that have been attributed by their creators to devotion and divine inspiration. In music, mathematics, and poetry, many have claimed that what they wrote was dictated to them by God or personal deity. Srinivas Ramanujan said many of his results were directly conveyed to him by Namagiri Thayar, a form of the goddess Lakshmi worshipped in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu. Johann Sebastian Bach spoke of his works as soli Deo gloria, or only for God’s glory. Mysterious and humbling as that is, works of equivalent importance or greatness can and have been wrought by those who merely worked away and allowed the creative process of incubation followed by sudden insight to take effect. No amount of prayer to the Namakkal deity will yield the kind of results Ramanujan achieved in number theory to a fellow without the rudiments of mathematics. And Bach averred that anyone who was as industrious as he was would succeed equally well.

Sundry prophets conjure up whole belief systems in dreams and trances, drug-induced or otherwise; meditators feel united with everyone and everything in the universe; and the devout experience visitations from gods, goddesses, or saints. Dreams and trances are very often the source of artistic and scientific creativity: Coleridge’s hypnotic poem Kubla Khan or filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Kekule’s inspiration for the ring structure of benzene from a dream about a snake swallowing its tail, Mendeleyev’s insight that the elements could be arranged into columns with similar properties. Till physiology fully explains these altered states of consciousness, they must be acknowledged as undeniably human – but perhaps denied, in most circumstances, to non-believers. Going by descriptions given by those who have experienced them, there seems to be little difference between the trances of inspired artists, crazed madmen who go on bombing or stabbing or machine-gunning sprees, or simple but disturbed persons like Lalit who bind a whole family into their hallucinations of doom and intervention from the other-world.

It is the task of science and education to convince people that religion, even in its most benign form, is nothing more than a daedalian superstition. A superstition with some benefits perhaps, but ultimately nothing more than that, and hence something to be worn lightly, if at all, like an athlete’s favourite wristband, belief in which will not let her slack off from her six hours’ daily practice at the tracks or keep her from running to win if she forgets to wear it. As for astrology and occult beliefs and practices, they should be mercilessly shown up as humbug, whatever their form and whatever the identity of the group that subscribes to them.

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Admittedly, it is difficult for that to happen in a country as variegated as India, where numerous identities have been forged over several centuries, where politics is so intricately bound up with identity, religious, regional, language- and caste-based, and where education levels are dismal except in urban pockets. Even so, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that society – and, more importantly, the state – have failed abysmally in what should have been their foremost task, for India was conceived as a modern, secular state.

The antagonism that has caused this is built right into the Constitution of India. The development of “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of reform” is listed, in Article 51 A, as a fundamental duty of all citizens. That neatly absolves the state, which is by definition secular, of the responsibility of cultivating in its citizens that modern, progressive spirit of humanism and inquiry. Set against that is Article 25, the right and freedom “to profess, practise and propagate” the religion of one’s choice. In the right versus duty battle, the right has been more vocally, and even violently, asserted; the duty goes ignored without consequence.

At least one former supreme court judge, justice KT Thomas, known for his maverick views, brought up this conflict, albeit in a lecture delivered post-retirement in 2004 at the Kannur University in Kerala. As reported by The Hindu (March 16, 2004), justice Thomas said, “It is our fundamental duty to develop the scientific temper and a spirit of inquiry. But now look at Article 25. It is the fundamental right to profess, practise and propagate religion. As all religions are averse to science and scientific discoveries, no religious propagator would encourage the scientific temper among followers,” he said. “But it is a stark reality that when the fundamental right envisaged in Article 25 is zealously adhered to by the protectors of religions, they are prone to oppose new scientific discoveries as well as social reforms. Unfortunately, most of our religions flourished in primitivity. For them orthodoxy is the fertile ground for growth.” Given a choice, he said, he would prefer the fundamental duty of developing scientific temper over the fundamental right to religion.

But has anyone heard of a citizen being chided for non-performance of any fundamental duty? More often than not, rather than perform the duty of promoting scientific temper, our elected representatives and political leaders – citizens of eminence, all! – go about doing its very opposite, invoking the bogus emotional appeal of religious pride or uttering sheer nonsense. Ban or no ban, astrologers, babas and tantriks advertise their talents with audacity and aplomb. The courts treat with indulgent humour petitions from earnest (if a trifle comical) litigants seeking orders that would make people perform their fundamental duties. More judicial sweat has flowed over matters such as the Babri masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi issue, the Makarajyothi (a ‘divine’ light sighted from the Sabarimala temple, which was later shown to be man-made), and the pros and cons of the prohibition of alcohol, which happens to be, however irrationally, a directive principle of state policy.

Implementation-wise, directive principles of state policy have had a better run, except perhaps the one on having a uniform civil code. Free legal aid for all, stipulated as a directive principle, is now mandated by law. Ditto with free education, now enacted and actively helping thousands of poor children get quality schooling. Perhaps the promotion of scientific temper would have similarly fared better as a directive principle of state policy, though few politicians would want it to happen till the time they are in the game.

Meanwhile, our schools and colleges could make critical thinking skills a compulsory subject. The study of logical fallacies has a rightful place in the armory of rational living, but equally important is the study of our cognitive distortions. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner’s Prologue gives a brief roster of devious ruses the roguish charlatan uses to keep the gullible in his thrall and their silver in his pockets. A detailed inventory of such tricks, taught with humour, would do more good than musty ‘moral science’ lessons. It would also be important, in this age of information overload, to arm students against the persuasive methods used by advertisers and indoctrinators. Self-radicalisation of lone wolves via the internet is a clear and present danger that societies need to work to prevent. Early education is the most effective solution.

The Scandinavian countries have rightly been held up as examples of social progress, high quality of life, and all that comes from a rational and equitable pursuit of happiness. They have also been in the forefront of reasoned debate over passive and active euthanasia, and there is high public acceptance of the autonomy of the individual in medical end-of-life decisions. In those countries, life and politics have for ages been marked by a robust pragmatism. True, they were advantaged in having small and by and large homogenous populations for many decades if not centuries. But there’s one leaf worth taking from their societies: a “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness” to religion. Those words are from sociologist Phil Zuckerman, quoted in the New York Times, after he spent about a year in Denmark and Sweden. “Religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a non-issue,” he found. How sweet an ideal! How far removed from Burari!

In the Upanishads, the banyan tree symbolises the pursuit of knowledge. Sage after sage is said to have obtained and passed on knowledge in its shade. It is also the national tree of India. As a society and a state, India must work toward undoing the bizarre twist the Burari family gave to this rich symbol of learning. We need to undertake a different kind of badh tapasya – a badh tapasya for reason, which would be more appropriate to what the banyan tree stands for.

sbeaswaran@governancenow.com

(The article appears in the July 31, 2018 issue)

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