Are Superstitions killing Indians?
Just days after the state government backed a controversial anti-superstition bill, Narendra Dabholkar, a high-profile Indian anti-superstition activist, was shot dead. Attacked by two gunmen on motorbikes, while taking a morning walk last week, he founded the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith more than 20 years ago.
Mr Dabholkar was particularly notorious for openly criticising India’s so-called “godmen”, Hindu ascetics who claim miracles and are revered by many.
Doctors believe that many in India avoid choosing scientifically validated treatments for serious disorders, and suffer, or even die as a result, because they are overly influenced by such non-rational beliefs.
This is doubly ironic in a week where it is speculated the UK’s NHS may be turning to the widely respected expertise of Indian medicine, in order to shore itself up in various ways. Superstitious Indians often avoid the high quality scientific medicine within their own borders, that the UK might now be turning to.
An example of how serious and widespread a problem this might be has now been revealed by a recent study published in the ‘Journal of Neonatal Nursing’.
The investigation found superstitious beliefs were crucial in explaining why so few babies in India receive correct crucial post natal care, and this in turn might explain the high rate of Indian infant mortality and poor infant health.
The authors of the study point out that more than 20 million low birth weight infants are born each year worldwide, yet India alone accounts for 40% of these. Low Birth Weight is associated with infant mortality, but even if the baby survives low birth weight is strongly linked with other grave medical consequences, such as poorer brain development and growth.
UNICEF advocates measuring weight as accurately as possible at birth, but although it’s estimated that low birth weight births in India are 8 million per year, birth weight is not recorded in 71% of births in India. This is a shocking indictment of Indian care of its new born.
A team of colleagues led by A. Bhattacharya and V.K. Diwan from Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, plus the India Population Council, New Delhi conducted this new investigation.
They found superstitious beliefs and practices appears to be a major obstacle in getting babies weighed just after birth. The study was conducted in Vidisha district, Central India, which lies in Madhya Pradesh, the province that records India’s highest infant mortality rate of 79/1000.
Amongst other superstitions, weighing was seen as a means of coming under the inﬂuence of ‘evil eye’. The concept of evil eye was strongly ingrained in the psyche of the community and many resisted weighing their newborns in front of onlookers (for fear of onlookers casting an evil eye).
However, the latest psychological research suggests that perhaps superstitions are not a particularly Indian problem, but more a product of trying to survive in tough, unpredictable, often unsolvable circumstances.
Psychologist Thomas Dudley from Tarleton State University, Texas, recently published a study entitled ‘The effect of superstitious belief on performance following an unsolvable problem’, where participants in the experiment were first given a word puzzle to solve, which was in fact unsolvable (but the participants didn’t know this). After this disheartening experience, participants were then given anagrams to crack.
Thomas Dudley points out in his study that during the Gulf War residents living in areas most likely to be hit by a missile reported higher levels of superstitious thinking, and interest in astrology increased during the great depression of the United States. Islanders off the coast of New Guinea did not reveal superstitious beliefs when fishing in the lagoon where they had a high success rate, but when out in the open sea, with a much lower success rate, they became much more superstitious.
In Thomas Dudley’s experiment those with higher levels of superstitious belief subsequently solved more anagrams. Being superstitious helped you keep going, and improved performance, in the face of previous setback.
Superstitions may be prevalent and ingrained in most poorer societies because resorting to superstitions helps protect against a sense of helplessness.
If this is the case, then it may be you can’t simply legislate superstition away in India.