Debunking superstition is not dismissing mysteries

Panic has seized North India. Unknown forces are at work, chopping off the braids of women in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Published: 06th August 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2017 08:02 AM   |  A+A-

Panic has seized North India. Unknown forces are at work, chopping off the braids of women in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan. The hapless police, sweating to unearth spooky threats to the population is hot on the trail of an evil spirit with a hirsute itch, without any results so far. Though Rahul Gandhi has been giving the Congress party a haircut across states, there is no evidence that the Barber Demon is a political conspiracy.

Scissorhands has had many worthy predecessors who have spread panic and left without a trace. The Monkey Man generated headlines and mass frenzy around a decade ago—a four-foot tall monster who scratched sleeping persons and leaped away into the dark. Its persona was part Jules Verne and part Amar Chitra Katha; it wore a helmet, brandished metal claws and had glowing red eyes. It inexplicably also sported three buttons on its chest like a mad tailor. Eyewitness accounts varied—others saw a gigantic Hanuman-like figure with parkour expertise.

Before the Monkey Man was the Muhnochwa of Kanpur, whose modus operandi was the same. There are periodic reports of mysterious handprints appearing on the walls of houses, where people died from supposed occult interference. In some parts of Bengaluru, April Fools’ Day is dedicated deadpan... excuse the pun, my bad... to a witch who brought death by knocking on doors—it could be warded off by writing a message on the door asking it to come the next day. Meghalaya was plagued for a while by a giant ape called Mande Burung. There are the good guys too; the milk-drinking Ganesha sent devotees into a state of bliss for feeding statues milk.

Urban legends are universal. There are crocodiles in New York’s sewers. A beehive hairdo can kill. Saying Bloody Mary 1,000 times will raise a murderous ghost. The end of the world has been predicted so often that all men would have become ghosts by now.

Superstition is the step-sister of mass hysteria. As the dark folklore of mankind, it raises an undercurrent of fear in whose tides float nightmares reminding man of his mortality. No one is invulnerable—not the mightiest warrior, king or vassal. It dates back centuries, masquerading as a divine warning possessing the power to punish folk for sins seen and unseen. It can become a contagious scourge disrupting society; cruelty is often its dismal byproduct. Witch burnings killed thousands of innocent men and women in medieval Europe, Britain and America. A widow in ancient India was expected to jump into her husband’s pyre. In Egypt and China of yore, servants and wives were buried alive with dead emperors to keep them company in the afterlife. The greatest fear of life is death.

In every person, however urbane, is a fear of Eddie on Elm Street. Carl Jung would have called it the collective subconscious effect, but mass hysteria cannot be underestimated as a moral energy.
There is too much unexplained in the world for all mysteries to be dismissed as mere shibboleths. The miracles of saints or stigmata on statues are not necessarily parlour tricks. Sai Baba is reported to have cured the fatally sick. Quantum physics speaks about parallel universes—you could be dead in one and playing cards in another. So go figure.

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