Friday, October 20, 2006

Superstition or lost wisdom?

Was responding to a blog on a pet cat. One thing led to another and finally I ended up talking of superstitions.

There is a belief in kerala (elsewhere also? I don’t know) that a domestic cat disappearing from a house portends death. The cat, it seems, can smell death. Of course, the present generation educated rational keralites just shrug off such beliefs as superstitions, and therefore nonsense.

Sometimes I wonder. All those beliefs handed down for generations Рare they all nonsense? After all they represent the accumulated wisdom of a people who handed down the zero and yoga and natyasastra and ayurveda. Surely, to repeat the clich̩, our ancestors were no fools.

Take this cat business. Can cats smell death? I don’t know. But I also don’t know that cats cannot smell death. How much do we know about the dumb creatures? Not much. guess they are not rational but their instincts are very sharp, not toned down like man’s by the intellect . maybe an oncoming death creates a certain ambience or sends out signals which man cannot sense but an animal like a cat can. How do we know? How can we say that whatever we don’t know for sure – what cant be tested in the lab – does not exist? Surely there are things which lie beyond human comprehension, beyond the rational and intellectual faculties of man. It’s arrogant and foolish to deny this. And that’s what we do when we label everything that is not ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ as superstition.

It was with great amusement that I watched zachs (of headlines today) interviewing an astrologer after the disqualification of Pluto. He kept on asking “now that the universe has changed, what happens to astrology?” . zach doesn’t seem to understand that universe has not changed with the disqualification of Pluto. What has changed is man’s perception or rather the perception of modern astronomy, of the universe. Secondly, and more importantly, astrology is based on a particular mode of knowing the universe which is different from the mode of knowing it in modern astronomy. The mode of knowing of these two disciplines is determined by the disciplinary agenda of each. The major concern of Indian astrology is the position of heavenly bodies coupled with them coming in conjunction with each other. The size of Pluto is immaterial to astrological calculations.(unfortunately, the astrologer that zach was bulldozing was not articulate enough to get this point across). the fact that the Indian astrologer’s approach to the cosmos does not figure significantly in the modern astronomical science does not mean astrology is mere superstition. I would call this attitude downright stupidity, proceeding from the arrogance of modern scientific confidence (false?) based on the faith (superstitious. Ha! ) that it has in its possession the world ordering knowledge.

I have an earlier blog titled extra sensory perception. How would a scientist explain my experience? He would either say that I am bluffing( I am not), or that I am schizophrenic (I am not). my experience was real. Since no science can explain it, it would be dismissed as, to quote russel, ‘intellectual rubbish’!

How dull life would be if it is made up of only those things that can stand the test of the dissection table!


  1. My mom is very superstious and she tells me lot of things. I believe that superstious are made up with logical reasons.
    - do no sew after dark - Back in the days there was no lights so sewing in the dark would cause needle to prick.
    - don't wear gold on feet - you have a better chance on loosing it.

    I guess it was a way to pass common sense on.

  2. You are absolutely right.... before the Tsunami stuck, animals sensed it. It was not magic but acute sensory powers that made them read signals from the ground and the air around them. You just have to be sensitive to pick up these signals. Like you said, mans intellect has toned down his senses, besides we do not need to rely on our survival instincts like before. Maybe the human body gives out a scent or a vibration before demise which cats pick up...when it is going to rain most of us can predict it by the calm before the storm. Great post.
    Your link to your earlier blog leads to this blog.

  3. Mom! That was a gem! beautifully written.. These superstitions just pass down to generations and some follow them without even knowing the significance. Anyways, I can count on my fingers, the number of times you let me come back into the house to get a lunchbox or a pencil box I had forgotten for school.. what was that all about!I remember you used to make me stand at the door and run go get it yourself.. So what if it took you 20 minutes to find somethin in my room, Mathew just shouldn't reenter the house... nice post mom! what I loved about it was I could relate to it and you as a person!

  4. remember such an instance myself after reading matt's comment... the day i was leaving for pilani after vacation and u wouldn't lemme re-enter home to get the dinner packet i had forgotten for the train! :)

  5. math and chands
    u guys make me sound like an antiquated number!
    we have grown up listening to all those apprehensions of elders about taking a backward step after u have put your best foot forward. didnt believe in all that myself till coincidental, i dont know- on a couple of occasions when things went wrong when i violated that particular 'golden rule'.

  6. schizophrenic. One new word for my poor dear vocabulary!
    And 'm afraid I belong to the category of the "denying arrogant and foolish".

    But I do believe there was some purpose behind many of the superstitions. For instance, there is something about borrowing a needle after twilight. Logical reason I have observed is cause of the chances of it piercing someone after dark hours, esp in the old days of no electricity, is appreciable. And since noone ever listens to sense, they had to make some of these curses attached to not following it.

  7. gem of a piece, madam, as Mathew says. brilliant. i hesitate a moment whether i should post this in my blog or yours. but the place is here.
    i have wondered how does the ant look at the does the worm, the bird, the dog, the cat, the tree, the moss, the bacteria that causes disease, my wife, my children, the lady who comes to collect the waste, my grandchild, you, he, she...
    we don't know all the dimensions of sensory perception, because we are usually immersed in ourselves. if we keep the door open, not taking a position, keeping the 'i' out, maybe the different levels of perception will flow in.
    superstition, i think, is when we haven't experienced it ourself and we keep the door shut and brand certain things as such.
    we need neither believe, nor disbilieve...keep it open and listen.
    to let you into a secret, i am having a wonderful time these days with my grandchild home. it has now become a routine for me to take her in my arms for a morning walk around the place where i live. it is a very calm place.
    she is 11 months old and is just beginning to utter such words as appooppa, poovu, etc. and what i do when i take her in my arms is to merge with her and disappear myself. i do not interfere at all with her natural impulses by talking or causing any other distraction and i carry her in the direction she tilts me. she is the captain and i am the ship.
    and i try looking at things the way she sees them. i use the word 'try' to say it cannot be the same as when it is seeing unimpeded by the friction of effort. even then, the quality of your seeing is suddenly transformed.
    can i, once in a while, try looking at the world like the ant looks at the world, the worm, the bird, the dog, the cat, the tree, the moss, the bacteria that causes disease, my wife, my children, the lady who comes to collect the garbage, my grandchild, you, he, she...
    i don't know whether i have deviated from the subject, but the thing i have felt is that for us also there are unknown levels of comprehension that open up when we break out of the working of the self.

  8. @ p venugopal
    thank you.
    yes, you've hit it. the unknown levels of comprehension. that's it. the rational man pooh poohs these levels, which i believe , intervene in our lives(crucially sometimes) though we dont quite understand them.
    losing yourselves in another's perspective - what keats calls negative capability - the power to negate ourselves. keats believed the greater the negative capability, the greater the, obviousy, are made of that material that a true artist is made of.


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