“Made snana”and Karnataka anti-superstition bill: the unreasonableness of tradition

Written by January 2, 2014 12:46 pm 3 comments
Made Snana

Devotees rolling on food remains left behind by priests.

The controversial “Made Snana” at Kukke Subrahmanya Mutt, Karnataka, begins amidst protests from different groups. Made Snana is a demeaning and degrading ritual practiced and followed in this mutt where devotees (generally of the lower caste) roll over the leftovers of food partaken by the brahmins on the dining leaves. It is surprising how the Mutt authorities are allowing such a practice steeped in ignorance. The protest actually has to be seen as a conflict between reason and unreason. Once the Karnataka anti-superstition bill gets passed, such practices will definitely not be allowed by the law. Therefore, the religious groups in the name of tradition are opposing tooth and nail the passing of such a bill. Why do religious groups oppose such a bill in the name of tradition? Tradition as an idea is easily invoked as a shield whenever there is any move to get rid of an age old practice like “Made snana” that disregards the rational sensibilities of human beings. Such a practice is definitely a superstition. And the proposal to ban such practices is immediately met with opposition from religious groups in the name of tradition. It is important to understand the larger issue of a much fundamental nature which has a bearing on the motives of those who oppose the bill. At a more philosophical level the nature of such an opposition actually lends support to the underlying view that religious tradition is in some strong sense nothing but superstition. In this context it would be relevant to examine such a view.

Before going further let us first try to understand these two terms: superstition and religious tradition. The concept note on the Karnataka anti-superstition bill draws upon various sources to define superstition as a belief or an act that arises out of ignorance. These beliefs are held without evidence or evidence to the contrary. Superstitions, further, disregard the cause and effect relationship. Now, as far as religious tradition is concerned, it has come to acquire a privileged status and one that cannot be questioned. Though the term is easily invoked to convey that some practice is sacrosanct, the religious authorities find very difficult to specify what it constitutes. It is actually a set of beliefs, practices and conventions that are passed from one generation of a group of believers to another. Generally these beliefs and practices are invariably associated with the supernatural. Apart from this being the central feature of religion it has also acquired a sense of people coming together. A religious community evolves from a group of believers and establishes itself by building on such a tradition around this idea of supernatural. The tradition gets strengthened over time depending upon how carefully those beliefs and practices are bequeathed from an antiquated past. Every religion attempts to exert tremendous influence by expatiating profoundly upon doctrines about the nature of the world and the human kind. But in practical reality religion is a strong community integration enterprise built around the supernatural.

The beliefs and practices associated with the supernatural are shaped in various forms like mythologies and tales narrating the powers of gods and holy men, sacrifices and rituals to be performed for warding off evil, astrology and things of that kind. The “Made snana” practice is also similar to these forms that the Kukke Subramanya authorities will hold as part of tradition. All these kinds of beliefs, woven around the supernatural, together constitute the core of religion. But invoking the supernatural is something that arises only out of ignorance and, therefore, religious beliefs, in a strong sense, can be equated with superstition. In other words, take the supernatural away from religion there is nothing that remains of religion and, for this reason, religion as such can be said to be essentially superstitious.

Those who have a pro-religion attitude can always claim that religion is not superstition, as it has been made out to be, but it does have an independent domain of discourse. This brings us to the larger question: what then is an exclusive domain of religion apart from the supernatural? Stephen Jay Gould, in the context of science religion conflict, had advocated that science and religion are two distinct domains of enquiry which he calls as magisterium or domains of teaching authority. He designates this principle as NOMA, ‘nonoverlapping magisteria”. The domain of religion, according to Gould, extends over questions of morals, meaning and value. Many progressive advocates of religion would go with Gould on this. Hindutva intellectuals even go to the extent that it is sanatana dharma (a system of eternal values revealed by the seers of the yore for the well-being of the society). That the questions of ethics, meaning and purpose are independent domains that need not have its source in religion has been sufficiently argued by philosophers. One can be moral, think of morality and theorize on justice and meaning of life, independent of one’s religious attitude. It is more than possible for an atheist to be moral and there is no dearth of examples of religious people being unethical. Any religion for that matter cannot claim that ethics and questions of meaning and purpose of life are its exclusive domain. All that remains of the carefully preserved practices and beliefs that constitute a religious tradition are unreasonable superstitions and, therefore, the two can be said to be coextensive. Seen in this light the religious groups are actually correct when they claim that the anti-superstition bill would endanger religious traditions. They are perturbed because there is nothing substantial that can be preserved as religious tradition once the bill comes into effect and hence the opposition.

This post was written by:

- who has written 1 posts on Nirmukta.

I am a philosopher with rationalist bent of mind. I am a faculty in the Department of Humanities and Social Science, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER, Mohali). I did my PhD from National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. My area of work is philosophy of science, rationality,ethics and epistemology. Dr. S K Arun Murthi Faculty (HSS) IISER, Mohali.

3 Comments

  • I disagree with the anti-superstition bill. It then becomes open to interpretation in the courts.
    A practise like ‘made-snana’ though stupid is not forced upon, devotees choose to be demeaned.
    However there are barbaric practices which are forced upon.
    Instead of enacting a bill, it is better to assess such superstitions individually and abolish the same. The perfect example would be Sati which was abolished many years ago.

    • S K Arun Murthi

      My short write-up is not about anti-superstition bill but an attempt to read the underlying point that the protesters were making by drawing upon the so called ‘religious tradition’ in their opposition to the anti-superstition bill. My basic idea was to point out “What is this thing called religious tradition?” and the protests show that there is nothing substantial that can count as religious tradition except that the tradition is coextensive with superstition. Having said that let me come to anti-superstition bill. You say that you disagree with the anti-superstition bill. I am not sure whether you disagree with the very idea of the bill or the contents of the bill. I presume it is the former and give my response to it.
      Well your point seems to be that it is ones choice to get demeaned, and as there is no force, there is no need of any law. And that what is superstition becomes open to interpretation by courts.
      There are several issues that need a deeper consideration instead of dismissing it “as a matter of choice”
      a) To what extent is it a choice? Generally people who come under the net of such demeaning superstitious practice are in a state of ignorance, helplessness and despair in their personal life. A sense of false hope is instilled in these weak minds by propagating the belief that such superstitious practices may help them warding off the evil. These weakened minds are coaxed to follow such practices. When people are under psychological fear they easily succumb to such suggestions. The vested interests, in the name of religion, thus get control over people in this way. In such a situation we cannot say there is a choice. (I am not talking of Made Snana in particular but the general way in which superstition works). The choice argument can work for certain things but definitely not in these areas because, if you see, there is no choice in the proper sense here. I say there is no choice here because the perpetrators of superstition take advantage of the “psychological hopelessness’’ and ignorance of people. Propagating something stupid and to instil a sense of some hope in these people is something morally wrong. This has to be stopped. Anti-superstition bill is one of the ways we can stop this stupidity. If the practice is something that is stupid then why not stop it instead of resorting to the argument that let us leave it to peoples’ choice.
      b) Now let me come one more aspect of choice argument. Where exactly does choice work? For, example the law does not allow fake doctors and other miracle cures to carry on business. Going by the choice argument one could have said that it is the choice of the people to go to fake doctors. But there are laws that restrict the fake practice of medicine. Once you have a lawful practice by a number of doctors then you can say that patients have a choice to exercise where to go. Similarly, I have a choice to select what food item I want to consume but then the items sold in the market should be hygienic and unadulterated and therefore there is a law here that prevents selling adulterated food. Now it is a different matter whether the authorities are lax in exercising the law because of corruption etc.
      c) You have mentioned sati. Ask people who were for it (generally the obscurantist ones). They would say that they were not forcing it but it was the choice of the person who wanted to commit sati. One is not sure how far it is a choice really! Now, even if it is a choice can we allow sati and should there not be a law against sati? We cannot allow such things because it is demeaning, degrading and barbaric. Similarly, I am extending this to other practices which are demeaning and degrading. It is a different matter that these other practices may not be as ghastly as sati which takes away life itself. But nevertheless they are demeaning and degrading.
      d) As regards what activities are considered superstition is not something that is open to interpretation. I think the bill clearly lists these. One can then argue whether to include or exclude certain practices.

  • Ugh, so gross…give these kids an education! Free of charge too. Put a book in from of these kids and make them into sensible human beings, have them build their minds up so they can change their community.

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