Encouraging Superstition on TV

A few days back, I was watching a children’s reality show on TV, Zee Saregamapa Little Champs. Young children sing and compete in this show, and there are two judges, one of whom is Ms. Alka Yagnik.

After one of the kids sung a song composed by Bappi Lahiri, Ms. Yagnik said she had brought a present from Mr. Lahiri for him. Can you imagine what it was?

It was a lemon and chillies bundle made of gold. She said it will help ward off evil spirits from the boy once she waves it around him. Another couple of minutes of air time was spent in close ups and a discussion of how it was 24-carat gold. Can you imagine my utter shock and disbelief? My instantaneous reaction was take it and SIUYA.

Millions of young impressionable minds all over India are passionately watching this reality show. The ratings of the participants matter personally to them. The judges are looked up at as role models who’ve made it big in the music industry. Is this what our role models are supposed to be teaching our children?

[For those not in the know, this is the most ubiquitous charm used in India to ward off the evil eye. See here for more information.]

TV shows like these are the rage on the Indian internet scene. There are countless sites with videos of episodes, innumerable forums where teenagers as well as adults are passionately discussing these shows and the progress of the contestants. If you think educated people with broadband connections who participate in such online activity would be immune to such superstitions, see this:

IF Nimbu Mirchi

Of course, our politicians are not behind. This year, the national convention of the Congress in New Delhi sported this ‘good luck charm’. I thought I had seen it all, but then I saw this on a Send Gifts to India shopping site:

GiftToIndia

What is the harm in following silly old superstitions that harm nobody? Mr. Dabholkar, of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANS) says “The idea that there is no harm in following some superstition as long as it is not harmful is what is worrying", in this DNA article Dare to step on lime and green chillies?

The Maharashtra Eradication of Black Magic, Evil and Aghori Practices Bill is still languishing with no support group behind it. From political parties like BJP and Shiv Sena to each and every religious organization starting with the letter ‘H’ – there is vociferous opposition, blatant misinformation, and scare tactics used to sway gullible public opinion. The ANS activists are so frustrated that they are now writing letters to the ruling politicians in their own blood.

With the apathy of educated Indians towards such beliefs, and the mainstream culture embracing such superstitions, I think a lot more people will need to give their blood to this cause if it has any chance of success.

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39 thoughts on “Encouraging Superstition on TV

  1. how abt after the lunar landing success of ISRO, the chairman went to a temple to pay his due, so to speak. the fact that it got so much media coverage, that he flaunted personal beliefs knowing that it could have influenced so many young minds irked me the most!

  2. Wow, he actually did that?! I didn’t know. You’ve reinforced my cynicism regarding an upswing of rationality in India. I just have no hopes left.

  3. Great post Mahendra, I would be in shock as well, what a shame that celebrities (all over the world) are so complacent regarding the effect they have their fans.

  4. A real shame. And if you talk with most Indians about this, they’ll brush it off, laugh it off as unimportant, and still step aside a lemon and chilli bundle lying on the ground.

    I’ve even had a few folks ask me why I didn’t have such a bundle in my car!

  5. in my next show i am going to present someone with garlic (gold plated) – so that they don’t get attacked by vampires !

    if you raise this point – on shagun stuff – you will be told that this is part of ‘our culture ‘ – grrrr.

  6. Harini: Isn’t it, though? 🙂

    Mahendra: Superstitions abound and thrive in all societies. Helped along by media and books and sundry other influences not all of which can be made rational in one fell swoop. Think of a film where the bride throws her bouquet, friends scramble to catch it and subsequent scenes are of the friend, who caught it, getting married.

    So what’s the right way to manage these influences? Corrective action by parents? Not letting child watch TV unsupervised? No TV (as many parents I know do – they ration screen time, kids always choose the PC)? Or constantly work to cultivate a questioning attitude in a child? Something else?

    BTW, SIUYA = mirchi enema? 😉 That must hurt.

  7. Talking about nimbu-mirchi thing, people deliberately throw them on street so that “others” can step on them. How selfish and evil is that?? It always bothered me – not the superstition, but the disposal.

    I love bursting things under my feet. I always did it, I think these things are replaced every Saturday (correct me), and streets are usually strewn with lemons – waiting to be crushed. The other thing I remember crushing under my feet was the ‘rakshas’ (demon) fruits during Diwali. 🙂

  8. To tell you the truth, I don’t care enough about this issue. What about a black cat crossing a street? What about the superstition surrounding the number 13 in the West? In my college, we had the 12th level and then the 14th level. Isn’t this superstition too? How can law possibly eradicate this from the mind of a common man. We know how far anti-dowry laws went.

    So, to come back to you main point: Does this harm anyone? No. I think we have other issues in our country that are as important, if not more.

    And this is certainly not an Indian thing. It happens in the West too.

  9. Just as there are degrees of evil and stupidity, there are degrees of the obnoxiousness of these superstitions. I am more offended when those who wield influence over young impressionable minds encourage them.

    I do not know the right way to manage these influences, other than the last one you mention: cultivating a questioning attitude, encouraging rational thinking, and not being apathetic. Yes, mirchi enema! 🙂

  10. Yes, all those are superstitions too, and I am against all of them. This is not a India vs. West issue at all. And ‘happens in the West too’ can’t be a justification for anything.

    Regarding the proposed law: go to Indian villages, where babies are thrown from 2-storey temples, women are sexually exploited by godmen of all color and hue, and sick/mentally handicapped people are tortured/exploited regularly because of black magic and aghori practices. I don’t know if you care enough about these things. If you do, that’s what the law is about.

  11. I’m not saying that this is an India v. West issue. It was an after thought. Your post spoke about comparatively lighter issue like nimbu-mirchi etc. I am not saying that I don’t care about other social injustices. Not sure how you can cite all these examples in the same breath.

  12. I’m sure you do care about the grave issues.

    Even educated folks like us fail to realize the implications of such superstitions. Most people do not make the connection between such lighter things like nimbu-mirchi with the grave practices resulting out of superstition. That is exactly the point.

    The reason I cite these examples in the same breath is because the root cause of all of them is the same.

  13. Shocking? Not really. I think superstition just boils down to faith if you were to distill it to its essence.

    BTW – I had some fun with the …11,12,14,15… floors nonsense that *some* buildings have here in the US. I was in a hotel where the floors were numbered such. I was on the 17th floor, and another gentleman(??) in the elevator was on the “14th” – and I just remarked that just because you name it the 14th doesnt mean its the 14th and that its still the 13th floor. The guy just glared at me in a pissed kinda way… 🙂

  14. There’s an interesting comment about faith from a clinical psychologist in the DNA article I’ve mentioned.

    Re 13/14th Floor: Ha ha ha! 😀 Thanks, I’m going to do this from now on! 🙂

  15. Conceptually nimbu mirchi and baby sacrifices are the same thing- the illogical idea that we have control and influence over events thru nonscientific means. U can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other. The nimbu is a slippery slope to more superstition. Sure educated city folk don’t kill babies but they do screw their children’s lives with horoscope matches and manglik nonsense

  16. interesting you mention faith, I think faith can be one factor we could utilize to get over this issue!! offcourse an any solution to this problem will be a long-term process, but i sincerely feel we need wisdom to tackle it rather than just education, if education was the deciding factor the cities would have been the perfect place to live by now….it is wise people that we need in abundance!

  17. We had a biggest solar eclipse of the 20th century recently. And 2 of my friends who are expecting, were told to follow numerous beliefs (do not fidget with your fingers, do not eat or drink, don’t’ even go to the loo!!!). Although these were small things, the no-harm-in-doing-it sorts, yet, they were warned that not doing it would cause some prbs for the baby! How can the young generation break free if such ideas are instilled in their heads so forcefully? No wonder, to be on the safer side my friends did follow the customs and are hoping the babies are safe!

  18. Typed out that previous comment from my mobile phone, which is immensely painful, so this followup to address other aspects of this topic that I did not have the patience to type from a virtual keyboard on a touch screen phone.

    I wrote a piece for the New Indian Express for their weekend magazine asking why schools dont teach Skepticism as a formal subject. Surely, in the media-saturated, information-overloaded world we live in, the ability to ask the right questions is more valuable than simply knowing facts. In an era where any one can Google for anything, the ability to go one step above and unearth the veracity of untested claims is crucial.

    http://expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?Title=Kids,+learn+from+the+man+who+drank+poison&artid=Zz/WAWAHvfQ=&SectionID=f4OberbKin4=&MainSectionID=f4OberbKin4=&SectionName=cxWvYpmNp4fBHAeKn3LcnQ==&SEO=

    When I watch our Indian news channels, it’s pretty hard, even for a skeptic like myself to differentiate between fact, opinion and misinterpretation. Ordinary folk get their facts from TV, and it becomes particularly important for the media to present factual data as..well…factual data. During the eclipse, not a single media personality had a section on dispelling eclipse related myths and superstitions. They were in fact actively discussing them, giving the impression that they were somehow quaint traditions worth preserving.

  19. Ashok,

    A well-written, very important piece. Thanks for sharing.

    As long as education in our country remains in the shackles of our government, I don’t have any hopes for such revolutionary changes, Sibal’s initiatives notwithstanding. Nevertheless, it is important, it has to be said, and the message has to be broadcast to as many as possible. Hence I commend you!

    With the media, I am, shall we say, less pessimistic. You brought out the reasons for my anguish very well in your comment – media has become an important medium of education as well. Given the state of education in our country, it frequently acts as a substitute for formal education for many people. Further, it is subliminal and can be insidious – as in the case of the eclipse. How can the media reinforce superstition? This is one instance where I would like the government to interfere and help regulate. This is the real ‘Face the truth’ – Sach Ka Saamna – that the government should be concerned about.

  20. Yes, wisdom – but not of the kind generally described by ordinary Indians – not the ‘holy’ spiritual kind, but the inquisitive, thinking kind.

    Yes, if it happens, it will be a long process, but as I said, I am not very optimistic.

  21. This is another example that illustrates what I mean by varying degrees of obnoxiousness. Superstitions that are solely focused on ‘luck’ – like catching the bouquet, have no fear mongering associated with them. Whereas superstitions like these – if you don’t do this THEN… – are the kind I find particularly offensive.

  22. Privatized primary education rarely works. The most advanced countries in the world have state-run primary educational systems. Free market based solutions work in many instances, but I’m not sure they work in primary education and healthcare 🙂 As we are seeing with Chennai, private engineering colleges simply offer what parents and social groupthink expects – rote knowledge and restrictive environments.

    But it will interesting to *think* about how one can design the right set of incentives to get a free market based primary education system to work. Not sure if it will, but probably worth the thought.

  23. @Mahendra,

    i agree to what you have been saying in ur comment. But did we also look at the current show playing on Sony “Mujhe Is Jungle Se Bachao”. What is it all about. Did u see yesterday’s episode. Nigar Khan was literally semi nude. If Television is considered to be an educational source for people, then what is been shown on this particular show is nudity. We can understand about movies, this is chalta hai. But Television shows too. What is government doing about this show and the channel. Why do they have show her bathing. Its a deliberate attempt. I am not from the media fraternity, but i truly cannot stand this shit on television channels, that too only to rise the TRPs. This shows how strong is their content. Government should also seriously look at sony television and take action against it.

  24. I wasn’t implying privatized primary education. By shackles, I meant the government influencing textbook content and curricula.

    Government funded public education can theoretically exist solely in terms of funding, without interference in content. But I don’t see a change happening anytime in the foreseeable future in our vote-bank driven politics dictating educational content.

  25. Bhanu,

    I am more concerned about television not encouraging superstition than doing away with vulgarity. There are many ways to consume vulgarity apart from television. We have ample censorship laws and numerous instances of government censorship already. But there is nothing – no law, no watchdog, no NGO, no group, that acts as a regulatory body for censoring mindless superstition.

  26. I am not at all surprised by the content of the show but feel sad that this happens to be a childrens programme. India is a nation of superstition which is often passed off as religion to give it legitimacy. It is one’s upbringing only which can rectify this. Education doesn’t help.

  27. Yes – I was also more disturbed because this was a children program!

    The present kind of education doesn’t help at all. It is a questioning attitude that can be inculcated via upbringing that helps.

  28. A lot has been said, but my 2cents. I think if an action like the gold nimbu-mirch is not trespassing anybody’s rights or property, I’ll say leave it alone. We are all entitled to our idiosyncracies 🙂

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