“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from”
Superstitions refer to any practices or beliefs in and reverence for the supernatural, which are contradicted by modern science. India has numerous beliefs and practices, some of which are ethically wrong, like sati and witch-hunting. Others are harmless superstitions, which include the hanging of lemons and chillies, throwing coins in water bodies, knocking the wood etc.
Not just India, there are various superstitions across the world. In fact, witch hunting began in the 1400s, somewhere in Europe and Colonial America.
Over the time, people have believed and followed various superstitions, some of which are related to health. Some of these superstitions act in a positive way and can be followed harmlessly, but again there are a few superstitions which are ethically wrong or might not be medicinal at all.
In this study of Health-Related Superstitions and our Responsibilities, I would be mostly focusing on India, as India is a diverse and highly religious country, which makes superstitions more common. However, I would also be adding a few superstitions from other parts of the world, which seem relevant enough to be included.
SUPERSTITIONS WITH HEALTH BENEFITS
Knocking on the wood, or “touchwood”, in fact, pacifies people in tense situations, or makes them feel protected. This has a really positive impact on one’s mental health and can even help them psychologically. However, if a person fails to perform the ritual/ superstition in a particular tense situation, it might lead them into an even more anxious situation.
The hanging of lemons and chillies is thought as a way to avoid bad luck/ the evil eye. However, when a cotton thread is pierced through the lemon and chillies, which are sources of Vitamin C, the nutrients are absorbed by the cotton and vaporized into the air. Inhaling this has its own health benefits. They also keep the insects away because of their insecticidal properties.
One more interesting superstition is throwing coins in water bodies. In earlier times, coins were made of copper and as copper is good for our body, throwing coins in water bodies was seen as a health benefit. Though it had medicinal values back in primitive days, in the present, it is followed as a mere ritual for those who want to keep the bad omen away.
Another ritual is taking a bath after attending the last rites. The body of the deceased carries various germs and bacteria, thus taking a bath was seen as a good way to keep the attendee’s body healthy and safe. This, in today’s time, might be viewed by some as a gesture of respect or a mere ritual.
The reason why the above superstitions were made was to enforce it on people in an easier way. If they knew that not doing the following ritual, for example, not putting lemons and chillies, would result in something bad, which is in this case is being harmed by the evil eye, people would definitely follow it.
However, over the centuries, the true reasons behind superstitions, especially health related, have been lost. In today’s time, we should not throw coins into the water bodies because nowadays coins are made up of materials like ferritic stainless steel and cupro-nickel, unlike copper, which was used in primitive days. So, throwing coins in today’s time is simply polluting the water body. The only reason why it remains to be followed is people’s beliefs. They think that throwing coins would get them rid of bad luck.
SUPERSTITIONS ACROSS TIME AND TECHNOLOGY
Let us take the example of not allowing women to go to temples during menstruation. In earlier times, there were no products as good as today for women to use. Thus, as it was uncomfortable for them and even tedious to walk long distances to temples, they were advised not to go. In today’s time, with more relieve pills and new products, women can easily go. But as the superstitions still hold on, many women are not allowed to go to temples, which is completely unnecessary.
This clearly shows that sometimes superstitions can be useful for only a particular period/ time. Moreover, there are many superstitions, related to health, which are actually not at all health beneficial, unlike the superstitions discussed before. These superstitions, if followed, can actually, in return, result in harm to one’s health or even death.
According to a case reported in West Bengal, a girl around the age of 18 was bitten by a dog. Instead of taking her to the doctor, her mom took her to a witch doctor, one of the most renowned in their district.
The witch doctor gave the girl mixture of herbs and said she was cured. More astonishing was to hear that the girl and in fact everyone in the village thought that a dog biting could lead to having puppies inside the human body! Even the witch doctor gave a few statements agreeing to the “puppy pregnancy syndrome”. He said that he was taught about the healing mixtures by his father at the age of 20.
More bizarre was when the girl, who was bitten, said that eating the herb would kill the puppies, which would then prevent “rabies”. Many, including medical experts, say witch doctors are root of this strange myth.
There are thousands of faith healers or witch doctors in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and some other states in India, who claim to have the medicine to cure rabies.
Doctors say that only a few dogs are infected by rabies so “it is not very likely that a person will contract the disease” and that’s the reason why witch doctors, also referred to as “faith-healers”, are able to fool people.
However, there are many cases of rabies patients who have reached hospitals late and lost their lives due to the “interference of faith healers”.
There are many other such superstitions, where people blindly follow the faith healers. By this we are not only risking people’s lives, but also promoting the jobs of faith healer, who make money by simply fooling people.
WITCH HUNTING AND HOW IT’S A HEALTH-RELATED SUPERSTITION
Witch hunting refers to the branding of people, usually women, as witches. Around 1400s, people who bore spots on their skin or were left-handed were termed as “witches”. The witch hunting, through various laws (which will be discussed further) and even development, is decreasing at a higher speed. Unfortunately, there are still some cases being reported in India. The recent one occurred in Jharkhand in 2016, where an old lady was brutally pulled out of her house and burnt alive.
The reason why she was burnt alive was because a young lady, who had lost her twin daughters to jaundice, blamed the old lady, and told everyone that she was the evil eye.
The presence of deadly diseases, like, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, are one of the leading causes of Witch-Hunting in this society. The cause of death could be the illness and the lack of healthcare, however, people here “believe more in superstition than they believe in science”.
RELIGION AND MEDICAL TREATMENT
Religions could be considered a source of superstitions. A religion doesn’t allow a particular thing because then an evil thing might harm you or you need to practice a specific thing, because it says so in the religion you follow, and because it will save you from something bad.
Some even belief that religion might be a “harmful superstition”, for it provides beliefs which can be unfounded and irrational.
Religions like the Amish do not allow heart transplants and even sometimes heart surgery. Many Amish are even reluctant about taking medical treatments, believing that God is the “ultimate healer”. Such cases can really harm their health, and as they do not even follow birth control, it could create problems globally, like population increase.
There are many such rules in Sikhism, Islam, and Hinduism. For example, they do not use any drugs or medical dressings that contain parts of animals, as they consider the killing of animals sinful. However, in times of emergency, Sikhism, Islam, and Hinduism do make exceptions.
Responsibilities vary based on a person’s profession, age and how much power they have. A student’s responsibility will be different from that of a government official. So, I will be dividing responsibilities accordingly.
As students, I believe that we should be able to judge superstitions. We should not blindly follow superstitions imposed on us by our family, or our community, or even our religion. We should be able to question the specific superstition, go into the roots and find its origin, question whether it is ethically correct, and see if it is beneficial in any which ways.
We should also take health related superstitions into serious consideration as they do affect our health. We should be able to evaluate whether that particular superstition is correct for the modern world, considering examples like throwing coins into the river.
Once when we have understood everything about that particular superstition, we should righteously make our own decisions, keeping in mind the impact made on the society by our decision.
As for independent individuals, I think that they should engage more on spreading awareness. They should first, just like students, find out whether the superstition is useful and ethical, and then spread the correct information. They should particularly engage with people living in villages and try to explain them the truth. Individuals should try to convince people, as we discussed before, that doctors are better than faith healers. This can be done by an NGO or an individual or a group of activists. For others, who are not engaged in NGOs should definitely try convincing their community and their children. Because as Nathaniel Branden once said, “The first step to change is awareness. The second is acceptance”.
And speaking of politicians or even government officials, I think they could engage in making more effective acts. For example, the Anti Witch Hunting Act in Assam. which was passed in 2018. The act says that it an act that “provides for more effective measures to prohibit witch hunting”. This act has been really effectful since its making and the number of cases of witch hunting is rapidly decreasing. So, by looking at the success of the act, I think there should more such acts, which promote awareness and do not support superstitions. This could help many in villages. And not just that, people in power should really try to make people living in villages more aware about healthcare, because as we discussed before, villagers believe in witch hunting mainly due to the presence of diseases, which they think exist because of the “witch’s bad omen”.
In this article, we have narrowed our focus towards “health related superstitions”. So, as we came to know, there are a few superstitions which have medicinal values or benefits, and there are few superstitions, that are just blindly followed, by, in most cases, uneducated people, and have no medicinal value at all. In fact, such superstitions, in return, actually harm the body. We also discussed about how some superstitions are irrelevant in today’s times and are actually not at all health beneficial. We even talked particularly about witch doctors or faith healers, who trick people into believing them as the real doctors. Then we discussed about how religion might stop one from getting health benefits. Overall, we discovered few superstitions in detail, like witch hunting, and even talked about our responsibilities.
In conclusion I believe that with the right acts, awareness and knowledge, we would be able to reduce the harmful superstitions, and as for the useful ones, we can convey their real purpose to people, so that they understand the correct way to perform the specific “superstition”.