Anwesh Satpathy

In many parts of India, eclipses are considered to have religious or mythological significance. A practice common in Hinduism is fasting, or rather abstinence from food, during the eclipse and ritual purification through bathing after the end of every solar eclipse. The eclipse is said to have 'polluted' food. This, of course, is based mostly on oral traditions. In order to expose practices associated with this ritual as superstition, the rationalists in Bhubaneswar embarked on a very public Chicken Biryani feast. As a consequence, the social media discourse quickly devolved into an abuse fest. Some users wondered why rationalists aren't marrying their own daughter/sister to prove the futility of traditions. As it happens, the evidence for the terrible effects of endogamy and incest has been exhaustively well documented in sociology, evolutionary biology and anthropology. But it's futile to expect defenders of superstition on social media to be well versed in scientific literature. 

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Hinduism is not unique in associating solar eclipse with bad omens. Cultures across the world have a metaphysical explanation for eclipses. The legend of Rahu being responsible for eclipse would be familiar to most Hindus. The Buddhist text Samyukta Nikaya too features Rahu as the enemy of the Sun-deity. In Norse mythology, wolves are said to be responsible for swallowing the sun. The Chinese believe eclipse is caused by a dragon while the Phillipines attribute it to a mythical snake. Christianity is not immune from associating eclipses with spiritual significance. Many Christians continue to see eclipses as signs from God. In recent years, the evangelical pastor John Hagee claimed that tetrad (four lunar eclipses) were signs of the end times.

These stories reflect our earliest attempt to explain the unexplainable in the absence of empirical methods. As stories, they may have underlying moral values but as hypothesis for the origin of eclipses they are utterly worthless in contemporary times.

Nevertheless, many have objected to the need of questioning superstition. How does a person fasting affect me? It doesn’t of course. However, when astrologers extol the virtues of avoiding food during eclipse in major news outlets, it becomes incumbent upon the rationalist to push back. For the longest time, a false sense of expertise has been associated with astrologers despite the dubious scientific validity of their statements. 

When a person starts living his/her life based on superstition, the harm becomes evident. There have been multiple examples of Godmen in India duping their devotees through rudimentary magic. The Indian Rationalist Association has done commendable work over the years in exposing these Godmen, of all religions. Sanal Edamaruku, for instance, exposed a tantric on live TV. All hell broke loose in 2012 when Edamaruku pointed out the scamming and anti-science activities that Christian priests often engage in. Cases were filed against him and he had to flee to Finland.

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Advocating for rationalism in India and speaking against blind-belief comes with legal consequences as well as societal taboos. During the COVID pandemic, the world witnessed public intellectuals who claimed to speak from an area of expertise. Prominent among these YouTube 'skeptics' of vaccines was Bret Weinstein, a mediocre evolutionary biologist. Due to his charisma and claimed 'scientific expertise', thousands saw COVID vaccines as potentially dangerous with adverse long term detrimental effects. This misinformation led to deaths as many refused to take vaccines and later succumbed to COVID-19. These deaths were preventable. A proper understanding of the scientific method would’ve ensured people to stop blindly trusting self-proclaimed 'experts' and instead take precautions based on empirical evidence. 

The empirical method is important precisely because it minimizes personal biases. The efficacy of vaccines was determined through meta-analyses of double-blind controlled trials conducted across radically different cultures. On the other hand, the belief that food is polluted during eclipse or that cow urine cures cancer is based on just that- whims, claims and ancient stories. As we saw through the vaccine disinformation during COVID, these unscientific claims have the ability to actually take lives. The promotion of scientific temper in a country susceptible to superstition would lead to infinitely better outcomes for humanity at large. That religious books like Vedas, Bible and Koran are fallible man-made tomes was pointed out by none other than Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. According to Savarkar, Europe was only able progress when it distanced itself from the Bible and followed science.

In his words "If the Indian nation aims to be like Europe, it should close the 'book' of the ancient era, forget the supremacy of shruti, smriti and the Puranas, keep them safely away in libraries and enter the age of science. Science that is objective and experimental alone qualifies as the basis for deciding what is appropriate for today". One can only wish for these words to be followed! 

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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