The vicious circle | Sunday Observer

The vicious circle

31 January, 2021

From our childhood, we try to acquire worldly wisdom so that we will be equipped with a sense of judgment. We decide whether to believe or not what a man says. He might say Goddess Kali is speaking through him. Although rationalists pooh-pooh the concept of gods and deities, even educated people believe in them.

Throughout Asia, people put their faith in the supernatural as a way of coping with the pressures of a fast-changing world. This is against the scientific thinking we have been brought up with. When people do not get an effective remedy from medical science to heal their physical and mental ailments, they turn to supernatural powers.

Human history is full of instances where people have sought other worldly solutions for the failures of leading politicians. When former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi suffered many setbacks in State elections and his ruling Congress Party was in disarray, two of his loyalists in Kerala went to an ancient Hindu Kovil in Guruvayur to perform an “Udayastamaya Puja” to boost his flagging fortunes. What happened thereafter is recorded in recent history.


This does not mean that the supernatural is alive only in India. It is in existence in highly developed States, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. In some countries, buyers and sellers consult soothsayers before risking their money in stocks. In India and Japan, businessmen consult astrologers and spiritualists when they start a new project. Japan and India are economic power-houses, but they have not left their link with mysticism.

There have been mystics down the ages. They seek contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the Absolute, or believe in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the human intellect. Sathguru is a modern-day Indian mystic who delivers regular lectures at leading universities in the United States. When you listen to him, you get the feeling that he is above the average intellectual.

Mysticism, animism and superstition seem to hold sway in virtually all parts of the world. Although Asians believe that Westerners have no faith in superstitions, Tarot-card and palm readers ply their profitable trade in New York and London. However, Asian countries are leading when it comes to superstitions. This is because even political leaders in Asian countries consult astrologers and wear good-luck talismans and amulets. In Singapore, there are many soothsayers and psychics. Even in the Communist China, there is a resurgence of superstitious practices.

Political leaders

When political leaders publicly acknowledge the importance of supernatural powers, people naturally follow them. As we know, even elections are held according to astrologers’ predictions. Ferdinand Marcos who ruled Philippine believed in occult practices. He believed that seven and its multiples were his lucky numbers. He declared martial law on September 21, 1972 and decided to hold general elections on May 14, 1984. However, when Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated on August 21, 1983, anti-Marcos forces captured power on February 7, 1986.

Sometimes Western industrialists find it difficult to do business in Eastern countries because of superstitions. Once, an Australian company won an onshore oil exploration contract in China. However, villagers refused to cooperate with them. They believed that certain landscape configurations represented dragons and tigers which were unlucky according to Fengshui. The company ignored their protests and went ahead with their work.

Sri Lankans still practise certain harmless superstitious practices, such as starting a business at an auspicious time given by an astrologer. But some people consult astrologers even when they have to bury a dead body. Today, even Western investors go along with Asian practices when they start a business here. When Hong Kong was governed by the British, Governor Sir David Wilson always bowed to local traditions. Today, Hong Kong is governed by China, but the superstitions are in existence.

Number 666

Superstitions have invaded even flights. Would you board a flight listed on the departures board as: 666 to HEL on Friday 13? That was what happened to a group of travellers who were flying from Copenhagen to Helsinki while Friday the 13th is considered bad luck in many western cultures.

The number 666 is mentioned in the Bible as belonging to the devil. To ease in-flight tensions, many airlines such as Continental Airlines, Air France, British Airways, and KLM have removed aisle 13 from their planes. Many airlines, however, insist that aisle rows numbered 13 have been removed due to rearranging and managing new aircraft, not due to superstitions.

In most Asian countries, mysticism has been turned into a profitable business. Although religious places should be kept open to devotees free, some Indian temples levy a charge for admission. However, people queue up to pay the money and go into the temple and spend a few minutes before an image covered with curtains. The Suhud community in Indonesia has cultivated a spontaneity of spirit and movement through exercises, including shadow-boxing and break-dancing. Suhud has a laser-manufacturing firm in Germany. Fengshui experts in Hong Kong charge heavily for their advice. In a torpid Philippine village, thousands of pilgrims line up to bathe in the curative waters of Santa Lucia springs. The mountain is believed to have supernatural powers.

Everywhere, the lines between religious faith and superstition are often blurred. In some religious places, talismans and amulets are sold to devotees. People buy them believing that they have curative powers. Most temples have Hindu kovils to attract devotees. Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have concocted their own primordial mix which includes Taoist concepts of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ and ancestor worship.

Common thread

Asian mysticism and superstitions have a common thread which appeals to the human longing for guidance and security. Supernatural powers, in a way, have eased the strains of daily life. Psychologically, mysticism provides a modern therapeutic role. As psychiatry and analysis remain foreign practices to most Asians, many people seek the help of unseen powers. As a result, we cannot scoff at Asia’s mysticism and superstitions.

In the 21st century, scientific inquiry has challenged the world of superstitions and mysticism. It has freed men’s minds as it has eased their toil. Thomas Jefferson said, “There is no truth on earth that I fear to be known.

Each noteworthy civilisation has grappled with the great problem of its time. For the Greeks, it was the organisation of society; for the Romans, the organisation of empire; for the Medievalist, the spelling out their relationship to God; for the Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries, mastery of the oceans. For the past two centuries, it has been the scientific understanding of nature and the creation of a mysticism-free society.”

F.M. Esfandiary in his essay “The mystical West puzzles the practical East” says: “In the big cities in the West, there is a noticeable restlessness, a groping, a desperation to believe in something. In New York and Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, innumerable cults, religious and spiritual groups flourish and win fanatic adherents. Bright, educated city-dwellers swallow the nonsense that these soothsayers, clairvoyants, spiritualists and prophets dish out. There is something pathetic about this hunger for fairy tales.”

It seems that there is no difference between the East and the West when it comes to mysticism and superstitions. We are caught up in a vicious circle.

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