The annular solar eclipse of May 20th, 2012 was a rare chance for the world to experience a fascinating astronomical spectacle. Herein the orbits of the moon and Earth aligned to form a straight line around the sun. But while journalists, photographers and enthusiastic youngsters from across the globe travelled far and wide to catch a glimpse of the celestial phenomenon, many families in Karachi rushed to the local beach for an entirely different agenda: curing their loved ones of their disabilities. Children as young as six were buried neck-deep in sand with the belief that energies released from the eclipse would heal their physical and mental impairments and they would walk out good as new.
In contrast, there are many schools of thought which consider an eclipse to be a bad omen of sorts — an occurrence of the evil kind which can adversely affect the health and well-being of expecting mothers and newborns. Women in India are discouraged from consuming food or leaving their homes during an eclipse. In fact, oftentimes they aren’t allowed to step out of bed until the eclipse has subsided, lest it affect the unborn child. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, misconceptions and superstitions regarding the illeffects of eclipses remain prevalent across the subcontinent and it is difficult to understand why.
“Superstitions exist in all cultures, whether they are regarding eclipses, shattered glasses or black cats,” explains Fateeha Beg, a Masters in Psychology from Simmons University, Boston. “It is an expression of belief and fear of the unknown. Superstitions are but a psychological coping mechanism to counter what the unforeseen future entails.” There may not be any physical process or plausible explanation but within the Pakistani cultural ethos, superstitions are common and things like magic, omens, nazar-e-bud (evil eye) and witchcraft have inculcated themselves into our belief systems and daily lives. We often hear how avoiding scissors or ladders at night can safeguard us from evil or placing money-plants inside our homes can thwart financial instability. A good example of how deeply superstitions are instilled in our minds could be that of 30-year-old Mohammad Hassan who doesn’t allow his children to play outdoors post sundown for fear that supernatural evils will get attracted to them. “I also don’t like it when they trim their nails at night,” he adds. Similarly, 29-year-old domestic worker Rakshanda Nawab insists black cats not only follow her but also make her nervous and unusually sleepy. “I don’t feel safe afterwards,” says Rakshanda. “I can’t rest until I have paid my pir a visit and he has blessed me.”
Rakshanda’s predicament highlights yet another superstition common to Pakistani culture: the dependence on pirs, shamans and faith-healers. This is particularly rampant amongst the uneducated, lower-income brackets which believe local pirs to have mystical powers that can ward off any problem, be it medical, financial or personal. “My mother-in-law has been seeking guidance from a pir for over 20 years and took me along one day. Since then, he has opened my eyes to a whole new world,” says 42-year-old homemaker Nasreen Jamal. “All we have to do is pay him a lump sum annually and he counsels us through our lives, including what we should eat and drink. I feel much happier and safer thanks to pir sahab.” Be it minor bodily aches, marital problems or unfulfilled desires, these pirs can allegedly rectify any and everything, despite no actual proof. This is the ultimate mindset which forms the nucleus of superstitious beliefs - despite obvious irrationality and lack of evidence, people still entertain false beliefs, either out of cultural transmission or simply a need for something to believe in. Finding a good pir becomes a necessity for people like Nasreen. Superstitions are so deeply ingrained into their belief systems that it requires counsel, much like how one goes to a doctor for medical help.
It is important to note that many a superstitions can be attributed to psychological factors like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) etc. This is the most likely explanation in situations where superstitions take a turn for the worse, bordering on odd and obsessive. There are many like 24-year-old Hajra Habib who complicate trivial everyday tasks unintentionally due to their superstitious ideas. “I realise it makes no sense whatsoever but I have to drink water in five sips only,” admits Hajra. “If I don’t, it feel like I have been tainted by some sort of supernatural force and must drink another glass to brush it off.” And Hajra isn’t the only one who suffers from such obsessive tendencies. “When I enter a classroom, I must put my right foot in first,” shares 18-year-old student Sakina Iftikhar. “If I forget, something or the other keeps bothering me throughout the lesson and I can’t concentrate. Therefore, I make a conscious effort to enter with my right foot every time.”
In order to rationalise such behaviour, any possible psychological or physical explanations are disregarded completely and people tend to take the ‘religio-spiritiual’ route for treatment. Rather than focusing on cognitive therapy, cultural pressures push people towards atypical treatment options such as exorcism. “I have witnessed many exorcisms in my life,” says 60-year-old domestic worker Kaleema Agha. “All the children needed it. They behaved very strangely and we knew there was a saaya on them. Once, a girl’s voice changed completely; she fell very sick and had to undergo an exorcism.” For Kaleema and her family, medical reasoning bares little or no validity and resorting to faith-healers becomes the chief way out, ignoring the fact that many of them are charlatans, heretics and unlicensed to conduct such activities.
The important question to ask, however, is whether superstitions actually have underlying psychological connotations or are they simply a by-product of old wives’ tales and a primarily uneducated society? Considering Fateeha’s assertion that superstitions are but a defence mechanisms against the unknown, one can argue that they arise from our upbringing, surroundings and position in life. “I grew up visiting pirs with my parents so it is very normal to me,” confesses Hajra. “I am generally a timid person and my pir really helps me through.” Everyday habits and level of education acquired also determine the strength of one’s superstitious beliefs. Generally, the more educated a person is, the more sceptical they are of anything without proof, including superstitions.
But for Don Saucier, associate professor of psychology at the Kansas State University, superstitions are merely things people do in an attempt to control their future. Indulging in superstitious activity serves as a mental safety net of sorts which makes one think they can affect their fate by performing certain tasks in a certain way. “Being in the blind about anything is unsettling, especially when it comes to one’s life,” suggests medical resident Maleeha Waqar. “Superstitious ideas help us cope with this anxiety. They make us feel like we have done something that could improve our chances of achieving what we desire.” Perhaps this is the reason why many athletes invest in ‘lucky charms’ or wear the same outfits without washing to maintain their winning streaks.
Superstitions have been a constant presence throughout time. Many historians believe animal sacrifices in ancient civilisations were performed solely to attract good luck. Today, we offer animals in sadqa to ward off negativity and potential problems. Every day, we subconsciously engage in activities that could fall the umbrella of superstition with amulets and totems said to attract positive energy, the Turkish evil eye being one of our favourites. If one’s superstitious beliefs and the desired outcome are shown to be unassosciated repeatedly, the superstition could eventually fade out. However, considering that they have been instilled in us by generations and generations of superstitious activity, even the slightest bit of association can make them come back.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 27th, 2014.