SUPERSTITIONS, FOLKS BELIEFS, FORTUNETELLERS AND TRADITIONAL HEALERS IN INDIA

SUPERSTITIONS IN INDIA

Indians can be very superstitious. Omens are seen in all kinds of things: the calls of birds, the cries of animals, and strangers people meet. The licking sound of a gecko or a woman with fruit in her hand can mean good things or bad things depending on the day of the week.

Legend and myth are often regarded as fact in India. Hanuman, the monkey god, is particularly popular in northern India. In January 1997, when a balloon carrying the adventurer Steve Fosset landed near the northern Indian village of Ninkhar, local people thought the balloon was Hanuman’s floating temple cart.

One villager told the writer Sy Montgomery, "if you did not believe in science, how would you fly an airplane? Without belief in science, the airplane would fall down." "This is the central mistake of science, the gunins say," wrote Montgomery, "It examines only surfaces an allows our own reflection to obscure the deeper powers."

Children sometimes have a leather strap wrapped around their waist as a sign of good luck. There are beliefs in the evil eye. Women with green eyes are called “cat-eyed women” and regarded as evil. To acknowledge gifts to a child too early is believed to provoke the evil eye, and bring misfortune. The oldest reference to firewalking is of ascetics in India 3000 year ago.

See Minorities

Superstitious Beliefs in India

In India, Don't talk about death or bad luck directly in regard to someone. Some people will interpret this as putting a curse on someone. Don't compliment a child or make comments about his or her health. Some people believe this leaves them open to attacks from demons.

The numbers 21, 51, 101 are considered auspicious. Black and white are considered unlucky. It is considered inauspicious to leave a house in a group of three. If there are three people in a group. Two people should leave first. The third person should follow a few seconds later. Sometimes when a female guest leaves a house the oldest woman of the house paints a bindi (red or black dot) on the guest's forehead, or gives a few betel nuts. This is a wish for good luck.

Women in India tried to avoid pregnancy by fumigating their vagina with steam from a special kettle. Women in Egypt and India have used suppositories made highly acidic elephant or crocodile dung as a contraceptive. The acid acts as a spermicide. In some parts of India, women wanting a child hold their saris in front of a passing train in the belief it will make them pregnant. The latticed marble of the small tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti near the great mosque in Datehpur Silkri is filled with knotted threads from followers wishing for a son.

Fortunetellers and Astrologers in India

A palm reader and astrologer in Calcutta read the writer Paul Theroux's palm and told him he would live to be 78 and have a daughter and give problems to people of a small size. Some fortunetellers use a parrot that selects an envelope or card that the fortuneteller reads or interprets for the customers. Storefronts advertise computer horoscopes. Vaatsu is kind of Indian version of fengu shi. Feng shui is practiced by enough Indians that you can feng shui consultants in Bombay.

Hindu astrologers consult celestial records inscribed on birch bark strips for auspicious days and times for weddings and other events. Almanacs that list auspicious days and times are bestsellers. Indira Gandhi consulted regularly with astrologers and holy men. It is said that she scheduled trips at auspicious times and reportedly told Queen Elizabeth to delay the landing of a flight she was on so as not to land at an inauspicious time.

Indians have traditionally believed that solar and lunar eclipses bring bad luck. During the August 1999 eclipse many offices and shops were closed. One woman told the Washington Post, "During the period of the solar eclipse, you should not cut any vegetables, nor eat anything, or stomp out of the house or fold your hands or legs. Bad things will happen to you if you don't follow the rules.

K.N. Somayaji is a Banglore-based astrologer who counts millionaires and some of India’s most profitable companies among his customers. Using Vedic texts and vaatsu he gives companies advice and where to launch public share offerings and which companies they should buy or sell or do business with. Among his clients are the Ambanis, owners of Reliance, India’s largest corporation, and Monica Lewinsky.

Indians chose auspicious days to register land, have weddings, start school, take trips and pen businesses. See Weddings.

Book: Astrology: A History by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001).

Monkey Man on the Loose in Delhi?

In 2001, residents of Delhi were thrown into a panic by reports of a wild monkey man on the loose. No one actually say him but there were many descriptions of what he looked like and reports of dozens of people being clawed and bitten by the beast. According to descriptions the monkey man was between 4½ feet and 5½ feet tall and had a coat of dark hair. Some people said the creature had a metal claw. Others said it had eyes that glowed in the dark like a cat. One said it had "flaming red eyes and green lights glowing in its chest." One woman told the Washington Post, "He is a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control. How else would he able to jump four floors and vanish into thin air? Iit is because he has been programmed."

At least three people died during the scare. One man leapt off the roof of a three-story building because he thought he was being chased by the monkey man. Concerned about the panic, 3,000 extra police were assigned to the case and a reward of 50,000 rupees was offered for information leading to its capture. Politicians conducted rituals to ward off evil spirits and organized a "raodi action force."

Police believe the monkey man was the creation of bunch of punks and was more the work of people spreading rumors than an aggressive person running around in a monkey suit. The reports were inflamed by stories of real monkeys in Delhi that can be quite aggressive and enter homes. The hysteria ended when police arrested five people on charges of causing a panic through spreading rumors.

Exorcisms and Folk Healers in India

During a special ceremony restless souls of the dead are exorcized in a rite known as Kanto. Women accused of stealing money sometimes are labeled as possessed by demons and the demons are exorcized by painfully pinching their fingers with pliers and pulling their hair by the exorcist. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977]

Folk healers, known as ojha or fakis, are called upon to treat a wide variety of maladies, including snake bites, bone breaks and ghost possession. Treatments include reciting magical mantras while taking herbal remedies. They also provide amulets of protection against sorcery, which are worn by many Indians.

Local soothsayers and shaman are also called oijas. They ward off evil spirits, treat diseases and help women having difficulty bearing children. Oijas are both respected and feared. Villagers pay with money, chickens or a goat, depending on their wealth. Traditional medical practices also seep into standard hospitals and clinics. At an orthopedic hospital in Tamil Nadu, cerebral palsy patients are treated by being buried chest deep in sand. Doctors at the hospital claim a 75 percent success rate in improving the alignment of the lower back and limbs using this method.

The oldest reference to firewalking is of ascetics in India 3000 year ago. Firewalking can be explained by the fact that vaporizing moisture can provide a protective barrier against intense heat for a short period of time.

Quack Shaman and Healers in India

Many shaman and soothsayers are quacks, especially gurus and yogis who travel from one village to another claiming to perform miracles. These yogis walk on fire, hang weights from their skin, stop their heart, make bags of holy ashes magically appear and start fires on the heads of men and make tea on them. One of these so called godmen used to start a fire and tell people if they threw their jewelry in the fire, he could produce a silver statue of Ganesh. The statue appeared and the jewelry disappeared.

Magician-healers found in India include holy men who claim they have made gasoline from water and healers that claim they can cure asthma by swallowing live fish. Quack doctors boasting they have 18 sons and three wives sell tar-like miracle medicines that "cure stomach pains and improve sexual energies!" Lizard oil is taken as a virility enhancer in India. Men selling potency pill which are supposed to improve ones chances of conceiving a boy are often big sellers at markets. Doctors in the red light district of Calcutta sell powdered shark’s teeth to cure bed wetting, crush sawfish snout to relive pain and bits of twisted tree branches to treat hernias.

In the poor state of Bihar, a large number of people rely on quack doctors. Many of them are illiterate and can’t afford real doctors, which are often not available anyway. Describing treatment by a quack doctor who was a former medicine salesman Faizan Ahmed of Reuters wrote: “A bottle hangs from a ceiling by a string, slowly dripping a cloudy liquid into the arm of a scrawny boy lying on a threadbare cot...The boy lies still as his mother fans away a swarm of flies trying to settle on his face.”

Amazing Randi of India

B. Premamand spends much of his time exposing quacks. The Indian equivalent of the Amazing Randi, he has exposed a man who claimed to be 600 years old, a yogi who had not eaten for 45 years and a man who claimed even the flowers bowed to him. The later performed his act by spraying flowers with an anesthetic.

Premamand told the Independent, "There are even godmen going about with cups and balls, pretending they are performing miracles." Needless to say Premamand is not well liked in the quack community. He claims at least a dozen attempts have been made on his life and he shows his numerous scars as proof.

Premamand said he took up his crusade after a studying for years with a quack guru. Once the guru wrote "Om" on a piece of paper and lit it on fire. The entire paper burned except where "Om" was written. The holyman said, "When you have mediated enough on this word, you too will be able to do this. Premamand meditated very hard for long time but still could do it. Later he peeked behind a close door and saw the holyman applying a chemical to the paper.

The Science and Rationalist Society of India is a group that specializes in exposing holy men who dupe ordinary people into paying big money for miracle cures.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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