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Can India's rationalists stop the total eclipse of reason?

With the triple eclipse and the pandemic creating panic among people, India’s rationalists have their hands full, fighting against myths and superstitions

A boy uses solar filter glasses to view a rare ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse at a school in Mumbai on 26 December 2019. getty images
A boy uses solar filter glasses to view a rare ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse at a school in Mumbai on 26 December 2019. getty images

On the morning of 21 June, a handful of people gathered at the city corporation swimming pool in Mangaluru, Karnataka, to view the solar eclipse that was about to take place. Organized jointly by the Aid Without Religion Trust and Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association, the assembly, armed with protective gear to witness the phenomenon, had a point to prove—even if it had to do so while observing physical distancing norms.

“While others look upon an eclipse as a catastrophe and disaster waiting to strike, we rationalists look upon it as a natural occurrence to be viewed and enjoyed," Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (Fira) and managing trustee of Aid Without Religion Trust, wrote in a press release circulated ahead of the event. Similar plans are afoot for 5 July, when a lunar eclipse is set to occur—following the solar eclipse on 21 June and another lunar eclipse on 5 June.

At a time when the public is consumed by fear, panic and misinformation regarding the covid-19 pandemic, with many clutching at the straws of superstition and rituals, defiant gestures as such these send out a strong message.

For years, the 90-odd rationalists associations across India affiliated to Fira have publicly denounced the belief that some activities are harmful to undertake during eclipses. Debunking myths about eclipses is one of the many activities that are part of their mission. The rationalists have shown up “miracles" performed by godmen to be bogus; they have explained “supernatural" phenomena using scientific principles; and, in general, tried to inculcate a rational temper among ordinary people.

Not surprisingly, the tireless crusade of the rationalists against blind faith has met with violent opposition from lobbies that have felt threatened by their sobering influence. In the last seven years alone, four activists and rationalists—Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare from Maharashtra, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh from Karnataka—have been murdered openly. Nayak, who is often called the “macho man of rationalism" and a “one-man institution", has narrowly escaped multiple attempts on his life. Currently, he lives under police protection at his home in Mangaluru.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The rationalists’ efforts have also brought about slow change in the social fabric. In December, a samosa-eating party was organized in a village in Goa where an enthusiastic crowd of 100-150, mostly youngsters, came together to view a solar eclipse, following safety protocols. “Until a few years ago, there was much more reluctance to participate in such gatherings," says R.G. Rao, president of the Goa chapter of Fira. “Even college and school teachers used to take the day off and stay home—some of them still do—because that’s what tradition demands."

Now, while the elderly remain hesitant about crossing the line, the youth are open to taking bolder strides. “I have friends employed in high places who agree with me that there’s no rational basis to their beliefs," Rao adds. “But such is their conditioning since childhood that they feel guilty if they don’t follow rituals dictated by tradition." Education is no guarantee of a rationalist mindset. “People can be literate in physics, chemistry and medicine without being truly educated," as Nayak tersely puts it.

Faith versus fact

As early as the 17th century, European astronomers understood eclipses to be natural phenomena and explained their occurrence scientifically. But the primal fear of these occurrences goes back to millennia and is alive and kicking in the 21st century. In Hindu astrology, Rahu, a fearsome demon, is believed to swallow celestial bodies, casting a pall of darkness over the world. Eating during an eclipse, it was believed (especially in the pre-electricity era), was inauspicious. Women were told not to cook or chop vegetables. Pregnant women were asked to stay indoors. A miasma of myths accrued gradually.

“What I have found is that more often than not these rituals are rooted in scientific reasoning. Over time, unfortunately, the reasoning is forgotten and what is left is only a ritual practice," says Simran Lal, CEO of Good Earth and Co-founder of Nicobar. “For example, the belief that you should not look at an eclipse is actually backed by science—looking at an eclipse without the eye-aids that modern science has only now made possible can lead to irreversible damage to the eyes, including loss of vision."

But to hold on to these myths in the 21st century, with the hindsight of science and technological progress, is unwarranted. The hype over the latest triple eclipse, for instance, is largely unfounded. Contrary to the belief that such series of eclipses occur after hundreds of years, the phenomenon was observed as recently as in 2018 and 2013.

As a rationalist, Rao says he walks the talk. When he addresses the public, he carries a photograph of his 22-year-old daughter to show the audience. “I tell them that my wife chopped vegetables, cooked, ate, stepped outside, looked at the sun and moon during eclipses with adequate protection while she was pregnant. There is nothing wrong with our daughter. People are welcome to medically test her if they like," he says.

But during an unfolding pandemic, injecting such a scientific temper into the public can be tougher than usual. With no vaccine or reliable cure against covid-19, people are understandably desperate for whatever glimmer of hope they can find.

“In the early days of the pandemic, many Indians who were stuck overseas reached out to us," says Shivani Hariharan, co-founder and head of the Mumbai chapter of The Ochre Tree, a brand that is dedicated to “energy healing, meditation, spirituality and other self-development programmes". “Our focus was to remove their fear psychosis, which was causing stress and anxiety in them," she adds. The clients who already had covid-19 reported an improvement in their conditions after a few sessions of healing, alongside medical treatment, Hariharan says. Their recovery time was quicker than expected.

The link between stress and a compromised immune system is an established fact. But seeking relief in cures that are not clinically proven, or have no sound scientific basis, can be a tricky business. Since the early days of the lockdown, India’s political classes have offered a range of placebos to people. Drinking cow urine, chanting “Go, corona, go" in public, violating physical distancing, taking the names of favourite deities for half an hour at home—the list goes on. The latest entrant into this fast-growing club of such cures is Coronil, an alleged panacea promoted by Baba Ramdev.

This explosion of false cures and beliefs is symptomatic of the times. Superstitions have a way of flaring up when people are at their most fragile, mentally. “Since 95% of those affected by covid-19 recover on their own, it is easy to make wild claims about the efficacy of drugs that haven’t undergone clinical trial," Nayak says. “By applying their ‘research’ on patients with no co-morbidities, these quacks are bound to get successful results. But who wants treatments for mild and moderate cases? I am much more interested in the effect of these treatments on the 5% who don’t recover on their own."

The steady 5%

It is not just the “ignorant" or “uneducated" sections that are vulnerable to pseudo-science. “When politicians and other influential people make unsubstantiated claims, they create a panic situation among the masses," says Sudesh Ghoderao, secretary of national and international coordination at the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Mans), founded in 1989 by Dabholkar. For over three decades, Mans has been running campaigns across Maharashtra using slogans, posters, workshops and social media to counter myths and superstition. At present, with physical distancing norms in force, its modus operandi has shifted to webinars to train volunteers.

Ghoderao is also cognizant of the mental health costs of living through a pandemic. He admits that daily stressors may push people into seeking relief in unscientific beliefs. “Mans has been working with a collective of mental health workers called Manasmitra, which is providing counselling and mental healthcare support across rural Maharashtra during the pandemic," he says. In Goa, too, a major target audience for the rationalists is the rural population, especially women. “If we can educate one woman, she can pass on the knowledge to many others," says Rao.

For all the dangers they have faced over the decades, the rationalists have succeeded in bringing about tangible legal changes through their campaigns. The Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016, which was passed after years of activism by Mans, has proved especially useful during the pandemic in protecting health and sanitation workers from social ostracization. Mans volunteers are helping victims to file police complaints and also alert the police about violations of the law.

“About 85% of the people we address during our campaigns appear convinced by our arguments but a majority of them revert to their old beliefs the moment they leave the meeting," says Nayak. They cite personal majboori (compulsions) as being inimical to altering their ways, he explains. “Our target is the steady 5%, who hold on to our ideas and don’t change their minds."

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