There was a time when a man was little better than beasts and his mind was only slightly developed. He has not yet acquired the wisdom of putting two and two together and finding out the why and wherefore of certain phenomena of nature. He primitive wits led him to attribute happenings or events to objects or causes wholly unrelated and alien to occurrences. Fear and apprehension were the characteristic of his mind which could be moulded into any shape or pattern by anyone who could assert himself. Thus, his own crude mind and the mind of some others among his contemporaries founded a set of his beliefs or make beliefs which became the guiding principles of his life. In course of centuries these beliefs became, traditional and established a firm hold over people’s mind so that society came to repose a blind faith in them. These faiths acquired a good deal of sanctity, to violate which was regarded a sin. One such faith was that the opinion of priest was divinely inspired and was to be honoured as such. It was in pursuance of such beliefs that “Letters of Indulgence” issued by Pope came to be regarded as the passport to heaven. Thus primitive mind and the mind of partially civilized people played part in the foundation and development of superstitions in human society.
There are a number of superstitions which are common to people of every country and race. Belief in spirits, ghost and witches can claim votaries in every part of the world. Belief in the existence of spirits is as old as the mountains and it is has received recognition in literature. We read in Hamlet that after the death of his father his spirit returned to earth and roamed about in search of revenge. Belief in witches is more or less widespread even now in the countries like England, Scotland and India where science has appreciably progressed and is progressing. And the number of those who acknowledge wit conviction the existence of ghosts and their exploits is simply legion (vast number). The cry of a crow the hooting of an owl and the mewing of a cat are superstitiously regarded as good or bad omens by people in every country. Comet appearing in the sky is a sign predicating the death of a king according to popular belief and we find Shakespeare giving expression to this belief in the play ‘Julius Ceasar’ where he says
” When beggars die there are no comets seen,
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
These superstitious beliefs are universal. Yet they are confined to particular regions or to particular regions or to particular class of people. Let us now see what they are and to what country or class they belong.
Superstitious beliefs among the backward and uncivilized people are ridiculously absured. Deaths due to cholera, plague and other epidemics were to them the doings of angry gods and goddesses. Instead of adopting medical measures to combat them they took recourse to rites and rituals calculated to appease the wrath of deities. In certain tribes the birth of a daughter and the visit of a guest was considered to be the sign of some impending calamity. Number twelve of the numberless has a superstitious significance for the people of Soliga tribe in South India. This number is adhered to at every significant occasion in their life from the cradle to grave. For instance, twelve elders of the tribe will be invited to bless a new born child on the twelfth day of the birth, the marriage pandal will have twelve bamboos for its erection and twelve relatives of the bridegroom will go to bring the bride from her house. At the death of a member of the tribe twelve bamboo sticks will be used for making the funeral bier.
Notwithstanding the progress of science among them, the English people still cling to some superstitious beliefs—their prejudice against number 13 is well-known. Number 13 predicts bad luck, whereas a horse-shoe found lying on the road while waking along promises good luck. Again going under a ladder and spilling of salt at dinner table are both inauspicious. In English literature, we come across expression as
” We shall have guests today,
My nose itcheth so.”
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
Even Swift, quite rational otherwise, used to believe that Friday should be avoided while starting a new work. Addison has devoted a whole essay on Englishman’s superstitions. The people of Scotland have their Kelpie which is a sure warning of a person’s impending death and the wail of Banshee in Welsh meadows frightens the people of Wales of their wits.
India, China and Japan have also a number of superstitions of their own. No Indian except perhaps those who have a higher developed scientific mind, would feel happy to hear somebody sneezing at the commencement of any task or setting out on a journey. Coming across a cat, or a one-eyed person or a pair of empty vessels at the first sight just when one has started out to fulfill some object, is regarded as fraught with dismal forbidding. In China parting of land is considered as a portent and the falling of rice on the table the sign impending doom. Japanese also are superstitious in the matter of wearing ornaments.
Superstitious practices manifest themselves in various forms among different peoples. The fetish (idol) worship among the Christians is one such form. The consecrated bread in the ceremony of Lord’s supper is a fetish which is a religious superstition of the Christians. Among the primitive people this superstition manifested itself in the worship of trees, serpents, cats and bulls.
Beliefs in the superstitions act as a clog to the wheel of progress. They have kept, and are keeping even now, people away from the path of light, making them short-sighted and narrow-minded. Deeds too horrible to witness were committed in Europe under the blind faith of the people in superstitions. Johan of Arc was burnt alive because Englishmen of her times regarded her as a witch. The contrary was the case because she was the savior of her country. In France too, the burning of women suspected of being witches remained a wide spread practice for some time in the middle ages. Remy, a judge of Nancy, has sentenced to death 800 witches in sixteen days. Such were the black deeds committed by people under the influence of superstitious deeds which have blackened the pages of history.
Superstitions are the outcome of ignorance and we must educate the people in the true knowledge of nature and God to dispel ignorance. Science will also known the bottom out of superstitious beliefs and the spread of scientific knowledge will purge the popular mind of the superstitious nonsense.