Superstition refers to any belief or practice that is explained by supernatural causality, therefore contradicting modern science. Some beliefs and practices that are considered superstitious by some may not be considered so by others. The gap between what is perceived as superstitious and what is not widens when the opinions of the public and scientists are considered.
Common superstitions in India today include a black cat crossing the road being bad luck, a crow calling meaning that guests are arriving, drinking milk after eating fish causing skin diseases, and itchy palms signalling the arrival of money.
Superstitions are usually attributed to a lack of education. In India, however, there have been educated people with beliefs considered superstitious by the public. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate of India is at 74%. Beliefs and practices vary in different regions. Practices range from harmless lemon-and-chili totems for warding off the evil eye to serious concerns like witch-burning. Passed down as part of tradition and religion, these beliefs and practices could be at least a century old. Due to the rich history of these beliefs and practices, the introduction of new prohibitory laws often faces opposition from the general public.
Sati is the act or custom of a Hindu widow burning herself to death or being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. After watching the Sati of his own sister-in-law, Ram Mohan Roy began campaigning for abolition of the practice in 1811. The practice of Sati was abolished in British India in 1829 by Governor General Lord William Bentinck.
On 4 September 1987, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar, from Deorala, Sikar District, Rajasthan, who had been married for 7 months, was burned to death on her husband’s pyre. It was alleged the victim had tried to escape, but she was drugged and forced on to the pyre. On 1 October 1987, The legislative assembly of Rajasthan passed an ordinance against Sati, which was later turned into an Act. It was followed by pro-Sati rallies and protests in Jaipur. On 3 January 1988, the Indian parliament passed a new law (Prevention of Sati Act 1987) based on Rajasthan’s legislation of 1987, which also criminalized the glorification of Sati. Police charged Kanwar’s father-in-law and brother-in-law of allegedly forcing her to commit the act, but they were acquitted in October 1996.
Although human sacrifices are not prevalent in India, rare isolated incidents do happen, especially in rural areas. In some cases, humans have been replaced by animals and birds. This has caused backlash from animal rights groups, so in some places they have again been replaced by human effigies. The motives behind these sacrifices include inducing rainfall and helping childless women conceive. It is alleged that cases often go unreported or are covered up. Between 1999 and 2006, about 200 cases of child sacrifices were reported from Uttar Pradesh.
The word godman is a colloquial blanket term used for charismatic spiritual leaders in India. Locally, they may be referred to as baba, swami, guru, shastri, bapu or bhagat. Many of them claim to have magic or psychic powers and perform miracles. On the other hand, some only provide spiritual advice. There are also female gurus. Many of them are worshiped by their followers as avatars or living gods. Many of them belong to ancient ascetic lineages or claim to be successor to some previous spiritual predecessor. Some of them have built large pan-Indian or international networks. Their recent success has been attributed to the use of mass media and public relations techniques.
Some people, mostly in villages, have the belief that witchcraft and black magic are effective. This prompts some to seek advice from witch doctors for health, financial or marital problems. Unfortunately, others, especially women, are accused of witchcraft, attacked, and occasionally killed. According to reports, widows or divorcees tend to be targeted to rob them of their property. Revered village witch-doctors are paid to brand specific persons as witches, so that they can be killed without repercussions. The existing laws have been ineffective in curbing the murders. In June 2013, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, 768 women had been murdered for allegedly practicing witchcraft since 2008. Alongside this, they announced plans for newer, more stringent laws.