Monday, November 12, 2007

Dogs, Goats and Seed Offerings

“I noticed you are getting up early these days and opening the front gate,” I said to my landlady, Mrs. J.

“My brother-in-law told me if I would feed the [stray] dogs each morning it will help Mr. J. feel better,” she replied.

How strange, I thought. How can a person who is as educated as Mrs. J. believe in such absurd superstitions? However, in the four years I have lived here I have come to the conclusion that Hindu’s are some of the most superstitious people I have ever met. How else can you explain giving sweets to a cow, dipping money in yogurt for prosperity or hanging a sandal on the back of a rickshaw to ward off the evil eye?

All superstition is a form of animism. Edward Tylor, who coined the word, define animists as people that believe non-living objects have life, personality and even souls. In Tylor's opinion, the belief in spirits and gods arose from man's experience of dreams, visions, disease and death. Hinduism indeed has a strong animistic base, but so, too, does folk Islam, folk religion and some Christians.

Attending a funeral in the bush of Pokot years ago, the people sacrificed a goat at the end of the ceremony. After gutting the goat the people washed their hands in its stomach of the slain animal. Their belief that through this ritual they were cleansing themselves from the disease that took the life of their loved one.

Tibetan Buddhist’s hang prayer flags over their house believing that through these pieces of cloth the spirit of good wishes and positive energy is carried throughout the community by the wind.

To non-believers these practices seem bizarre and even primitive. Yet I also observe Christians praying to image of a "saint;" buying anointed prayer clothes for healing and hear preachers tell their flock that if they will just give money to the church as a “seed offering” of faith, they can expect a heavenly ROI (return on investment).

Superstitious ritual is an attempt to coerce god(s) and spirits to act. Functionally, irrational rituals of the Hindu and the Christian are equal. All animism is born out of ignorance -- not knowing or understanding God. All people, with “eternity in their hearts,” long to appease the higher powers so he or it will grant favor to them. Superstition is an attempt to bridge the void between the physical and metaphysical, and it is a universal phenomenon. One can judge such practices as foolish, but to assume that the rituals of others are different from our strange behavior is as absurd as feeding stray dogs for healing.