A family does more than pass on its fine silver or precious heirlooms to the
generations that follow. It also transfers much of its inherent wisdom, its
irrational fears and inexplicable traditions. For many Indian Americans, living a
life in the world’s most modern cities hasn’t prevented them from placing their
faith in the ancient customs and beliefs that once colored their childhood.
When North Carolina based Aradhana Aggarwal, CEO of the online enterprise globalpointmall.com, moved to America she found herself growing more alert and paying attention to minor details whenever she left the house, a fallback on the days when her mother would analyze omens and advise caution whenever they left their homes in India.
The Restless Cat
While being wary of premonitions, Aradhana believes that many of them are based on ancient Indian beliefs. There was a time when she felt these premonitions, or ancient beliefs, could well have saved her life. “We had a cat back home in India,” she says. “She stayed with us for about 11 years, but in all this time, she never crossed our way except once when we were just about to leave the house. My mother asked us to sit on the couch for a minute to avoid the bad omen. We sat, waited for a minute and left. As soon as we left the house, we saw that the neighbor’s house had crashed just about a minute ago. It was an old building and we would have been under it had we not waited. A fraction of a minute that made all the difference.” Since then, Aradhana isn’t as quick to dismiss any superstition. “I did always believe that animals have some special instinct and can sense when something bad is imminent. It’s important to be aware when they’re restless and sometimes even blind superstition is just a way to remind us of that,” she says.
A sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we get emotionally from superstitious behavior,” says Meena Rajendran, staff psychiatrist at UC Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco. “Not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions though. The division lies in whether you give some magical significance to a ritual.”
Often, despite what our rational minds say, regardless of how educated we are or where we live, we tend to do just that—embracing with gusto talismans and lucky charms of every kind to ward away unknown dangers and to contend with forces that may be beyond our control.
The Merriam Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”
In other words, superstition is what we rely on when we have no way of predicting what is to follow. It is an adaptive technique to deal with what we do not know or cannot know. It is a way to calm our worries about the future. So perhaps that’s the reason we wear our lucky socks for job interviews or dangle a Ganesha from our rearview mirrors.
The problem arises when we let superstitions control behavior. For example if that lucky pair of socks disappears in the wash (yes, it’s irrational but my socks have often disappeared in the washer), then what? Do you cancel the interview? Subsitute another pair of socks and call it lucky? If you fail to get the job, do you blame the socks?
What Obama Carries in His Pocket
In an Associated Press interview in January 2016, President Obama talked about the things he carries around with him.
“Ever since I started running for office,” President Obama declared, “people started handing me things, when I’d like speak to a crowd, like lucky charms or keepsakes or things that meant something to them, and so now … I’ll pick out a few things that I just put in my pocket to remind me of all the people I’ve met along the way, and the stories they told me. And this is what I have in my pocket today.”
President Obama then proceeded to take out each item, starting with rosary beads from Pope Francis, because it made him think “about peace and promoting understanding and ethical behavior.” He moved on to a little buddha figurine that a buddhist monk gave him. And then he displayed a lucky metal poker chip that a biker gave him in Iowa in 2007. President Obama described the biker, with great relish, as being “bald with a handlebar mustache and a bunch of tats …” He gave the hopeful Presidential candidate the chip emphasizing that it was his own lucky poker chip. It says volumes that the candidate won the elections and kept the poker chip ever since then. President Obama then moved on to a statuette of Hanuman and after that a coptic cross from Ethiopia.
“I carry these around all the time, and I’m not that superstitious, so it’s not li ke I think necessarily that I have to have them on me at all times,” the leader of the free world said, going on to add that, “if I feel tired, or if I feel discouraged sometimes, I can kind of reach into my pocket and say yeah, that’s something, that’s something that I can overcome …”
In India, drishti, literally meaning gaze, also refers to warding off the evil eye—a superstitious premise that is exploited, marketed and monetized to thriving advantage. The belief rests on the idea that public exposure of success, beauty, victory or good of any sort, will result in people becoming envious and displaying ill will towards the “lucky” one.
In order to deter this kind of covetous behavior, a big black dot is drawn on a beautiful baby’s face, brightly painted demon masks and strung chilies greet visitors from the threshold of brand new homes, and “Feng shui” shrubs are planted, as much for their thorn studded prickly stems as for the beauty of their blossoms.
Then there is the ritual of “taking arati” to ward off envy and jealousy. Arati is derived from the sanskrit word, aratrika, or something that removes darkness.
There’s no denying that many superstitions are borne of fear and our need to deal with the unknown. However, as psychologist B.F. Skinner’s famous 1948 experiment with pigeons proves, perhaps there could be a simpler explanation too.
In Skinner’s experiment, pigeons were kept captive in a cage and fed with pellets every 15 seconds. In the short duration of time before the food pellet was dispensed, each pigeon would strike a peculiar pose in the cage—one would turn counter clock-wise three times while waiting for it’s feed, the other would thrust its neck out.
Interestingly, Skinner maintained that these behaviors were actually the pigeon’s way of observing superstition. It believed that to strike a certain pose brought it food.
Much like Skinner’s pigeons, we cling to superstitions, beliefs and rituals even without logical explanations, because perhaps, at one time, the behavior may have brought us some kind of joy or was rewarding on some level. In short, we’re practicing repetitive behavior that even pigeons can learn. Indeed, like Obama’s lucky poker chip.
Several psychologists since then have refuted Skinner’s claims and have devised their own experiments to prove that animals are able to exhibit understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. Peter R. Killeen of Arizona State University found that his pigeons were able to determine if a result was random or due to a specific action that they initiated.
Do the Math
According to psychologists, Kevin Foster of Harvard University and Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki, Finland, it’s all in the math. If you add up the cost of being right versus the cost of being wrong, making choices like whether to walk underneath a ladder or run when you hear the wind rustling in sub Saharan Africa become easier. Superstitions give you a basis for prediction.
Foster and Kokko believe that “naturally selected strategies” correlate to superstition. If the performance of certain actions in the past has resulted in benefits, then there is a tendency to keep to that set of actions, much like superstitions.
Exploring the psychology behind magical thinking is important to establish whether following a particular superstition is hurting or helping us, says Dr. Rajendran.
Some beliefs may have a placebo effect—your mind tells you following a sequence of events, or carrying certain things, will help you and often, it may do just that. In such cases, observing such customs can be deeply calming and beneficial, even offering that critical link to one’s roots.
Immigration and Ritualization
In any immigrant’s journey, there is a phase of imbibing the new. You are barraged with new ideas, explore new tastes from different cuisines, are exposed to new scents, sounds, accents and vocabularies. In the midst of this sea of turbulent change, holding onto age-old beliefs even if it doesn’t appeal to your rational sense of self isn’t unusual, say psychologists. “In India, like many other parts of the world, a number of superstitions exist—some that have evolved over the years and others that are created every day.”
That’s why, for first generation immigrants, following rituals can be immensely therapeutic and rife with nostalgia, reminiscent of a past that they’ve left behind.
For Abhinga Patel, who hails from the small town of Navsari in Gujarat, one such ritual has become close to her heart, ever since she immigrated to America in 2008 for her master’s degree. “Whenever we prepared to leave for an important event, my parents and grandparents would feed us a spoonful of curd. It’s Gujarati tradition and they believed that this practice would bring us success and good fortune,” she says.
Patel, who now resides in Dallas, feels that the ritual has been so deeply ingrained in her, even after years of living in the United States. “I’ve never offered curd to American friends,” she says. “But I still follow the tradition (myself) as I strongly believe it will bring me good luck.”
Indeed, many Indian rituals and traditions are richly symbolic, with layers of hidden meaning that may not at once be apparent. They are however designed to provide optimal psychological conditioning. Whether it’s the simple act of lighting a lamp at the first hint of dusk or tying a protective amulet around your wrist to ward off evil spirits, superstition can be a powerful cultural security blanket of sorts and for a first generation immigrant, a bridge to the past.
“We follow rituals as much as possible and make an effort to celebrate Indian festivals (even if they fall on a weekday),” says Laavanya Das, a mother of two, based in Washington DC. Considering that I left home when I was 17 and having missed most festivals since then, I don’t always remember all the details, but I try to find out and discuss my memories with the kids.”
The role that superstition plays in an immigrant’s life is at once engaging and richly complex. And there’s no doubt that it can color their perception of the world.
Youth and Superstition
While Laavanya makes an effort to explain their rituals to her kids, she does realize that there are some rituals for which the meaning is obscure. “My kids are too young to question the reason behind all that we do, so I haven’t gone down that path with them yet,” she says. “For now it’s enough if they glean some knowledge of our traditions and imbibe all they can of India.”
Indeed, for second generation Indian Americans, looking for meaning behind rituals can be a futile and disappointing endeavor, one that leaves them feeling like they’ve been plunged into an alien world.
“I’m always asking questions during family get-togethers,” says Aarthi,* 26, (name changed). “I feel like my American and Indian identities are constantly in conflict at this time. I don’t understand the significance of certain rituals and beliefs and often, there’s no logical explanation at all.”
Aarthi recalls bitter childhood arguments over this, though today, there are some beliefs that she still blindly follows, despite challenging it when she was younger.
“I won’t comb my hair after dusk or use my left hand to receive anything. When my mother asks me to boil milk over a stove until a little bit spills over when I move into a new home, I’ll do it unquestioningly,” she says.
This suggests the idea that children generally tend to adopt their parents’ superstitious beliefs till they develop their own understanding of cause and effect. Much of what is learned in childhood and cannot be explained is slotted as superstition. As Andra Cracuin from the University of Bucharest states, superstition nowadays is only an “evolutionary residue.”
Yes, true, but that’s putting complex words within superstitions. At the end of the day, there is little harm in knocking on wood before announcing that our kid thinks “he did well in the math test,” or looking at a rainbow and convincing ourselves that it is a harbinger of a bright and beautiful future.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over ten countries.
Some Superstitions, Omens and Talismans
Black Cat: Perhaps it’s the fact that black cats look distinctly eerie, or that the color black is associated with death and ill luck, whatever the case, black cats are shunned and invite suspicion.
Breaking a Coconut: Tacked on to religious rituals, the purpose of breaking a coconut, some believe, is to ward away evil spirits with a sharp satisfying crack.
Others believe that the coconut is richly symbolic. The hard husk often reveals a sweet white kernel and a discovery of what lies within is representative of our own spiritual journey.
Black Dot on Children’s Faces: Warding off the evil eye by deliberately introducing a flaw to mar its own perfection is a common (and rather curious) practice.
Cutting Nails After Dusk: In the times that preceded the invention of electricity, when our homes were lit by lamps, cutting nails after dusk may have posed a serious health hazard.
Not Sitting On Pillows: This could have evolved for reasons of simple hygiene and the fact that sitting on a pillow can often render it a shapeless mass. Children are often threatened off pillows with the warning that sitting on them will attract financial ruin and bankruptcy!
Not Circling Someone: Indian Hindus circle their loved ones three times when they pass on. Even if a child walks around another person in a circular trajectory, he/she is discouraged from doing so immediately. This is to avoid thoughts and memories of death or to refrain from mimicking (even accidentally) the rituals associated with it.
Not Sweeping After Dusk: Another superstition that stemmed from the basics of hygiene. People were discouraged from sweeping floors after dusk when visability diminished a great deal. Even today, most household cleaning is finished before sunset.
Cash Gifts that End in 1: All cash gifts from elders and well-wishers are never an even number. This is because it is believed that the odd number will cause your money to grow and flourish, whereas an even number could create stagnation,
Sneezing or Being Called Back Just as You Leave the House: When you leave home, it is best to do so without encumberances. In other words, there’s no looking back. For this reason, deeply supersitious people dislike being called as they cross the threshhold. And watch it if you have a cold. If you so much as sneeze while they’re leaving, it’s believed to bring bad luck.
Breaking a Mirror: A bad omen all over the world, mirrors in Indian culture are considered magical thresholds of sorts. When there is a death in the family, some communities believe in covering mirrors with a cloth in order to prevent the exit of evil spirits.
Handing Spilling Salt or Handing Someone a Safety Pin: It is believed that handing salt to a friend will result in a fight with that person. Safety pins are never transferred by hand, but always left on a ledge for another person to pick up.