The other day, my husband and I had gone to visit an acquaintance. The lady of the house welcomed us warmly when she opened the door. The warmth seemed to extend to the temperature of the room, but the explanation presented itself when I looked around. We had entered the kitchen. I was about to excuse myself for not using the right entrance, but then it occurred to me that this was a second floor apartment and there could be only one entrance. Confused and a little dazed, we greeted our hostess, whose handshake smelled strongly of onions. We then followed her through a hall where there were beds and a bathroom complete with a study table and computer, to a sit-out in the back which was sumptuously furnished as a sitting room. Seeing our bewildered faces, our host and hostess gave you a simple explanation: it was all according to Vastu. These were highly-educated professionals who held responsible jobs in accredited institutions. Yet they had mindlessly succumbed to the hypnotic power of suggestion, albeit in a new guise.
Superstition has always enjoyed a strong following among Indians. Every animal has a special place in the superstitious order of things. It is good luck to see an owl, it is bad to hear jackals, cows are good, donkeys are bad, and as for cats, it is all bad in different degrees, depending on whether or not they are pure black and which side they cross you.
No animals around when you feel the need to prognosticate? Never fear. Does your hand itch, or your eyelid twitch? They could all be portents. Someone yawns when you leave on an important errand, it is as good as in the bag, but should someone sneeze, you might as well stay home. If a lizard falls on your shoulder, you will either die or come into a lot of money, depending on which shoulder it impacts. Once, this actually happened to a cousin of mine, and I recall waiting with ghoulish glee for the consequences of that animal interaction. It disappointed me greatly when nothing happened.
Till recently, people employed astrologers mostly to facilitate marriages and, occasionally, for consultations on family matters. But these days, peering into the crystal ball has gained cult status, with voodoo science like Vastu and Feng Shui developing large followings. Globalization has brought not only wealth and greed, but also confusion in its wake, and for people trying frantically to make sense of their lives, any belief system that offers certainty and easy solutions is the way to go.
Contrary to popular belief, these theories have nothing whatsoever to do with faith in an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and loving God. Vastu is a Hindu system of architecture design that uses directional alignments to plan buildings so that they are in harmony with nature, while Feng Shui is a Chinese system of aesthetics used to improve one’s quality of life.
The problem with the purveyors of all these practices is that it is hard to separate the charlatans from the well-intentioned. Many practitioners pick up some ideas from a book, and put up a sign proclaiming that they are Vastu consultants, or knowledgeable in Feng Shui or gemology, or in some cases, experts in all of them. Today, all you need to do is paint over a carom board with occult signs and do some advertising; I guarantee that in three days’ time you’ll have so many clients you’ll have to outsource your spirits. It is morbidly fascinating to watch the extent to which people will go to secure good luck.
Politicians have always led the way in patronizing these star-readers. As soon as an election is announced, they are off to their favorite astrologer to find out auspicious dates for filing their candidacy, and to pick advisers, symbols, and pujas to perform. Then there are the poor and uneducated, desperate to improve their lot, who also seek this sort of dubious help.
But the real surprise is how the educated middle class in India has begun buying into the hocus-pocus. No matter that India is now on the cutting edge of biology, information technology, and space research. When mister doesn’t get a promotion, Junior isn’t doing well at school, or little Miss Perfection loves unwisely, people run for help from these “consultants,” who thrive on people’s insecurities. What they offer is guaranteed remedies; in this hectic day and age, who doesn’t want a quick fix?
This quick fix often involves consultation of impressive-looking reference books, followed by solemn pronouncements: either
Jupiter is staying too long in Saturn’s house, or your living room couch faces the wrong direction. Huh? You will never catch these good folk asking a client to look for a sensible, real-world solution, like open and honest communication or hard work, or suggest seeking out a counselor or a therapist.
And the results are never concrete. Sometimes the problems get solved, and sometimes they don’t. Maybe the promotion happens, or little Miss Perfection finds that her Romeo has terra cotta feet, or Junior ends up studying hard and getting that A. Voila, we now have believers. What these superstition peddlers depend on is that only the positive results are remembered. And if the problem doesn’t go away, it is written down as one’s own immutable karma. After all, there is no call for the burden of proof.
The simplest remedy offered is the performance of puja to guard against the forces opposing their happiness. The next level is to change names. The depth of belief in this particular fix is evident in the constantly evolving names of down-on-their-luck celebrities (Sonu Niigaam, Ajay Devgn, just to name a couple). If your “interpreter of stars” decrees it, you might have to change it officially too. Of course, you will have to reconcile yourself to the reality that your mail will be misdirected for generations to come.
The worst is when you are told to restructure your house. Building a modest house takes hundreds of thousands of rupees, but vastu-izing it requires a bottomless wallet. Sometimes it is just rearranging of furniture, but often it is much more. Some people practically destroy their houses for the sake of their fortunes. Views are blocked out and windows are put in or taken out. Walls are put up in the oddest places, and others are torn down. Rooms are converted from their original intended purposes to suit the trails of celestial bodies through your kundali, until you find yourself sleeping on the kitchen counter with your head in the sink. At this point, you might find yourself wondering, “Maybe I should talk to someone else,” but that gives rise to another dilemma.
If you have a medical problem, it is always wise to seek a second opinion. However, if you have a Vastu problem, it is fatal to do so, because, invariably, no two Vastu consultants will say the same thing. If one consultant tells you to sleep with your head facing east while another tells you the opposite thing, you can easily make the switch. But what if he tells you that your front door has to be moved … again? It becomes a huge decision with far-reaching consequences for financial, structural, and other reasons. Building contractors may love you, but your bank manager won’t be too happy.
To me, these practices are like the songs of the Sirens that Ulysses encountered on his epic journey back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The Sirens were nymphs who sang so beautifully that seamen would actually go insane, throwing themselves overboard believing that they could attain those women, and swimming until they drowned. In much the same way, these theories are phantasmal and just an easy fix, giving sweet and false promises of a “happily ever after” that is just not possible in real life. And there is no room for halfway measures in this business, for once you give in to it, even in a small way, you will find yourself slowly changing your basic values, making more compromises, and doing stranger things, until one day you wake up and find that you don’t know who you are or what you believe in. In short, when superstition and Vastu come in the front door, common sense exits via the back door.
Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Trust no future, however pleasant! Let the dead past bury its dead! Act, act in the living Present! Heart within and God overhead.”
Then again, maybe Longfellow’s guruji told him to start using two l’s in his name for good luck …
Lakshmi Palecanda recently moved from Montana to Mysore, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org