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The uneasy mix of superstition and science in rural India
BETUL, MADHYA PRADESH, India — As a priest wafts incense over her with a broom and recites an melodic incantation, Jyoti Sahu begins to declaim loudly over the noise of the crowd. "All religions are one. All saints are one. Sai Baba and Guru Saheb are one. Only Guru Saheb understands the trouble in my heart."
Since collapsing at a marriage ceremony a month ago, Sahu has been behaving strangely and raving about gods and saints. Her parents believe she may be possessed.
"Once or twice a day she has a fit and then she starts talking like this, taking the name of gods and saints," says the girl's father, Bhim Lal Sahu. "We took her to a psychiatrist and he prescribed some medicines for 20 days. But we are also taking her to shrines where they perform exorcisms, just in case."
Like most of the thousands of people who flock to the central Indian village of Mallajpur for the annual ghost fair — some traveling hundreds of kilometers — Bhim Lal believes more strongly in evil spirits than modern medicine. So he has brought his disturbed daughter to this shrine to Guru Saheb — an 18th century ascetic purported to have on this spot in 1770 attained moksha, or the liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death that is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. With smoke and mantras, a little help from Guru Saheb, and more than a few healthy whacks, the priests here claim to cast out demons and imprison them in the nearby trees. Bhim Lal hopes they can help his daughter.
The treatment appears to help Mahenge Lal, a farmer from the village of Hardu, about 10 kilometers away, who says he is possessed by 500 million ghosts that shake his body like a rag doll, torment him with migraines and fill his head with a clamor of voices. As the priest sweeps smoke from the shrine over him, Lal's head wags spasmodically, his eyes rolls skywards, and he cries out the name of the guru. The priest delivers a resounding slap to the middle of Lal's back, and the patient sighs with relief and eagerly slumps to lick a lump of raw sugar from the concrete base of the shrine. One down, 499 million to go.
Locals say the victims of evil spirits speak in odd voices and foreign languages that their families claim they never learned. Most of the afflicted are women, who according to Bhopal University sociologist Gyanendra Gautam lead heavily constricted lives with little hope of escape. With slack faces and off-kilter stares, most of them appear to be haunted by nothing more exotic than schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or mental retardation.
Psychological professionals agree. According to a recent study by the Indian Council of Medical Research, India's poorly educated masses most frequently ascribe the abnormal or inappropriate behaviors that Westerners would associate with insanity to black magic, evil spirits, masturbation and excessive sex. And even if it were desired, the appropriate medical treatment is rarely available. "Godmen of every faith that we have have forever been in charge of mental health in India," says Dr. Vinay Mishra, a Bhopal-based psychologist. "Science has not really caught on in our lives."
About ten years ago, Mishra and some colleagues attempted to educate rural clerics about mental illness, hoping to encourage them to counsel people with minor neuroses but to send those with chemical disorders like schizophrenia to urban hospitals for treatment. The project failed miserably. The priests depended on the cash and offerings of the possessed for their livelihoods, they were reluctant to give up the privileged status that performing exorcisms granted them, and they found the psychiatrists' scientific explanations utterly absurd. "They didn't believe that psychological problems could be triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain," says Mishra.
Perhaps that's why the possessed attending the fair seem so eager. Forming an impromptu lineup in hopes of attention from what appears to be a foreign specialist, they recount a litany of mysterious and random ailments. "I saw a doctor, but he couldn't understand my problem," says 35-year-old Kaushal. "The ghost gives me headaches and makes my body parts crack, but yet I am unable to cry."
"The ghost possessed me nearly two years ago," says 52-year-old Gauri Bai. "At the shrine I am finding some relief." And then 45-year-old Buri steps forward, snaps to attention, and sticks out her long, yellowish tongue. From her eyes, it is clear that she believes her problem to be self-evident.
But that is the last moment of humor. Soon after her exorcism, Jyoti's voice rings out in protest as the priest tries to convince her father to keep her there overnight. "You said I would only have to come here for two hours!" she shouts. "It's been two hours. Now I want to go home." Thanks to her education, she is strong enough to exert her will, whatever her problems. But that is not true for everyone. Soon a terrified 14-year-old girl is dragged to the altar. As the tears stream down her face, the priest winds up and smacks her in the middle of the back, then grabs her by the hair and forces her to lick the piece of raw sugar from the shrine.
Her ailment is unclear. But the devil who torments her is plain to see.