India was always a land for the spiritually and superstitiously inclined. That is all fine and well when we think about Buddha and Gandhi. But like everywhere else, such thinking can have dangerous consequences. Recently, a witch in India was filmed being beaten while she was tied to a tree.
The story: A man hires a woman with spiritual powers to magically cure his ailing wife. When his wife conditions turns worse, he blames the woman for putting a curse on his wife. In a fit of rage, he chains the woman to a tree, gathers a mob, and proceeds to beat and abuse the woman. Here is a vid of the incident – Warning, this video is graphic and disturbing.
Disturbing as this video is, such behavior is text book example of what psychologist and sociologist call displacement and scape-goating. The man could not fight the invincible power of his wife’s sickness, so he displaces his frustration on the poor woman who tried to help. He blamed her for something that was clearly out of her (or his) control. By attacking her he was able to feel less powerless (and perhaps less guilty). Likewise, the group took up the opportunity to take out their trouble and frustration on a stranger who became the symbol of their lowly condition. By doing so, the sociologist tell us, the group managed to redirect and allay their collective fears and anxieties onto an “other”, a scapegoat.
Such events are sadly not all together uncommon in certain parts of the world. But the winds of change are blowing, even in India. A friend of mine recently sent me an article about a TV show in India which featured a live confrontation between a famous tantrik “holy man” and self-proclaimed rationalist Anal Edamaruku. They came together to discuss “Tantrik power versus Science”, and to opine on wither or not people can have magical powers. When the tantrik man claimed that he had the power to kill and harm others with magic spells, Anal challenged him to prove it by trying to kill him. The tantrik man agreed, and for the next few hours he tried to kill Anal with his spells. While the events garnered large ratings, at the end no one died, and Anal was pronounced the winner of the encounter.
The rationalist’s victory may seem to us amusing and silly, but in a society that still experiences pockets of witch-persecution it is nothing to wiggle your nose at. It is a small but important triumph of rationality over superstition. The irony, of course, is that if the millions of people who watched the show were to take the message to heart, the witches and magicians in India would be deprived of their occupation. But if you look at the face of the woman above as she is being beaten and humiliated, loss of job seems to me to be a price she would be willing to pay.