I first see Nagaveni from the back of a crowded jeep. We are both heading in the same direction, toward the famed Kukke Shri Subrahmanya temple in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district. There she is, rolling along the tarred road, a horizontal body in motion, hands clasped above her head and legs extended, her maroon tunic stained brown, her long hair a dirty clump. A male relative guides her through the traffic with a stick. The surreal figure rolls past pilgrims’ vans, motorcycles, autorickshaws, even a stray tractor. Often she stops and rests on her back, panting lightly. Then I see her turn over and start heaving. She leaves behind a white, triangular patch of gastric juice.
Other travelers in the jeep explain to me that the young woman is performing a ritual known as beedi made snana. (This is distinct from a more controversial ritual called made made snana, but more on that later.) I decide to follow her, shuffling behind a supporting cast of relatives. We all enter the temple, watching the body slip down the hard stone stairs, edge past the heavy legs of a festive elephant, careen down a slope, and finally slide into a shockingly cold stream in the back of the sanctuary. It has taken Nagaveni more than four grueling hours to reach this spot, which is about two and a half kilometers from the starting point on the banks of the Kumaradhara river. Her female kin scrub her clean, and then she disappears behind a screen to change into a fresh outfit and refasten her gold jewelry.
Temple authorities and local doctors tell me that Nagaveni is one of 5,000 people who come to Kukke Subrahmanya each year for beedi made snana, completing the ritual despite the risks of dehydration, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, and abrasions. (At the Champa Shashti festival that I witnessed last month, several young men were run over by motorcycles that bruised their hands and feet.) For many devotees, the ritual conveys gratitude for a wish already granted; others roll for relief from financial problems or health issues. It’s a practice often recommended by astrologers.
Nagaveni turns out to be a 24-year-old mother of two with a rather intriguing back story. What does she do for a living? She rolls beedis. Why did she perform the ritual? Like her neighbor in Madikeri taluk, Nagaveni was suffering from severe headaches, and when the pain subsided, she decided to roll toward the temple in thanks.
Her story hovers over the grassroots campaigns surrounding the Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill – a piece of legislation that would outlaw rituals that “violate human dignity,” according to a draft prepared by academics at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore. The bill’s supporters proudly invoke the name of 12th century reformer Basaveshwara, along with Kuvempu, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and BR Ambedkar. Opponents denounce the proposed legislation as blasphemy. Beyond the rhetoric, however, Nagaveni’s journey reminds me how deeply subjective any classification of ritual can be. While I might perceive her grimy, bruised body as a violation of human dignity, Nagaveni sees no compromise of her own self-worth.
Certainly, the question of criteria is tricky. The draft bill envisions a state-level authority to crack down on practices that cause “significant harm and exploitation,” with committees formed in each district to field complaints. While the list of practices is essentially open-ended (since complainants would be free to object to any sort of ritual that they perceive to be cruel), the draft bill explicitly seeks to quash human sacrifice, black magic, hanging from hooks (sidi), isolation of pregnant or menstruating women, sexual exploitation of women by godmen, and made made snana, which involves Hindu devotees rolling over leftovers of food consumed by Brahmins. There is no outright ban on practitioners of astrology or vaastu, though the draft bill would enable sanctions against those who are most rapacious.
Following on the heels of a similar law passed in December in Maharashtra – triggered by the murder of well-known rationalist Narendra Dabholkar – Karnataka’s draft law contains all the tensions nested within India’s Constitution, annually celebrated on January 26, Republic Day. The constitution calls for establishing a “scientific temper” and “secular outlook”, while also ensuring freedom of religion, and more broadly, freedom of conscience and belief. But there is a long road ahead for the anti-superstition legislation, which has not yet been introduced during a parliamentary session.
India, of course, boasts countless rituals linked to a wide variety of belief systems. The surreal spectacle of beedi made snana would never incite the same feeling of revulsion as cases of child sacrifice, or branding of the flesh to “cure” jaundice, or torturing someone who is deemed possessed by evil spirits. According to psychiatrist CR Chandrashekar, now retired from the National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences – who has studied many such cases and treated the victims – 75 percent of possession cases involve women who are suffering from schizophrenia, mania, hysteria, dementia or psychosis. “They are chained, beaten up, and made to starve,” he says. Why? If the accused woman eats, it will allegedly nourish the demon.
Meanwhile, reported cases of witch-hunting led to 768 deaths of women across India in the last five years, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. While in favor of the law, Dr. Chandrashekar believes it will be very difficult to enforce. “The system is so inadequate,” he says. It will only work if accompanied by a sustained education campaign. He also considers himself a devout Hindu and tells me, “Religion can be practiced without superstition.”
Some analysts are simply astounded at the notion of trying to compel people, by law, to be rational. “What does rationality mean?” challenges Vishnupad, a US-trained anthropologist who has studied religious identity and violence in India. “To me, it’s incredibly bizarre to have to legislate something like this,” says the scholar, who now teaches at Azim Premji University in Bangalore. Others cite the successful ban on sati and subsequent legal action against the Devadasi tradition as proof that the current draft bill is not outlandish at all.
The document’s most vociferous critics argue that it represents a wholesale rejection of Hinduism. Much of their ire stems from a widely circulated “concept note” created by the same team that made the draft law. For example, the note offers a blanket endorsement of humanism as “a system of thought which regards humans as capable of using their intelligence to live their lives, rather than relying on religious belief.” In contrast, the actual draft legislation avoids such sweeping statements.
The note also advances the theory that “it is the primary duty of the government to encourage rational thinking.” People should not be viewed as “human manifestations of gods.” Politicians are faulted for asking priests to conduct pujas for new government projects. “It is a sad fact that superstition exists even among those who are well educated,” conclude the authors.
Such statements have propelled outrage.
In Mangalore, I visit an ice cream parlour with Kateel Dinesh Pai, a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. A middle-aged man with a dusting of grey hair, Kateel calls himself a full time “social activist”. He has been associated with the VHP for 30 years. He has convened a new committee within the VHP at the Dakshina Kannada district level aimed at countering the bill. He distrusts the people behind the bill (“They say they are intellectuals, but they are not intellectuals! They do not see reality…”).
“Directly or indirectly, they have questioned the existence of God,” Pai tells me. “They want to ban all our beliefs. They say that I should not see God in my parents. I should not see God in my Guru. I am afraid that this will be taught to the children in school. No one should question our faith,” he said. “Our feelings are hurt. It is our duty to protect our religion.”
Pai has gallantly ordered me a helping of Gadbad, a special concoction of ice cream, fresh fruit, jelly, and dried fruits. Eventually, I ask him whether his group might resort to violence to get its point across. The question makes Pai uncomfortable. He stares at my melting ice cream. “Eat it,” he says firmly. That brings the interview to a close.
Certainly, the proposed law is far more nuanced and wide-ranging than Pai and his allies would like the public to believe. As in Maharashtra, the Karnataka dragnet could conceivably ensnare Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and nature-worshippers alike. After all, self-declared exorcists and abusers of mentally ill women could be found anywhere. Yet the protests and media statements emanating from the VHP and similar groups have turned the issue into a convenient firecracker to be lobbed by the BJP in the months leading up to the Lok Sabha elections. (Aside: the Mangalorean entrepreneur who invented Gadbad actually started out in the firecracker business.)
The story of the new law began quite differently, as I learn in the offices of Karnataka’s biggest vernacular daily, Vijay Karnataka. Editor Sugata Srinivasaraju patiently explains the chronology. Dabholkar’s murder in late August resonated across the border, and was big news for his paper. The editor and his colleagues thought it would be a good time to propose that Karnataka also adopt an anti-superstition law. They relished the idea of the paper leading the charge for a more enlightened, yet still culturally rooted, populace. They solicited readers’ views. Letters poured in. “We didn’t want to have a top-down approach,” says Srinivasaraju. Still, he says that he also discussed the matter with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who seemed open to public discussion of the negative impact of superstition.
By early September, both Srinivasaraju and the Office of Parliamentary Affairs reached out to academics at the National Law School. With a team lead by professor S. Japhet, director of the NLS Centre for the Study of Social Inclusion and Inclusive Policy, the draft bill was born. “We willingly took on this task, even though we knew it was politically sensitive,” Japhet recalls. In addition to a raft of academics – folklorists, lawyers, scientists – those participating in discussions included activists from the Dalit movement, the rationalist movement and women’s groups.
From the outset, different agendas emerged. The Dalit activists were particularly keen to strike a blow against Brahmin supremacy, and pounced on the made made snana issue. They also saw this as a way to overcome internal, ideological differences within the Dalit movement and find common cause with Scheduled Tribes, with whom they had clashed in the past. The rationalists were keen to see the bill move in the direction of separating government from religion. Women’s groups were anxious to see an end to sexual exploitation and attacks on women’s health.
But after Vijay Karnataka published the entire draft bill and the concept note in late October, the backlash started. Other vernacular dailies highlighted negative comments from Hindutva leaders. On December 23, Kateel Pai of the VHP led a protest at Town Hall in Mangalore, flanked by saffron-clad swamis.
Today, five months after the campaign began, the journalists at Vijay Karnataka have abruptly ended their crusade. Srinivasaraju says that he found aspects of the concept note and legislation too “radical” to be endorsed. “It divided the society. I thought that is a very bad thing. We have to be cautious,” he explains. Despite repeated requests, Srinivasaraju refrains from specifying which aspects of the concept note he found unacceptable.
But other groups, such as the NGO coalition Janashakthi and a Dalit group led by Mavalli Shankar, have not backed off. In recent weeks, they have taken their anti-superstition campaign to places all over Karnataka like Kolar, Raichur, and Gangavathi. They are discussing initiatives to mount street plays and distribute booklets. Already, the campaign has prompted some bitter tales from audiences. Imagine this: a boy dies after a witch doctor tells him to drink muddy water to cure a snake-bite. Barbers huddle inside before noon to avoid attacks by neighbors who think they bring bad luck. Young girls must still surrender their bodies to priests in compliance with the old Devadasi system.
“Just because it is tradition, doesn’t mean you have to believe in it,” says one earnest campaigner at the M&M Girls Junior College in Gangavathi, speaking to a packed classroom of 200 students. “You can still question it.” Several speakers grip the podium, reminding the young women of the fear generated by everyday items supposedly used for black magic – like lemon, chili and coconut – and urging them to rely on “scientific thinking” in order to discern right from wrong.
After the gathering, 17-year-old student Shilpa Channali tells me, “If they bring out this law, it would be really good.” She doesn’t elaborate on why she feels this way. Others make the point that the campaign should try to reach elders, who still exercise so much clout over younger members of the family. Sixteen-year-old Gousiya has another take. “Women can’t go to the mosque, that is also very superstitious,” she asserts. “God is one for everyone, and everyone should be allowed to go to the mosque.” (In fact, in many mosques worldwide, women are allowed entry and sit in separate sections.)
The campaigner in Gangavathi, human rights activist and English professor VS Sreedhara, was part of the team that drafted the bill. “By being anti-superstition, it’s not that we are denigrating religion or trying to insult people,” he tells audiences.
But that argument doesn’t hold water for some of the Brahmins whom I meet in Kukke Subrahmanya, as they wait for the plantain leaf lunch that precedes made made snana. “As a next step, they will come into our houses, and tell us not to do puja,” grumbles BN Subramanya, a Mysore resident.
Like the rest of the media waiting inside the temple, I have come to witness this controversial ritual, now the subject of a Supreme Court case. Devotees believe the practice heals skin diseases and brings good luck. Critics include Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami, chief seer of the Nidumamidi Mutt in Bangalore. He recently gathered dozens of swamis at the Mutt to observe a one-day fast to protest the allegedly discriminatory nature of made made snana. (Yes, there are saffron robes on both sides of this issue.) In his view, the ritual “looks down upon other communities with total disdain. It creates a mentality of slavery.”
I brace myself for a grim scene in Kukke Subrahmanya. So I’m surprised when the temple’s brass band strikes up a merry tune as batches of devotees rush into the sanctuary and hurl themselves onto the leaves smeared with leftovers. My first impression is a flashback to revelers dodging the Spanish bulls of Pamplona. I spot several bare-chested men wearing a sacred thread – perhaps a pointed rebuke to media reports that the ritual only attracts lower castes. Suddenly, a painful sight: an elderly woman curled into fetal position, rolling slowly over the leaves. I imagine I can feel every aching bone in her body, and briefly conceive of a ban on made made snana for arthritic old ladies. Winded, she pauses in front of a pillar and watches the others roll past.
Generally, though, this all seems like a breeze compared to Nagaveni’s experience with beedi made snana. Just a 15-minute spin around the flat stone floor of the sanctuary, and then the sticky bodies stand to exit and wash in the stream. Of course, that interpretation would ignore the dreary caste-bound symbolism of rolling on Brahmin leftovers, and the general cultural disgust associated with physical contact with another person’s food. Predictably, the participants I meet don’t express a whit of dismay. Sixteen-year-old Pre University student Sushma lightly observes that she wants to prevent skin problems, as though she’s talking about a new face wash. Kavitha, a 21-year-old engineering student, hopes the ritual will help her land a good job. Om Prakash, a 34-year-old private contractor from Bangalore, says that the whole controversy is misguided. “We should not take it as food eaten by someone else. We should consider it God’s prasad,” he says, identifying himself as a Reddy, part of the Vokkaliga community.
A young doctor attending to devotees outside has another view. “People of all castes should get together and eat the food,” suggests 29-year-old Arvind Hegde, whose family belongs to the Kotegar caste. “The world is changing, and we have to change, according to the world.”
The clash over made made snana suggests it will be a major challenge to whittle down a list of practices that everyone agrees should be banned or penalized. But if the draft bill’s proponents really focus on rituals resulting in “significant” physical or mental harm – and stop carping about pujas for government projects or prayers offered by space agency directors – the campaign could gather steam. Especially if more time is given for questions and discussion, rather than just monologues. Among the wide cross-section of people I interviewed there was a broad willingness to condemn phenomena like women being impregnated by clerics, tortured by exorcists, condemned to misery by certain astrologers, or stuck in a dark hut while menstruating.
As for the activists, they seem quietly relieved at the delay in introducing the legislation. This gives them more time to raise awareness about superstitions, with the proposed law as a jumping-off point. In the meantime, Siddaramaiah’s cabinet must figure out how to fill the shameful vacancies in posts for MBBS doctors and government school teachers around the state. These are the people most likely to be steady torchbearers of human dignity, once the activists roll on home.