Ever since humans began to live in organized groups or communities, omens have become part of our lives. Omens are signs of some future event, good or bad. They are individual, family and/or social-community beliefs which have little scientific basis, but they form part of traditional belief-sets. They are passed from one generation to next by word of mouth. Although, communities are generally not bound to go by or stand by such beliefs, not every individual or family can fully insulate from the group or community.
I always rejected such beliefs as mere superstitions since they made very little sense to me. But of late, and more particularly during the past handful of years, I have moderated/revised my views. I have come to the conclusion, after considerable reflection, that not all such beliefs are idiotic if we give due respect to those days when our living conditions and our knowledge of environments were much less, nay, much poorer than what they are now. It is true that some of these beliefs have been exaggerated by some interest groups, but don’t you think today’s entire marketing system is a hyped belief system? These politically motivated interest groups – call them miscreants if you like- always succeed in putting additional stuff into such systems, instill fear into the minds of the simple and the credulous and then exploit them. I shall discuss here below two omens to elucidate my view point and show that all beliefs can not be painted with the same brush.
(I) Sighting of a black cat in or around one’s dwelling place, while coming out of house or while walking/driving on the street is considered inauspicious. However, there is no evidence for such a correlation between sighting of a black cat and anything unfortunate or bad happening. Then how come this belief is so wide-spread and persists till today?
My interpretation is as follows: the very presence of a black cat is disturbing and its look is frightening to many of us including myself, especially when the cat is viewed in darkness staring at you with its luminous eyes, and mewing. Women, children and the feeble-minded are particularly vulnerable. This fear, apart from DNA factor, comes largely from our associating the black color with evil. I have witnessed children crying out unnaturally and loudly, and women screaming in fear when they, perchance, come upon a black cat in dim light such as at dawn, dusk or in moonlit nights. The proverbial scary look of the black cat is said to have given heart attacks and cause nightmare to children, the old and the weak. Some children are impacted adversely far more than adults and there can be health issues arising from the psychosomatic conditions those children are subjected to.
So the wise men thought of making a rule to keep black cats away from human habitats as far as possible. Later on, some ‘smart’ guys with an ulterior motive made a rule that if a black cat crosses your path, you should not proceed. You should return and restart, thereby leaving plenty of room for manipulation.
(II) During my childhood years, as a teenager, I happened to walk through poorly-lighted, dark areas a number of times, pass through funeral grounds and graveyards. I had accompanied my paternal grandfather, many times, to attend feasts thrown in our honour or in honour of community on occasions such as wedding, death of a family/community member, or simply going to a fair. I am talking of the 1950’s. In those days, roads or streets used to be desolate, there were few street lights and there were areas so dark that a person standing next to you could not be seen. All through our passage and especially while going/passing through areas known to be vulnerable or dangerous, my grandfather would continuously mutter ‘Agasti Agasti Agasti..….” till we cleared that area. (Agasti is the name of a great sage.)
On one such occasion, I asked him: ‘Jeje (grand pa), why are you uttering these words?’ He replied: ‘Continuous utterances of the word Agasti will ward off snakes, evil spirits and other animals like jackals, dogs. They will not come close to us.’ His reply was Latin and Greek to me then. It took me many years to grasp the true hidden meaning of what he said.When we pass through areas where dangers lurk, our minds are gripped with unknown fears, some real and some imaginary. In darkness, it is the fear of being bitten by a snake or some other wild animal, encountering a ghost or any other evil spirit. Continuous recitation of a potent name like Agasti temporarily distracts the mind from the object/s of fear. This frees our mind and we remain our normal selves during the passage.
Cause and Effect
The net effect of the aforementioned two beliefs is: they cater to the safety of the travelers and their families by preventing the occurrence of any serious medical conditions caused due to fear and nervousness. It is important to know that most deaths due to snake-bites are not due to snake-bites, but because of panic.
It is clearly seen from above discussions that beliefs of the kind described above have immense survival value at places where level of knowledge is low, environmental hazards are high and emergency medical care is either not there or not easily available.
I would conclude by saying that some of these widely held beliefs have sense. They are not ALL superstitions. We should admire the human ingenuity when it comes to preservation of self, family and the community.
By Dr. Sachidanand Das