As a race, humankind is rather naïve. We tend to believe a lot of hearsay and often tend to fall prey to needless beliefs that scarcely stand a chance of coming true. Some superstitions take the cake and the belief of them sometimes makes grown men and women appear a little light in the head.
Thus, in India, a cat crossing the path, the left eye fluttering or someone sneezing before a journey are happenings that are purported to bring terribly bad luck. On the other hand, the right eye fluttering or the left hand itching are supposed to be bountiful portents. Over the centuries the ladies have refrained from washing their hair on Tuesdays and Saturdays for fear of causing harm to loved ones.
The Western world is no less susceptible to superstitions. Walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors or seeing one’s bride on the morning of the wedding day are instances that are supposed to bring bad luck.
The Chinese are even deeper into such beliefs and their superstitions vary according to the time of day. For instance, the twitching of the left eye is supposed to have differing impacts if it twitches in the morning or evening!
The basis of each of these superstitions or their origin has been a matter of conjecture. Researchers have not been able to lay their hands on manuscripts from down the ages that explain the genesis of superstitions, barring a few rare ones. Thus the ladder related superstition is believed to have originated from the fact that the ladder makes a triangle when it leans against a wall and thus anyone walking under it would violate the sacred triangular shape that the Greeks revered.
A Qualitative Analysis of Superstitious Behaviour by Alexandra A. Farley of Western Washington University concludes that 80 to 90 per cent of non-clinical adults believe in some form of superstition or the other.
It is obviously the fear of something going drastically wrong that makes us susceptible to sheer nonsense at times. If a young student forgets to have ‘curd’ before an exam, his mother may blame that ‘error’ if he gets poor marks later, not the lack of his preparation! The problem is not in the practice of eating that curd, for it bolsters a nervous youngster, but in the negativity that may creep in if one misses it.
At other times it could just be the entertainment factor. On the cricket field, the score 111 is called a Nelson (after Admiral Nelson who allegedly had one eye, one arm and one leg). Thus the portly balding umpire of yesteryears, the venerable David Shepherd, would stand on one leg for a while! TV cameras would actually pan towards his legs as soon as the score ticked over to 111. Shepherd was more likely to be playing to the gallery and seeking to amuse millions of TV viewers than indulging in any fears, especially since he was the umpire!
Lovers have ardently wished that dandelions and clovers would play along with their ardent wishes and bring them the everlasting company of their loved one. A superstition also has it that the last sip or last bite at meal time makes the partaker’s lover into a more handsome or beautiful human being!
Customs should not be confused with superstitions though. Several of them are related to newlyweds and it is important to distinguish between a healthy custom such as a bride being welcomed into her new home with a round of singing, and a superstitious belief that a bride has brought bad luck if something untoward happens.
‘Superstition is the religion of feeble minds”, said Edmund Burke and he could not have been more right. Superstition has often been used by dominating forces to suppress weak and meek minds. For instance, some temples in India disallowed women and foreigners from entering their portals for ages.
It is time to get rid of all harmful beliefs and retain only pleasant ones. In the Netherlands, it is believed that meeting dark haired men on New Year’s Day brings good luck. That is one superstition that I can easily live with!