On Blind Faith

By Binam Poudyal ’22, Contributing Writer

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“Om namah namah namah” The woman chants some mantra and throws some rice into the fire. A sizzling noise fills the air. Then she takes a broom, taps it over my shoulders, and goes into a trance like state.

The woman is just a few years older than me. For my grandmother she is a living goddess, granted powers by Goddesses Santoshi while in her sleep. For me she is just another ordinary human. What must have brought her to this stage? I wonder. Fame? Money? The absence of purpose? Loss of hope? I don’t know. I don’t think she has any mystical powers. Of course, there is no way for me to either prove, or disprove the existence of her powers. So I ask her questions, plenty of questions. Here’s what I know. The claims that she makes is always in the future. The best time for him to marry is after 25. Her claims are vague or highly probable. Your school is in the western side of Kathmandu. Your friends were not nice to you. She says she cannot predict specific details. I cannot predict your Facebook password. If her prediction fails she always has a way to defend herself. As I said, he was supposed to go abroad this year but the presence of an evil eye prevented that from happening. Her claims are unjustifiable.

Sometimes she does claim to figure out specific details, such as the name of the person who is causing me illness(I’ve been ill for a while, that’s why Grandma brought me here). She says that she can figure out individuals who transmit intense energies, whether positive or negative. Asked in the same vein if she could then figure out the name of a person who sends me intense positive energies, such as the name of a girl in high school who has a crush on me, she makes vague predictions (She is of a peculiar caste and lives in the western side of Kathmandu), before saying that she needs more days to figure such things out. She contradicts herself. 

I tell my grandmother these things and that there’s absolutely no reason to believe her, that the Shaman is either lying or deluding herself. But instead of examining these things, my Grandmother tells me: “You’re a skeptic because you haven’t felt these things. I’ve seen and felt the use of dark magical powers. If not for these gods, I wouldn’t be here.”

I’m shocked and speechless when she tells me this. Her belief is a product of the culture in which she grew up. Moreover, the premature death of my uncle, her unsupportive father-in-laws and my grandfather’s exile, led her to take refuge in the company of these shamans and witch doctors. In a sense, these beliefs have become her life support system and are deeply rooted in her.

I have no problem with her believing in something. After all, it gives her a meaning in life, a reason to live. Despite our differences, I respect her and if it doesn’t harm me, or others, I sometimes compromise and abide by her religious requests. But her irrational beliefs have no limits, and creates unnecessary tension and suspicion. 

A couple of days ago she came to live with us and told us that she had bad dreams at night while she was here. A few days after, she called us to tell us to sell our house. Apparently after she returned home she had consulted the Shaman, who told her that our house was previously a graveyard, that it was full of dead spirits that were creating bad luck. 

It is for reasons like these that my parents couldn’t live with my grandparents, and as children we missed their care. But what can we do? For once, no amount of reasoning can convince her otherwise. Second, what if we do convince her? She’s been living this way all her life. Will she be able to accept it?

These things are worrying. But this is not just the story of my grandmother, but the reflection of a wider socioeconomic problem in poor rural communities. Mental health services are still non-existent or stigmatized in many rural parts of the world, and religious institutions are the chief source of mental and emotional support. Religion is not always bad, but in the hands of the wrong people good faith can quickly lead down a slippery slope into blind faith and extremism. Stories such as my Grandmother’s reminds us to be self-critical of our thoughts and beliefs, to inculcate a habit of skepticism and logical thinking in our daily lives, and encouraging the same in the lives of those around us. It reminds us, that not all beliefs are equally good: our beliefs are good to the degree that they conform with evidence and sound reasoning, the degree to which they do good to us and to those that are around us. Similarly, this story reminds us of the importance of seeking healthier coping mechanisms during adversity, for some coping mechanisms are better than others in the long run. It reminds us to take care of those that are close to us in difficult situations. 

Finally, it reminds us to support organizations that provide and promote mental health services both in our local communities and in rural communities all around the world, so that everyone has the chance to seek better guidance and healthier support in finding a sense of meaning in their life.