In spite of awesome advances in Science and Technology and the information explosion taking the world by storm, a kind of desperation is driving people back towards the chaos and blind alley of cults and clairvoyants. Soothsayers and mediums are laughing all the way to their banks, with spoils amassed from man’s gullibility.
Ironically, it is not the illiterate and the poor who are responsible for this revival of the occult. The affluent, the intellectuals, the middle class, college students and even some scientists are moving towards supernaturalism. Cults are having a heyday. Communication with the dead has been invested with respectability because socialites, film stars and newsmakers are indulging in it. Astrology, palmistry, divination and possession are alternative opiates sought by those who cannot face reality.
Though occult activities and belief in the supernatural are not recent phenomena, and have existed among primitive people from the beginning of time, they have always been beyond the reach of scientific evidence. These practices met the demands of existence, enabled communities to face their struggles on earth, and helped life to continue.
The awakening of a scientific interest in the occult world is also not a new phenomenon. The Society for Psychical research was founded in 1882 in England, but by the middle of the 20th century it had spread to Germany, Russia and even South America, making this a science in itself.
During the early years of the 20th century, most of Europe was in a situation reminiscent of Asia today. Inflation, unrest, economic chaos, violence and collapse of the institution of family made people turn to drugs, occultism, and a hankering for a new world order. It came in the guise of a demon called Hitler, whom Germans accepted as a saviour, with disastrous results not only for Germany but for the entire global community.
In 1960, the Hippie movement arose as a revolt against traditional institutions and values. But it soon petered out and the New Age movement took over. The aim is to re-humanize a dehumanized society. Adherents hope to usher in a “New Age of Aquarius,” of universal peace and brotherhood through developing their latent psychic powers, discovering their previous lives before reincarnation, hypnotic regression, reaching out to their guides in the spirit world, communicating with other planes of reality and eventually becoming channellers. They have faith in the divine and healing power of crystals, and the linking of minds of spiritual seekers through magical forces.
The New Age movement is a response to the prevalent world culture of materialism, godlessness, cynicism and a phenomenal increase in knowledge. They believe that secular humanism has devalued human beings into intelligent robots, and also brought about an ecological catastrophe. The New Age envisages an exciting world of unseen mysteries waiting to be experienced and explored. And the methodology is based on the occult, a hotch potch of alternative religions and shamanistic rituals.
Paul McGuire a psychiatrist, whose speciality was a study of altered states of consciousness, cautioned that these activities can have serious repercussions on so-called spiritual seekers.
It is against this background that one should try and understand people who are on a quest for supernatural power to bail them out of this present crisis of directionlessness. Restless, discouraged, lonely and frightened, they reach out to the primitive world of spirits and djinns, of séances and hypnotic trances and drug induced hallucinations.
In the words of Huxley, they want to be “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception and shown for a few timeless hours, the outer and inner world, to experience cosmic consciousness in which there will be no distinction between illusion and reality.”
Primitive religion believes that there is an impersonal power or mana which is effective everywhere in the universe and which controls life. It is known by different names by different tribes. While the Nagas call it aren, the tribes of Chota Nagpur call it bongo. This power is concentrated in a fetish which may be a person, place or thing.
The aim of primitive man from the dawn of time has been to harness that power for good or evil. The more distant that power, the greater the need for an intermediary, through whom one can petition that power. This power can confer sacredness or wickedness, and expects reverence and respect at all times. As time went by, this power came to be known as a spirit. People speculated on the hierarchy of spirits that protected crops, animals and kept illness and disease at bay. There were spirits who lived in trees, or brooded over rivers and streams. There were animal spirits or spirits residing in stones. Some spirits claimed to have the ultimate revelation of God. But those like spirits of the Macumba cult of Brazil were cruel and could only dispense evil.
Therefore it became imperative that people placate the spirits through offerings and sacrifices. The role of the medium then assumed importance. The word ‘medium’ is a Latin derivative and means an intermediary between the spirit world and the world of humans.
A medium gets possessed by a spirit, who makes its demands and even outlines the procedure of the ritual through him. The underlying principals are the same whether in Asia, Africa or South America.
In certain countries, religion exists as it was a thousand years ago. In other places, fragments of primitive religion have fused with other religions, as in Indian villages, where it is known as ‘Village Hinduism.’
In the East, a vast number of people are mediumistically inclined. In the villages, spirit impersonators are usually from the lower castes, and this is followed mostly in the nature of a hereditary occupation.
But in the present social milieu, mediumistic abilities are acquired through experimentation, or through body contact (holding hands with another medium,) by the process of transference.
By consulting books on sorcery for a number of years one can acquire mediumistic abilities. Mediumism may take on many forms like divination, clairvoyance, necromancy, mesmeric healing or trance-like states.
Communicating with the dead has become as frequent and as popular as card parties. Table lifting, glass moving, automatic writing, and hearing the voice of a dead person are taken as signs that a dead person’s spirit is communicating with the caller.
Parapsychologists would call these phenomena psychic automation, which is an expression of one’s subconscious feelings. The nuclear physicist would attribute it to concentrated energy. The New Age seeker would say that the spirit guide was enabling a caller to enter into the magical astral world, where there are no limitations to time and space.
Whatever it is, commonsense tells us that the caller has failed to come to terms with his own bereavement, and is unwilling to let go of the loved one. In doing so he is prolonging the process of denial and moving into chronic grief.
Professor Wundt once remarked, “Great minds must have turned into imbeciles, because when they are cited by mediums, the things they say are so dull and trivial.”
He was implying that in most cases, mediums were hoaxes, who were merely projecting their own thoughts and feelings as those of a dead person.
It is ironical that on one hand lavish rituals and ceremonies are conducted to speed the spirits of the dead to their final resting place, and on the other, they are rudely summoned back by some thoughtless relative.
Though astronomers have rejected Astrology as the “greatest fraud of all time,” and psychiatrists like Kurt Koch have called it “a mentally contagious habit,” the number of people who depend on the horoscope columns in newspapers and magazines is unbelievable. The suggestive powers of horoscopes is so great that people alter their travel plans, or change dates for important ceremonies on the basis of the forecast.
Astrology was practiced from 3000 B.C. by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Romans, Greeks and even Mexicans. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Frederick II had great faith in astrology. But even in those days, there were many rationalists who ridiculed him.
The astronomer Kepler wrote, “Astrology to me is an unbearable but necessary slavery. To keep my yearly income, my titles, my living quarters, I have to comply with ignorant curiosity. Astronomy is the wise mother, and astrology is the foolish daughter who gives herself to anyone who pays her, so that she can support her wise mother.”
Not so many years ago there was a college professor in Leeds, who consulted the stars even for family planning.
As illness or misfortune was thought to be the work of a person or spirit, primitive tribes consulted a medium or “shaman” who went into a trance, got possessed, and told them the cause and remedy for their plight. The practice is still prevalent in different parts of the world and even educated and literate people practice it.
Mediums come in different shapes and ages and wield tremendous power over people. In the Bugund area of Africa, the Musaka is a demigod, who thrives on the blood, liver and heart of an ox. Her temple is a reed hut in which are kept her spirit masks, headgear and other paraphernalia. The medium is a female who must never see or be seen by any man. She is only permitted to talk to the priest. Ironically, she never enters the temple of Musaka, but lives in a hut opposite the temple. Whenever she wants to get possessed, she smokes tobacco endlessly, until her voice becomes shrill, and for a while she turns into a demigod.
In Melanasia’s competitive social environment, people without power or social status are considered low in the social hierarchy. Such people call on spiritual helpers to protect them. The shaman has fantastic costumes and headgear, and the spirit is conjured up by rhythmic dancing and song.
In South America, the shaman is a powerful person who cures the sick, practices magic, and is involved in prognostication and divination. Among the Mojo tribes, the shaman can only be a person who has been bitten by a jaguar and has escaped with his life, as the jaguar’s spirit is what they worship.
Even the Eskimos are not free from this practice. Here boys between 11-12 years are possessed by different spirits like the rainbow, thunder, hail or an animal. Mexicans can have no access to God except through a shaman. Hallucinogens are used to induce trances.
In India, from the Dandais of Arunachal Pradesh to the Bhootas of South Kanara, the tribal population of some 156 million people believe that illness, crop failure and every kind of bad luck is due to a spirit which must be propitiated.
To this number are added many more of India’s gullible crowds, who are willing to try anything if it will get them a reprieve from distressing situations and problems.
Dr. O. Somasundaram a famous psychiatrist of yesteryear wrote that some of the beliefs and customs prevailing among modern man have their origins in prehistoric times. Diseases both mental and physical, are not considered as arising from natural causes, but due to the malevolent influence of a god, a supernatural being, a dur devta or another human being alive or dead.
Pseudo-possession or hysteria played a great part in the birth of the Pentecostal movement. Even today, an epidemic of pseudo possession is seen in some religious groups who attribute it to the filling of the Holy Spirit. The unconscious desire to be possessed can be very contagious among the emotionally unstable and vulnerable people.
Modern healing movements and miracle workers are also suspect. Mass meetings are held, calling people to step forward for healing. The power of suggestion can be dangerous, and these healers leave in their wake many psychological wrecks.
Some years ago there was a news item that said Romario the soccer player from Brazil, often made appeals for spiritual healing. The medium he used was a lady called Jandyr Motta, who was a channel for a Spanish doctor. What was even more intriguing was that Romario’s mother stood proxy for him as Motta went into a trance, placed her hand on his mother’s right calf and leg (when Romario pulled his calf muscle.) Even his soccer shoes were supposed to be energized by the medium.
People who dabble in spiritism are known to suffer from serious psychiatric disorders. Most of them end up as split personalities. They become totally dependent on mediums and base their hopes and dreams on them. Arnold Toynbee the English historian studied 21 early civilizations of which 19 have disappeared from the face of the earth. Another historian Spengler researched 11 civilisations, all of which have disappeared. They concluded that neither external forces nor other conquering nations were the cause, but that this happened only because these people had lost faith in their civilization and themselves.
What we need today is a re-animation of faith in ourselves, in the natural sciences, and in cause and effect. Neither the lure of mysticism nor the chaos of occultism is the answer to the problems of the world. As the well known psychiatrist Ashok Pai said, the first line of defence against mental illness is to make soothsayers, exorcists, palmists and temple or church priests to undergo compulsory training that will make “psychiatry more culturally oriented, and culture (religion) more scientifically oriented.”
Some years ago, the newspapers reported that 80 teenagers from affluent Muslim and Christian families in Cairo had formed a cult for worshipping the devil. They maintained that Satan was unjustly driven out of Paradise for his beliefs. They held sexual orgies and satanic worship under the symbol of an upside down cross.
Spooky pursuits and counterfeit cults carry the danger of drugging the conscience, and destroying both mental and spiritual health. No wonder that we live in such a topsy turvy world today