Monday, August 13, 2012

What Is True?

Last week, my cook Aartiben told me she had a problem. As a part of Janmashtami holiday, she would be holding a morning pooja at her house the day before, so she would have to come to work later. The problem was that as per her community's tradition, for that entire day she was not to prepare any cooked food, either for herself or for others. So she could come to work, but she wouldn't be able to go near the cooking flame or actually cook the food. I hadn't heard of the tradition before, so found it a bit bizarre. But I told her I wouldn't mind helping her out that day to cook the food if she prepped, or even giving her the day off. But the problem was that MAM (who she also cooks for) was coming back from a long trip that morning, and they would be tired and hungry and needing support for Reva.

Aartiben was very conflicted. On one hand she wanted to do her job and come to work especially on this day when MAM would need help at home, but she was scared and worried about the consequences of going against her tradition. She said a year earlier when she didn't follow it, a spirit entered her and her son Akash as a result. It was scary, and she didn't want to upset the gods once again. She was really worried and confused, and we went back and forth thinking about workarounds. But we couldn't, and in the end she said she'd come cook for us as usual.

That morning she was noticeably jittery and nervous as she did her work. She burned the potatoes and was shaking. Madhu and Meghna assured her that it would be fine. God would not punish her for doing her job, in fact God would give her double bonus blessings. Like that she managed through the day.

Then that night Madhu got a call from Aartiben, who was hysterical. Akash had a high fever, and it had gone to his brain. He was unconscious and having fits. Madhu rushed over to the hospital, where the doctor was himself overwhelmed and confused. He gave Akash a cocktail of antibiotics and other things, hoping something would fix him. Figuring that medicines don't work that way, Madhu brought Akash's blood to a trusted doctor who prescribed a medicine. After taking that Akash regained consciousness and stabilized. Later based on his symptoms it seemed that Akash had gotten malaria.

These are the facts. But they can be interpreted into different versions of the truth. From Aartiben's perspective, it's easy to suspect that cooking that day and Akash's falling ill were related. That whole day she had a bad feeling, and something like this had happened last year. And once her community finds out they would definitely reinforce that interpretation.

My interpretation of the facts is that one event wasn't the cause of the other; they were an unfortunate coincidence. Millions of people don't follow Aartiben's tradition, and nothing happens to them. Meghna said that when she was a child, her mother followed the same tradition. Then at some point, she stopped. But after she stopped nothing bad happened to Meghna.

Also, I have a strong believe in the power of the mind to affect our physical reality. Aartiben had it in her mind that something bad was going to happen that day. She had a whole lot of fear, and there is little doubt that it transferred to Akash. Anyone who has seriously meditated knows the deeply interwoven relationship between the thoughts we think and our gross physical reality. If you are in a fragile state of mind or full of fear, you make your body weak and susceptible. Did Aartiben cause this situation? No, that would be going way too far. Did Aartiben's (and by extension Akash's) state of mind contribute to his falling ill? Put another way, was he less likely to have fallen ill had he not been full of fear? IMHO, definitely yes.

Believing that the two events are related reveals the anatomy of a superstition. First, a community or sect believes something to be true. Next, through the power of their own thoughts they increase the likelihood of the belief to manifest. They bend reality to make their belief a reality. When it happens, it reinforces the original belief for themselves and the others in the community. Because of the network effect, the belief can snowball exponentially, like a contagion.

Both of these interpretations of the facts are just that: interpretations. There is no way to prove that my interpretation is more correct than Aartiben's. I don't even believe that to be true. To me, both interpretations are true. Aartiben's to Aartiben, mine to me. The truth is relative. In Aartiben's truth, her traditional belief held. In my truth, her truth became true because she believed it to be true. So it actually is true!

There is no problem with holding multiple truths for the same reality, even if they contradict. Each and every person has their own personal truth. Let it be. They will diverge, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. The problem comes when we can't accept the divergence, and try to impose our truth on others.

When someone challenges your truth, it is like they are challenging your identity (in a way they are). The reactionary instinct is to resist and retaliate as a self-preservation mechanism. What's better?

If we either a) do not challenge, but accept; and/or b) do not resist.


  1. Enjoyed reading this post and found it very insightful too! Such events used to happen when I lived at home, where my Mom is more superstitious compared to me, and would ask me to follow her beliefs. I would try to refute her beliefs with logic but hardly ever succeeded. I like how you write about in such a mature way, without claiming that the truth is your perspective alone. I used to be attached to my won truth when I was younger, but the past few years have (I think!) shown me the benefit of a non-resistant attitude. While I do not believe most superstitions, lately I can more often find a middle ground that allows me to respect others' truth without compromising my own.

  2. Impressed by your sensitive handling of Aartiben's beliefs, which I may have brushed off as baseless from the get go. My rationale would have been that its dangerous to hold such ideas, and they're best to vigorously nip in the bud for exactly the reasons you articulate about the superstition effect. Then again, saadhu to the blind men groping the elephant :-)


  3. Well said. These kind of beliefs also include notions like 'nothing happens to my neighbor if she breaks the tradition but if I break it, bad stuff will surely happen'. Leaves very little scope for a conversation.