The question is, how to distinguish faith from superstition or madness.
The horrid incident of mass suicides by a family of 11 has shaken the whole nation and Delhi in particular. As per initial police investigation, the deceased wanted moksha (salvation) and were into some sort of tantric rituals. Lalit, who allegedly plotted everything, was reportedly visited by the spirit of his father frequently, who passed away 12 years ago, and was following his late father’s instructions. They are being described as the victims of superstition. Rationalists would dismiss their acts as foolhardy and beliefs as tommyrot. But the question is, what is the line of demarcation between faith and superstition? Scriptures of different religions are replete with incidents when supreme sacrifices were demanded in the name of God.
In 1699, at Anandpur, on Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Rai asked for a volunteer from the crowd assembled there to come forward if he was ready to sacrifice his head. He read aloud the Nanak’s verse: Jo tohe prem khelan ka chao, sir per tali gali meri aao. (If you have the desire to sacrifice yourself at the altar of the motherland, you come to me holding your head on your palm.) One person came forward whom he took inside a tent, and after a while the Guru returned without the volunteer with his kirpan (sword) soaked in blood. He asked for another volunteer and repeated the same process. When the fifth volunteer went inside the tent, he returned with all five who were alive and totally safe. The Guru called them Panj Pyare and offered them amrit (elixir). They all became Singh dropping their earlier surnames and were anointed leaders of the Khalsa Panth whose orders were to be treated as ultimate. Then they offered amrit to the Guru who also became Gobind Singh from Gobind Rai. The moral is that they remained safe as they had full faith in the Guru. Similarly, Id-al-Adha (Bakrid) is celebrated to honour the total surrender of Ibrahim (Abraham) to God reflected in his offer to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. He stood the scrutiny and the God replaced his son with a male goat. Thus, he was rewarded for his unflinching faith. Ramakrishna Paramahansa was so desperate for the vision of Mother Kali that one day he tried to kill himself and ran blindly towards a sword on the wall. But before he could pierce himself, he collapsed and had the divine glimpse, which he described as: “…houses, doors, temples and everything else vanished altogether; as if there was nothing anywhere! And what I saw was an infinite shoreless sea of light; a sea that was consciousness. However far and in whatever direction I looked, I saw shining waves, one after another, coming towards me.”
The question is, how to distinguish faith from superstition or madness. Ramakrishna was also taken to be mad. Reports appear in the media about fathers sacrificing their children to propitiate God, and they have admitted that they were ordained by God to do so in the dream. Many dreams have proved to be true. Mark Twain had a prophetic dream about the death of his younger brother Henry. In 1858, Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) was working as steersman on a steamboat called Pennsylvania and had got Henry employed on the same ship. One night, when the ship was in dock at St. Louis, Missouri, he stayed with his sister Pamela. In the night he had a vivid dream. He saw that he was standing in the sitting room of his sister’s house and a metallic coffin was lying supported by two chairs, and in it lay the dead body of Henry, a bouquet of white flowers, with a single crimson bloom at the centre, on his chest. When he got up, he was greatly relieved that it was a dream and that everything was alright. After sometime, the Pennsylvania was to sail to New Orleans but Samuel had a scuffle with pilot Brown and so left the ship and followed two days later by another ship AT Lacey. It might have been a premonition as the Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded midway sinking it and killing around 250 passengers. Many more died due to injuries later. Henry was blown into the river by the blast but he swam back to the ship to rescue others. He subsequently died. When Samuel went to see him, he saw exactly what he had seen in the dream — the corpse lying in a metal coffin supported by two chairs. As he was looking at him, an elderly woman came and put a bouquet of flowers on his chest. It was all white, as he had dreamt except for the one crimson bloom in the centre. The only source for this story is Albert Bigelow Paine’s biography of Mark Twain. Paine had a close association with Twain though he (Twain) himself did not write about it.
Semitic religions recognise God but not soul. For them, death was the end of life. But for the Aryan the soul was at the centre. According to Swami Vivekananda: “The Aryan first began with the soul. His ideas of God were hazy, indistinguishable, not very clear; but as his idea of the human soul began to be clearer, his idea of God began to be clearer in the same proportion. So the inquiry in the Vedas was always through the soul.” Thus, something remains even after the death. The Egyptians and the Babylonians also have a sort of soul idea — that of a double. According to them, there is another body inside this outer body, and when man dies, this double is released and lives on for a certain period of time, but its life is dependent on the preservation of the outer body which it left. When this body is injured in some part, the double is also injured in that part. This explains why Egyptians preserved dead bodies by embalming and building pyramids. For Hindus, this double or the soul is not limited or bound by the body it has left. Rather, it is liberated, and hence the Aryan custom of burning the dead.
The goal of the soul in Hinduism, irrespective of sects, is liberation. To quote Swami Vivekananda again: “Man is infinite; and this limitation in which he exists now is not his nature. But through these limitations he is struggling upward and forward until he reaches the infinite, the unlimited, his birthright, his nature.” What these 11 people have done is not sanctioned by scriptures. If it is under the influence of some charlatan tantric, he must be found out and punished severely.