By Shyamal Sarkar
My four year old granddaughter, Tia and I were going up in our 14th floor apartment in a building in New York. She was counting 1, 2, 3, 4…. the ascending numbers in elevator display panel. She noticed something missing and says, “Look Grandpa, there is a mistake; there is no number 13 after 12”. A man in his mid-fifties, resident of the building was in the elevator; he grinned silently listening to Tia. “What is funny about the mistake?” Tia was puzzled. I patted her shoulder and said “Yes, it is a mistake; I will tell the building manager to fix it”.
When we came to 14th floor, she ran out to hug her grandma and forgot about missing 13. I was proud for her but I was uneasy; I was not honest. I knew the building manager would not make any changes; it was a deliberate decision not to have a 13th floor in the building. It is a belief of Christianity that number 13 is an unlucky number. Many hotels do not have 13th floor, many airlines do not keep 13th row seats and many people believe that Friday the 13th is the unlucky day. The unsuccessful journey of Apollo 13 to moon has bolstered the belief of “13” of the believers. I live in a building which made its floor numbers with a superstitious belief. It is an irony that there is a 13th floor in the building which is named 14th and many people live in there.
Before coming to America I knew that unlike Hindu beliefs, Americans do not have any non-auspicious month for marriage; they can marry in any time of any month. Hindus believe in Shubha Lagna (auspicious time period) for tying the knots; sometimes, the couple need to wait for months just to avoid their parent’s wedding months which believed to be the non-auspicious time for wedding.
The evolution has made the animals to mate and give births when the survival conditions for the new born are favorable. Contrarily, only the human species are made to mate and reproduce anytime of the year. I wonder why the Hindus restrict their marriages for certain time of the year. It has been a ritual practice of hundreds of years. Has it anything to do with the better survival of the new born in certain time of the year or it is just a belief to glorify the marriage having certain restrictions and rituals?
Regarding Shubha Lagna, one of my friends, Sudesh has a difficulty. He is a Hindu priest in New York. He follows the strict religious scripture and Hindu rituals. His trouble is what to follow, USA time zone or Indian time zone which runs ten hours ahead. I wonder how relevant is Sudesh’s dilemma about the auspicious time where the Hindu religion is full of dichotomies; in one hand, the religious teachers believe in infiniteness of universe where is no beginning and no end of the spiritual life and other hand, the Hindu priests believe for a finite moment of time which they consider better than other.
Though people can marry in USA any day, still they have many superstitious beliefs which I was not aware of before coming in America. One of them is wishing God Bless You. First time I heard ‘God bless you’ from Chuck after a sneeze. Chuck was a coworker in the drug store. I was new in the country and curious to know. I questioned Chuck. He looked at me with a surprise; perhaps it was the first time anyone had questioned him which did for many years. He just laughed and said, “Young man, it is a custom here, don’t you know that?”
Really I didn’t know; later I knew that the phrase “May God Bless You” started from the time of Bubonic Plague in Rome, 590 AD when Gregory-I was the Pope. In hopes of fighting off the disease, the Pope ordered continuous prayer. At the time, sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the plague. The blessing (“God bless you!”) became a common effort to halt the disease. The last case of plague was seen in Europe in 19th Century but “God Bless you” is still going on. A Christian belief that chuck and many others have accepted as a social ritual.
I had a pharmacy in the Bronx and most of the customers were the Spanish speaking Roman Catholics from Latin America and Caribbean Islands; while they took allopathic medicines, they had the trust in Botanica Remedies, mythical and folklore medicines of generations. Botanicas carry oils, incense, perfumes, scented sprays, religious candles and statuary, amulets, and other products which are regarded as magical and have extraordinary healing power for treating arthritis, asthma, hair loss, menstrual pain and diabetes. Latinos trust the mythical medicines blindly and spend large amount in the Botanicas.
The use of herbal medicines has been common in India also with misleading beliefs; the most harmful assumption is the herbal medicines are safer. Many opportunists take advantage of the belief. The Babas mix the religious teachings with remedies for ailments through the Television Channels. They have a sinister motive to push a brand of herbal products for serious diseases. This practice is unproven and often dangerous like the Botanica Remedy.
In one hand, the Indian scientists send the probes in the space to gather information from red planet Mars; on the other hand, educated people including the doctors of India wear gemstones to get special effects from same Mars. This is a paradoxical phenomenon, coexistence of the superstitions and scientific truths, side by side. This is a strange the unity of opposites.
The Indian Diasporas in USA are college educated and exposed to the modern marvels of science; sadly, they still believe in the bizarre dogmas of backward classes; one of them is a pharmacist friend of mine, Vimal. He has been a research scientist in Schering Pharmaceuticals. He also went to Bridgewater Hindu Temple for seeking blessing after breaking a coconut for his new car.
Hindus, particularly from South India, have the practice of breaking the dry coconuts at the start of new businesses or driving new tractors or cars; even Indian Navy breaks coconuts before commissioning the naval ships. The planets and moons run in their own fixed orbits all the time, without an exception; how there could be an auspicious moment in the perpetual movement! An explanation was given by scholar Rahul Sanskritayana that an intelligent group of people had observed the total time of the movement of earth around the sun and converted that time span in days, hours, and seconds. They observed the eclipses and the journey of sun to southern hemisphere and they had conceptualized the ‘auspicious moments’ for the start of the important activities. Some people still follow that concept today, Vimal was one of them.
Even in USA, people do not have any clear understanding between Astrology and Astronomy; instead of Astronomy they assume Astrology as science. Astrology is based on presumption of location of planets which has started few millenniums ago from Mesopotamia (Iraq) before the time of Galileo when the knowledge of planetary system was not clear; the astrologers believe in imaginary objects Rahu and Ketu in the calculations for making the astrological forecasts. Unfortunately, important decisions, weddings, journeys and signing business deals are done based on Astrology. The superstitious leaders of many countries put off important decisions for getting a favorable Astrology moment.
Atul was one who depended on astrology when he had financial problem. He had lost a fortune for not able to deliver a large consignment of designer garments on time to a giant retail company in US because of the September 11th havoc. All US ports were shut down immediate after the attack and all the ships were kept outside the US coastline for weeks. A new regulation required all the shipment had to be inspected and certified before entering the dock. That process needed over a month and he had to pay extra demurrage charges. By the time the consignment delivery date had passed and the buyer refused to accept the shipment. Atul could not do anything legally, there was no waiver clause.
He rented a warehouse to store the container-full expensive designer garments. Coincidently, his financial situation went from bad to worse because the stock market went in the tank after the terror attack. He became a collateral victim of an attack.
That was not all for him; he had more troubles that were waiting for him! One of his cousins advised him to get an astrological advice from the head priest of Narayanji Temple in Chicago. They became so desperate they decided to go to Chicago. After doing few astrological analyses, Swamiji advised them few corrective measures to come out from the bad-sight of the planets. Atul had to get a Neela (Blue Sapphire) gemstone to get protection from the planet Saturn and Sheela had to wear a Pukhraj (Yellow Sapphire) gemstone to get the favorable effects from Brihaspati, the planet Jupiter. The gemstones were obtained from Gundappa Cauvery, a store owned by a Brahmin astrological stone-merchant in Bangalore. Then they went to go to Banaras to take a bath in Ganges before putting on the blessed stones on their fingers.
Swamiji performed “Seven days Katha”, an unending religious chanting of lord in their home in New Jersey for seven days with his five entourages Hundreds friends and devotees came for Katha. The host had to arrange everything for the Katha performers including their travel and food.
When Atul did not get any result for six months, he went to see Swamiji in Chicago. Swamiji told that the Vastu, the positioning and the placement of rooms of the house were not correct; their fate would not improve as long as they live in the same house.
Atul and Sheela became brokenhearted to leave the house. It was a fire-sale; they had to leave the house in a hurry to get out from the harmful effects of Vastu. Atul’s situation did not improve after moving in an inexpensive Vastu-compliant apartment. First they lost money for the terrorist attack, second time for following the advice of the Swamiji and finally they lost the house for believing Vastu. Atul and Sheela were not the only persons who had suffered by September 11th incident and sought divine help being desperate.
Samir and I had started a restaurant business on Lexington and 48 Street, in the Radisson Hotel building. The main business of the restaurant was to serve the hotel tourists who came with travel packages. The fate of the restaurant was doomed because of September 11th attack in New York. The tourists stopped traveling to USA by air; the business turned so bad that we had hard time to keep the place running. We were miserable and desperate to do anything. Samir’s father told him to go to Tirupati Temple to get blessings. I told him that was an irrational hope and would be just waste of money.
People make more wrong decisions when they are desperate and vulnerable. Samir went to Tirupati anyway and offered his hair as sacrificial ritual. Samir got his full hair back in couple of months but the business did not; we lost the restaurant in couple of weeks after he came back from his pilgrimage and did not talk about Tirupati since then.
Now Tia does not tell me about missing number 13”; perhaps she is used to it now. My two years old granddaughter, Lilly will tell me the same thing what Tia had told me soon, “Look grandpa, here is a mistake! There is no number 13”. That day will not be another passing day for me; I will tell her that I live in a building having a superstitious belief. It was easy to divert the attention of a four years old child but not easy for a conscious mind of a grown up man anymore.
Perhaps that conscious mind of social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy had fought relentlessly to stop Sati Prathaa, the burning of widows alive along with their dead husbands which were the custom of the orthodox Hindus! Perhaps that conscious and crying soul of social reformer Iswar ChandraVidya Sagar made him motivated to legalize remarrying of Hindu widows which was not permitted in Hindus Religion too! Perhaps, the conscious minds of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi encouraged them to redefine a new paradigm of social injustice to untouchables of Hindu Caste system. Perhaps that conscious minds of India heard the plea of Shah Banu Begam against theMuslim Sharia law for getting the justified alimony for her and all Muslim divorcees.
In the land of great reformers, still the social reformers are killed today. Dr. Narendra Dhabolkar, a physician and a social activist in Maharashtra had to give his life in 2013 to fight against the superstitions, witchcraft and black magic in India. The police investigation found that the powerful clique of astrological stone merchants was behind the assassination.
I will preach my granddaughters to “Question Everything” even not getting the answer all the times. I will join them to demand number 13 after 12 in all the places in the world; number 13th is just a number, nothing to do with luck; our daughter, their mother was born on 13th which was great day for all of us