July 29, 2020
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Swirls Of Yearning

What takes people to shrines that grant what they seek? A look at wish-making.

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Swirls Of Yearning
Illustration by Seema Kohli/ Mixed media on canvas
Swirls Of Yearning

Religious places are supposed to be infused with special qualities. For example, when people talk about Kollur, where the Adi Sankara established the famous Kollur Mookambika temple, they talk about the place being powerful, not just the deity. The temple is on the spur of the ecologically rich Kodachadri mountain. The Sowparnika, which runs through the town, flows down from the Kodachadri. The official website of the temple notes that the “river absorbs the elements of 64 different medicinal plants and roots as it flows, therefore it cures all the diseases of those who bathe in it. Hence a bath in this river assumes significance and is considered sacred.” The sacredness here is not just that of the deity but also of the powerful natural qualities of the river and the surrounding land. When seen from the perspective of the qualities of a place, we find a different logic to wish fulfilment as compared to a theological one.

Was a shrine set up in a place because it was sacred, or did it become sacred because a shrine was set up there? These ideas are interrelated.

One of the commonly used explanations for the ‘power’ of a place is the medicinal quality associated with it. Sending people who are ill to the seaside or the hills was a well-established practice. Invariably, in places possessed of some unique quality, spaces of worship also sprout. Most people who visit these places refer to them as well as the deities there using the ambiguous term ‘energy’. Thus, we see that the ‘sacredness’ of a sacred place does not necessarily derive from a higher divinity but resides in the place itself. The ubiquitous chicken-and-egg question can be posed to these places: Did a shrine originate in a place already seen to be sacred, or did the place become sacred because of the shrine? If we look at the stories of famous shrines, we will see that these two aspects are closely interrelated. Diana Eck, in her book India: A Sacred Geography, gives an exhaustive list of such places and the temples there. She makes the argument that a Hindu pilgrimage is not just a list of temples but of places as well. She also reminds us that tirthas, the sacred places considered an essential part of pilgrimages in India, are places “of spiritual crossing, where the gods are and the benefits of worship generous.”

The story of the Guruvayur temple is a good example. Devotees of the Krishna temple at Guruvayur are well aware of its relationship to healing, particularly ailments such as arthritis and rheumatic pain. The origin of the temple, as is well-known to devotees and also recounted by Eck, illustrates the complex relationship between the divine and geography. When Brihaspati and Vayu search for a place to instal an embodied idol of Krishna, they look for a place which was ‘medicinally’ appropriate, a place in which the temple was eventually built.

Map by Kuldeep/ Outlook

While one can perhaps understand the relevance between place and worship for health-related issues, how does one understand a phenomenon like the Visa Balaji temple in Chilkur, Hyderabad, prayer at which is believed to ensure that visas to the US or other foreign lands are granted? In this case, it seems to be a straightforward interpretation of what prayers mean to us. One of the most common observations about prayer is that when we are in trouble, we tend to pray. While there are other facets to praying, such as thanking or extolling the virtues of the divine, it is nevertheless true that a large proportion of praying has to do with wish-making, especially in moments of trouble.

To hope when there is no hope—that’s one of the markers of wishful prayer. It’s less about religion, more about man facing uncertainty.

Hoping, wishing, pleading etc are terms which capture the spirit of one type of prayer. In many cases, they express a sense of helplessness that arises when a situation is completely out of one’s control. And, for many, the only way to cope with such situations is to hope that someone else has the capacity to deal with the problem.

A sense of helplessness is often experienced when somebody who matters to us is really sick or on his or her deathbed. How do we respond to this crisis when doctors seem to have given up hope, when the patient seems to be sinking fast? In other words, how do we hope when all hope seems to have been lost? This capacity to hope when we know that there is no hope is one of the essential markers of wishful prayers. The discovery of hope when there is no hope has less to do with religion and is more about a fundamental human predilection: our inability to deal with chance, randomness and indeterminacy.

When a person buys a lottery ticket, he (most buyers are men!) is hoping that he will win. Going to certain shrines for wishing something is not like buying a lottery ticket. A devotee who goes to these places of worship is not buying a lottery, nor is hoping for a prize. Buying a lottery ticket is fundamentally different because you enter into this purchase as a game: there are clear rules about the processes involved in choosing the winning number. There is also only one winner who will take the major prize. Making a wish in a place of worship, on the other hand, is not a zero sum game, does not have one winner at the expense of others nor are there clear processes which lead to the final result. These are two different kinds of wishing and hoping.

While chance is the prime operative element of lotteries, wishful prayers are not really about chance and are more about the problem of indeterminacy. While chance and indeterminacy have overlapping meanings, indeterminacy is qualitatively different. What is the problem of indeterminacy? From ancient times, and across cultures, there was a strong belief that our life is completely determined. In many philosophical traditions, the belief in the determinacy of the world and human life was a central principle that upheld theological arguments as well as secular knowledge.

Both theology and mathematics alike have tried to work towards determinacy but run up against indeterminacy time and again.

Following the Greeks, many European philosophers viewed mathematics as the exemplar of knowledge. Mathematical systems were completely determinate—you could know, in principle, whether a mathematical statement was true or false. This model of knowledge, as determinate and as absolutely certain, influenced a long tradition of western philosophy leading to the development of modern knowledge. Newton’s physics continued this fascination with determinacy. Newton’s second law of motion gives us knowledge of every moment in the future of a particle’s trajectory once two initial values are known. This is indeed a powerful vision of the world, whereby we can know the evolution of systems in the future once a certain minimal set of initial values is known.

True, mathematics was understood in a completely different way in Indian traditions. Nevertheless, the problem of indeterminacy was central to Indian thought. One can understand the deeply entrenched theory of karma in almost all Indian philosophical traditions as one way to bring in a measure of determinacy to our lives. In the rational enterprise of these philosophies, great value is placed on the notions of certainty and determinacy.

In the early 20th century, two developments challenged this fascination with determinacy. One was quantum physics, where indeterminacy was recognised as a fundamental principle of quantum systems. The implication of this was the recognition that one does not have complete knowledge—not because we do not have enough information but because that is the way nature is. The other major blow to determinacy was Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which proved that arithmetic—and any logical system based upon a fixed set of axioms—was fundamentally incomplete and undecidable. This meant there would always be statements in arithmetic whose truth or falsity can never be proved. Many new developments in science in the 20th century extended these provocative insights into the nature of undecidability and indeterminacy.

We are all slaves to randomness, toiling to the fall of multifaceted dice. Our seemingly ‘irrational’ prayers are a salve for its whiplash.

What does this theme of indeterminacy have to do with making wishes? I want to suggest that when people visit these sacred places and offer a prayer or vow in order to have their wishes fulfilled, they are primarily responding to the existential problem of indeterminacy. To understand this claim, we only need to look at the kind of wis­hes people make. While there will always be some cases of ‘trivial’ wishing, most of the wishes in the vows and prayers that people make are for situations that seem to be out of their control or that depends on too many factors.

Some people might call these acts of wishing irratio­nal acts. But this conclusion might be too hasty, given that these wishes are primarily for cases which are complex and indeterminate. The phenomenon of death is an indeterminate one. It is very common to find that some patients who have the same severity of illness as some others survive while some die. Even the result of an exam (I use this example since a lot of prayers are expended for this!) is indeterminate in the sense that however bright a student is, she cannot exactly predict how she will perform on a given day, or however fair the grader is, we cannot predict the exact marks she might give on a particular day.

Getting an American visa is an indeterminate process. Even now, it is quite impossible to decode the logic for getting these visas. Some people are granted a visa but applicants with similar records are rejec­ted. Earlier, the ambiguous clause that “you might not return” was enough to deny somebody a visa, but nobody could really decipher this special insight visa officers presumably had which allowed them to make this judgement. Given this rational indeterminacy, one may as well leave it to Visa Balaji!

Where people have less control over their circumstances, they are likelier to seek recourse to prayer or rituals to tide over difficulties.

In the face of such indeterminacy, we desire to simulate a sense of determinacy which will allow us to act. When Einstein confronted the inherent indeterminacy of quantum theory, he tried to develop a “hidden variables” theory to account for it. He believed that these hidden variables would remove the indeterminacy in quantum systems.

The human response to chance and indeterminacy is also similar to that of Einstein, in that we tend to believe that there are some unaccountable factors operating in indeterminate phenomena, like those of life, illness and so on. One might say that all the hidden variables that influence our lives are put into the wishing well. Gods, prayers and places become variables which might influence the final outcome since we really do not know all the variables in action—so why take a chance?

If you want a one-line statement that is behind many of these practices, it is this: Don’t take a chance on chance. These wishful prayers are one way of taking care of every possibility at one shot. The important point to note here is that, even if after all this the wish does not materialise, there is nothing lost since that is the nature of indeterminism. The only thing that we can be expected to do is to give it our best shot and let the ball fall where it may. Wishing, in these sacred geographies, is for millions of people the last shot which they can attempt.

Herbert Simon mooted the idea of ‘bounded rationality’. Making a wish at a shrine is an action motivated by ‘bounded rationality’.

There are many people who find these practices irrational. However, as I have suggested above, there are very good reasons—those to do with chance, indeterminacy and complexity—that force these ‘wishers’ to do what they do. In most cases, such wishing is actually a plea for help. There is a model of rationality that describes this act quite well. In a critique of rational choice in economics, Herbert Simon proposed a model of “boun­ded rationality” and introduced the idea of “satisficing”. A perfectly rational act in a given situation is one that is often the best optimum choice given all the conditions. However, Simon’s argument was that we choose what is most satisfactory instead of what is best. We do not cognitively choose the optimum and instead choose based on satisfaction. This limited, bounded rationality allows us to make choices which lead to satisfactory outcomes.

When people go to these sacred places and wish for something, their decision-making is a form of bounded rationa­lity. They derive enormous satisfaction from their action and their decision is a rational one given the indeterminacy of the problem that confronts them. Even though this is a phenomenon present across class structures, there tends to be a greater prevalence and intensity of such practices in rural areas. When people have less control over their situation, you will see more of these practices. When poor, rural people go to a hospital and cannot be sure they will even be able to see a doctor, or when they wait in vain for water and electricity, or not know how their food is going to be secured, their only hope is to make a wish, knowing well that even the gods will not always be there to help them. Perhaps, this is the most optimum and satisfactory way by which they can engage with the constant indeterminacy that plagues their lives at every moment.

(Sundar Sarukkai is an author and teaches philosophy.)

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