news Monday, May 04, 2015 - 05:30

Instances of injuries and in one instance death occurring due to people walking over burning coals, has one once again brought the thin line between faith and superstition to fore, and the possible intervention of the law. On Sunday, a man sustained burns after he fell while participating in a ritual at the Dharmaraya Swamy Temple in Kalasipalya of Bengaluru. But a more serious incident occurred on April 22, when Basavanna (65) sustained severe burns after he fell onto the burning coal embers that he was walking on at festivities at the Kalikamba Temple in Mandya district. Basavanna had reportedly done this four times in the past, without any mishap. The awe on onlookers faces turned to horror as they watched him slip and fall on to the burning coal. He sustained 70% burns and died a few days later. Last month, two Dalit men in Chamarajnagar district were beheaded, and although police have registered a case under the Atrocity Act, Dalit groups allege that the men were beheaded as a part a sacrifice, and have accused certain people of practising witchcraft. Given this scenario, scholars and activists say that there is an urgent need to pass the Anti-Superstition Bill, which has for various reasons been delayed. Despite several attempts the bill was not passed, not least because of opposition from religious groups and institutions, as well as political parties such as the BJP, which have claimed that the act was an attack on Hindu religion. One of the members of the committee which drafted the Bill Vasundhara Bhupati, howeover, says that although it was often difficult to draw distinctions between religion and superstition, the draft bill has recognised that not all religious practices can be called superstitious. Member of the Karnataka Vignana Parishat Nagesh says that the act is performed mostly to appease gods, to cure illness, in fear or to fulfil a vow undertaken. The law, Vasundhara says, defines superstition in terms of the possible harm which can be caused by any act carried out in the name of belief. The act of walking over burning coals would fall within the scope of superstitious acts as defined by the law: “any act which causes grave physical or mental harm”. Despite the recent death of Basavanna, it is important to note that the manner in which this ritual is performed by an individual does have a bearing on whether a person can safely endure it. After having walked on a blistering surface, few people escape unscathed, nevertheless the injuries are not always serious. “Scientifically speaking, the ash emanated by the burnt coal acts as an insulation. Additionally, people raise their feet high up before taking each step. This allows for air to come in contact which cools the surface,” Nagesh says. But he also points out, that several people often do not admit getting burnt because of their devotion and fear of God. Some form of the practice of “fire-walking” is found across India, but may be more revered in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The most significant of the instances of these practices in Karnataka, is the Karaga festival in Bengaluru which is celebrated for over 48 days in the first month of the Hindu calendar (April/May) and culminates with the fire-walk. In Bengaluru the fire-walk event has been organised annually by the “Sri Draupadi Amman Fire Walking Devotees Association” for nearly 45 years in association with Dharmaraya Swamy Temple. There are several theories on how this practice started in India, but none of them can claim to be the last word on the subject. The most common explanation is that the practice is rooted in the Maharabharata. “The act is performed in imitation of Draupadi, who stayed with each of her husbands for one year. When she went from one to the other, she walked through fire to prove her chastity and purity,” writes Smriti Srinivas in a book titled, “Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India's High-tech City”. Another theory speaks of the fire-walk as act of commemoration of Draupadi and her brother who were both born in fire. Vasundhara, however, has an entirely different perspective on the subject. “The practice must have started off as a punishment by Kings to keep their subjects under fear,” she says.

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