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New age superstition: What unites Yeddy and the yuppie

"Young people are looking for quick-fix remedies, hoping they will achieve what they want with minimal effort, with some help from gems and pujas," says tarot-card reader Ratti Bhandari in a recent India Today story on Gen Next spirituality. [Not available online]

But it's not just the young who want that shortcut to success. A new survey of corporate workplaces finds that a whopping 62 percent of Indian employees are superstitious, with 48 percent claiming that their irrational beliefs have a "positive" effect on the workplace. And their employers are happy to play along:

The study, conducted by staffing outfit TeamLease, also says that managements in India are generally adaptive to employees' superstitious beliefs and don't restrict them from practicing them at work, as long as it doesn't negatively affect productivity. In fact, a majority of senior management officials believe that superstitious practices are more prevalent at the top of the order. A majority of senior managers believe that though practices like Feng Shui, Vaastu Shastra, lucky charms, arrangement of idols and stickers of gods at workstations, laughing Buddha and money plant are common at workplaces, they don't have any significant influence on people and the corporate culture.

Astrologers are happily unconcerned with the state of a man's soul. AFP

What's striking in that list of lucky totems is the easy conflation of casual superstition and spiritual faith. Atheists, of course, argue all religion is superstition, but here's the more interesting question: How many believers know the difference? As a Bangalore resident, I often pondered this as I watched our dear BS Yeddyurappa hop from one temple to another in response to each political crisis. Better to rely on gods than governance to save his political career.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, said Samuel Johnson. In our great nation, so is a certain form of piety. Politicians treat sacred shrines like slot machines at Las Vegas. Drop enough money in the right slot and pray for a bonanza, never mind all that spiritual blather about rightness of action and thought. Dirtier the hands, bigger the donation, and more strenuous the displays of devotions.

Our politicians subscribe to an expediently narrow type of religiosity, stripped of all spiritual concerns. There is no interest in either karma or dharma, only power and profit. Hence their overweening preoccupation with astrology which is primarily in the business of predicting and engineering a clients personal fortune. Who cares if Yeddyurappa is a good man or a wise leader? What matters is that his planets are in the right alignment and the right dasha.

Sacred rites, be it homas or fasts, are reduced to handy remedies for an inconveniently placed Mercury or ominous Saturn. Conversely, any political setback can be happily interpreted as the unlucky effect of astral misalignment or timing. Astrologers are happily unconcerned with the state of a man's soul. No wonder our politicians spend over ten crores on astrological consultations each year. It's a small price to pay for the convenience of ducking moral responsibility.

But as the Superstiton@workplace survey indicates, our leaders are merely symptoms of a broader spiritual malaise. Astrology is more popular than ever today precisely because it treats religion as a handy tool toward desired material ends.We want therefore we believe. As astrologer Sunita Chabra told the Washington Post, "Today, if you need an accountant or lawyer, then you need an astrologer... Indians want everything these days: a good house, a good car, a good business. Expectations are very high. Everyone could use a good astrological reading."

"[T]he race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all," says the book of Ecclesiastes. The belief in good luck is universal, cutting across religious, gender, caste and class lines. Hence the irresistible allure of superstition which affords the illusion that we can steer our fortunes as long as we wear the right talisman or perform the right ritual.

We often turn to our gods in our darkest hour. We look for comfort and meaning, seeking reassurance that the universe is not merely arbitrary and cruel. In this important sense, all major religions stand in opposition to idea of luck. Everything happens for a reason, yes, but spirituality at its most enlightened, asks us to look within for that reason. In Ralph Waldo Emersons words, "Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble." Stripped of personal morality, faith becomes mere superstition. No better than a pile of severed chicken heads strewn outside the Vidhana Soudha. Or a rudraksha mala in a corporate cubicle.

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