We were witness to two very baffling instances of mass hysteria recently. Residents of Mumbai claimed that the water at Mahim Creek, one of the most polluted creeks in India, had suddenly turned sweet. Barely had this event died down that reports appeared that hundreds of thousands of devotees were thronging temples across the country in the belief that statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk.
In a similar case a couple of years ago, a mysterious "monkey man" reportedly attacked people viciously and then disappeared into the dark of the night, never to be sighted by the police. Several people died on the outskirts of Delhi when they jumped off high buildings thinking that the monkey man was after them. The story eventually faded away.
Scientists went hoarse explaining there were no miracles involved in either the Mahim creek or the idols-drinking-milk incidents. They claimed that the dilution of salt can occur when there is heavy, continuous rainfall. Incessant rainfall in Mumbai had led to the Vihar Lake overflowing into Mahim Creek, causing a lower percentage of salty water from the sea. This resulted in a drop in saline levels, hence the sweet water.
With regard to idols drinking milk, scientists offered capillary action as an explanation. They postulate that the surface tension of the milk pulls the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity causes it to run down the front of the statue.
These explanations, however, did nothing to reduce the numbers of faithful rushing to Mahim beach/ temples. What was befuddling was the urban spread of these so-called extraordinary events. What is it that fuels this mass hysteria, making otherwise perfectly sane individuals to throw reason to the winds?
To say that this is a manifestation of the rampant illiteracy in our country is to oversimplify the point. True, a large number of devotees might not have held a scientific temper, but the fact remains that the idols-drinking-milk incident spread to all major metropolitan centres and significant numbers of the educated middle class were among those who allowed themselves to get carried away.
Could it be that these so-called divine episodes, akin to what can best be termed a hallucinogenic state (remember, Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses), are a delirious reaction to the mundaneness of life? The common Indian, in the course of his/her daily life, has to juggle nepotism, corruption, poverty, crime, poor housing, lack of potable water and myriad other problems.
In this stressful scenario, society's normal control mechanisms, the space that binds us together in a bond of shared experience, gets neutralised. Which is why, every once in a while, a divine miracle comes along and dissolves our inhibitions against believing in it. We clutch to it with steadfastness, certain in our belief that we are being looked upon. That we are, ultimately, not children of a lesser God, and things will get better one day.
Having a "responsive" God gives us a lever with which to suppress our frustration, our aggression at an apathetic state and a media culture that, at best, skirts grave issues at the altar of fluff. Is it any wonder then that the majority of news channels reported on these incidents by playing along with what the devotees believed, rather than exploring the moral and social vacuum that perpetuated the hysteria in the first place?
Mahim/idols is not a pointer to our superstitious or ignorant outlook. It is a mark of our deeply rooted fatalism.