14 August 2008

Is IT a bird? Witchcraft and the Computer Course

An essay I wrote in January 2002, some months after finishing a Social Anthropology degree at Cambridge, and in the immediate wake of a visit to Ganesh Devy's then-nascent Tejgarh Tribal Academy in Gujarat. 

The Azande of Sudan, immortalised by EE Evans-Pritchard in that wonderfully unselfconscious, "The-Tagawawa-are-my-best-friends" way that anthropologists still had in 1937, lived in a world in which witchcraft was all pervasive. Witches could be men or women, and had the hereditarily-acquired power to do harm to a person or his family, psychically. Those who suffered misfortune could try and find out who was responsible by consulting one of several oracles. The most common oracle was a chicken, who was fed a reasonable quantity of poison called benge and given the name of a possible witch. The truth or falsehood of the accusation was then established by whether the fowl lived or died.

The tribal world, if at all such a gross generalization is possible, is populated with a host of spirits and forces that are capable of having a powerful influence upon human beings. Some are usually associated with seriously deleterious effects on mind and body, while others might be rather more beneficial in their impact. In no way do I mean to suggest that only tribal people believe in ghosts and spirits, but it so happens that I recently spent a few days discussing these things with some adivasi students in Gujarat, and time and again in those conversations I found myself making, with a passion that I never realised I could invoke in the service of modern science, a case for rationality, (as opposed to belief in the ojha's powers or jhaadh-phoonk techniques).

I had gone to explore the possibilities of working with a Baroda-based organisation that has set up a first-of-its-kind Diploma in Tribal Studies. It's a two-year course, with a theoretical and a practical side to it. The idea is for adivasi students to be trained in development survey work in villages and introduced to some development jargon - so that the classroom is the constant site of discussions in which terms like Needs-Based Approach, BPL Families (Below Poverty Line families), Microcredit Mandli and so on, are bounced back and forth with as much faith and vigour as in any self-respecting TISS project report. The other parallel motivation is to provide exposure to viewpoints and theoretical perspectives that the students may not have had a chance to engage with before.

Already, at the academy, ideas for the preservation of traditional Rathwa medicine jostle with government schemes which rest upon doling out large quantities of additional vitamins and minerals in tablet form each month. There is a tradition of Pithora wall painting in the region, which the Artists' Cooperative is trying to preserve. The three-day ritual performance which culminates in the creation of Baba Pithoro might, they have realised, be a difficult thing to market. So they sell large expanses of cellophane-protected muslin, stretched taut on wooden frames. Caught behind the cellophane, whole forests teem with life. Peacocks and mynahs and raucous green parrots fly above the horses of Indralok, scarlet and green, their hooves kicking up the dust. To me, though, they seem constrained. In a way that they didn't on their mud wall in Malaaja village. But these seem like unsolvable dilemmas, and I decide to leave them alone for the moment.

Then the next day, fifteen young men -- graduates in Gujarati and sociology and economics, who have lessons in basic linguistics and computers, and have set up committees to deal with sickle-cell anaemia patients -- started talking to me about bhoots and prets who carry off children and daayans who bewitch families. One speaks of the ojha who cured him of an undiagnosed "weakness", another of a local Rathwa tribal ritual specialist, the badhwo - in the same breath as the 'modern' medical system: injections, haemoglobin counts, hospitalisation. And suddenly, I find myself shifting -- slowly, but surely, from the supposedly value-neutral anthropological position -- to that of the scientific, anti-superstition rationalist. The process alarms me slightly.

So when I come home, I find myself turning the pages of notes I wrote as part of a long-ago course on the anthropology of knowledge. Anthropology, right from its early Fraserian avatar, has been interested in what it saw as 'irrational' beliefs and practices: the world of gods and demons, magic and witchcraft.

{Often, the domain that the anthropologist describes as magic or witchcraft does not exist as a category in the minds of those who practice them. Evans-Pritchard makes clear, for example, that Zande magic, though it may be systematic, is not theorised or systematised by the Azande themselves. If the category is of the anthropologist's making, then there must be anthropological criteria that make certain practices or beliefs magical. Behaviour which seems not to be effective in the realisation of its apparent goal, or a belief in powers or beings whose existence is not substantial, can be classified as magical. Already, we have stepped beyond mere observation of behaviour into defining what its goals might or might not be.}

Three kinds of explanations have tended to emerge for such beliefs and practices. There have been those who categorise magic as ineffectual behaviour, based on mistaken or illogical belief systems: the so-called intellectualists (Fraser, Tylor, etc). The problem with a strong form of this position is that those who practice witchcraft also perform tasks that involve fairly complex abstract reasoning: the same 'primitive' who believes in voodoo also builds real houses, using techniques that are fairly complicated.

Then there are the symbolists - who provide an 'expressive' explanation of magical practices. As Peter Winch argued with regard to the Azande, the oracular revelation is not a matter of intellectual interest, but a tool which is used to decide how to act. Therefore, the question of refutation or confirmation does not arise. Winch's question is: does someone who presses the notion of witchcraft to its logical conclusion (and finds inconsistencies) necessarily act more rationally than the Azande (who do not)?

He argues that something can only appear 'rational' or 'irrational' to someone in terms of his understanding of what is and is not rational. Winch, in effect, suggests that Zande magical rites and practices express an attitude to human life, and a recognition that life is subject to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these. This position has been taken also by others who draw a contrast between scientific explanation and magical analogy: the former can be judged true or false, the latter only legitimate or 'felicitous' - or not.

But does a strong form of relativism, a la Winch, tell us anything about rationality? If magic is an expressive ritual -- like kicking a chair when one is angry -- then belief, at least in the propositional sense needing rational approval, is not germane to the explanation of ritual/magic action. Yet, rationality is measured with respect to beliefs, coherence, consistency of thought and so on. Magic may have expressive and performative elements, but if it has any claims to an impact in the material world, then can it be considered a different type of thought from say, science?

Critics of the strong relativist position, like Robin Horton, point out that such an assumption of 'difference' would prevent anthropologists from making a studied culture intelligible to their own at all. Horton argues that western anthropologists, afraid to be seen as 'inegalitarian' or racist, have insisted therefore that much of what seems like theoretical thought in non-western cultures is actually thought of quite a different genre, with goals quite different from those of explanation, prediction and control.

Horton's argument is that science and magic are not so far apart. The opposition between them is not that between common sense and mystical thought. In fact, both explain the world in terms of underlying uniform laws. Both are forms of theory used to explain what common sense cannot: action at a distance. Magic is not used as a substitute for a theory of natural causation, but works as an explanation for particularity -- 'why did my son fall ill? In Evans-Pritchard's terms, beliefs about witchcraft and magic form a closed system - 'a web of belief' which insulates those who lived in it from anomaly. Thus, apparent falsifications - a mistaken prediction or an ineffective cure -- can be explained by bad materials, fraudulent practitioners, broken taboos or occult interference. Such 'secondary elaborations' help to preserve the truth of magic.

Horton argues that scientists, too, practice secondary elaboration in their explanations, citing bad apparatus or otherwise imperfect conditions as reasons for anomalies, or tagging caveats onto their theories to make them fit the evidence better.

Horton's conclusion: that it is wrong to think of magical thought as anything less than scientific. What is not scientific, or strictly rational, in magical thought is the fear of abandoning theory - the'closed predicament' in Popperian terms. Whereas magical thought and practice is hedged round with taboo, and believers react with fear when it is questioned, Horton argues that scientific thought is constantly actively challenged: a continuous critical monitoring of theory takes place.

But I do not know if 'science', when it appears as a solar lantern in an adivasi village in Gujarat, or even in the computer centre in Tejgarh Tribal Academy, is indicative of, or subjected to, a greater degree of critical questioning, than say, the spirits of the badhwo's dream-world or the bhagat priest's cure for jaundice. There is really not much difference in the faith that the badhwo asks the adivasi to place in his ritual incantations, and the faith we would rather he places in say, the power of two yellow tablets a day to keep him from fainting in the fields at noon.

Regardless of the particular effects of each, the point I am trying to make is this: seen from the point of view of the woman in Malaaja village, the workings of both processes -- traditional medicine and modern science - are equally hidden from view. And offered to her in quite the same way, from above, to be accepted unquestioningly.

All over India, and all over the world, perhaps, there is this sudden great desire to learn computers. In these days of IT, the computer course, from Bareilly to Belgaum, has come to represent a hotline to information that is knowledge that is power -- and of course, money. 'Computer course' : most potent symbol of the modern age, of science, of technological advancement - the word is almost magic.

There will be computers, too, in Malaaja. But having access to the tools of modern science does not change how people think. The astronomer who believes in Vishnu's creation of the world, the state trading associations which perform yagnas to ensure that stock prices will rise, all of us who read the Sunday newspaper horoscopes and feel that slight sense of apprehension -- or happy anticipation -- perhaps none of us subscribe to a single, coherent belief system. People often have views that are inconsistent with other views that they themselves hold -- and they may argue for different views at different times.

What then makes my belief in Bejan Daruwalla's predictions for heartbreak this week, or whatever, different from Veereshbhai's belief in the ghost who is the cause of his household's misfortune? Is it just that I have more choices, greater access to a greater variety of preventions and cures? Perhaps what is crucial is that we do not merely dole out the bounties of science, but attempt to spread that elusive thing -- its spirit. The spirit of critical enquiry, to which both the badhwo and the sarkari dawakhana must be subjected, so that one is not merely substituted by the other.

Published on the website 'digitaltalkies.com', January-February 2002.

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