When you have a problem there are always two ways to look at it. The first is through rational thinking and maybe scientific principles. The other is the easier method of irrational thought. At least, this latter method provides momentary relief. In the context of our country, Sri Lanka is filled with traditions, both local and imported from our closest South Asian neighbour India. While the rituals and traditions make Sri Lanka rich in culture, unfortunately, it has encouraged people to choose irrational explanations for their predicaments.
Even now when science, technology and medicine are well developed and reliable, our citizens still consults charm-speakers, gurus, and witch-doctors a.k.a. ‘kattadiyas’ for their maladies!
The most recent incident was in Puttalam, where a family from Seeduwa consulted a kattadiya to cure their mentally ill daughter. Given the fact that they were unusually having family problems, the family called for a kattadiya instead of a psychiatrist. The black magician claimed that the family was cursed and asked the entire family over to his house. The kattadiya arranged several juices for all the family members and assaulted the mentally ill daughter in order to get the devil out of her body. The visit ended when two family members, the thirty-six year-old daughter and the sixty-year-old father died after consuming the kattadiya’s medicines.
This is not an isolated incident of people getting killed by going after superstitions. There have been instances where patients have been beaten to death during the process of ‘healing.’ Daily Mirror in an attempt to find the truth behind the healing through mysterious powers, contacted a number of experts and doctors.
Psychiatrist - Dr. Rumi Ruben mental illness is a disorder in the human brain, its not a devil’s involvement -Psychiatrist Dr. Rumi Ruben
“There is still a big stigma associated with mental illness and even if the scientific knowledge is there, it has not gone out to the public.”
Dr. Ruben is a well reputed psychiatrist currently serving in Karapitiya. He explains that millennia ago when people where psychologically ill, it was believed to be a result of supernatural intervention. “Earlier, it was believed that the illness was caused by an evil eye, or charms or the devil. And when royal people were psychologically ill they brought bamuno from India to find mystical cures for the ailments,” Dr. Ruben said.
According to him, most of these mystical cults for curing illness came through migration and did not die out even after the introduction of Buddhist philosophy or the advancement in science.
“One primary reason why people believe mental illness to be the intervention of the devil, is the nature of illness itself,” the doctor continued to explain. Mentally disordered patients, habitually complain about seeing people who aren’t there (hallucinations), and hearing voices (auditory hallucinations), and even smelling odours that aren’t present. Most frequently, they talk with themselves and shout and scream out curses. These symptoms are generally associated with Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorders and severe depression. However, it has been proven that these are the result of a disorder in the human brain and not a devil’s involvement.
Dr. Ruben also pointed out that the public media has to be blamed for the popularity of these practices. He suggested that if ever these practices are telecasted, the TV channels should at least mention that they these forms of treatment are not scientifically proven. “The way they have subtitles when cigarettes and alcohols are shown on TV, they should have a similar warning for the shows about superstitions,” the doctor said.
The doctor also mentioned that sometimes these rituals do have a healing effect on the people – but this is always only a temporary relief. “The disease will return and mostly likely it would be worse than before consulting a kattadiya,”said Dr. Rumi Ruben.
He insisted that these practices should be discouraged as they are not productive for society. “In most cases, people go for sorcery and then go bankrupt. It also delays a mental patient from receiving treatment. In some occasions, people have even assaulted, poisoned by the prescribed medicine, and even killed,” he added.
society turns towards the ready-made solutions given by mystic cults
Senior Lecturer of Sociology (Sabaragamuwa University) – Jayaprasad Welgama
“All throughout history, mysticism and religion were closely related. And religions served as an institution for people to overcome their anxieties,” stated Mr. Welgama.
However, he observes, that now the religious identities are melting as religion influence each other. Along with this, other different cults and magical practices are diffusing into society. “Altogether, in a backdrop where traditional religions are more philosophical and do not provide immediate solutions to people’s troubles, society turns towards the ready-made solutions given by mystic cults,” said the lecturer. “Especially in villagers, where they are not with the mind-set to view religion at a philosophical angle, the village people come to believe in kattadiyas and so on.”
He also explained that the state of today’s society drives people toward these alternatives cures as well. “We live in an extreme capitalist world,” he said, “There is a price tag for every human relationship, even the sacred relationships. When the main channel relationships with religions go dysfunctional, market oriented and exploitive practices take an upper hand.”
According to him, at an individual level, people also have more anxieties. Poverty, marriage problems, and especially financial bankruptcy are some of them. Along with religions becoming more market-oriented, people are abandoned by their faiths and turn to mystical solutions.
Jayaprasad Welgama shared his suggestions to discourage this practice. He addressed the issue at two levels.
“First, at an individual level, the relationship between clergy and laymen should be improved,” he said. Even in the incident at Seeduwa, the family members who were devoted Christians later regretted that they did not consult their own faith about their difficulties. The sociologist also added that black magic should be discouraged and people should be made aware of the dishonesty and danger of these cults.
“However, benevolent magic can be encouraged,” added Mr. Welgama. In the sense of benevolent magic he meant Bodhi puja and prayer meetings. “They have a psychologically good effect on people anda sense of collective goodness can repair social integrity.”
He explained that this could also bring relief by means of a placebo effect. “Our mind has several layers,” he explained, “Due to our childhood experience, unconsciously various fears and anxieties are embedded in our minds. These fears can effect our decisions later in life. But benevolent practices, could undo their effect, by unconsciously providing us emotional relief.”
Secondly, the sociology lecturer believes that a solution could be brought at the macro – otherwise structural - level. Restoring social order, finishing off long unresolved court cases, and solving issues of unemployment and poverty were suggestions made by the sociologist.
Carrying on, he confessed, “Whether we like it or not, black magic would prevail.” However, he proposed that if these practitioners were registered by the government and monitored, it would be possible to prevent drastic consequences. “Perhaps blacklist the practitioners if they do anything harmful,” he added. Most importantly, he stressed that citizens should be embolden to take rational explanations to their problems and understand scientific principles. “In the case of a sickness, they should definitely consult doctors” In the meantime, he mentioned that although Sri Lanka provides an exemplary healthcare, there are certain shortcomings. “Good healthcare can be expensive and government hospitals have delays” he added.
Supernatural forces - parables passed from generations... Dr. Ariyasena U. Gamage – Consultant Community Physician;
“Scientific medicine evolved in the 20th century and due to natural thinking there is still a cynical attitude towards science,” stated Dr. Gamage, “People would rather believe in the age old beliefs.”
Dr. Gamage explained that we live in a society where there are a lot of beliefs especially in supernatural forces. According to him, these parables were passed from grandfather to father to son and partly due to their low education, people believe in these sorceries.
He shared his own childhood experiences with charmers and how they believed in his childhood. “When I was a kid and I’d get the fever, my mother would first call the village kattadiya,” said Dr. Gamage, “The kattadiya would chant on some mango leaves and place them on my head. Eventually, the fever would lessen and my mother would be very happy. Now, as a doctor, I know that particularly fever would have subsided in a couple of days whether the kattadiya came or not.”
He explained that this is because 70% of diseases can be cured from the body alone.
“In my opinion, the assumption of supernatural powers itself is a myth,” continued the physician, “There is no such thing as supernatural. All powers are natural and can be rationally explained.”
Dr. Ariyasena U. Gamage vehemently insisted citizens to seek doctors for their ailments. “We have doctors who have studied for 5 years in University, heavily funded by the government. They are here to serve you.” However, he also noted that there were certain faults concerning some doctors.
Certain doctors prescribe unnecessarily strong anti-biotics and charge high amounts for channelling. “In a world where money is used, these things happen,” he sadly added.
The doctor greatly blamed media for the prevalence of superstitious rites. “The media runs because of advertisements and they will show anything, regardless of whether it is good or not, as long as they get the money” he stressed.
Another party he reprimanded was the politicians. “Discouraging sorcery will not be easy. The people who come into state power already believe in superstitions and it is difficult to make them adopt logic explanations.”
When questioned about how to dispose this culture, the doctor responded, “We cannot discard superstitions altogether.” In his perspective, superstitions can be categorized into three groups: harmful, neutral and helpful.
“In the old days, when people got chickenpox or measles which they called ‘God’s sicknesses’, gok leaves would be hung at the patient’s home. Most of these diseases were contagious and after seeing the warning in the form of gok leaves, they will not enter that house. These are helpful superstitions.
Next, a neutral superstition is drinking pirith water. Sometimes, even today, when a patient suffering from gastritis asks for my consent to drink pirith water, I allow them. There is no harm in drinking it. These neutral superstitions are harmless and help in preserving our culture.
Finally there are the harmful superstitions. kattadiyas assaulting patients and giving them toxic drinks and so on fall into this category. We should fight against this and eradicate them.”
Nonetheless, the doctor pointed out that we live in a democratic society where people have the complete freedom to believe and worship what they prefer. “This would make it a tedious task to erase black magic from our culture. But it has been done in the Europe and the western world,” he elaborated, “The removal process will take a long time but it will be remove and until then the debate on black magic and its misuse should be kept strong and alive,” he explained.
At last he emphasized that we should stick to what was taught in school. “We were trained to think rationally! Why do we change that now? We should think in line with the scientific principles.”
He also added that although science changes with time – it still provides logical explanations. Pic by Hiran Priyankara