x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

At a sacred Indian festival, science is muddled with mythos

An engineer polls 5,000 pilgrims at Kumbh Mela festival in an attempt to gauge the public's level of scientific understanding. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

Hindu devotees bathe on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, last month. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
Hindu devotees bathe on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, last month. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

NEW DELHI // For Gauhar Raza, the awe-inspiring religious festival of Kumbh Mela presents a rare opportunity not for devotion but for study.

Mr Raza, an engineer by training, studies how the vocabulary of science spreads through society - or does not, given the enduring appeal of myth and superstition in India. And Kumbh Mela is an ideal laboratory, for it is where a cross-section of India's 1.2 billion people - rich and poor, urban and rural - gather every six years at the Ganges to bathe in the sacred river's waters and cleanse their sins.

"You don't get such gatherings of Indian citizens anywhere else in the world," said Mr Raza, who works at the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) in New Delhi. "If we had to approach each of these people in their villages, it would be a far costlier effort."

In this year's Kumbh Mela, which began in January, an estimated 80 million Hindus have thronged the riverside city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh state. Mr Raza has polled 5,000 pilgrims in an attempt to gauge the Indian public's general level of scientific understanding. He uses that information to advise Indian policymakers on public education and health campaigns.

The two-part Kumbh Mela survey is made up of staple questions that have been asked since Mr Raza launched the poll in 1989. It also consists of queries centring on the latest trends in science.

For an engineer and scientist such as Mr Raza, the survey results can be disconcerting.

The results of the 2007 poll, for instance, showed 12 per cent of Indians "thought the Earth was flat, rectangular or some other form other than round." Some 6.2 per cent of those Indians surveyed had no idea of the shape of the world.

When asked why an object thrown in the air returns to Earth, 6.2 per cent said it was God's will, 12.9 per cent had scientifically incorrect answers, such as air pressure. The rest said gravity was the cause.

Yet the poll results can be profound in more than one way. It was the first survey nearly 25 years ago that yielded what Mr Raza describes as his most "unexpected, outstanding revelation".

"We were amazed to see how people even from the most remote villages knew the word, "Aids". The word itself was fairly new around the world, never mind in India, and it was not something that was already present in the cultural vocabulary of the country, but people in remote villages, they knew about it," he said.

"An acronym had penetrated so fast into the culture, it raised a lot of questions about society and how it caught on."

For Mr Raza, this was a key finding, demonstrating how even an Indian living in a remote village was interested in more information about an idea if he or she were directly affected by it.

As a result, the government changed the way it disseminated information about HIV/Aids, leading to more understanding of the disease.

The first survey in 1989, found most Indians believed Aids could be transmitted by mosquito bites or by hugging. The government took the findings and tailored information campaigns to counteract these beliefs. In 2001, following a concerted effort by the Indian government to educate the public about the causes of Aids, Mr Raza noticed a marked increase in the level of knowledge of Indians about the disease. Everyone surveyed with higher than a fifth grade education knew what Aids was and how it was transmitted. Previously, an Aids patient would be ostracised or even abandoned by their families.

"After more than two decades of campaigning, based on our findings, people are now more likely to care for people with Aids," Mr Raza said.

This year's survey, alongside the traditional template of questions, has focused on nuclear technology and women's issues, following protests over a proposed nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu and a number of highly publicised sexual assault cases, including the gang rape and death of a university student in Delhi in early December. The results from these survey questions have yet to be collated, Mr Raza said.

One of the most popular and evolving findings in the course of the Kumbh Mela surveys has been the public's perception of ghosts.

In the past nearly quarter century, Mr Raza has seen a decline in the prevalence of Indians who claim they have seen a ghost or know someone who has.

In the 2007 survey, 37.3 per cent of those polled said that they had encountered a ghost or a witch in their lives, and 40 per cent said that they believed in ghosts.

Tentative results from this year's survey indicate the number of believers in ghosts has declined. Although a large number of respondents said they had heard about ghosts, a very small number said they believed in them.

"There are a lot of factors, including literacy, mobility among villages and the availability of electricity to watch television," Mr Raza said, explaining the decline.

"As much as television has all these dramas with ghosts, it seems to have backfired. Instead of scaring them, the people view ghost stories as satire now."