Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s Amazon Prime series Made in Heaven has gained immense popularity, mainly because it echoes the modern youth’s desires, ambitions, and woes. One particularly revealing episode shows how most educated and urban Indian youth seamlessly negotiate what would be commonly viewed as binaries: modernity and superstitions.
In this episode, we meet Geetanjali, ( a Wharton graduate) who is engaged to Nikhil, a London-based doctor. Geetanjali is declared a manglik (inauspicious) by an astrologer, who then suggests that she marries a tree first so that her inauspiciousness falls on the tree (her first husband), rather than on Nikhil. Geetanjali agrees, but Nikhil is strongly opposed to the ceremony. She secretly goes ahead with it anyway.
It may, at first seem, odd that a modern educated girl would willingly agree to perform such a ceremony. But, as recent sociological scholarship suggests, superstitions and modernity can coexist quite happily. These works argue that the seemingly distinct categories of ‘modern’ and ‘superstition’ in fact interact and impinge on one another.
The series’ portrayal was in-line with the findings of my own doctoral research on match-making amongst Delhi’s middle class. The people I spoke to displayed little resistance to, and sometimes great enthusiasm for widely-held superstitions. Indeed, Made in Heaven shows how wealthy Indians perpetuate norms and customs that many believe are confined to India’s non-urban and less-educated classes. This may be because the ‘neoliberal’ middle class does not view superstitions as a hindrance, but more as benign interventions that help live a risk-averse life.
In this article, I discuss three common superstitions — manglik, rahu kalam, and nazar lagana — which encumber modern living, and yet are not seen as onerous by the youth.
In matters of marriage, it is almost impossible to escape the peering questions on one’s manglik dosha. As I found in my research, a mandatory question asked by matrimonial agents, upon registering a client, is whether the intended spouse is a manglik or not. Matrimonial websites too include a separate section on ‘Astrodetails’, where the prospective groom or bride specifies if he or she is a manglik. There even exists exclusive websites for mangliks to intermarry.
While one’s inauspiciousness (manglik dosha) is determined by a birth chart, at times ‘signs’ help establish their ‘inauspicious influence’ as well. If, for example, while considering a marriage proposal the intended bride or groom or their family experiences an untoward happening as accident, job loss, or death in the family, the unfortunate incident is immediately attributed to the inauspiciousness of the potential spouse. As a result, the proposal is dropped even if the couple matched. In one such incident in Delhi, the intended groom was on his way to meet the prospective bride for the first time, and he met with an accident. His family immediately rejected the proposal without even meeting the bride.
In another incident, whilst discussing the epic series ‘Game of Thrones’, with a few highly-educated professionals (employed in multinational companies), they commented that Queen Margery must be a manglik, for her three successive husbands died tragic deaths.
Considerations of supposed inauspiciousness of a person then, weigh on the minds of the Indian youth, whether in matters of their own marriage or even a facetious analysis of fictional characters. These conversations, however, are not regarded as non-modern or traditional. Instead, as Geetanjali in Made in Heaven, explained, these superstitions, no matter how silly, are at times seen as ‘safety measures’ in place to enhance a happier life.
The concern about auspiciousness also extends to time (in a day). According to Hindu astrology, each day has an inauspicious time (lasting approximately an hour and a half), called the Rahu Kalam, when the start of any new activity is prohibited. In matters of marriage, the first meeting between families or marrying individuals is almost certainly avoided during the rahu kalam, as are ceremonies related to marriage (roka or engagement and the wedding).
These beliefs impinge on profane matters as well, such as people avoiding submission of job/university applications, or delaying the writing of a book or article, or travelling during the rahu kalam. I was told that an editor of a leading newspaper daily does not publish articles during the rahu kalam.
Evil Eye (Buri Nazar)
Another superstition impinging on the everyday life of Indian youth is that of the buri nazar (evil eye). Information on a ‘good’ marriage proposal, or application to a new job or university programme, or even a holiday, is advised to be kept under wraps for the fear of being jinxed by buri nazar.
Such is the belief in the evil eye that celebrations of success (promotion, graduation, acceptance of marriage proposals) too, I was told, are best kept ‘low profile’.
For the neoliberal middle-class, the worlds of superstition and education, tradition and progress, do not require a reconciliation, for they never have been at odds. Rather, they work in tandem to shape India’s unique modernity.
The author is a sociologist and a Visiting Scholar at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. She is the co-author of the book Exploring Indian Modernities: Ideas and Practices (Springer, 2018).