Nepali Times Asian Paints
Jhankri science



Malaise oozed through my pores as I lay bedridden with a cold and a persistent fever. But my housemates were not going to let me slip away. Home-made remedies kept cropping up - prayers, hot ginger water with honey, steam inhalation, a cloth around my head, the works! What I then realised, after entertaining them and subsequently recovering, was this - you are not really Nepali if you are not a self-prescribing doctor. Which made me powerful is this 'jhankri science'?

Jhankris and other practitioners have been an integral part of Nepali society, even if the practice is not as widespread in our cities as it is in the rural areas. They are believed to possess supernatural powers and the knowledge of mastering spirits. Shamans take on the role of priests and doctors to heal patients and ward off evil spirits. Matas are a relatively new concept: these are individuals who periodically become possessed by a god, and they diagnose problems, suggest remedies, and predict the future. Despite the advent of modern medicine, some still find solace in having a jhankri slaughter a goat and beat them with a broom to rid them of spirits!

Intrigued by the idea of a mata who could possibly predict my future and save me a lot of time deciding on a career or whom I would marry, I made my way to Baluwatar last week. When I was admitted, I saw before me a young woman with eyes closed, apparently in a trance. Right off the bat she asked me whether I had a younger sister. I was impressed but was it just a good guess? Curious to find out more, I told her that I had a nagging leg ache and poor eyesight. She advised me to make offerings to Bangalamukhi and pray for a speedy recovery. I asked her about my future, and she said that I would live close to my parents and settle down happily. Pleased enough, I made my obeisances and left - though unsure where I should go next, the temple or the pharmacist.

A couple of days later, my grand-aunt narrated to me a bizarre incident. She'd been on her way back from the Budhanilkantha market, and was drawn to a large crowd. A man had fallen to the ground and was writhing, as if in an epileptic fit. People tried sprinkling water on his face to resuscitate him, but it only aggravated his convulsions. Then through the crowds a man came up, promptly removed his shoes and began urging the sick man to partake of the fumes of his socks. Miraculously, the man regained consciousness and thanked him profusely for his kind gesture. A strange genre of smelling salts!

I have encountered a fair number of superstitious people in Nepal, including myself. Some blow on their fingers if they happen to touch their necks, refrain from crossing the road if a black cat crosses their path, and abstain from stepping on brooms. Psychologists maintain that superstition is the result of 'adventitious reinforcement'.

B.F. Skinner demonstrated that you can create superstitious behaviour in animals, too. When an animal is placed in a box with a device to automatically dispense food every five minutes, the animal will typically develop superstitious behaviour. For instance, if the animal happens to lift up its right foot just as the food is dispensed, it will then repeat this behaviour, which will be intermittently reinforced. Soon enough, its superstitious behaviour will become well established, just like in humans. If politicians believe that feigning illness can work in their favour when the going gets tough, perhaps 'jhankri science' can beat out this superstition so we can get on with building New Nepal?

1. pwlasd
watch a "real" doctor in ktm struggle with diagnosis and prescribe one test after next, and he just becomes worse than jhankri. antibiotics follow without knowing what they are for. side effects make you sicker than you were before the "medicines". then you'd wish someone bring you to a real jhankri.

2. KT
haha! sounds like a quack! stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea!

3. Muwgli
Were we not better off, when everything was interrelated, where Mother Nature, la Pachamama was honoured and Jhankris still considered as very powerful? Now we live in an era that everything has to be rationalised it seems, and that s the only 'true' way.Is there any space left for the mystery of the universe, shouldn t there be? After all it would make us wonder more and maybe regard our greatest Jungali with more respect...

4. shilu
hmm nice...but the last paragraph got me confused...didnt skinner invent operant conditioning..n ur trying to relate that with superstitions..somehow that didnt mix well for me.....but i loved ur ending line bout the nepali politicians...thumbs up for that!!!!

5. frinj
Forces of superstition derived from the characteristics of society, to a great extent undermining our nation. A blind belief and unaware of scientific reasoning is surely letting us all down. As far as the "Sock DOC" ..hah! i am amazed that he hasn't got his PhD yet! : )

6. DM
Thanks for your comment Shilu. Skinner did indeed invent operant conditioning, but doesn't the positive reinforcement that a superstitious person experiences, result in operant behaviour? Consequently, superstition is also brought about by operant conditioning.

7. Sargam
Next fall, Koirala gets ill let us ask for the Jhankri to take care of him, because it 'll cost not crores and crores of Hospital fees, and if possible a rugged Jhankri is far better as a psychologist compared to a S'pore physician. He must be knowing one or two tricks to make Koirala run like a hare? Doh, why a hare, in effect? After all, why not? He can run faster than the political hounds chasing him (Prachanda even didn't mind to go and sniff Koirala's piss!), and pushing him at the same time to retire from the political life. But a shrewd politico like him knows sure enough how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, anyway!?!

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)