Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

Combating Witch-craft & Sorcery

History bears testimony to the fact that hundreds and thousands of innocent people were killed in Europe in the name of witchcraft and sorcery in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the garb of being witches or sorcerers, political opponents were eliminated. Old scores were settled and religious strifes took advantage of this method to exterminate their opponents. Only with the dawn of science and reason, the fear of witchcraft and sorcery died down in Europe.

But still in many parts of the world, particularly, the developing countries, there are the fertile grounds for the perpetuation of fear, hatred and violence against their opponents, in the name of witchcraft and sorcery. Not only in the African tribes, but also in the plains of India, people become victims of this fear and consequent persecution.

It is the belief in the supernatural and the idea that one can harm from a distance by their thought and action, that is the bedrock on which the witchcraft and the sorcery rest. It is the 'invisible hand' that works against them, they feel. Many a person is accused as a sorcerer or a witch. But no one admits that he or she really was.

It is the cultural milieu that enables the belief in witchcraft and sorcery to thrive. Some societies in the world do not have belief in witchcraft and sorcery. The Australian Bushmen have no fear of witchcraft and sorcery. In many socialist countries there is no fear of witches or sorcerers. This is so because the socio-cultural ethos is different.

India is a land of traditions, primitive customs and practices. That is why, in spite of scientific advancements and social reform still, in some pockets people believe in witches and sorcerers. They use different names such as 'Banamati', 'Chetabadi', Chillangi 'Hawa' or 'evil eye' or 'Halka'.

The names may be different, but the practice is the same. In the interior rural India, many a Precious life is lost on this count. Generally it leads to individual persecution, sporadically it assumes epidemic proportions, causing misery to many people. The belief which thrives in the cultural mileu, grows out of proportion and turns into law and order problem even. Murders are committed in the name of witchcraft and sorcery.

The fear of Banamati and witchcraft sometimes results in mass hysteria and abnormal behaviour of large number of people. As they are uneducated, superstitious, ignorant and steeped in tradition, they act on suggestion. They fuel the fumes of hatred and revenge. The mob-fury takes the form of plucking the teeth of the so-called sorcerers, on the belief that if they lose the teeth they can't chant the hymns to invoke the evil spirits. They burn houses and persecute the so-called sorcerers and witches in myriad ways.

Weyer's pioneering work

Johan Weyer, a medical scientist, who made an extensive study of witchcraft and sorcery, revealed in the 16th century itself that witchcraft and sorcery did not exist. In his book "De Prestigiis Daemonum" in 1563, he condemned the heinous crimes committed in the name of containing witchcraft and sorcery. He was considered to be the father of modern psychiatry.

The Progressive-minded people appreciated Weyer's efforts to bring to the light the truth. But on the other hand, the Christian missionaries, persecuted him, by removing him from the job and his books were burnt publicly. The Catholic government of Holland proscribed Weyer's book. In spite of the Persecution and prohibition of his book, wisdom dawned on some persons and they supported the findings of Weyer.

Undaunted by the criticism, Weyer continued his search for truth and made extensive study of the psychiatric condition of the people, who perpetuate fear in name of witchcraft and sorcery. In 1577 he wrote another book, stating that, witchcraft and sorcery do not exist and it is only a symptom of mental disease. The second book was a bolt from the blue and religious people condemned him with full fury. He was accused as the "devil's advocate." Even then, Weyer continued his investigation into the problem and laid the foundations for modern psychiatry and the methods of treatment.

Psychiatric approach

Following the foot-steps of Weyer, in England Reginald Scot upheld his findings. James VI, the King of Scotland, condemned Reginald Scot and ordered the burning of his books ["Discoverie of Witchcraft"]. But the truth could not be suppressed. Psychiatry started developing as a branch of science and exposed witchcraft, sorcery and other such evil practices. It was soon realised behind the accusations of witchcraft and sorcery and the like there exist hatred, jealousy, illicit relationships, love affairs, mental diseases, mentality of persecution, greed, ignorance, family feuds and machinations to have hold on others. Social, economic, political cultural and psychological factors also contribute to the belief in witchcraft and sorcery. Unstable mind, psychological depressions, unfulfilled desires, hysteria, stubbornness and many other cultural factors enable the growth of belief in witchcraft and sorcery.

Mass Hysteria

In the most backward regions of India, the belief in witchcraft and sorcery thrive. In 1976 Mededuppalapalli in Nalgonda Dist. of Andhra Pradesh, was the scene of mass hysteria due to the fear of witchcraft and sorcery. Twenty-six women and two men were attributed to be the victims of witchcraft and sorcery, and they accused some people as the sorcerers.

Dr. Raghu Rami Reddy the Superintendent of the Mental Hospital in Hyderabad, visited the village and examined the so-called victims. He declared them as psychiatric patients and they were treated. But, fear spreads like wild fire, hence some people were persecuted for being sorcerers.

In 1980, the fear of Banamati or witchcraft again came to the fore in Ranga Reddy district of Andhra Pradesh and in Bidar and Gulbarga districts of Karnataka. It is interesting to note, that all these districts were part of the former Nizam State, where the fear of Banamati reoccurred many a time. The Nizam of Hyderabad, even constituted 'Banamati squads'. Even after the integration of the native state of Hyderabad, these areas remained backward and were neglected.

Investigation Committee's findings

When the fear of Banamati reached epidemic Proportions, the Karnataka Legislative Council constituted a committee to investigate the problem. Dr, H. Narasimhaiah, Member of the Legislative Council headed the team, in which some psychiatrists from the NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences) Bangalore were members. Prof. Narasimhaiah is a well-known humanist. The findings of the investigative team revealed, in unmistakable terms, that Banamati and witchcraft do not exist at all and it is nothing but a fear complex perpetuated by the vested interests, and rumours played havoc with the people. The investigative team also revealed that some of them were having mental and social problems. The findings of the committee were published in the form of a book also.

Medak -- Worst affected.

In 1983, the fear of Banamati gripped the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. Incidentally Medak district is also a part of the former Hyderabad State.

The scare of Banamati led to political, social and psychological problems. Illiterate and innocent people were persecuted. Five people were murdered in 1983, on the pretext of being sorcerers. Earlier four people were murdered and police had to open fire to prevent two people from being killed.

In the name of driving away the evil spirits, collective fines were imposed on the people by the exploiters. Thus money was extracted from the poor and the illiterate. The village elders, collected the money. After collecting the money they would invite a 'sadhu' or some 'witch doctor' to perform a 'puga' against the so-called evil spirits Thus the so-called holy men and village headmen shared the spoils, at the expense of many. It had become a profitable business proposition and the cheats thrived on the ignorance of many.

Atheist Centre's Mission

When the fear of Banamati reached epidemic Proportions and also turned into a law and order problem, Mr. K. Arvind Rao, the then Superintendent of Police of Medak district and the district administration invited Atheist Centre to help them to resolve the problem. Immediately, Atheist Centre sent a team headed by Dr. Samaram. The team consisted of a Psychiatrist, a Dental Surgeon, a Hypnotist, a Magician, Social Workers, Scientists and Social Scientists. The eleven-member team toured extensively in the district. Apart from addressing big meetings thousands of the socalled victims of Banamati or Sorcery were examined by the medical doctors and interviewed by the scientists. The total number of victims were around 7000. The team organised practical demonstrations to dispel superstitions. The team of medical doctors made it clear that a majority of people who were victims of sorcery and witchcraft, had been in fact, suffering from physical and mental ailments. They had schizophrenia, depression, paranoia, hysterical neurosis, epilepsy, impotence and premature ejaculation.

Majority of them had psychiatric problems. Some of them were suffering from illusion and delusion of the supernatural and the occult. The team from Atheist Centre met thousands of such people in the large meetings organised by the district officials and examined them individually or collectively. The findings of the team of scientists of Atheist Centre, were discussed in the State Legislature and the State Government sent doctors and psychiatrists to Medak district.

The activities of Atheist Centre in dispelling witchcraft and sorcery received wide coverage in the press and radio and it was helpful in dispelling superstitions to some extent. The fear of witchcraft and sorcery is being perpetuated by the vested interests, to maintain their hold over the illiterate, ignorant, faith intoxicated gullible masses. Only constant process of education, better medical facilities and psychiatric help would accelerate the pace of change to root out this belief in witchcraft and sorcery, which is culturally rooted and associated in the belief of supernatural powers.

Dr Samaram, leader of the team, and Dr. Rama Subba Reddy, a member of the team who is a neuro-psychiatrist, presented papers in the first Andhra Pradesh State Annual Conference of Neuro Sciences held at Guntur Medical College in April 1985. The paper was well received in the Conference, and it was covered in the press also.

The Banamati Investigation by the Atheist Centre in Medak district received national attention and it was widely covered in the press and the Media. 'Probe India' published a special report in December 1983, on the 'Bane of Banamathi.' 'The Week', published a special report on Banamati Investigation of the Atheist Centre in October 16, 1983. All the newspapers in Andhra Pradesh not only published special articles on the findings of Atheist Centre but also invited readers views on witchcraft and sorcery, with a view to educate them on different aspects of the problem. For nearly 6 months the topic was widely discussed in the press.

Ill-health + Ignorance = Witchcraft

Responding to the debate in the State Legislature the then Chief Minister stated that he would personally look into the problem and send a team of doctors to help the victims of the so-called Banamati.

Thus the Banamati Investigation of the Atheist Centre, created quite an awareness among people about the non-existence of Banamati and the need to dispel superstitions, illiteracy and ignorance as a best defense against recurrence of such mass hysteria in future. As 'Andhra Jyothi' a leading Telugu Daily, has aptly captioned:

"Ill-health + Ignorance = Banamati"