Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Power of Belief

It was on 4th July, 1991, while the U.S. was celebrating Independence Day, that Chittiravel, a Tamil speaking Sri Lankan, was arrested as a suspected LTTE supporter in his hometown and taken away by the Sri Lankan police.

When he was first taken to the camp, he was forced to enter a large water tank, in which he was questioned and repeatedly dunked under water throughout the night. Finally he was stabbed in the thigh and removed from the tank. Then his torturers packed the large knife wound with salt and chilli powder and tied his thigh tightly. He was hung from a beam during continuing interrogation while his torturers burned the skin of his legs in many places with cigarettes. They had been drinking and repeatedly demanded, ‘You tell the names of the Tigers.’ Later, while his legs and arms were chained, one of the men knocked out four upper front teeth with a single blow of his fist. He also sustained a large wound on the left side of his skull.”

Chittiravel’s woes do not end here, but only begin with these. His “thumbs were then tied together behind his back and he was hoisted high off the floor, hanging from the rafters. While suspended, he was severely beaten with a large akappai [a wooden utensil for stirring large pots of rice]. As the beatings continued for a long time, the rope frayed and he fell to the floor.

Chittiravel suffered bilateral hip fractures. In the course of continuing years of detention, scarring of the fractured hip joints, which never healed properly, resulted in a chronically frozen pelvic girdle. After six months, Chittiravel was transferred several times, and in the third year of incarceration, he was released from a fifth place of imprisonment.”

Years ago, like many other devotees of Veeramma Kali [Mother Kali in the heroic form], the presiding deity of his hometown, he had taken a vow to walk on burning coals every year, firewalk being a fairly common vow that devotees of the Mother Goddess took wherever Tamil people are to be found. He had done it several years successively before his arrest. However, the bilateral fractures of both hips he had suffered as a result of the tortures in the detention camps had resulted in a permanently frozen pelvic girdle, crippling him for life. Chittiravel could not walk now – he could only move sideways, stretching out one leg at a time, and that too with great pain and discomfort. But this did not stop him from keeping up with his vow and performing a feat the very thought of which scares most of us.

Remember when we are talking of firewalking, we are not talking of a man quickly running over a tiny bed of dying or dead embers, his feet and legs wet, actually stepping over the coals once or twice – though even this is not something most of us would dare to do. Firewalkers actually walk at normal speed through a long bed of burning embers to fulfil their vows.

The firebed on which they walk barefoot is often more than five meters long, more than a metre wide and a full metre deep, as in the famous Uduppawa firewalking festival. The embers are prepared from tamarind wood, which burns slowly, producing fierce heat. A huge amount of tamarind wood is cut down and gathered in advance, and for hours fire builders heave logs into the massive fire built up, making flames leap to the skies. By evening even approaching the firebed becomes a daunting task, so hot is the whole place where the massive bonfire has been burning for hours. The bed of embers is, of course, pure fire, pulsing red, looking like a crouching vengeful fire dragon, as someone put it. Each piece of coal in the metre-thick bed of live coals is the size of a large potato. The bed smoulders furiously, every now and then sending up sparks and flames leaping out. It is over this that people serenely walk, to the accompaniment of fiercely beaten drums and loud, intoxicated chanting of mantras. The walker often balances a ritually sanctified pot on his head.

Like hundreds of other men, women and children, Chittiravel continues to walk over this scorching trench every year, to keep his vow to Veeramma Kali. The deformed man, bent from the waist, his legs not fully in his control, steps onto the fire with one foot, pulls his other leg near the first one, then stretches out the first leg as far as it would go sideways, pulls up the second leg near it, moves again the first leg, thus slowly moving across the entire length of the five meter-long, one metre-thick inferno as the entire population of his village shouts the name of the goddess in intoxicated ecstasy.

Chittiravel, like other firewalkers in his village, emerges from his firewalking completely unscathed by the fire.

He believes Mother Kali guards him through the firewalk and he is guarded.


Belief is an unbelievably powerful force. What we can do and what we cannot do are defined by our belief systems. Things become possible when we believe they are, and remain impossible so long as we believe they are not.

To give just one example, for ages people held the belief that it is impossible for the human being to run a mile in less than four minutes. In1954, Roger Bannister broke this imposing belief barrier. He believed he can, and he broke the barrier. Within one year, 37 others broke the four-minute barrier. And the next year, 300 others broke it.

It is their beliefs that make men and women what they are. Their beliefs about what they can and what they cannot decide what they can and what they cannot do. And their beliefs about who they are decide who they are.

This is a secret the world has known for a long time. While wise people use this knowledge to their own advantage and the advantage of others around them, clever, cunning people, the asuri types as Krishna calls them in the Gita, use this knowledge to weaken and exploit others.

Listen to a statement about India and Indians, made by Macaulay in the British Parliament on February 2, 1835:

"I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them to be, a truly dominated nation".

And that is precisely what Macaulay and the British did. They made us look down upon ourselves, made us believe we are worthless, everything that is ours is inferior to what belongs to the white man. All on a sudden, our country, which produced twenty percent of the world’s wealth – more than what the United States of America does today – became to us a nation of beggars. Our glorious past – a past unsurpassed in glory by any other country in the world – became a thing to be ashamed of. Our languages, our literatures, our philosophies, our religions, our ways of thinking and living all became matters of shame for us. Precisely what Macaulay wanted had happened, almost overnight: we lost of self-esteem. We lost belief in ourselves. And we became a truly dominated nation.

We are still to fully come out of this tragedy that fell on us.

Just as there is only one thing that made us fall, there is only one thing that can help rise up again to claim our lost status: belief in ourselves.

Fortunately, we have begun moving fast on this journey to the rediscovery of belief in ourselves.

It was a long, long time ago that the Bhagavad Gita said: śraddhā-mayo'yaṃ puruso yo yac-chraddhaḥ sa eva saḥ ||BhG_17.3||. “Man is made of his faith; as a man’s believes, so is he.”

Let’s hope that in our long journey ahead, we never again lose faith in ourselves, belief in ourselves.


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