Deadly rites spark Indian action

Authorities fight Tantrism, linked to 25 killings this year.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since the disappearance and death of his 6-year-old son Monu in October, Narendra Kumar has learned that he was kidnapped and killed in a ritual human sacrifice. The perpetrators were childless neighbors who were desperate to have a son of their own.

It was the 25th killing this year linked to Tantric practices - an ancient Indian form of witchcraft that many Indians use to solve problems like unemployment and infertility - and it has local people like Mr. Kumar calling for strong police action to stamp out such horrific crimes.

"I never expected such a heinous crime against any child, let alone my own boy," says Kumar, seated on a cot in the courtyard of his small mud-brick home. "It is due to illiteracy and poverty that people get influenced by these Tantrics."

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Every country has its share of heinous murders, but in a country like India - which prides itself both on its 21st century technological prowess and its ancient spiritual tradition - stamping out superstition could be an uphill battle. Untold millions of Indians of all faiths, including government ministers and movie stars, swear by the ancient rituals and potions of Tantric priests and healers.

Now, a quiet public debate is emerging as police here begin a broad drive that targets not only human sacrifice but Tantrism itself.

"Society has to come forward and say, 'We don't accept this,'" says local police superintendent Sunil Kumar Gupta. "A hundred years ago, we used to have sati [where widows throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres.] Today if there is one incident, the whole country gets horrified."

In the case of Monu, at least, Mr. Gupta says he has made sure that the killers will be punished. All five of the accused - including the childless couple, two of their relatives, and a Tantric priest - have confessed to killing Monu in a mango grove not far from the village. According to police documents, the wife confessed to bathing in Monu's blood, under priest's instruction.

Gupta admits that his broader campaign to combat superstition will be more difficult. One problem is that there is no specific law against Tantric activities. As a result, he is arresting Tantrics under a section of Indian law that allows police to arrest people on the "apprehension of the breach of peace." In other words, Tantrics are being arrested because they may disrupt public order in the future.

But Gupta says the larger problem in his state of Uttar Pradesh has to do with poverty, illiteracy, and culture. Uttar Pradesh is both India's bread basket and home to a staggering 8 percent of the world's poor, according to World Bank estimates. Here, birth rates are high and literacy rates hover at just 57 percent.

In this environment, Tantrics have long made a comfortable living. At railway stations and in newspapers, Tantrics still advertise their healing skills and draw patients from a cross section of society, rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

Rajesh Khanna, a one-time movie star, and Sanjay Paswan, a government minister, both publicly swear by Tantrism.

The Tantric phenomenon is not restricted to India, either. The spirituality section of most bookstores in America will usually have a book on Tantric healing, Tantric meditation, and even Tantric sex.

But the persistence of Tantrism here owes much to India's tolerance of religious expression. Every major religion in India has made room for Tantrism at its fringes.

Mohammad Nafees Malik, a well-dressed Muslim Tantric healer in the nearby city of Saharanpur, describes his practices. He listens to his patient's problem, writes out a relevant passage from the Koran, and places the inscription in a small metal capsule called a "tabiz." The capsule must be worn in constant contact with the patient's skin. Mr. Malik claims to have a 70 percent success rate.

Since the police crackdown on Tantric healers, Malik says he has given up Tantrism and found other work. But he still feels angry at the "bad Tantrics" who have maligned his "art."

"Tantrism has nothing to do with human sacrifice," he says. "If it is essential in the ritual to sacrifice something ... then you can offer an animal like a rooster or a goat to satisfy the evil spirit."

But in the village of Dehri, there will be no more room for Tantrism. Here villagers show off the charred homes of Monu's confessed killers, saying no Tantric will set foot in the town again.

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