This is the 33rd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 28.
Exhibit A is an international sportsman at the very peak of his career. Exhibit B is a middle-class man who’s been dealt a series of cruel blows, and is beginning to feel that life is not worth living. The sportsman attracts multi-million-dollar endorsements and makes it to the cover of several magazines, including the one he most covets, Sports Illustrated. The middle-class man considers slashing his wrists, but has too many responsibilities to give up so easily. So he makes a journey to an acclaimed godman, whose blessings alone have been known to turn lives around. Sure enough, things take a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the sportsman’s career starts going downhill.
What do these two stories have in common? Plenty. They are, in a statistical sense, the same story. Let me explain.
The sportsman is a victim of The Sports Illustrated Jinx. This is an urban legend based on the observation that a disproportionate number of individuals and teams who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated subsequently experience a downswing in their careers. Appearing on the cover of that prestigious magazine, it would seem, jinxes you.
There is a simple explanation for the apparent jinx, though. Sportspeople’s careers go through peaks and troughs, with periods of immense success followed by periods of baffling failure. After each peak or trough, there is regression to the mean. They are most likely to be featured on the cover of SI when they are at their peak. A downswing after that is natural. (For someone like Michael Jordan, who was on the cover 49 times, the mean might itself be extraordinary enough for such a regression to make no apparent difference.) And when their performance dips to their normal levels, we mistake correlation for causation, and attribute it to their appearing on the SI cover. But it isn’t a jinx at all.
The godman’s blessing is a similar phenomenon, viewed from the other side. People tend to turn to God and godmen when they are at their lowest ebb. Let’s say the godman blesses them, or gives them vibhuti, or suchlike. Then their lives regress to the mean, their run of bad luck ends, and whoa, they’re devotees for life. Indeed, since they were inclined to be believers to begin with, they are likely to attribute any swing in fortunes to God or the godman, and ignore further downswings as part of their general bad luck. (This is the confirmation bias kicking in.) Or even, if they’re really thick, to karma.
Thus, the belief of many people in godmen and new age gurus is based on false foundations. If they understood the role of luck in our lives, and the randomness of the universe, they would be less inclined to look to divine forces (or charlatans claiming divinity) for answers to their problems. A godman’s blessing should never be more than a source of amusement to you—and if he gives you sacred ash, remember to wash your hands before your next meal.
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That said, I am not mocking belief. The fundamental truth about human beings is that of our mortality. One day we will die, and that’s it. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with, for it carries at its heart
a message about our utter insignificance, and natural selection has programmed us to regard ourselves fairly highly. (For obvious reasons—otherwise why would we enthusiastically procreate instead of generally moping around?)
For this reason, we tend to seek comfort over truth. Religion and superstition and spirituality give us comfort. Given how harsh life can be, I’m not going to stand around passing judgment over religious people. I understand why they believe—even if what they believe in is mostly utterly ludicrous.
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And yes, I’m somewhat baffled by the the number of devout followers the late Sathya Sai Baba seemed to have had. It’s one thing to believe in God, and quite another to believe in a man who called himself divine, and would prove this not with miracles of any value, but through cheap conjurer’s tricks that any average stage magician could have pulled off. (There are many YouTube videos about them; check out this one.) There have also been hazaar unsavoury controversies around the man; read Vir Sanghvi’s take on him, as well as
Vishal Arora’s superb feature for Caravan. And yet, presidents and prime ministers have gone to take his blessings, and top sportsmen broke down at his funeral. All this, I suspect, illustrated their frailty more than his divinity. But we are all frail, and deal with it in different ways, so who am I to judge?
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Also read: An old personal essay by me,
“What’s Consolation For an Atheist?”