Faith healing: Where misinformation clashes with science

By: nabeela khan&
August 2 2023

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Faith healing: Where misinformation clashes with science

Source: Altered by Logically Facts

It was an early June morning when I entered a mausoleum in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. It is locally known for curing and healing people with illnesses and “helping free their souls when djinns (spirits) possess them.”

A few steps from the entrance, I could hear cries that later turned into wails and screams as I strode inside the huge compound lined with old peepal trees (sacred fig) on one end while a centuries-old dilapidated structure with cracks on its walls stood alone on the other.

A young boy was lying on the ground with his eyes wide open while he shivered and drooled. When I asked his guardian what happened, with a blank face, he replied, “he isn’t ill.” Locals believe that if djinns or a spirit have “possessed” a person, they don’t call it an illness but being “shadowed” (parchawa pad jana) by a non-human soul, and it can only be cured by visiting mausoleums.

People visiting believe that the graves belong to demigods since death makes them closer to god, which may help overcome diseases.

The mausoleum’s caretakers are popular among visitors since they are considered “gifted.” They often help people by suggesting chants or offering amulets. 

A few steps ahead, a woman was taking rounds — almost running — while walking around a grave and wailing in a baritone. She didn’t stop even as we made eye contact. Women in the compound sat on the floor with their heads down as they sobbed. A local  resident explained they come here for sukoon or peace of mind. He confidently claims many are possessed but a few others are seeking refuge from their daily struggles.

A man bowing down and praying at a mausoleum (Source: Nabeela Khan/Logically Facts)

People often come here to seek help with “odd behaviors” among young women and children, infertility treatments for women, marital problems, women in abusive relationships, and others with illnesses such as jaundice and typhoid. 

Regardless of recent advances in modern medicine, people worldwide still turn to alternative systems of medicine. Although there is no empirical evidence of success, studies have shown that healing can be traced back centuries ago but has gained widespread popularity in recent years. Today, the internet is abuzz with solutions to health problems with healing — there are claims that faith can cure cancer, HIV/AIDS, developmental disorders, skin allergies, and even blindness. 

“Even rational and logical people when faced with life-threatening diseases, go forward with such options (extreme measures),” psychiatrist Dr. Hamid Dhabolkar, who works on dispelling claims on alternative remedies and spiritual healing, told Logically Facts. “There is a huge treatment gap in the country which is a known fact. There are districts where you don't have a single mental health expert.” 

Dabholkar says when causes of an illness are unknown, an individual can tend to believe in supernatural reasons, which often happens in chronic and self-limiting diseases. 

From offline spaces, healing gets popular online 

In India, miracle healing and faith healing is a sought-after trend on social media, with videos of prophecies and healing gaining popularity on YouTube. Self proclaimed ‘Prophet’ Bajinder Singh is one such pastor from Punjab who is gaining wide popularity for his “healing powers.” His channel on YouTube has 2.52 million subscribers and hundreds of videos where he is allegedly curing diseases, fix fertility issues, help people find government jobs or a spouse. 

Screengrab of a video of Prophet Bajinder Singh healing people (Source: YouTube)

The Print reported how Singh’s Christian ministry asked a Mumbai-based family for extra money after a 17-year-old girl died of cancer, offering to bring her back to life. The healers also allegedly ask patients to leave their medical treatments, severely impacting their health. 

When asked about healing through energy, Dhabolkar said, “When literacy levels were low, it was understandable, but now alternative sources of healing have started taking the path of pseudoscience. They often use the language of science, reiki, positive and negative energy.”

Pastor Alph Lukau’s channel, who is a self-professed Bible scholar and televangelist got 1.1 million views on his video that claimed “a wheelchair-bound man with a broken spinal cord instantly healed.” He has 1.49 million subscribers with almost 5,000 videos showcasing healing miracles. 

Video claiming to show a wheelchair-bound man with a broken spinal cord being healed (Source: YouTube)

“People who fall prey to it are educated as well, so even when we learn science, we lack in inculcating scientific temperament — that science is a way of thinking and not confined to labs,” Dabholkar said. 

Various studies have shown that faith healers became the first point of contact for most of the population, “as the faith of the community in these faith healers is deeply rooted.” A 2021 study exploring the link between faith healing and the treatment of mental illnesses highlighted that mental illnesses in India are often attributed to the influence of supernatural phenomena. “If patients perceive faith healing to be effective, they will continue to seek care from this system regardless of alternative biomedical evidence.” The study suggested that traditional healing and modern psychiatry offer a comprehensive approach to treatment. 

And there is a common ground for medical practitioners and religious leaders to work together and find viable solutions. In India, a unique experiment known as “Dawa-Dua,” or prayer treatment project that combines meditative aspects of religious rituals with community outreach in mental health education in several states. 

Instagram is another hotbed of such misinformation -  posts range from claiming ketchup was used as a medicine in the 19th century for curing diarrhoea, jaundice and indigestion to how a weak Jupiter in your horoscope may lead to health issues. 

Another page has multiple videos explaining how to wade through difficult situations, bring peace, among other tips. This page has hundreds of posts on various techniques; for example, one post elaborates how to protect yourself if you are falling sick often: “Tie a black thread on the left ankle or left wrist or a Tuesday or Saturday morning.”

A post offering solution to health issues (Source: Instagram)

Faith healing and herbs: A popular choice for jaundice treatment

While visiting different mausoleums, I came across people who have been consulting a herbalist and healer in Rampur specializing in curing jaundice, a liver condition due to damaged liver cells that cannot process bilirubin.

I visited him and heard his story of how he has cured hundreds of people suffering from jaundice for the past many years. “All one needs is an earthen pot filled with water,” and he prefers to add some white crystalline lime powder. He said, “Now I will make the patient sit in front of the pot and recite a prayer.” If the person has jaundice, the water will turn yellow and remove jaundice from the body. 

Sometimes, the patient has to visit twice or thrice to ward it off completely. He also prescribes some powdered medicine packed in a hand-made newspaper cutting, often referred to as pudiya (paper pouch). 

A 70-year-old healer who claims to cure jaundice using lime powder, chants, and some herbs. (Source: Nabeela Khan/Logically Facts)

Logically Facts found several videos online on similar treatments.

Clips on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook either show the same process with water or a yellow liquid placed on the head with a caption saying “traditional treatment of curing jaundice..! The yellow fever..! It works.” The latter has 26k views and has been uploaded by ‘dimapur 24_7’ that claims to work for charitable causes.

Instagram video saying the traditional treatment of curing jaundice uploaded by the channel ‘dimapur 24_7’ (Source: Instagram)

Another video, with 383k views and 2.5k likes on YouTube posted by a blogger shows a person dipping a woman’s hands in milky white water and curing jaundice with neem leaves and a black thread. The blogger explains that “allopathy has no treatment for jaundice but can ward off easily with such treatments.”

A YouTube video showing how healers ward off Jaundice (Source: YouTube)

We found a lake called ‘Pilaya Johad’ in Haryana district neighboring New Delhi. It is believed that if a patient takes a dip in this lake, the jaundice will “leave the body.” A Google review with 4.2-star rating mentioned, “Jaundice is cured by bathing in Johad. It is in Chhara village. This is absolutely free. Those who get jaundice should come here on Saturday morning and take a little water from Johad home.” 

Dr. Govid Nandakumar, surgical gastroenterologist at Manipal Hospitals, explained how jaundice is caused and why homemade treatments can be lethal. “Jaundice has many causes — hepatitis, gallstones, and tumors.” In the case of obstructive jaundice, intervention is needed, but in most cases it resolves itself in a few weeks. 

“So whether you dip in the water or sit in front of water or take that concoction, or you do nothing (while ensuring you rest properly), you will get better because, in most cases, it is self-limiting. There is no scientific evidence to support such practices and concoctions because we do not know what the concoction contains,” Nandakumar told Logically Facts. “We have seen cases where patients have been affected by consumption of heavy metals.”

Apart from jaundice, orthopaedic treatments from roadside quacks are quite popular too. 

I visited another popular baba in Rampur’s outskirts claiming to cure people of all orthopaedic conditions. From a twisted ankle to a strained neck, he is locally known as the go-to chiropractor for people who cannot afford a doctor, or even an X-ray. 

Dabholkar says bridging the gap between such treatments and proper medical treatments requires community-based sensitisation. “It’s a battle of generations, and you cannot fix it easily. You need to have communication channels which are culturally sensitive. We need to give basic emotional first aid — continue with dua (prayer) but give them dawa (medicine).”

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before