Superstition sways 6 out of 10 educated Indians--not to mention illiterates who guide their lives by omens and stars -- according to a recent government-funded survey by Kanpur University.
That news was hardly startling in a country whose prime minister frequently consults astrologers to determine the most auspicious day for making crucial decisions of state, and in which marriages are decided on the compatibility of horoscopes or the presence of omens.
Palmists, exorcists, swamis and practitioners of witchcraft have always done a thriving business here. The Kanpur study showed that 37 percent of businessmen polled said they regularly consult fortune tellers in hope of increasing profits.
But while the origins of most superstitions are in ancient Indian culture and Hindu mythology, the pragmatic British imperialists who ruled the subcontinent for two centuries and looked down their noses at such things figure prominently among at least some worshipers of the supernatural.
For reasons clouded in obscurity, the grave of a forgotten British deputy commissioner of the town of Hissar, about 50 miles west of here, who was killed during the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, has become a shrine for Hindus and Moslems seeking fulfillment of their prayers.
Known as the Grave of the British Saint, John Wedderbun's resting place has attracted a steady stream of pilgrims, who supplicate in prayer and propitiate with offerings of Scotch whiskey.
Nobody knows for sure how the offerings of whiskey began, but local legend has it that about 20 years ago an elderly village woman stopped under a eucalyptus tree near Wedderbun's grave to pray for the release of her only son from jail. Astonished to find her son at home upon her return, the woman was said to have rushed back to thank the lamented Briton and -- at her son's insistence -- place a bottle of whiskey by his grave.
The grave became a good omen, locals say, and for the past six years a middle-aged English-speaking Indian has been reverently receiving the offerings on behalf of the saint.
FOR CENTURIES, the Sanskrit scribes of odes to "great souls" have written glowing tributes to mythological heroes and revered places land rivers of India. It was only recently discovered that an ode published in 1897, which surfaced in the private library of Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu-Kashmir, worshiped an unlikely mother goddess -- Queen Victoria of England.
Composed in Sanskrit by a sage named Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore, with an English translation, the litany records the reigns of a number of Indus and Moghul rulers of India, and then outlines the reigns of British rulers preceding Victoria to demonstrate that she ruled longer and promoted the happiness of her subjects more than any other sovereign.
The third canto, some of which has been set to music, records the queen's reign from 1837 to 1897, elevating her to a position of goddess, while the Hindu goddesses of poetry and music sing a hymn to her. One stanza, translated, reads:
Oh Mother Victoria! Since poetry and music have, through the abundance of thy care, attained to great prosperity in this world, the presiding geniuses of poetry and music -- the destroyer of the darkness of ignorance and the dispeller of the fear of the god of death -- bless you in these words: beest thou in the abode of bliss, oh Victoria!
STALKING the ghosts of the British raj in a less ethereal way has aroused considerable controversy here and among Indians in Britain.
The object of concern is Granada Television's series, "The Jewel in the Crown," a spinoff of Paul Scott's classic profile of the British in India, "The Raj Quartet."
While nostalgia for the trappings of the raj era is strong among many upper-class Indians -- as evidenced by the immense popularity of the quilted bagpipers' pomp and ceremony in the annual Beating Retreat parade near the old viceregal mansion each January -- the TV series' wistful portrayal of life among the pukka sahibs sipping gin and tonic on the veranda as they ruled preindependence India has struck a raw nerve for some critics.
The criticism has included Indian author Geeta Mehta's lament that the series glosses over the monumental struggle between Indian nationalism and the imperialism of the British as well as expatriate novelist Salman Rushdie's attack on a "recrudescence of imperialist ideology" that he called "the artistic counterpart to the rise of conservative theologies in modern Britain."