Faith healing or Fake healing?
Recently there were news reports of several deaths at a “faith healing” session in Horowpothana. There were several versions of the incident, comments and criticism, blaming the integrity of the organisers and the ignorance and gullibility of the attendees.
First, let us examine what faith healing means. Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something, a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction. Healing is the process of making or becoming healthy again.
Faith healing has been with mankind probably from prehistoric times, for the past several thousand years, and is continuing to be believed and practiced, not only in the undeveloped countries but even in the so-called developed, most scientifically and technologically advanced ‘first world.’
The incident at Horowpothana is not uncommon. Nor is it limited to Sri Lankans only. “The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek magazine released the results of a survey its staff had conducted regarding such miracles as faith healing. According to its statistics, 71 percent of all Christians said that they had prayed for miracles regarding the healing of the terminally ill. A national Gallup poll released in June 2001 revealed that 54 percent of adult Americans of all faiths believed in spiritual healing and the power of the mind through prayer to heal the body.
“Many people of faith find that a pilgrimage to a holy shrine or icon can accomplish miracles of healing. Among the most famous in the world is the healing Grotto of Bernadette at Lourdes, France, which was constructed on the spot where Bernadette Soubrious (1844–1879) had the vision of Mother Mary in 1858. Since the time the miracle occurred to the young miller's daughter, pilgrims have journeyed to Lourdes to seek healing and salvation from the waters of the natural spring that appeared in the hillside after the apparition of the Holy Mother appeared to Bernadette. Consistently, for decades, an average of 200,000 people visited the shrine every year. During the centennial celebration of Lourdes in 1958, more than two million people came to the tiny community in southern France seeking a healing. In recent years, annual attendance has risen to over five million.” (Encyclopedia.com)
Bringing dead people back to life by magic, miracles or by faith would have arisen as the greed to cling on to life, or sometimes the fear of death, entered man’s mind. Determining or confirming clinical death is in doubt even today. That is why probably even a person dying in a hospital is kept for about two hours, before moving the body to the mortuary.
In ancient times it would have been nearly impossible to determine if a person was dead or was in a coma. If a person appeared dead, but was only in a coma suddenly woke up, his family would have thought that it was a miracle, or an answer to their prayers or divine intervention.
That is why we find tales of such resurrection from the dead in all theistic religions and even in popular Buddhism.
Development of medical sciences
Before the gradual development of medical sciences, in different forms in different parts of the world, people would have depended on natural healing, the way most wild animals still recover from injuries or infections. Even man would have faced only such natural calamities, until his greed brought about the disturbance of the ecosystem resulting in many infections, life-style diseases, and also injuries inflicted by wars and conflicts.
In our part of the world we had Thovil and other forms of exorcisms, to drive away the Yaksha or the Pretha from the patient’s body. In the west it was the driving away of the devil. In such exorcisms too sometimes the patients died, either by exhaustive, painful, procedures when people gave up other forms of treatment having more faith in the exorcisms.
Most of us believe in and practice faith healing in one form or the other, however much we consider ourselves as Freethinkers, Atheists or Agnostics. The level of our faith in healing through supernatural or external powers could vary. It could be a simple puja at the sacred Bo tree, and a vow made, or a vow made to a Vedic god now associated with our traditional Buddhism. A more serious instance would be a pilgrimage to a famous temple, or a Hindu shrine like Kataragama, or performing the Navagraha puja. People also seek the blessings of Avalokitheshwara Bodhisattva. Others who have faith in, and could afford to, will go to Tirupati Venkateswara temple, the same way the Catholics go to pray at Valankanni Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. People of many faiths visited Puttaparthi to be healed by Sathya Sai Baba. There was Arigo, in Brazil, a few decades ago, known as the ‘Surgeon with the rusty knife’. He was an uneducated farmer, who is claimed to have performed successful surgery and cured people using a kitchen knife.
Modern medical treatment
Even doctors perform faith healing when they talk to a patient to build the patient’s own faith in himself and his body, by creating faith in the drugs or the treatment prescribed. It is also faith healing when a doctor prescribes a placebo, which miraculously cures the patient of all his ailments. Faith healing has worked miracles in the past, is believed to be working in the present, and will continue to work in the future. People will continue to pray, exorcise, and make vows to heal them of illness and postpone their deaths. It will go on till someday the medical sciences are able to prevent all sickness, age related and life-style diseases.
In the ancient past the physicians treated patients as a service, without charging a fee. Traditional and indigenous medicine was prepared at home, or given away free by the physician. Today all healthcare has become a big business. There is wealth in ill-health. Not all modern medical treatment is 100% successful. Patients die under treatment in the most modern hospitals in the world. Who are we to judge who is genuine and who is a fraud, which is a correct and proper treatment and which is not?
People seek divine or magical relief when they are helpless, when they are unable to receive effective treatment from the Western or traditional medical practices, or when they are unable to afford such treatment and they become desperate. This is the background from which tragedies like the one at Horowpothana arise.