A statue of Ganesh.
Outbreaks of collective delusion do not always have to involve phantom slashers or mad gassers. These outbreaks of mass mental illness often take the form of supposed miraculous events, especially in countries where people are devoutly religious.
One such alleged miracle occurred September 21, 1995, when Hindu faithful witnessed statues of the Lord Ganesh, an elephant headed god revered in India, apparently drinking milk offerings. Faithful held the milk offerings up tot he deity’s lips, and witnessed the liquid disappear. Some reported hearing loud slurping noises. The belief spread like wildfire through the Hindu community, by word of mouth bur primarily through media reports.
The frenzy drew mobs of faithful to temples all around the world. From the first reported case in India, miracle reports spread to places as far afield as London, New York, and parts of Africa.
However, by Sunday, September 24, dejected Hindus began to claim that the statues rejected their offerings. As quickly as it had come, milk miracle mania disappeared.
By the end of the outbreak, a few people were hurt in stampedes as excited crowds rushed Hindu temples, eager to view the miracle. Stores in districts populated primarily by Hindus were stripped clean of milk, and many work places were forced to stop their normal operation as devout skipped work to witness the supernatural happenings.
The event also left a lot of head-scratching in its wake. What actually happened during those few days in September, when the world seemed to witness a miracle?
No miracle, just science
Miracles are, by definition, events that defy natural explanation. They are usually recorded in religious texts that describe the feats of divine beings. The most well known miracles among Americans would be the supernatural exploits attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. From turning water into wine to resurrecting three days after his execution, millions of people around the world believe that Jesus literally performed these feats. Millions more believe that tales of his exploits are greatly exaggerated.
Arguing for or against the existence of miracles is far beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the belief in the miraculous is common throughout the world, even in industrialized countries. Miracles are matters of faith, and that belief in the miraculous is at the heart of the strange outbreak in September of 1995.
Simply put, the belief in miracles predisposes people to thinking that things they don’t understand are miraculous in nature. In ancient times, fire was revered as a gift from the gods. Nowadays, we know that flames result from combustion reactions. Their causes and behavior have been well documented.
It is the same with the milk drinking miracle. People saw something happening that they couldn’t explain, and perceived it as a miracle. However, the events described by Hindu faithful were based in simple science. Many statues of Ganesh and other deities were made out of ceramics or stone. Since both materials could have simply absorbed milk as it was held to the statue’s mouth. This occurred via capillary action, which is the tendency for fluids to flow up a narrow tube by the actin of surface tension at the top of the fluid column. Basically, liquids stick to the side of the tube and crawl up the sides of it as more fluid is pushed up behind.
The crack in the lips of the statues, or Ganesh’s trunk, which usually had a shallow hole in the tip, acted as tubes for the capillary action to work. Ceramic or stone statues might have retained the fluids for awhile, before releasing it when fully saturated. While copper or brass idols would not have been able to absorb the milk, capillary action still could have drew the liquid out of the spoon. It would have then ran down the sides of the statue. Many worshipers reported seeing the milk running down the sides of metal statues and pooling at the base.
A highly susceptible population
The population of India is highly susceptible to outbreaks of collective delusion, for a variety of reasons. Socioeconomic factors played a strong role in the outbreak. The vast majority of people in India are impoverished and poorly educated. Traditional beliefs and superstitions are woven deep into their daily lives. This includes a strong devotion to their gods. Hindus do not see their gods as distant figures, reclining in a luxurious heaven and ruling over the universe like kings over an empire. They see their gods as family members, as friends, as parts of themselves.
These factors all conspired together to produce the milk miracle. One devotee, believing not just in the reality of their god, but feeling an intimate relationship with them, saw what they believed was their god trying to communicate with them. This was of course something no more miraculous than, say dipping a paper towel into a puddle. But because the worshiper saw something they couldn’t understand, and were primed to see it as something supernatural, they interpreted the event as a miracle. Others similarly primed began to try the miracle for themselves, and upon seeing capillary action at work and not knowing how to explain it, also believed they’d witnessed a miracle. Word of the miracles spread, and others came to temple fully expecting to see a miracle. Their bias made them susceptible, just as the “victims” of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon were primed to believe they were going to be attacked. If a person looks hard enough for something, they will find it.
But as the outbreak wore on, both the media and the community took a more skeptical view of the strange happenings. Some of this was no doubt due to the frenzy surrounding the supposed miracle, the work stoppages, and the injuries from stampeding faithful. When the more skeptical mood took hold and experts started to come out in the media dismissing the miracle as fantasy, reports began to drop off. Some continued to believe that the miracle had actually occurred, but they explained away the skeptical explanation by claiming that the statues were beginning to reject the offerings.
The milk miracle was a classic example of mass wish fulfillment. People wanted to see their gods in action. And they did, even if the supposed miracle had a perfectly natural explanation.
Press Trust of India. “Idols ‘Drinking’ Milk is Pure Science.” IndiaExpress.com. August 26, 2006. ExpressIndia.com. March 8, 2014 <http://expressindia.indianexpress.com/news/fullstory.php?newsid=72699>
“Milk Miracle Vanishes.” Lawrence Journal-World. September 23,1995
Tayaraman, T. “Obscurantism vs. Science Behind the Milk-Drinking ‘Miracle.’” The Institute of Mathematical Sciences. <http://www.imsc.res.in/~jayaram/Articles/milkb.html>
Bhardwaj, Prabha Prabhakar. “The Milk Miracle: Tales and Reflections.” HinduismToday.com. December 1995. Hinduism Today. March 8, 2014. <http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=3460>
Scripps Howard News Services. “Hindus Disappointed as Idols ‘Reject’ Milk.” Gainesville Sun. September 25, 1995. 8A
Persoud, Gitanjal. “Hindu ‘milk miracle’ Frenzy Hits Guyana.” Stoernek News. September 23, 1995 p. 32