Published in Speaking Tree, February 06, 2011

In Varanasi, there is the temple of Kal-Bhairav, the fierce form of Shiva. In this temple, surrounding the shrine are priests who are famous for jhaadna or jharra, or dusting, using black chamars made of horse tail or peacock feathers. This is done to ward away negative forces and malevolent spirits commonly known as the evil eye.

Since ancient times people have feared the evil eye. When children fall sick for no apparent reason, when things suddenly start to go wrong, when numerous obstacles appear after initial success, people say, the evil eye has struck. In local languages it is known as nazar or drishti. This idea is found in almost every corner of the world. Ancient Irish legends speak of the evil eye of Balor, the one-eyed giant which inspired the concept of the Eye of Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. There may be slight variations. Instead of the evil eye, people may use terms like ‘curse’ or ‘hex’. But fundamentally, it is havoc stemming from a neighbour’s envy.

The best way to understand the concept of evil eye, is to accept the idea of auras. Every human being has an aura around them. This is known as the subtle body. It is a kind of energy shield emerging from our physical and mental health status. A beautiful or healthy object has positive aura, which is why looking upon them makes us happy; they energize us. An ugly or unhealthy object has negative aura, which is why looking upon them makes us unhappy; they sap us of energy. It is possible to draw energy from positive aura objects and lose energy to negative aura objects. Exposure to positive aura objects makes us feel empowered and excited. Exposure to negative aura objects makes us feel drained and tired and sick. Evil eye can then be the force that causes us to lose our aura, feel drained and disempowered.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the “Eye of Horus” protected oneself from the evil eye. Ancient Romans used phallic images to keep away bad luck. In modern day Turkey, the blue ‘Nazar’ amulet is sold in every market. Now they have become popular in India too. In many Arab countries one finds the hand of Fatima or Khamsa or Hamsa, which is a palm-shaped amulet to ward away the evil eye. Many Muslims believe that saying ‘Mashallah,’ or ‘God wills it’ creates a protective shield from evil eye. The apparently modern idea of ‘keeping fingers crossed’ has its origin in using the crucifix to keep away evil and ensure success.

People believed, and still believe, that some people possess the evil eye. Their glance or gaze results in loss of energy. They spread negativity wherever they go. They feed on other people’s energy. The concept of witch and vampire has its origins in this idea. Then there are people who grant energy copiously; these are the saints and the gods and the holy men, even performers and film stars, who attract vast crowds.

Anyone can possess the evil eye transiently. This follows envy, or even adoration, of something pretty or beautiful, like a child, who is most susceptible to nazar. Inadvertently, even a mother’s gaze, can drain the child of positive aura resulting in sickness. To protect the child from this, people use various kinds of talismans. The most common one is the nazar ka tika, or black dot put prominently on the child’s face. Other practices include bathing with rock salt or tying a black thread to the right arm or ankle. The ultimate practice is to visit shrines because divine grace is the very opposite of the evil eye. Belief in evil eye is so deep that it is said in Nathdvara temple of Srinathji even the Lord can be affected by the nazar of adoring devotees which is why his image at the haveli is shown fleetingly by opening and shutting of the curtain during jhanki and by dusting the sacred image with peacock feathers.