Blind faith can lead to loss of objectivity

11 January 2022

On 1 July 2008, 11 members of the Chundawat family living in North Delhi, India, were found hanging and bound in a specific formation. In the true crime docuseries, House of Secrets, we explore these chilling deaths. The story is told through the testimonies of different witnesses, experts and journalists who were involved in the case. Were these deaths the result of a mass suicide pact, or of an attempted ritual gone awry? This three-part series examines a topic that is often stigmatised in the South Asian community; mental health and the curiosity surrounding the concept of "shared psychosis" (or psychotic disorder) driven by patriarchy.  

On the surface, it appears impossible that three generations of an educated family could be found dead in such a disturbing manner. Residents described the family as ordinary suburban neighbours living in the close-knit community of Burari. The first clue concerning the demise of the family comes from the head of the house, Lalit Chundawat. We learn Lalit had suffered profound trauma accumulated during the course of his life from a fatal bike accident to the passing of his father, Bhopal Singh. Lalit's trauma and early signs of psychosis were ignored by the Chundawat family when he showed harrowing emotional displays, such as hallucination, and he became mute. Even today, some South Asian communities view mental health in the same manner; either hiding or undermining the issue while believing that family matters should be kept within the home. For males, it is deemed as a weakness to display any emotion. Lalit’s trauma was exacerbated further by the lack of access to and knowledge regarding mental health.  

Bhopal Singh's death did not only affect Lalit, but his family as well, which at first went unnoticed. The family was unaware that they were also suffering from an invisible trauma. We can interpret the diaries that were discovered as representing the pain, grief and trauma experienced by Lalit and the rest of his family. The diaries cover an 11-year period in which their late grandfather (Bhopal Singh) gives instructions and performs rituals associated with a 'way of life’. Every member of the household had a specific role and was made to repent for their misdeeds, which is similar to a cult and a means of keeping the secrets of the household. As part of Lalit's distortion of reality, and perhaps, as a means to control his family, he issued these orders. His role in the deaths also reflects the patriarchal nature of the family unit. He may not have been in a position to correct his own false belief.

This case was primarily the result of a distortion of faith brought on by grief. It can be difficult to remain objective when dealing with religious or superstitious beliefs. Perhaps the rituals they followed provided comfort to them during their most vulnerable moments. They placed all their trust in Lalit (and their deceased grandfather) to guide them to a place of peace. As a result of the hierarchical etiquette prevalent in South Asian culture, the younger family members blindly followed orders according to the diaries. There is some question as to whether or not the rest of the family shared Lalit's belief in 'delusions' or if they feared disobeying him. This may also be a result of mass control of the family in view of the patriarchal nature presented. Throughout the series, viewers follow a path that straddles both superstition and delusion. Lalit's approach played on the family's grief and suggested that his father will arrive and rescue them. Blind faith can lead to loss of objectivity. 

Families in Indian communities are notoriously intimate and secretive, making it difficult to discuss mental health issues that may be fatal, if untreated. The truth concerning the Burari deaths opens up a much-needed conversation that is relevant for the Western model of therapy. In this case, it is important not to trivialise the issue by naively blaming it on superstition and failing to adequately address the mental health issues prevalent in this patriarchal community.

- Reviewed by Priya Ahmed, PhD Health Psychology Student at Teesside University; T: @PriyaAhmed94, I: @priya_healthpsych