How one skeptic is taking on the gurus
Sceptic challenges guru to kill him live on TV
When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.
Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube.
First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man.
“He was over, finished, completely destroyed!” Mr Edamaruku chuckles triumphantly as he concludes the tale in the Rationalist Centre, his second-floor office in the town of Noida, just outside Delhi.
Rationalising India has never been easy. Given the country’s vast population, its pervasive poverty and its dizzying array of ethnic groups, languages and religions, many deem it impossible.
Nevertheless, Mr Edamaruku has dedicated his life to exposing the charlatans — from levitating village fakirs to televangelist yoga masters — who he says are obstructing an Indian Enlightenment. He has had a busy month, with one guru arrested over prostitution, another caught in a sex-tape scandal, a third kidnapping a female follower and a fourth allegedly causing a stampede that killed 63 people.
This week India’s most popular yoga master, Baba Ramdev, announced plans to launch a political party, promising to cleanse India of corruption and introduce the death penalty for slaughtering cows. Then, on Wednesday, police arrested a couple in Maharashtra state on suspicion of killing five boys on the advice of a tantric master who said their sacrifice would help the childless couple to conceive.
“The immediate goal I have is to stop these fraudulent babas and gurus,” says Mr Edamaruku, 55, a part-time journalist and publisher from the southern state of Kerala. “I want people to make their own decisions. They should not be guided by ignorance, but by knowledge.
“I’d like to see a post-religious society — that would be an ideal dream, but I don’t know how long it would take.”
His organisation traces its origins to the 1930s when the “Thinker’s Library” series of books, published by Britain’s Rationalist Press Association, were first imported to India. They included works by Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin and H.G. Wells; among the early subscribers was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
The Indian Rationalist Association was founded officially in Madras in 1949 with the encouragement of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who sent a long letter of congratulations. For the next three decades it had no more than 300 members and focused on publishing pamphlets and debating within the country’s intellectual elite.
But since Mr Edamaruku took over in 1985, it has grown into a grass-roots organisation of more than 100,000 members — mainly young professionals, teachers and students — covering most of India. Members now spend much of their time investigating and reverse-engineering “miracles” performed by self-styled holy men who often claim millions of followers and amass huge wealth from donations.
One common trick they expose is levitation, usually done using an accomplice who lies on the ground under a blanket and then raises his upper body while holding out two hockey sticks under the blanket to make it look like his feet are also rising. “It’s quite easy really,” said Mr Edamaruku, who teaches members to perform the tricks in villages and then explains how they are done, or demonstrates them at press conferences.
Other simple tricks include walking on hot coals (the skin does not burn if you walk fast enough) and lying on a bed of nails (your weight is spread evenly across the bed). The “weeping statue” trick is usually done by melting a thin layer of wax covering a small deposit of water.
Some tricks require closer scrutiny. One guru in the state of Andhra Pradesh used to boil a pot of tea using a small fire on his head. The secret was to place a non-conductive pad made of compacted wheat flour between his head and the fire. “I was so excited when I exposed him. I should have been more reasonable but sometimes you get so angry,” he said. “I cried: ‘Look, even I can do this and I’m not a baba — I’m a rationalist!’.”
Another swami — who conducted funeral rites for Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1984 — used to appear to create fire by pouring ghee, clarified butter, on to ash and then staring at the mixture until it burst into flames. The “ghee” was glycerine and the “ash” was potassium permanganate, two chemicals that spontaneously combust within about two minutes of being mixed together.
Exposing such tricks can be risky. A guru called Balti (Bucket) Baba once smashed a burning hot clay pot in Mr Edamaruku’s face after he revealed that the holy man was using a heat resistant pad to pick it up.
The chief rationalist was almost arrested by the government of Kerala for revealing that it was behind an annual apparition of flames in the night sky — in fact, several state officials lighting bonfires on a nearby hill — which attracted millions of pilgrims. Despite his efforts, he admits that people still go to the festival and continue to revere self-styled holy men.
One reason is that Indian politicians nurture and shelter gurus to give them spiritual credibility, use their followers as vote banks, or to mask sexual or criminal activity. That explains why India’s Parliament has never tightened the 1954 Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, under which the maximum punishment is two months in prison and a 2,000 rupee (£29) fine.
Another reason is that educated, middle-class Indians are feeling increasingly alienated from mainstream religion but still in need of spiritual sustenance. “When traditional religion collapses people still need spirituality,” he says. “So they usually go one of two directions: towards extremism and fundamentalism or to these kinds of people.”
Since richer, urban Indians have little time for long pilgrimages orpujas (prayer ceremonies), they are often attracted by holy men who offer instant gratification — for a fee. The development of the Indian media over the past decade has also allowed some holy men to reach ever larger audiences via television and the internet. “Small ones have gone out of business while the big ones have become like corporations,” says Mr Edamaruku.
But the media revolution has also helped Mr Edamaruku, who made 225 appearances on television last year, and gets up to 70 inquiries about membership daily. Thanks to his confrontation in 2008 with the tantric master, the rationalist is now a national celebrity, too.
When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.
The men agreed to go to an outdoor studio that night — all to no avail. At midnight, the anchor declared the contest over. Reason had prevailed.
Jeremy Page, Delhi