It may be touted as the up-and-coming regional player, but millions of Indians still seem to believe in miracle over reason and continue to get conned by ‘godmen’. A handful of rationalists are out to debunk these claims, but there is a long road ahead for them.
They had come from near and far, united in their desire to witness a miracle with their own eyes. These several hundred believers crowded around a crucifix that lay hanging in front of the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, in April this year. With delight in their eyes and hope in their hearts, they almost stepped on each other’s feet to catch a peep of the tiny droplets of water dripping from the feet of the crucifix. According to the Church, this was a miracle and the water was divine.
This claim, and many others like it, is believed by millions of ordinary Indians who hold in reverence babas and sais who advise them on everything from their daughter’s weddings to crucial business decisions.
“If people can apply reason when they buy a car or a phone, why can’t they apply reason in other, more important aspects of life?” questions Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. “It is because we are conditioned from a young age to not question rationally. Therefore, the Nirmal babas of the world survive.”
Nayak is referring to Nirmal Baba alias Nirmaljit Singh Narula, a 60-year-old ‘spiritual leader’, who faces at least four cases of fraud and cheating in several Indian high courts but nevertheless continues to be revered by thousands of followers.
But while serious allegations like these appear to make little difference to these diehard followers, others like Nayak think it important to inspect the claims these men make.
In the church’s holy water case, Sanal Edamaruku, founder-president of Rationalist International, decided to investigate the claim. As he had expected, it was a faulty drainage line in a building and not a miracle that was causing water to drip.
Although he was careful not to overstep the law, his curiosity landed him in legal trouble nonetheless. Days after he debunked the claim, the church filed charges against him and an arrest warrant was issued under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (India’s closest equivalent to the Blasphemy law) which ‘punishes attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a citizen with deliberate and malicious intent to outrage their religious feelings.’
Skeptics and rationalists have always been busy in India and this is one of the latest cases in their crusade against superstition and blind faith. “Every day there is someone claiming a miracle,” says Edamuruku. “It only needs a scientific bent of mind to explain such ‘miracles’.”
India is the birthplace of at least two major religions, and home to adherents of just about every creed in the world. According to the official government census of 2011, more than 99% of the population identifies itself as following one religion or another even though the census gave the option of identifying oneself as belonging to ‘no religion’. Rationalists and irreligious people say that such an overarching belief in religion is exploited by self-proclaimed ‘godmen’ for power and money.
They give the example of Sri Satya Sai Baba, a spiritual guru whose miraculous claims have around 30 million believers across the world, despite him being at the centre of many controversies. In 2004, a BBC documentary had exposed certain sexual abuse claims against him and soon after his death in April last year, Satya Sai Trust members found 120 million Indian rupees in cash, 98 kilogrammes of gold and 300 kilogrammes of silver inside the Yajur Temple — the personal chambers of the Sai Baba — near Bangalore.
So varied are Sai Baba’s excesses that an entire edition of the Indian Sceptic, a monthly magazine that has been published by the Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of The Paranormal for over a decade, was dedicated to enumerating them. The ‘Baba fever’, however, seems to continue to grip the country even after his death, clearly pointing to the daunting task that the rationalists have ahead of them.
Explaining the need for such unquestioned faith in religious miracles, Edamuruku says that it is a common phenomenon in all transitioning and insecure societies.
Free publicity by a cutthroat and controversy-hungry media doesn’t help either. “When the media talks about such stories, they reach a larger audience effortlessly,” says Sumitra Padmanabhan, executive editor of online magazine The Freethinker.
In most cases the media just reports the irregularities as a news story but in Nirmal Baba’s case, it seems to have gone a step further.
Nirmal Baba pays about 40 channels across the world, including AXN, Sab TV, Sony TV and Colors to telecast his public meetings called “Nirmal Darbar”. During these meetings, he makes public appearances and converses with aggrieved devotees who usually narrate their personal, social or financial worries to him. Tech-savvy baba supporters have taken to social media to spread the message and an easy-to-use website, fully equipped to take donations, is actively promoted by them. Such a media presence has quadrupled his popularity despite widespread fraud allegations against him.
Nirmal Baba’s fame also proves that the support for certain irrational claims is not an exclusively rural phenomenon. Urban India’s craze for miracle men is no less than that of the rural hinterland’s.
With incredible rewards to be gained, Edamuruku doesn’t see such organised (and highly lucrative) deception going away anytime soon. “It is a con industry that banks on religion and faith. And it is already a multi-million-dollar industry,” he says.
There is good reason to believe his warning as such frauds are fast becoming a trend. Padmanabhan claims that there is an average of 20 such small and big fraud cases in a year that The Freethinker deals with. They organise street corner meetings and free camps to debunk supernatural phenomena and have an intricate network of members who work in remote villages and talk people out of beliefs in witchcraft and other superstitions.
The strategy is supported by Nayak and Edamurku, who both believe that the only way to counter these beliefs is through educating people.
“When we explain the ‘miracle’ in scientific terms, there is a relief on people’s faces as they are freed of their fears,” says Edamuruku who screened 1,000 villages across South India in 1995 and disproved various claims of supernatural phenomena.
One of his projects was in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, where people were in awe of a man who could produce ash from his palm. When the 20 or so rationalists reached the village, they were determined to challenge the claim. Mixing some tiny starch balls with ash and hiding it in the middle of their fingers, they replicated the ‘miracle’ to thunderous applause from the villagers.
But the road for the rationalists is a long and rocky one, as for every such success story, there is also a failure. Abu Bakr Musliyar, a self-proclaimed religious leader returned from Oman to Kerala and claimed to have brought along a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) hair. His popularity skyrocketed after this claim and Musliyar is now working hard to build a billion-dollar mosque complex that, once completed, will be the largest mosque in India, dwarfing even the historical Jamia Masjid in New Delhi. It will have a built-up area of 250,000 square feet and will house up to 30,000 worshippers.
The Indian Rationalists Association has spent all its might in trying to convince the populace about the unlikelihood of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) hair being housed in the mosque, but to no avail.
The association, which was established in 1930 and has about 100,000 registered members across 200 branches spread in all districts of India, has failed to debunk Musliyar’s claim despite its wide network and constant campaigns.
The Indian constitution guarantees the freedom of religion as a fundamental right, while enlisting the development of a scientific temperament, humanism and the spirit of inquiry as a fundamental duty. People like Edamuruku take this latter duty quite seriously. “I have an open mind. I am yet to see a miracle and when I do, I will acknowledge it,” he says with a smile.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 17th, 2012.
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