Confrontation in the Twilight zone

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 30, 2013 20:26 hrs

When Narendra Nayak, a former assistant professor of biochemistry from the Mangalore-based Kasturba Medical College, decided to learn karate and armed himself with a nunchaku, it wasn't because he had been watching Bruce Lee movies. Nayak turned to self-defence lessons after escaping three murderous attacks on his life. Twice, his assaulters snapped the brake cable of his scooter. One attack left him with head injuries. The former professor was being targeted for challenging superstitions, exposing miracles and taking on 'godmen' and 'tantriks'. Undaunted, 62-year-old Nayak, who is now the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalists' Association - an umbrella body of about 85 rationalist, atheist, sceptic and science organisations in India - continues to campaign for rationalism.

Like him, Sanal Edamaruku, the 58-year-old president of Rationalist International, which has more than 100,000 members, has also escaped numerous attacks. One of them took place in a Delhi high-society house where devotees of a baba, or godman, had gathered to watch him perform a special fire ritual for the electoral success of a prominent politician. "When the godman lifted two red-hot flaming pans, holding them triumphantly in his naked hands, I challenged him and revealed that the pots had a cool base due to heat isolation," says Edamaruku. So furious was the 'holy man' that he tried to smash Edamaruku's face with the flaming pans. A duck in time saved the rationalist from getting singed.

In Punjab, 64-year-old Megh Raj Mitter, the founder of Bathinda-based Tarksheel Society, recalls how a thousand or so protesters marched to his house when he used cut-and-dry logic to explain the 'miracle' of Ganesha idols drinking milk. "I had to call for police protection," says Mitter. "Threats," he says, "are a part of a rationalist's life." With the growing world of atheists and agnostics posing a greater challenge to firmly-rooted beliefs and practices, such threats are only becoming louder and more vicious.

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But the recent signs which indicate that a greater number of people are moving away from religion don't augur well for the multi-million dollar industry built around faith and beliefs. According to 'The Global Religious Landscape', a new study of world faiths conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, people with no religious affiliation or the 'unaffiliated' are today the third-largest global group after Christians and Muslims.

'Unaffiliated' is defined as those who might have spiritual beliefs but profess no established religion, such as atheists, agnostics. The 'Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,' published by market research and polling firm Worldwide Independent Network/Gallup International Association, has found that the number of non-religious people in India is also on the rise. In 2005, 87 per cent of Indians said they were religious. In 2013, the number was down to 81 per cent. The survey also found that worldwide, atheism is up 3 per cent.

For the rationalists, this is a victory of sorts. There are more than a hundred rationalist groups with thousands of members and supporters across India. The Vijayawada-based Atheist Centre was founded in 1940 to bring about social change in rural Andhra Pradesh. Patna is the headquarters for Bihar Buddhiwadi Samaj. Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Haryana, Odisha, Jharkhand, each has at least one rationalist society. "We have observed that the fascination for the supernatural exists across states, classes and cultures," says Nayak.

There are, however, some region- or culture-specific superstitions and practices. Avinash Patil, the state chairman of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith) which was founded by Narendra Dabholkar, the rationalist who was shot dead in Pune last week for his fight against superstition and black magic, says, "In Vidarbha and north Maharashtra, the practice of witch-hunting is prevalent." In the Marathwada region, he comes across cases of women getting 'possessed by sprits'. "These are basically mental disorders with physical manifestations," says Patil. Women in any case tend to be more superstitious than men, say the rationalists. "While religions, faith, rules and regulations are all male-dominated, the responsibility of carrying them forward to the next generation is the woman's. She is not given time to step out of her house or experience the world outside her community or village," says Patil who has been a pro-active rationalist for 25 years. The workers of the organisation, which has 230 branches in 35 districts, have often been threatened and thrashed. Dabholkar's murder has shocked them, but they are going ahead with all planned programmes."It is remarkable that there has never been any threat or attack from common believers in order to defend their faith. But we are hated by those who fear us because we are cutting the ground under their feet," says Edamaruku. He has been living in Finland since a case was lodged against him for hurting religious sentiments after his examination of a so-called miracle of a 'dripping Jesus' at the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, Mumbai. He had traced the 'miracle' to some leaky pipes near the statue. The church said it would drop the charges if he apologised. "Besides infuriated godmen, there are sometimes small groups of fundamentalists out to harm us. They generally don't swing into action on their own accord, but can easily be driven into frenzy," he says. The mechanism is the same. "The attackers span and tap all religious communities and traditional superstitions. It's never Hinduism versus Islam or Christianity, or religiosity versus rationalism, as they try to make us believe," he says.

Rationalists reveal the tricks of godmen and tantriks and teach their victims how to perform these by themselves. The experience, for example, of creating 'holy ash' (see box) is a great boost for people's confidence.

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Why just villages, every city too has its share of faith-healers who attract people from across religions. One of them, who lives in the Sarai Kale Khan settlement in south Delhi, uses mustard oil and grass to "brush away" jaundice. He places the dish containing oil and grass on the head of the patient. The oil turns a deep yellow. Then he declares: "Iska peeliya tel ne pee liya (the oil has soaked up his jaundice)." This exercise is carried out on the patient for three consecutive days. "The baba does not demand money; people pay him whatever they can," says Nazia Khan, who got her six-year-old son 'treated' from this faith-healer. Khan, who works as a domestic help in Nizamuddin, was getting her son treated at the nearby government dispensary, but the moment she heard about this baba, she stopped the prescribed medicine and turned to faith-healing.

Then there are the faith-healers of the elite - the tarot card-readers, astrologers, palmists, numerologists and past-life regression therapists. Taking on rationalists, Gurgaon-based Yogesh Choudhary, hypnotherapist, past life regression therapist and director of the Indian Institute of Hypnotherapy, says, "A rationalist is an ignorant man who will believe only what can be seen and not what can be experienced." As to how long past-life regression therapy can take to cure a person, the 71-year-old hypnotist says it depends on how willing the person is to yield and go into a trance and how long the person has been on this planet. "How can I say instantly whether he is a thousand lives old or if he is a new soul? It depends on how much muck from his past lives he is carrying in his soul." So, where are the "new souls" being created or manufactured? To that he says, "You have to experience it to understand it."

Practically every rationalist organisation now has an open challenge for godmen. Some have offered up to Rs 2 crore in rewards. The challenges: read the serial number of a sealed currency note; stand on burning cinders for half a minute without blistering the feet; move or bend a solid object using psychokinetic power; read thoughts of a person using telepathic powers, et cetera. So far, not one person has taken up the challenge, they say.

Dismissing the debate between the rational and the irrational, social theorist Ashis Nandy says, "Everyone is rational." The godman, he explains, is rational because he is a hardcore businessman who knows where his money is coming from. "The believer is rational because he is using his rationale to negotiate with his insecurity. While the rationalists have the right to fight this, people will continue to believe what they want to, especially if the stakes are high like in the case of film personalities and politicians." Rationalists know theirs is a tough job. "Billions of rupees are riding on faith which is beamed into our homes even through television," says Biplab Das, general secretary, of Kolkata-based Science and Rationalists' Association of India. Nayak, who calls himself a "virulent rationalist", is however confident that a slow change is in the air. More and more rationalists, he says, are coming out of the closet.


Holding/eating fire
First, a warning: do not try this at home or office. Now, the trick. 'Godmen' who claim they can eat fire simply use the pure form of camphor. A burning cube of pure camphor will not singe the palm as long as the person keeps shifting its position. Magicians and 'miracle-mongers' use it to their advantage. It is also possible to put a cube of burning camphor in the mouth for a few seconds without getting burnt. When the tongue starts to feel hot, the 'godman' simply breathes out and closes his mouth. And the fire goes out.

Conjuring ash (vibhuti) from air
There's a reason why a 'godman' waves his hand in the air like a magician while performing this 'miracle'. Hidden between his thumb and index finger is a dry pellet of ash created by mixing powdered ash and starch solution. When waving his hand, he brings the ash pellet to his fingertips, crushes it, and lo behold, he has created 'holy ash'. 'Ash' can also be produced from an aluminum coin, like the 5-, 10- or 20-paisa coin, by rubbing mercuric chloride solution on it. The grey powder will continue to form on the coin for hours, depending on the amount of mercuric chloride used. Even if you dust away this ash, it will 'miraculously' start forming again.

Levitating in the air
The robes of the 'godman' play a critical role in this 'miracle'. He 'godman' appears to be suspended mid-air, with his arm resting on a bamboo stick by his side. The bamboo stick, in fact, has a bracket attached to it on which the man is seated. The bracket is cleverly concealed by his robes. The bamboo stick too has an iron rod running through its hollow inside which is securely anchored in the ground.

Producing fire through mind power
The yogi demonstrates his powers by setting wood scrapings on fire simply by pouring ghee on them. What he's actually done is hidden potassium permanganate under the wood. What he pours on it is not ghee but glycerin, which is known to react violently when mixed with potassium permanganate. The chemical reaction generates heat and produces smoke and fire.

Walking on fire
The 'godman' might be walking on a bed of burning coal which has rock salt sprinkled on it. Rock salt attracts moisture and thus, brings the temperature down. The chance of getting scathed is bleak if the person walks on these rock salt-coated embers within three seconds or so. There's another way of doing this. Some 'holy men' first pour water on themselves, taking care to properly wet their feet. They then walk around the bed of coals while pretending to be praying. In the process, their feet get coated with wet clay and they are able to quickly 'walk on fire' without getting singed.

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