Rationalists seek to prove holy men's power not so 'divine' after all

Mon, Jul 13, 2009, 01:00

DELHI LETTER:Rural Indians who believe in the supernatural are often prey to charlatans posing as ‘god men’, writes RAHUL BEDI

SEVERAL HUNDRED villagers in northern India watched enthralled as a longhaired sadhu, or holy man, dressed in saffron robes produced ash out of thin air, exploded huge stones with “mental power”, and turned water into blood.

Captivated by his supernatural deeds in a small village near Rohtak in Haryana state, 60km (37 miles) from the capital New Delhi, the people witnessing this magical performance last month were intimidated by the man’s “divine power”.

They hoped, through generous donations at the end of his performance, to dissuade the miracle man from unleashing havoc on their village through his avowed “supernatural” prowess.

But as the awestruck villagers reached into their pockets, the holy man whipped off his saffron robes to reveal himself as the local college science teacher.

He then repeated his presentation, but this time round showed his audience how he had achieved the “miracles” using sleight of hand and a few chemicals.

Such proceedings are regularly organised by the Indian Rationalist Association in a bid to debunk belief in miracles, palmistry and astrology in the countryside, where the majority of people are illiterate and believe in the supernatural.

But, above all, the association endeavours to expose thousands of “god men” or imposters who terrify superstitious rural people into paying them large sums of money.

“Charlatans have a strong hold on rural India and exploit their fears with feats that are a matter of elementary chemistry,” says Sanal Edamaruku, the head of Rationalist International in New Delhi.

Edamaruku (53) joined the rationalist movement as a student activist shortly after it was established several decades ago with the aim of exposing superstition, obscurantism and paranormal claims.

He says thousands of volunteers regularly travel throughout rural India demystifying the so-called holy men’s “wondrous deeds” by demonstrating how exactly they are executed.

He says this sustained campaign has resulted in villagers in states including Haryana, neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar and Orissa in the east, stoning the confidence tricksters and chasing them away.

The charlatans’ performances often include setting objects on fire through “mind energy”, eating glass, walking on burning embers, piercing their flesh with steel tridents and, at times, even levitation.

A trick that Edamaruku says never fails to impress people is one that results in a small explosion after water is sprinkled on a stone. However, he says this is accomplished simply by pouring water on scattered sodium crystals.

Similarly, lighting candles or setting piles of dry grass on fire with the flick of a finger is achieved by using chemicals that ignite on exposure to sunlight.

Piercing the body with a trident is managed if it is bent specially at strategic points, giving the impression of deep penetration.

Other “marvels”, such as walking on fire, swallowing ground glass, producing ash out of air and levitating, can be carried out through a combination of chemicals, craftily-erected apparatus and dexterous manipulation in which sleight of hand plays a vital role.

“These tricksters have a basic knowledge of chemistry but an exalted understanding of human psychology,” says Edamaruku.

The Indian Rationalist Association, whose nationwide membership has swollen to about 100,000, was founded six decades ago by a handful of scientists and intellectuals in the southern city of Chennai (formerly Madras).

Members are quick to point out that, though many of them are atheists, they are not opposed to freedom of religion but want to expose the widespread and cynical exploitation being carried out in its name.

“Our basic aim is to bring the rudiments of science and logic to ordinary people,” says Edamaruku.

Over the past four decades the rationalists have successfully targeted internationally popular “god men” who boast a following of millions, exposing their activities as nothing but “well-packaged gimmickry”.

However, repeated challenges by the rationalists to some of the holy men, particularly those in southern India who have millions of local and overseas followers, to perform in their presence have not been accepted.

Indeed, given the extent to which the holy men continue to control people’s lives across India, the rationalists face an arduous task.