Why are we so gullible and so full of superstition? No other major society has such a variety of outlandish—and thriving—swamis, gurus, yogis, babas, acharyas, bhagwans, astrologers, palmists, numerologists and faith healers as ours does.
Some put on intellectual airs (Rajneesh), others claim “miracle” cures—even for cancer (Ramdev). All of them are, without exception, wily con artists and spiritual fraudsters, eager to ferret money out of you. And if you are an attractive woman or a fetching young boy, quite a few will attempt to seduce you (many succeed, Nityananda did). Yet, millions of Indians, even the highly educated, flock to them. They probably command more followers than organised religion does.
When India won the T20 World Cup, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh, both Sikhs, did not dedicate their success to Guru Nanak, but to some baba belonging to some dera. And what about Sachin Tendulkar, idolised by an entire nation? As the photos in the newspapers show, he turns out to have been an ardent follower of the recently departed Sathya Sai Baba, who is probably the most successful “godman” of them all—at least fiscally, having built a colossal empire estimated at a mind-boggling Rs 40,000 crore, most of it foolishly forked out by credulous Indian devotees. I knew that Sunil Gavaskar had been a disciple of the fuzzy-haired Baba. But Sachin? He has come down a notch or two in my estimation.
The first person to expose Sai Baba was the late Sri Lankan rationalist Abraham Kovoor. He decided to look into the Baba’s famous claim that when the Japanese head of the Seiko watch company visited him, he had “materialised” a Seiko watch, the only specimen of which lay in a Tokyo vault.
Kovoor wrote to the company, asking for details. The company wrote back that nobody from the company had visited Sai Baba and that no such specimen of a watch existed in a Tokyo vault. The story had been cooked up by one of Sai Baba’s advisers! When Kovoor published his findings, there was a deafening silence from the Sai Baba camp. Kovoor’s seminal book, Begone Godmen, is essential reading for those who still believe in these fakes and liars.
In the 1970s, Kovoor undertook “miracle exposure” tours of the country, during which he demonstrated, with the help of magicians, exactly how our “godmen” performed their “miracles”. I was at one such demonstration on the Bombay University campus, where the magician accompanying him showed, to everybody’s glee and amazement, how light bulbs could be chewed and swallowed, objects could materialise “from thin air”, and a person could walk barefoot unharmed on burning embers—all of which are standard fare for magicians and have rational explanations.
There was also a simple trick to the framed pictures of Sai Baba shedding vibhuti (holy ash). The pictures’ framers would use aluminum frames and dab a mercuric chloride solution on them. Upon coming into contact with moisture, a chemical reaction would occur and grey ash fell—vibhuti!
Kovoor also conclusively exposed astrologers. When the so-called science of astrology was born hundreds of years ago, he reasoned, the concept of light taking time to travel was unknown. In other words, the planets, thousands of miles away and moving at great speed, were not where the eye sees them. Since astrologers insist on knowing the precise time of birth and the position of planets, their predictions, therefore, had to be wholly wrong and their “science” completely bogus.
After Kovoor died in 1978, Basava Premanand (who died in 2009) took up the fight. He, too, went after the redoubtable Sai Baba. Since the Baba claimed to materialise objects of gold, Premanand filed a writ petition against him in the Andhra Pradesh High Court under Section 11 of the Gold Control Act, which mandates permission from the gold control administrator for manufacturing gold! Of course, nothing came of the petition, given Sai Baba’s enormous political clout, but the point was made.
The trouble is, despite the damning exposes of Kovoor and Premanand, too many Indians will keep believing that Ganesh idols can drink milk and that a natural ice formation is the lingam of Lord Shiva and to be worshipped as such. And ministers will continue to consult astrologers before taking momentous decisions, superstitious women will add a letter to their names (Shobhaa, Jayalalithaa), and swamis will merrily consort with women who have infertile or impotent husbands—while Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi genuflect before the body of Sai Saba (Would Jawaharlal Nehru have done that? Never!), thereby lending respectability to irrationality and quackery.
(The writer likes to debunk godmen and is a member of the Rationalists Association of India)