India’s so-called ‘godmen’—and one in particular—must have heaved a sigh of relief on October 4. That Sunday, Basava Premanand, a man who had hounded them mercilessly for decades, exposing their ‘miracles’ as cheap sleight-of-hand tricks, was finally silent, felled by a cancer diagnosed three years ago. True to his noble calling, he reaffirmed his rationalism and atheism right to the end, donating his body to the medical college in Podanur, Tamil Nadu, where he had lived most of his life.
Just before his death, he told his followers, “Don’t ever give up some activity to see my body.” His successor, Narendra Nayak, who was to conduct a workshop in Bhubaneshwar an hour after Premanand passed away, continued his programme, albeit with a heavy heart. For Premanand, as with Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Work was worship, worship was not work’. Whatever property and assets he had, Premanand left to the Federation of Indian Rationalists Association, particularly his 26 books and their copyright.
Born to a theosophist couple in Kozhikode, Premanand was strongly influenced by Madame Blavastsky’s teachings in his early years. He had no formal education, but devoured religious texts as a teenager, reading the Gita, Koran and Bible. A keen observer of the paranormal, he sought out swamis and gurus to gain their spiritual insights. He found they were all fakes, fooling their followers and making money in the bargain.
A major turning point in his life was his 1969 meeting with the Sri Lankan rationalist, Dr Abraham Kovoor, while Kovoor was on a ‘Miracle Exposure’ lecture tour in India. They were kindred souls and Kovoor saw in Premanand his successor, which he duly became on the former’s death in 1978. However, before he died, Kovoor had struck some telling blows against spiritual fraudsters. He undertook extensive tours of the country to demonstrate exactly how our ‘godmen’ performed their ‘miracles’.
Kovoor’s particular target was the fuzzy-haired Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, whose millions of gullible followers include cricketer Sunil Gavaskar and the late constitutional expert, Nani Palkhivala. Kovoor took on Sai Baba’s famous claim that he had ‘materialised’ a Seiko watch, the only specimen of which lay in a Tokyo vault, before the Japanese head of the company. Kovoor wrote to Seiko and found that nobody from the company had visited Sai Baba and no such specimen watch existed in a Tokyo vault. The story had been cooked up by one of Sai Baba’s advisors! He published his findings. There was no response from the Sai Baba camp.
Kovoor also challenged astrologers, palmists, sundry babas and their ilk to prove their psychic and miraculous powers ‘under fraud-proof conditions’ and win Rs 1 lakh. Needless to say, nobody took up the challenge.
Premanand continued Kovoor’s challenge. On one occasion, a swami who claimed he could walk on water, decided to try his luck. Supported by R.K. (Rusi) Karanjia’s popular weekly, Blitz, an elaborate stage and water tank was set up and thousands turned up to witness the ‘miraculous walk on water’. As the cameras rolled, the swami sank like a stone as he stepped on the water but not before Blitz had raked in lakhs in ad revenue!
Premanand, too, took on Sai Baba. Since the Baba claimed to materialise objects made of gold ‘from the air’, 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 writ petition, given Sai Baba’s enormous political clout. At a more serious level, Premanand investigated the murder of six inmates of Sai Baba’s ashram on June 6, 1993, which he published in a 800-page book, Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom. Despite the damning findings by Premanand, nothing came of the shocking incident.
For over two decades, Premanand published a monthly magazine, The Indian Sceptic, dedicated to spreading rationalism and scientific temperament. He lectured in over 7,000 villages and towns and his popular book, Science Versus Miracles, gave explanations for 150 ‘miracles’.
One of our great failings is our gullibility and how prone we are to superstition. More than any other nation perhaps, we are taken in by a whole host of outlandish swamis, gurus, yogis, babas, acharyas, astrologers, palmists and the like. Sadly, even though they have repeatedly been exposed as fraudsters, they continue to flourish and determine much of our lives. We need more Abraham Kovoors and Basava Premanands to steer us on the rational and scientific track.
(The author is an old friend of Premanand and a member of the Rationalist Association of India.)