Indian Rationalist Association

India's largest rationalist organisation. Founded in 1949. Fights for scientific temper, secularism, freedom of thought and expression. Defends reason and science. Exposes superstition, blind belief, obscurantism, paranormal claims caste-based social divisions and guru-politics nexus. Strives for a post-religious society. President: Sanal Edamaruku Contact: Phone: + 91-11-6569 9012, +91-11-64630651

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sanal Edamaruku in TV Debate on the lagacy of Sathya Sai Baba


Click the link below to watch the TV debate on the legacy of Sathya Sai Baba on CNN-IBN

Sanal Edamaruku's comments on Saibaba in Malayalam

Click the following link to listen Sanal Edamaruku's first reaction over phone on Kairali TV in Malayalam language, following the death of Sathya Sai Baba.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sanal Edamaruku on Sathya Sai Baba

India would have been a better place without Sathya Sai Baba
Sanal Edamaruku

President, Indian Rationalist Association & Rationalist International

When Sathya Sai Baba died this morning (24 April 2011) at the age of 85 years, he proved once again that miracles and predictions fail. He had predicted at a public gathering at his head quarters in Puttaparthy, in 2000, and repeatedly many times, that he would die at the age of 96 only. And till the last moment, many of his devotees clung to his word and waited for a miracle. May it be an eye opener for the millions of gullible people whom he misguided and deluded.

De mortuis nihil nisi bene, they say, say nothing but good of the dead. But I think Sathya Sai Baba’s case qualifies for an exception. Too great is the damage that he did to India. His devastating influence on reason and scientific temper caused huge setback to the country. At a time, when scientific progress led to great social and economic leaps and scientific awakening started spreading all over India, Sathya Sai Baba launched a “counter revolution” of superstition, supported by irresponsible politicians and other public figures who should have known better. In my judgment, this is his greatest crime. I have succeeded again and again to expose him publicly as a fraud, so did some other rationalists. But due to his political protectors he was never held responsible for his crimes against public reason. Nor was he ever booked for any other crime he was accused of. Numerous cases of alleged sexual abuse and murder are yet to be investigated, not to mention the financial secrets of his empire.

Sathya Sai Baba insisted in all seriousness that he was god, the creator of the universe, and “proved” his divinity with a couple of small “miracles”. As son of a village tantric he was familiar with the hand sleights and tricks of the trade. However, he did not only fascinate poor and uneducated villagers with his fraudulent performances. Over the years, he managed to attract a galaxy of India’s rich and powerful, among them ministers, prime ministers, presidents, chief justices, top industrialists and superstars.

Sathya Sai Baba had a special modus operandi that was the key for his astonishing success and the root of his enormous clout. Many of his high society devotees came to serve their own vested interests. Some came to rub shoulders with the prominent. Many joined the club because it was working as a powerful syndicate spreading its tentacles all over the political system. It was a way to the top jobs and a way to get things done. Others were seeking financial support or wanted to get rid of ill-gotten black money: The empire, it is alleged, was based on money laundering, using foreign devotees and branches. In fact, the huge foreign donations to Sai Baba stood in contrast to the comparatively modest number of active foreign devotees and the sometimes quite weak foreign branches, some of them residing in private homes. That is no great surprise, when one considers that Sai Baba did not speak any other language than Telugu and traveled only once in his whole life abroad – to visit his friend Idi Amin in Uganda.

On his 80th birthday, Sai Baba’s supporters announced that he would turn from a miracle man to a philanthropist. That was, after I had demonstrated his miracles so often in TV shows that many kids in the streets could imitate them. That he since spent a part of the great fortunes, swindled out of the gullible, for social development around his ancestral village, is highlighted now to present him as a saint. But as useful and welcome hospitals, schools and drinking water projects for the poor always may be: this kind of alibi-philanthropy is well known even from mafia-bosses. It cannot be weighed against his crimes and the damage he has done to the Indian society.

In December 2005, I wrote a letter to then President Dr. Abdul Kalam, one of Sai Baba’s ardent supporters, which was never answered. I demanded criminal investigations against Sai Baba. If his social development projects are meant to be indulgence to nullify his crimes, this procedure is unprecedented and unacceptable, I wrote. It is a shame for India that well-founded accusations and numerous reputed witnesses against Sai Baba are ignored without any investigation. Do saffron clothes make an offender untouchable for the law? Do we have to tolerate that political protectionism raises its head so boldly, mocking India's democracy?

Sathya Sai Baba caused great damage to India. His irresponsible political patrons corrupted the political culture of India. Encouraged by the clout of Sathya sai Baba, a new clan of miracle mongers imitated him. India would have been a better place without Sathya Sai Baba.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The secret of Prahlad Jani

Indian holy man Prahlad Jani claims that he did not eat food or drink water since around World War II. Indian Defence Research & Development Organisation took this claim serious. What is the truth behind this holy man? Sanal Edamaruku explains. Click the following link to view the clipping on YouTube:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sanal Edamaruku in The Times of India on Black Magic

Chicken bones and black magic cannot harm you

The Times of India - 2 May 2010

Sanal Edamaruku
(President, Indian Rationalist Association)

I have campaigned against superstitions for several decades now and am convinced that it is the single most destructive force in India’s development.

Let me start with a small piece of advice, just in case. If one fine day you get to know that some tantrik, generously paid by your arch enemy to kill you, has managed to lay his hands on a used handkerchief or a strand of hair or yours, don’t panic. Here is the counter spell that can save your life: just laugh. For whatever mantras he may chant over a midnight fire in the local burial ground and whatever cruelties he may commit to your handkerchief, it cannot harm you as long as you are not afraid. If you are afraid, yes, you could die - out of fear that is.

In March 2008, I had an opportunity to prove my point. During a panel discussion live on India TV about “tantra power versus science” my opponent Pandit Surinder Sharma, a well-known TV-tantrik, boasted that it would take him just three minutes to kill whomever he wanted by the sheer power of his mantras. “Then kill me!” I challenged him. And he tried. That was the beginning of an unprecedented experiment. When I survived two exhausting hours of “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili….”, the show was continued in an open air midnight special with the “ultimate destruction ritual”, in which the tantrik fired off the full stock of his black magic arsenal. Finally he furiously crucified, massacred and burned the little clot of wheat dough that was meant to represent me. But all the tantra and mantra could not harm me. Of course not! How should abracadabra and chicken bones spell death?

Fear from freedom is looming large

We are living in a time where scientific and technological revolutions are dramatically changing the way we live and the way we think. With the fast and easy flow of information at our fingertip and the whole world just a call away, borders are opening, old monopolies and privileges breaking and social prisons crumbling. It’s a good time to do away with the last balance of age old superstition and tribal rituals in our mind and to try to understand the world in its complexity. To take control of our lives and develop our own capacities, to be efficient, strong, confident, responsible – and happy. This is not only a personal affair, it is also the best way promote India growing into a developed country and unfolding its strong potential to take a leadership position in tomorrow’s world order.

Many are ill prepared to cope with the challenging situation. For them, all changes create a feeling of insecurity and fear. People who could not overcome their childhood fears and weaknesses tend to remain trapped lifelong in a bizarre world where ghosts and spirits are lurking behind every shadow. They are the ideal customers for tantriks and babas, who unscrupulously exploit fear and insecurity.

Blisters and a flush of enlightenment

I have been a spirited campaigner against superstition for several decades now, as I am convinced that it is the single most destructive force in people’s lives and India’s development. My encounters with “supernatural” charlatans enlist much more colourful figures and more dangerous situations than the “Great Tantra Challenge” on India TV. There were people like the fiery Balti Baba, who performed his fire tricks allegedly for the benefit of a top politician’s re-election, when I exposed him. He got so furious that he tossed a huge burning mud pot on my face. Running TV cameras recorded my narrow escape. I got some minor blisters, but the baba burnt his hands down to the bones and hasn’t been seen in public ever since.

Among all those sinister creatures, Pandit Suriner Sharma deserves a special place. As a somewhat sedate thinker he understood the consequences of our experiment in a nationally broadcast live programme too late. Killing nothing but his own career, he helped me – though against his will – to spark a flush of enlightenment in the minds of millions of viewers. I still receive touchy mails from people of all wages of life who found their way out of superstition that night. In case you missed the programme: you can see some clippings on YouTube.


The Times (London) on Indian Rationalists

Times Online

March 19, 2010

Sceptic challenges guru to kill him live on TV

A Tantrik tries to kill Sanal Edmaruka in a live TV program with his magical powers

Pandit Surender Sharma tries to kill Sanal Edamaruku live on television: the rationalist didn't look too worried

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube.

First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man.

“He was over, finished, completely destroyed!” Mr Edamaruku chuckles triumphantly as he concludes the tale in the Rationalist Centre, his second-floor office in the town of Noida, just outside Delhi.

Rationalising India has never been easy. Given the country’s vast population, its pervasive poverty and its dizzying array of ethnic groups, languages and religions, many deem it impossible.

Nevertheless, Mr Edamaruku has dedicated his life to exposing the charlatans — from levitating village fakirs to televangelist yoga masters — who he says are obstructing an Indian Enlightenment. He has had a busy month, with one guru arrested over prostitution, another caught in a sex-tape scandal, a third kidnapping a female follower and a fourth allegedly causing a stampede that killed 63 people.

This week India’s most popular yoga master, Baba Ramdev, announced plans to launch a political party, promising to cleanse India of corruption and introduce the death penalty for slaughtering cows. Then, on Wednesday, police arrested a couple in Maharashtra state on suspicion of killing five boys on the advice of a tantric master who said their sacrifice would help the childless couple to conceive.

“The immediate goal I have is to stop these fraudulent babas and gurus,” says Mr Edamaruku, 55, a part-time journalist and publisher from the southern state of Kerala. “I want people to make their own decisions. They should not be guided by ignorance, but by knowledge.

“I’d like to see a post-religious society — that would be an ideal dream, but I don’t know how long it would take.”

His organisation traces its origins to the 1930s when the “Thinker’s Library” series of books, published by Britain’s Rationalist Press Association, were first imported to India. They included works by Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin and H.G. Wells; among the early subscribers was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.

The Indian Rationalist Association was founded officially in Madras in 1949 with the encouragement of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who sent a long letter of congratulations. For the next three decades it had no more than 300 members and focused on publishing pamphlets and debating within the country’s intellectual elite.

But since Mr Edamaruku took over in 1985, it has grown into a grass-roots organisation of more than 100,000 members — mainly young professionals, teachers and students — covering most of India. Members now spend much of their time investigating and reverse-engineering “miracles” performed by self-styled holy men who often claim millions of followers and amass huge wealth from donations.

One common trick they expose is levitation, usually done using an accomplice who lies on the ground under a blanket and then raises his upper body while holding out two hockey sticks under the blanket to make it look like his feet are also rising. “It’s quite easy really,” said Mr Edamaruku, who teaches members to perform the tricks in villages and then explains how they are done, or demonstrates them at press conferences.

Other simple tricks include walking on hot coals (the skin does not burn if you walk fast enough) and lying on a bed of nails (your weight is spread evenly across the bed). The “weeping statue” trick is usually done by melting a thin layer of wax covering a small deposit of water.

Some tricks require closer scrutiny. One guru in the state of Andhra Pradesh used to boil a pot of tea using a small fire on his head. The secret was to place a non-conductive pad made of compacted wheat flour between his head and the fire. “I was so excited when I exposed him. I should have been more reasonable but sometimes you get so angry,” he said. “I cried: ‘Look, even I can do this and I’m not a baba — I’m a rationalist!’.”

Another swami — who conducted funeral rites for Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1984 — used to appear to create fire by pouring ghee, clarified butter, on to ash and then staring at the mixture until it burst into flames. The “ghee” was glycerine and the “ash” was potassium permanganate, two chemicals that spontaneously combust within about two minutes of being mixed together.

Exposing such tricks can be risky. A guru called Balti (Bucket) Baba once smashed a burning hot clay pot in Mr Edamaruku’s face after he revealed that the holy man was using a heat resistant pad to pick it up.

The chief rationalist was almost arrested by the government of Kerala for revealing that it was behind an annual apparition of flames in the night sky — in fact, several state officials lighting bonfires on a nearby hill — which attracted millions of pilgrims. Despite his efforts, he admits that people still go to the festival and continue to revere self-styled holy men.

One reason is that Indian politicians nurture and shelter gurus to give them spiritual credibility, use their followers as vote banks, or to mask sexual or criminal activity. That explains why India’s Parliament has never tightened the 1954 Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, under which the maximum punishment is two months in prison and a 2,000 rupee (£29) fine.

Another reason is that educated, middle-class Indians are feeling increasingly alienated from mainstream religion but still in need of spiritual sustenance. “When traditional religion collapses people still need spirituality,” he says. “So they usually go one of two directions: towards extremism and fundamentalism or to these kinds of people.”

Since richer, urban Indians have little time for long pilgrimages orpujas(prayer ceremonies), they are often attracted by holy men who offer instant gratification — for a fee. The development of the Indian media over the past decade has also allowed some holy men to reach ever larger audiences via television and the internet. “Small ones have gone out of business while the big ones have become like corporations,” says Mr Edamaruku.

But the media revolution has also helped Mr Edamaruku, who made 225 appearances on television last year, and gets up to 70 inquiries about membership daily. Thanks to his confrontation in 2008 with the tantric master, the rationalist is now a national celebrity, too.

When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.

The men agreed to go to an outdoor studio that night — all to no avail. At midnight, the anchor declared the contest over. Reason had prevailed.

Young Turk TV discussion on Indian Rationalists

A discussion on The Young Turk TV of the USA about Indian Rationalist Association and the Tantra Challenge of Sanal Edamaruku

New Humanist article on Indian Rationalists


India's rationalists are on the frontline of the battle between science and superstition. Caspar Melville reports on their fight to debunk "holy men"

lMartin Rowson's drawing for Unmasked

In 2000 journalist Ritu Sehgal witnessed a modern miracle in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. This is how she set the scene: "It is a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Makkanpur, Old men sit in front of the village shop in the shadow of the Neem tree playing cards and drinking tea. Suddenly they raise their heads. Two unusual guests approach.... Clad in saffron robes, a sadhu comes nearer, followed by his disciple. Barefoot through the mud the holy man and his companion move with measured steps. The sadhu lifts his hand for a blessing and enters the premises of the sarpanch's (village head's) house. Some young men run and bring a charpoi (traditional bed) and place it in the middle of the courtyard. The holy man sits and folds his legs ceremoniously. Eyes fixed in the clear blue afternoon sky, he does not move. The news of the sadhu's arrival spreads fast.... Within minutes the whole village is present. All eyes are fixed on the holy man. The sadhu rises. Through his disciple he lets the villagers know that a curse is lying on Makkanpur. He makes them see the bad omen with their own eyes. He throws a coconut on the stony ground: it breaks, blood squirting out and splashing all around. The audience is awestruck. He has come here, the sadhu lets them know, to use his magical powers to free them from threatening disaster and misfortune."

What follows is an extraordinary display of those supernatural power: the holy man causes a pot to burst into flame and produces eleven lemons from his mouth. He pierces his cheek without drawing blood, reclines on a bed of nails, and appears to levitate under a sheet. The crowd are enraptured. Having proven his power he can now be relied on to cure the town of its curse.

It's all too easy to be seduced by this portrait of the mystical East, to assume that its rich spiritual heritage brings a meaning and beauty to life so lacking in the materialist, sceptical west. Attracted by the notion of gurus, sadhus, babas and tan-tricks roaming the land, selflessly curing the masses of affliction, politicians and film stars flock to receive blessings from super-gurus like Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

But on this occasion, the village witnesses a rather different kind of miracle. Just as the performance is reaching its climax, with the sadhu hovering above the ground, a man leaps up from the crowd and shouts "Stop! This is no holy man". He tears down the sheet under which the guru is 'flying', to reveal the two hockey sticks he is using to raise it.

"We are rationalists" declares the intruder, Sanal Edamaruku, secretary general of the Indian Rationalist Association. "We have come here to show you how sadhus and god-men are using simple tricks to cheat you." The sadhu himself is divested of wig and beard and revealed as a completely ungodly rationalist volunteer. He's no guru – just very skilled at conjuring, and well-schooled in the basic chemistry which dictates that certain fluids will ignite on contact, that lit camphor won't burn the skin, that weight evenly distributed on nails won't puncture. The miracle is that the spell has been broken. Once the crowd have absorbed the shock, and broken into laughter, this poor, remote village has been liberated from superstition. Perhaps for ever. As Edamaruku says "what may look like Sundayentertainment for children, is in fact nothing less than breaking the little hook on which the god-men's enormous power, and the fate of their victims, hangs."

Despite a tenacious western orientalism which overemphasises and overvalues Indian religiosity, reinforced by the homegrown 'Hindutva' movement propagated by the BJP, India has a long and distinguished rationalist tradition which is considerably older than that of the west. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the seeds of rationalism were planted many thousands of years before the Enlightenment, and centuries before Jesus Christ. Buddha himself, or at least Siddharta (who may or may not have been the first Buddha), could lay claim to being the first rationalist, and even the Hindu sacred text the Ramayana contains the character of Javali who advises the god-king Ram that "there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that…[religious] injunction have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people just to rule over [other] people." This tradition also includes practical political rationalism such as that of Buddhist Emporer Ashoka (273 - 232 BC) who declared religious tolerance and equal human rights with the aim of unifying all India.

Contemporary groups like Edamaruku's Delhi-based Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) and the Satya Shodhak Sabha (Society of Truth Seekers) based in Gujarat, are direct descendents of this tradition. More immediately, they build on the work of the founding fathers of modern Indian rationalism: Mahatma Phule (1827-1890), Periyar Ramasami (1879-1973) and Gora (1902-1975).

Phule, son of a vegetable vendor and educated through the philanthropy of family friends, was one of India's most influential social reformers, campaigning against the caste system, the subordination of woman and the invested power of the Brahmin. Periyar, the 'Voltaire of South India', was born in Tamil Nadu to an affluent religious family and made his name publicly challenging religionists. Drawing inspiration from the French revolution, he loudly and publicly attacked religion as superstition and exploitation. He was a powerful orator and fearless critic: "It gives me extraordinary pleasure", he wrote, "to fling at the pundits their own contradictions, and thus perplex them."

Gora was a high caste Hindu who became a global symbol for 'positive atheism' as well as a tireless campaigner for human rights, and alongside Gandhi, a protester against colonial rule and godfather of democratic India. Phule, Periyar and Gora can be credited with taking the principles of Indian scepticism, rationalism and humanism to a mass audience, though they rarely appear on western lists of rationalist heroes.
Building on this pioneering work it was the Sri Lankan based rationalist Abraham Kovoor (1898-1978), who innovated and extended the techniques of miracle exposure. Kovoor, the son of a vicar, was a professor of Botany, but it was after retirement that he really made his mark as a campaigner against god-men and supernatural fraud. He travelled widely and wrote copiously, bringing all his scientific training and rhetorical power to bear on the practices of the shaman and supposed magicians. He undertook four 'miracle exposure' tours of India in the early 1970s, organised by the IRA and Sanal's father Joseph Edamaruku, even visiting the ashram of Sai Baba, one of Indian's most prominent and popular holy men who, despite his claims to be a god on earth, was unwilling to meet the professor to prove his supernatural powers.

After Kovoor's death in 1978 his mantle was taken up by Basava Premanand (born 1930). Premanand, probably the most box-office of the miracle exposers, actually started out as a disciple of Sai Baba. Becoming disillusioned in 1975 (having transferred a lot of his property to the guru), and inspired by Kavoor, he devoted himself to exposing Baba's use of (pretty amateurish) prestidigitation to produce 'holy ash' and the cheap trinkets with which he wows his large, and far from exclusively Indian, gaggle of devotees.

It was Kovoor's visit to Gujarat in 1976 which inspired a group of rationalists there to form Satya Shodhal Sabha (SSS), named after Mahatma Phule's original 1870s organisation. Kavoor's demonstrations convinced a new generation of activists – composed, like most of India's activist-rationalists, of volunteers from the ranks of education and academia spiced with disillusioned former-converts – that public demonstrations and exposures were the most effective way of educating the public and undermining the credibility and the power of exploitative faith healers, sadhu and the rag tagholy men who tour the country exploiting ignorance and fear where they find it. Exposures are part of a sophisticated strategy to influence popular opinion against supernaturalism.

"We do not go out and talk about whether God exists or not, or get involved in abstract disputes of that nature," says Professor BD Desai, secretary of the SSS, who have performed over 1500 miracle exposures since 1982. "We are not concerned with showing how clever we are compared to the ignorant masses. We want to talk to people in a language they understand, to expose falsehood and contradictions, and show how the miracles are basically a ploy to distract and misguide people from their genuine problems."

The SSS work on a number of fronts simultaneously. In addition to exposing the fakery of fakirs, they work as a semi-official abuse monitoring service, helping to identify, expose and prosecute sadhus involved in sexual exploitation. "In India male children are highly valued. If a woman cannot conceive a male she will often seek out the help of a sadhu, who claims that using ritual and sacrifice he can heal her. Often such situations end up in rape or sexual abuse. A complaint will be made to us, we will send undercover volunteers to investigate and gather evidence, and if possible go to court to help secure a conviction." In this they are fully supported by the local police and receive a degree of state support.

Then there are the cases of supernaturalism which do not involve shifty sadhus, but more complex and fascinating psychological motives than mere greed. Professor Desai relates the story of a 14 year-old boy in the remote sea side village of Kantiyazad, who was believed to have been possessed by the avatar (spirit) of the god Jalaram Bapa – how else to explain the fact that he had begun intoning verse in Sanskrit, a language he did not know? When rationalist investigators arrived they discovered that the boy, neglected in favour of two smart older brothers, had memorised the verses, which were pasted up in his father's shrine. The apparent possession was an attempt to gain the attention and approval of his father. Or how about the strange appearance of cuts in a young wife's sari every time she was due to leave the house with her husband? On closer inspection, the evil omen turned out to be the result of some nifty scissor work by a frustrated sister-in-law confined to the house. In both cases the investigators made a point not to expose the fraudsters in public, but to work with the families to achieve some kind of settlement which would remove the motive for the false possession.

Each case reveals the deep connection between India's structural inequality – the caste system, gender subordination – and the lure of supernaturalism, the desire to be heard, to escape or to grasp some approximation of meaning apparently offered by the holy-rollers. The crucial skill of the Indian rationalist tacticians is to be able to combine a sense of theatre comparable to that of the most extravagant sadhu, with a recognition of the link between India's social inequalities and superstition. Desire for social transformation, in the west more associated with radical progressive politics, goes hand in hand with the desire to expose fraud. Tactically astute, organisations like the SSS know that miracle exposures, successful as they are, will not of themselves transform Indian social inequality, but they form the conspicuous surface of an underlying strategy: "We are wedded to social change, but to create acceptability we need to make inroads in the thinking of the people. Exposures achieve this, as does our voluntary work of all kinds. We have exposed over 50 frauds, and many mid-level gurus have leftthe state, but our focus is on the people. First and last we want people to think rationally. Once that happens the gurus will not remain anywhere."

Professor Desai is clear that while the forms of Indian activism can be an inspiration for a renewed practical western rationalist project, western traditions of rationalist and humanist thought remain an essential model for India: "Our entire enlightenment depends on the west, and we have a lot more to learn." In his speech at the conference in 1999 which celebrated 100 years of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), Sanal Edamaruku was explicit about the vital role played by the availability of cheap copies of classic western humanist texts, printed by the RPA, publishers of the journal you are reading now: "The Cheap Reprints and the Thinkers' Library series during the middle of the 20th century reached far-off places and provoked thinking people to come out and plan organised efforts to influence change." One of the most influential successes of Indian atheist publishers was to translate much of the Thinker's Library, and many other classics of humanism, into local languages like Malayalam. "If you happen to come to Kerala one day," Edamaruku concludes "don't be too astonished to meet a teashop boy who has read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species." The influence, in the end, is two-way.

Indian rationalism continues to claim some significant victories: exposing not only dozens of home-grown charlatans but also imported varieties such as evangelical fraudster Morris Cerullo and faith healing huckster Clive Harris; ensuring that astrology was deprived of the status as a legitimate profession and preventing it from being adopted on the university curriculum; and securing the right to register 'no caste or religion' on official forms, are just some of the practical achievements they can claim. But neither Desai nor Edamaruku are complacent about the challenges still to come. To the problems of illiteracy, superstition and sectarianism are added the renewed perils of Islamic fundamentalism and the machinations of imported Christian missionaries.

For the rationalists, the work goes on. Professor Desai, since retirement working harder than ever for the cause, continues to lecture, speak and write (his organisation has published scores of books and pamphlets in Gujarati) as well as appearing as a material witness in abuse cases. Edamaruku runs the IRA with tireless enthusiasm, using all media – TV, the Internet, magazines, public speaking – to get the message out. From exposing 'the prime minister's astrologer' Lachman Das Madan on live TV to running his paranormal investigation centre which exposes contemporary hoaxes such as the photograph of the giant skeleton, reputed to be a Rakshasa (mythical giant), in fact revealed as a fairly clumsy piece of photo trickery, Sanal Edamaruku is probably the hardest working man in the miracle-busting business. His most recent success was on live television across the subcontinent. On October 20th Indians were glued to their TVs watching live as Astrologist Punjilal, who had predicted that he would die between 3 and 4pm on that day, lay down to his fate. Edamaruku had appeared on the 10 o'clock news the night before, confidently predicting that nothing would happen. By the time the astrologist gingerly arose at five past four, and was declared in perfect health by a doctor, Edamaruku had struck another, very public, blow to the credibility of supernaturalism (a feat he repeated with even more drama in 2008).

These activists and many others with the same dedication to truth and ability to capture the imagination of the crowd, offer perhaps the best example of how rationalism can be both profound and entertaining. Perhaps, if they have time, some of these practical rationalists might find time to come over to Britain and help us with our superstition issues.

(New Humanist Volume 120 Issue 6 November/December 2005)

Sanal Edamaruku on Mother Teresa

India has no reason to be grateful to Mother Teresa

by Sanal Edamaruku

India, especially Calcutta, is seen as the main beneficiary of Mother Teresa's legendary 'good work' for the poor that made her the most famous Catholic of our times, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and a living saint. Evaluating what she has actually done here, I think, India has no reason to be grateful to her.

Mother Teresa has given a bad name to Calcutta, painting the beautiful, interesting, lively and culturally rich Indian metropolis in the colors of dirt, misery, hopelessness and death. Styled into the big gutter, it became the famous backdrop for her very special charitable work. Her order is only one among more than 200 charitable organizations, which try to help the slum-dwellers of Calcutta to build a better future. It is locally not very visible or active. But tall claims like the absolutely baseless story of her slum school for 5000 children have brought enormous international publicity to her institutions. And enormous donations!

Mother Teresa has collected many, many millions (some say: billions) of Dollars in the name of India's paupers (and many, many more in the name of paupers in the other "gutters" of the world). Where did all this money go? It is surely not used to improve the lot of those, for whom it was meant. The nuns would hand out some bowls of soup to them and offer shelter and care to some of the sick and suffering. The richest order in the world is not very generous, as it wants to teach them the charm of poverty. "The suffering of the poor is something very beautiful and the world is being very much helped by the nobility of this example of misery and suffering," said Mother Teresa. Do we have to be grateful for this lecture of an eccentric billionaire?

The legend of her Homes for the Dying has moved the world to tears. Reality, however, is scandalous: In the overcrowded and primitive little homes, many patients have to share a bed with others. Though there are many suffering from tuberculosis, AIDS and other highly infectious illnesses, hygiene is no concern. The patients are treated with good words and insufficient (sometimes outdated) medicines, applied with old needles, washed in lukewarm water. One can hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers are even in hard cases not given. According to Mother Teresa's bizarre philosophy, it is "the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ". Once she tried to comfort a screaming sufferer: "You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you!" The man got furious and screamed back: "Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing."

When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Price, she used the opportunity of her worldwide telecast speech in Oslo to declare abortion the greatest evil in the world and to launch a fiery call against population control. Her charitable work, she admitted, was only part of her big fight against abortion and population control. This fundamentalist position is a slap in the face of India and other Third World Countries, where population control is one of the main keys for development and progress and social transformation. Do we have to be grateful to Mother Teresa for leading this worldwide propagandist fight against us with the money she collected in our name?

Mother Teresa did not serve the poor in Calcutta, she served the rich in the West. She helped them to overcome their bad conscience by taking billions of Dollars from them. Some of her donors were dictators and criminals, who tried to white wash their dirty vests. Mother Teresa revered them for a price. Most of her supporters, however, were honest people with good intentions and a warm heart, who fall for the illusion that the "Saint of the Gutter" was there to wipe away all tears and end all misery and undo all injustice in the world. Those in love with an illusion often refuse to see reality.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sanal Edamaruku in BBC World Service

TV Swamy Ramdev and his cures!

Sanal Edamaruku calls: Stop Swamy Ramdev

Swami Ramdev expects a revenue of 40 million dollar this year. Selling India’s ancient, pre-scientific notion of health care and cure – repackaged as his very special brand – is good business. Thanks to his all-out marketing, Pranayama (ancient exercise in breath control) and ayurveda are big hits with the ever-growing and prospering Indian middle class. His daily early morning show has allegedly 20 million viewers. His 500 hospitals in the country are said to register 30,000 patients per day. His new headquarters in the “holy city” of Haridwar may soon be world’s largest center for yoga and ayurveda.

S wamy Ramdev

Swami Ramdev’s breathing routine as such may be as harmless as useless. But it comes with the stunning claim to cure all kinds of illnesses including cancer and HIV/Aids. His brand of yoga, so runs his pseudo medical argument, increases the CD4 count – the number of cells attacking the HIV virus. Such baseless and irresponsible claims, luring a vast number of patients in need of medical treatment into a false sense of security, turn Swami Ramdev’s yoga ministry a disastrous venture.

“Swami Ramdev is a dangerous man”, said Sanal Edamaruku in a press statement. ’It is high time that the authorities put a stop to his activities. Claiming such absurdities is against the law. The magical remedies act of 1954 was brought in to stop people such as Baba Ramdev from promoting dangerous ideas about curing cancer and the like. But the political class is running scared of him and of the backlash that his legal prosecution might unleash."

Quoting Sanal Edamaruku, the following article appeared in The Guardian.

TV swami offers a cure for all ills

Yoga evangelist has millions in his thrall,
but critics claim devotees are being duped

Randeep Ramesh
The Guardian, Saturday June 14 2008

At 5am beneath the Shivalik hills in northern India, Swami Ramdev sits cross-legged swaddled in saffron robes commanding the rapt attention of 500 devotees of his brand of yoga. The crowd is made up mostly of middle-class Indians, many suffering from chronic conditions for which traditional medicine has little to offer but comfort.

Each "patient" has paid 7,000 to 40,000 rupees (£90 to £500) to be among the first to spend a week at the swami's newest venture: a village of 300 bungalows offering spiritual retreat in the shadow of eucalyptus trees. Swami Ramdev's pitch is that pranayama, the ancient Indian art of breath control, can cure a bewildering array of diseases. "Asthma, arthritis, sickle-cell anaemia, kidney problems, thyroid disease, hepatitis, slipped discs and it will unblock any fallopian tubes," he tells his audience in the yoga village, who line up to have their blood tested and receive herbal remedies.

Although India has a long tradition of mystical gurus, Swami Ramdev represents a new phenomenon: the television yoga evangelist. Almost all his congregation have been drawn through his shows on India's Aastha channel. Every morning, the swami appears on television chanting prayers and explaining that ailments, physical and mental, can be treated by what looks like little more than sharp intakes of air and painful-looking body contortions. More than 20 million tune in each day in India alone. The television guru, who is also known as Baba Ramdev, is also available across the world - including Britain. He has just finished teaching on a yoga cruise from India to China, which even after attracting corporate sponsorship still charged disciples £1,000 a ticket. Last year he appeared in Westminster to give British politicians a chance to sample his yogic wisdom.

Ludy Mantri, a housewife from Mauritius, has paid 40,000 rupees and travelled 4,000 miles to see "her swami" in the Haridwar yoga village in the hope he can help her find a cure for diabetes.

"I have been on medicines every day for the last 12 years. The chanting of Om has an amazing effect and the words of Ramdev energise one through the day."

Born into a farming family in north India he retains a common touch, making rustic jokes in chaste Hindi. The guru combines this with a gentle manner and a knack for public relations. The swami sells himself as a one-person health service. He says he only charges the wealthy and that the poor get his medicines for free. He has 500 hospitals in India serving more than 30,000 a day.

It is no surprise that many sections of the Indian elite - including judges, ministers and Bollywood stars - have visited his camps. Such is his popularity that the Indian army incorporated Ramdev's techniques claiming it made for a "deadlier fighting force".

Ramdev often speaks less of spiritualism and more of the need to develop his country through yoga, portraying himself as an Indian nationalist. He attacks multinational companies for seeking to drain India of profits. He calls Coke and Pepsi good only for "toilet cleaning".

In a country where renunciation is seen as almost a divine virtue, Ramdev announces that he has long ago given up sex - because "it is not love". The adoration he inspires was seen in 2006 when Indian communists accused the guru of using human bones and animal parts in ayurvedic drugs produced by his pharmacy. His followers rioted and attacked the party headquarters. The Communist party backed down when it saw where public sympathy lay.In an interview with the Guardian, Ramdev said that the problem with communists was that they did not have "faith in spirituality and are philosophically against religion. My cures are clean but the communists have an agenda."

There is little controversy about his basic assertions. He says that following his yoga teachings for 30 minutes a day, along with a vegetarian diet of raw or lightly boiled food and no alcohol or tobacco, clears clogged arteries, reduces blood sugar and lowers blood pressure.

But the swami defended his more extravagant claims that yoga could cure terminal illnesses such as cancer. He also said he had evidence that breathing exercises could help Aids patients recover by enabling a rise in the number of cells that the HIV virus destroys.

Ramdev has an explanation for his success with cancer - that yoga oxygenates the blood which kills the tumour. "Yoga is self-healing and self-realisation. I have many cases of cancer which I can provide where patients have recovered. We have cured blood, throat, ovarian, uterine and throat cancers with yoga."

In the case of HIV, he says scientists "have not understood [it] properly". He says that "through yoga and lifestyle changes people increase their CD4 count [the cells the HIV virus attacks]. The truth seen for the first time does appear like a miracle."

Such claims have angered many doctors. Mohammed Abbas, The president of the Indian Medical Association, said that although yoga is "good exercise, it cannot be used to make ridiculous claims about curing HIV or cancer. This is false hope for ill people."

The swami says patients are tested and improvements measured by "independent" doctors. Asked whether he has run any tests to analyse treatment, he offers a ook of testimonies from disciples convinced they have been cured of cancer, cirrhosis and kidney failure.

Some have called for the swami to be prosecuted for "peddling quackery of the highest order".

"Claiming such absurdities is against the law," said Sanal Edamaruku of the Indian Rationalist Association. "The magical remedies act of 1954 was brought in to stop people such as Baba Ramdev from promoting dangerous ideas about curing cancer and the like.

"The political class is running scared of this man and the backlash that such a prosecution might unleash."

Godmen on the run

Kerala: Sweeping out Pandora’s box

The southern Indian state of Kerala is busy cleaning up. Target of the ongoing rigorous sweep is a new brand of godmen and astrologers, who managed to build up flourishing business during recent years without coming to public attention. In fact, most Keralites had not been aware that there was any 'living god’ in their state – except the hugging 'world star’ Mata Amrithanandamayi. But suddenly Pandora’s box sprang open.

It started with a media report in a prominent Malayalam weekly 'Kerala Sabdam' in the first week of May about a red corner notice, issued by Interpol in the United Arab Emirates about a Keralite with the name Santhosh Madhavan. Investigation by the local media turned the spotlight on godman Amrutha Chaitanya and his palatial ashram in the port city Kochin, where he received local politicians, film stars, businessmen and senior police officers. Chaitanya alias Madhavan was identified as the man, who had duped a rich businesswoman in the UAE. The Kerala police – under pressure – arrested the godman and raided his ashram and flat. Besides various illegal-possession-items like sandalwood, ganja, a tiger skin and a police uniform, they found a collection of porn CDs that recorded his raping of minor girls living in a charitable protectory run by him. Nine minor girls complained that they had been raped by him. Investigations of Madhavan’s financial circumstances brought to light that he was operating a dubious real estate business worth many million dollars, in which he acted as a front man for some so far unknown prominent personalities.

Santhosh Madhavan had been a school dropout and small time temple priest. In the late 90s, he familiarized himself with astrology, grew an impressive beard, and started a lucrative career as a godman. In a short span, he managed to cultivate a celebrity clientele and to secure political patronage. He enjoyed quasi immunity, till the furious public pressed for his arrest.

After Madhavan, rationalists and media exposed more under-cover godmen and astrologers with high connections and persumed criminal background. For one month now, the media is reporting godmen scandals nearly every day. Meantime some 60 people have come under the scanner. Some of them absconded. It is reported that they meet their clients now abroad.

After rationalists and progressive media set the trend, youth organizations of the political parties jumped on the bandwagon and started to hunt enthusiastically for godmen – preferably for those close to their competitors. The Hindu-conservative BJP saw to it that Muslim godmen and Christian faith-healers were not spared either. As a result, the spiritual morass has been drained considerably. The great survivor - so far - is the hugging 'goddess'. However, Amrithanandamayi too has decided to play safe and left Kerala for an extensive trip abroad.

Tantra fails in live TV programme

The Great Tantra Challenge

On 3 March 2008, in a popular TV show, Sanal Edamaruku, the president of Rationalist International, challenged India’s most “powerful” tantrik (black magician) to demonstrate his powers on him. That was the beginning of an unprecedented experiment. After all his chanting of mantra (magic words) and ceremonies of tantra failed, the tantrik decided to kill Sanal Edamaruku with the “ultimate destruction ceremony” on live TV. Sanal Edamaruku agreed and sat in the altar of the black magic ritual. India TV observed skyrocketing viewership rates.

Everything started, when Uma Bharati (former chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh) accused her political opponents in a public statement of using tantrik powers to inflict damage upon her. In fact, within a few days, the unlucky lady had lost her favorite uncle, hit the door of her car against her head and found her legs covered with wounds and blisters.

India TV, one of India’s major Hindi channels with national outreach, invited Sanal Edamaruku for a discussion on “Tantrik power versus Science”. Pandit Surinder Sharma, who claims to be the tantrik of top politicians and is well known from his TV shows, represented the other side. During the discussion, the tantrik showed a small human shape of wheat flour dough, laid a thread around it like a noose and tightened it. He claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. Sanal challenged him to try and kill him.

The tantrik tried. He chanted his mantras (magic words): “Om lingalingalinalinga, kilikili….” But his efforts did not show any impact on Sanal – not after three minutes, and not after five. The time was extended and extended again. The original discussion program should have ended here, but the “breaking news” of the ongoing great tantra challenge was overrunning all program schedules.

Now the tantrik changed his technique. He started sprinkling water on Sanal and brandishing a knife in front of him. Sometimes he moved the blade all over his body. Sanal did not flinch. Then he touched Sanal’s head with his hand, rubbing and rumpling up his hair, pressing his forehead, laying his hand over his eyes, pressing his fingers against his temples. When he pressed harder and harder, Sanal reminded him that he was supposed to use black magic only, not forceful attacks to bring him down. The tantrik took a new run: water, knife, fingers, mantras. But Sanal kept looking very healthy and even amused.

After nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik’s failure. The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku. Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.

During the next three hours, India TV ran announcements for The Great Tantra Challenge that called several hundred million people to their TV sets.

The encounter took place under the open night sky. The tantrik and his two assistants were kindling a fire and staring into the flames. Sanal was in good humour. Once the ultimate magic was invoked, there wouldn’t be any way back, the tantrik warned. Within two minutes, Sanal would get crazy, and one minute later he would scream in pain and die. Didn’t he want to save his life before it was too late? Sanal laughed, and the countdown begun. The tantriks chanted their “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili….” followed by ever changing cascades of strange words and sounds. The speed increased hysterically. They threw all kinds of magic ingredients into the flames that produced changing colours, crackling and fizzling sounds and white smoke. While chanting, the tantrik came close to Sanal, moved his hands in front of him and touched him, but was called back by the anchor. After the earlier covert attempts of the tantrik to use force against Sanal, he was warned to keep distance and avoid touching Sanal. But the tantrik “forgot” this rule again and again.

Now the tantrik wrote Sanal’s name on a sheet of paper, tore it into small pieces, dipped them into a pot with boiling butter oil and threw them dramatically into the flames. Nothing happened. Singing and singing, he sprinkled water on Sanal, mopped a bunch of peacock feathers over his head, threw mustard seed into the fire and other outlandish things more. Sanal smiled, nothing happened, and time was running out. Only seven more minutes before midnight, the tantrik decided to use his ultimate weapon: the clod of wheat flour dough. He kneaded it and powdered it with mysterious ingredients, then asked Sanal to touch it. Sanal did so, and the grand magic finale begun. The tantrik pierced blunt nails on the dough, then cut it wildly with a knife and threw them into the fire. That moment, Sanal should have broken down. But he did not. He laughed. Forty more seconds, counted the anchor, twenty, ten, five… it’s over!

Millions of people must have uttered a sigh of relief in front their TVs. Sanal was very much alive. Tantra power had miserably failed. Tantriks are creating such a scaring atmosphere that even people, who know that black magic has no base, can just break down out of fear, commented a scientist during the program. It needs enormous courage and confidence to challenge them by actually putting one’s life at risk, he said. By doing so, Sanal Edamaruku has broken the spell, and has taken away much of the fear of those who witnessed his triumph.

In this night, one of the most dangerous and wide spread superstitions in India suffered a severe blow.

The whole program is video-recorded and is available. If you want a copy, please contact:

Email: Click here for contacting Sanal Edamaruku by email.

Great Tantra Challenge

“Reason has won the day”
Now click & watch

the Great Tantra Challenge online!

The story of Sanal Edamaruku challenging India’s top tantrik Surinder Sharma on live TV to demonstrate his magic powers on him raised enthusiasm and curiosity all around the world. Our website got nearly two million hits in two weeks. We received hundreds of appreciative letters and congratulations every day. One of the first reactions came from James Randi: “Sanal! My congratulations for this excellent demonstration of rationality over superstition”, he wrote, “reason has won the day”.

The story appeared on SWIFT (web page of the James Randi Educational Foundation) and on Richard Dawkins’ website, to name the two most prominent. Meantime it has been overtaken by hundreds of sites and blogs and is touring the Internet in many languages.

Superstition about Hypnotism

Sanal Edamaruku exposes “New Age Hypnotic Guru” Sivanand on Live TV

After the “Great Tantra Challenge”, it was the turn of a New Age guru. On the evening of 15th March 2008, India TV invited “New Age Hypnotic Guru” Sivanand for a show. As pre-planned, Sanal Edamaruku was posted initially in the audience.

After the viewers got warmed up with a video clip full of confusing images, pendulum swings and psychedelic music, with artificial smoke fumed up on the podium from both sides, Hypnotic Guru Sivanand started his show. Spotting Sanal in the front row, he tried to take advance bail and said that his hypnosis was no tantra or mantra but a New Age scientific way to ensure instant strength and stamina. It will make the person intelligent, clever and physically powerful, he claimed. His clients always got power and intelligence in seconds after he hypnotized, the Guru asserted.

Hypnotic Guru touched their foreheads and told them to relax and fall into deep sleep. He counted up to three, and they both were seen sleeping. They slept standing till he put them down on two chairs. From then onwards, he would switch continuously between talking to the anchor, the audience and his subjects. Very soon the lady became the sole focus of attention, while the role of the man was limited to a sleeping decoration piece throughout the program.

His customers, Hypnotic Guru explained, came to him to get strength and confidence, to loose tension and to develop their will power and mind control, and he had a success rate of 90 per cent. In between his sentences, he addressed the lady with commands like “you become stronger … and stronger… now… one, two, three”, “power… power” etc. After some time, he asked her to raise her arm, and she did. She seemed to understand clearly which out of all his sentences were meant for the anchor, which were meant for the audience and which were for her. The Hypnotic Guru even allowed the anchor to ask her to narrate her experience about sea and mountains, and alas, she did it!

The Hypnotic Guru then began his grand finale. The lady was put flat down on two chairs, the middle part of her body remaining straight without support. This was the Hypnotic Guru’s ultimate proof. “This is only possible under hypnosis!” he declared triumphantly, as hypnosis could unleash unimagined capacities of the human body. To crown his success, he called a boy from the audience and asked him to climb up and carefully stand on her thighs. She remained stable. After half a minute, the boy was taken down.

Sanal Edamaruku walked up to the podium at this moment and announced: “This has nothing to do with hypnosis.” He said: “It is a normal capacity of the human body and I can show you the same exercise without any hypnosis!” Upon his request, a middle aged man volunteered for the show. Sanal positioned him on three chairs, the first for his head, the second for his hip, and the third for his legs. “Be confident”, Sanal said to him and removed the middle chair that was under his hip. To everyone’s surprise, the man remained stable without falling down. “He is not hypnotized”, said Sanal. Human hips have this strength and only we need confidence to remain on two chairs without falling down.”

Sanal then asked the same boy to stand on the man’s thighs. Yes, it worked without hypnosis. The volunteer did not fall down. He explained that he was feeling fine. There was spontaneous great applause from the audience. More people wanted to try. And while the game went on, Sanal Edamaruku explained his proof that Hypnotic Guru was a charlatan.

Firstly, there was a long list of flaws and mistakes in his “hypnosis”, which contradicted medical knowledge and experience and proved his demonstration a drama. A psychiatrist in the audience supported this observation and added some points. And secondly, Sanal Edamaruku continued, the subject of his demonstration was not freely chosen, as pretended, but well known to him, prepared for the show and was acting. Sanal Edamaruku and some others had witnessed the over-enthused young lady telephoning some friends before the beginning of the program and proudly announcing “her show”. Moreover, from these phone conversations they understood that she was an amateur actress who had just passed the entrance test of the Delhi School of Drama!

The Hypnotic Guru Sivanand had no medical or psychiatric education and was practicing this quackery on several thousand people over the years.

Though the two and a half hour long program ended there, the audience did not want to go home, but thronged Sanal Edamaruku to congratulate him for the exposure and to bombard him with so many questions they had always wanted to ask but did not know whom to ask.