Beatrice Newbery meets

B Premanand, India's chief



B. Premanand who is described as "India's chief fakir-buster" is profiled in The Independent. Premanand has spent most of his life traveling through India exposing magicians who use their magic skills to prove they have supernatural powers. He explained what makes Indians more susceptible than many other cultures, "In Hindu mythology, the gods send avatars to earth... "People believe that the gods can take a human form any time, so from a young age we are taught to respect and fear the godmen for their supernatural powers. That's why, when a holy man starts cracking coconuts on his head and claims it is supernatural skill, he is believed. Even prime ministers touch the dirty feet of these people." Although Premanand is not well known outside of India -- he is a legend among the people who know of him -- his accomplishments include more than 7,000 speeches, writer of 36 books and teacher to "thousands of young magicians." Best known for his work as a skeptic and exposer of miracles this article is an outstanding introduction to his fascinating life. To read the Dec. 24 article by Beatrice Newbery titled "Miracles don't happen In a country where superstition is rampant, one man is risking his life to ridicule gurus and spread the gospel of rationalism" supplied by Infoseek and YellowBrix click: HERE.(12/25)

Miracles don't happen In a country where superstition is rampant, one man is risking his life to ridicule gurus and spread the gospel of rationalism. Beatrice Newbery meets B Premanand, India's chief fakir-buster

Source: The Independent - London
Publication date: 2000-12-24

To a blast of Bollywood music, the make-shift curtain is pulled back to reveal the first young magician. Wearing a tailcoat, a pistachio green frilly shirt and long black gloves studded with plastic diamonds, the teenaged Indian boy already looks hot, as well he might. It is midday and sweltering in southern India. He begins to hide and reveal polystyrene balls under three tin cups, rapping the cups loudly with a magic wand. "This is our famous Keralan Cups and Balls trick," my neighbour whispers. One of the cups falls over, but as everyone in the audience is either a magician or friend, it doesn't matter. The young performer has trouble lighting a match for his cigarette trick, as the fans are whirring overhead, but he bravely battles on. As each stunt ends, he tosses his props into a top hat. There's the bottle-top trick with a lot of blowing on hands; a card special; and finally a lame pigeon produced from nowhere and accidentally dropped on the floor. After his short performance, he bows out to encouraging applause, and emerges grinning to join his friends.
It is the first day of the International Brotherhood of Magicians' Magic Fiesta, held in a dilapidated hall in the small town of Kannur, north Kerala. For weeks, the Brotherhood's Indian members have been looking forward to the three-day get-together. The atmosphere is one of reunion and hilarity. After five more performances from the young, amateur members of the group, there is a break for lunch, and the magicians burst outside talking and laughing. "Let me introduce you to a fire-eater from Karnataka," says the Brotherhood's vice- president, B Dayanand. "He also rides motorbikes blindfold." I am torn away from watching one of the group put 6in nails up his nose. Next, I am introduced to a nurse who does magic tricks for his patients, and a ticket-puncher for the Indian railways, who performs on trains. Finally, I spot the man I have been looking for - Dayanand's older brother. With his long grey beard, he looks like Harry Potter's benign wizard, Dumbledore, and is doing an impromptu impression of Uri Geller, bending spoons effortlessly in the courtyard. "How do you do that?" I ask, as the spoon snaps in half between his fingers. He winks. "Easy. All miracles are just the simplest of tricks."

At 71, B Premanand is the oldest member of the group and its youngest at heart. "I already have nine years of bonus," he laughs, "as the average mortality rate in India is 62." This is despite the several attempts that have been made on his life over the years - which say something about the kind of magic that Premanand performs. For while other members of India's International Brotherhood of Magicians are hobbyists, Premanand's mission is more ambitious - to expose any man who pretends his magic tricks are miracles.

To this end he has spent nearly 50 years touring Indian villages, drawing crowds of people by demonstrating how "miracles" are performed. "See these scars," he says, pointing at one on his nose, and another on his lip. "These are from stones, thrown by the followers of one guru whom I exposed as a fraud. He used to walk on water - until I made sure he fell in."

India is a haven for gurus, yogis and godmen, all making easy money from the most ludicrous claims. "There are even godmen going about with cups and balls, pretending they are performing miracles," Premanand says. His recent opponents include a 600-year-old man, a yogi who had not eaten for 45 years, and a man who claimed that even the flowers bowed down to him. They were all eventually shown to be frauds, although the last should be applauded for his ingenuity - he was spraying the flowers with anaesthetic. In Premanand's view, the godmen share one goal - to make money by false means. "There was one guru who went from village to village, building huge bonfires. He would invite everybody to throw their gold pieces into the fire, then he would pull out a big silver statue of Ganesh. This was seen as a miracle by local people who didn't know better. In fact, it was nothing more than a simple trick to make ignorant people part with their jewellery."

With such a ready market for "miracles", it is not surprising that there are godmen in most Indian villages. "In Hindu mythology, the gods send avatars to earth," Premanand explains. "People believe that the gods can take a human form any time, so from a young age we are taught to respect and fear the godmen for their supernatural powers. That's why, when a holy man starts cracking coconuts on his head and claims it is supernatural skill, he is believed. Even prime ministers touch the dirty feet of these people."

Such is the hold that miracles have on the country's imagination that Coca-Cola recently staged a publicity stunt offering a large sum of money to anyone who could transform Delhi's Gateway to India into Coca-Cola bottles.

We file back into the hall after lunch, and the older magicians take it in turns to show off their best tricks. There is a growing spirit of rivalry in the room as each one tries to outwit the last. "This is called Cut-and-Restore Note," my helpful neighbour says, as the first man rips up and restores a crumpled 10-rupee note. The next performer is India's best-known close-up magician, who performs an impressive card trick under my nose. Then, the nurse demonstrates the famous "Indian rope trick", drawing a piece of rope out of a basket by blowing a flute like a snake charmer. "It is so simple, but see the amazement it creates," says Premanand. Soon the grown men are giggling like 10-year-olds, and heckling each other in their local language, Malayalum.

Suddenly, Premanand jumps up, asking if he can have a go. He produces a long spike and, covering his mouth, starts making hilarious contortions with his face as he appear to force the spike through his tongue. He whips his hand away and stands with his tongue hanging out, the huge spike through its middle, before withdrawing it to painful groans. When Premanand tours villages, he has nothing more than a plastic bag full of props and a Jeep bonnet as his stage. But with such a flair for showing off, it's easy to see how his one-man acts draw the crowds. "I don't expose magic as it is, because it is a wonderful art," he says. "I want Kerala to be a centre for magicians who can compete with the rest of the world."

After the afternoon's performances, we head off to eat dinner and watch magic videos at Kannur's Chinese Roof Garden. It's been a long day, and most of the magicians flop into their chairs looking exhausted. Premanand, by contrast, embarks upon the story of his life, demonstrating the kind of energy that has propelled him around almost every village in India, and driven him to make 7,000 speeches, write 36 books, travel to 27 countries and train thousands of young magicians. That energy has also enabled him to fulfil joint roles as head of the Indian Rationalists Society, president of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICP), and editor of the Indian Skeptic. All his efforts have but one goal: to arm the public against fakes and frauds.

"My mission began only when I found that I, myself, had been deceived by godmen," he says. "I was a great believer, you see, and from a young age I really wanted to know God." At the age of 18, he left home in search of a guru. "I went everywhere looking for God, from Hindu temples to Buddhist monasteries. I followed many gurus and practised all the 300 yoga sidas."

But, somehow, Premanand failed to find convincing spiritual guidance, despite the fact that each of his gurus could perform miracles and was well-known for his holiness. First came a Bengali called Auro Bindo, from Pondicherry. Next he followed Rama Na Maharisha. "He believed he was `atma', or the soul." Third was Rama Krishna Paramahansa. "I liked him for his social work. He believed we were all gods, and had 13 disciples. Years later, I met the last disciple left alive who confessed it was all a scam." Fourth came Shiva Nanda, who taught kundalini yoga, and had diabetes. "One day I asked him how he could be ill when he was a godman. Like all the others, he replied, `Don't ask questions.'"

Premanand's questions were born of an innocent desire to progress, rather than any suspicion or mistrust, but as his enquiries were continually rebutted, he became increasingly frustrated. Then he joined Swarmi Narai Naryananda's ashram, and his spiritual quest suffered a substantial knock. Premanand went to his guru for some help with meditation. The great man wrote "Om" on a piece of paper, then took it into the temple to pray. When he emerged, he lit the paper in front of Premanand's eyes. The fire burned clean around the holy word, and left the rest. "When you have meditated enough on this word, you too will be able to do this," he said. "I meditated so hard that month," says Premanand, "then I was called again and Naryananda did the same thing. Once again, I was sent away to meditate more." The third time, Premanand was impatient enough to peek through the temple door as his guru prayed. "I was stunned and scared when I saw him putting some chemicals on the paper. I didn't want to believe my eyes, but then I started asking the real questions. That was the beginning of my career as a sceptic."

On the second day of the Magic Fiesta, Premanand is wearing the same old sandals and trousers, darned at the knees, and the same blue shirt. "I have never been interested in money," he says. "If I was, I would never have followed this line of work." He talks loudly over the proceedings, his flow only interrupted when a cobra escapes on to the floor of the hall. (It is the "How to Handle Snakes Class", and the handler needs lessons himself.) The cobra safely back in its basket, he begins to describe his childhood.

Premanand and his brother Dayanand were brought up in a small house in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state. "From a young age, our theo- sophist parents encouraged us to be outspoken; we once had an official five-day family debate about right and wrong. The conclusion was that there is no right or wrong, only relatives."

His parents took the unorthodox view that all religions were the same. When it was time to enrol Premanand at the local school, they refused to fill in his religion or caste on the application form. It was the start of a rebellious school career, at the end of which Premanand was thrown out for joining the student movement for independence. When a teacher came to his house asking Premanand's father to beg for a pardon, he refused on the grounds that his son had done nothing wrong.

Instead, from the age of 12, Premanand was given an imaginative schooling at home. His father had a laboratory in the garden shed which he used for concocting products for his various soap and ink manufacturing businesses. "One day, I broke my father's thermometer, so I hid it on an aluminium plate under my bed. When my father found out, he ordered me to wash the plate vigorously. But, when I did, a frothy grey substance appeared." Later on, Premanand was to find that this is how Sai Baba produces "vibhuti", or holy ash, from photographs of himself. The photo-frames are made of aluminium, behind which he hides mercury which reacts with damp to create a perfect "holy ash" of aluminium oxide. Later, the laboratory also proved the perfect place for working out how Naryananda performed his paper trick - potassium manganate.

Once Premanand had stumbled on his Naryananda's chemical trickery, he was determined to pursue the issue. First he began cutting out newspaper articles about godmen and their miracles. "It was my hobby, like stamp collecting," he says. Next he began writing to gurus, asking how they performed their miracles, trying to provoke some reaction. When the response was limited, he began travelling to any spot where godmen were said to be performing miracles, and watching their work, writing down their miracles and, beside these, his rational explanations. The first 150 of this list have been published in Premanand's best-known book, Science versus Miracles, but there are another 1,300 miracles awaiting publication. "I started looking with the eyes of a scientist, a rationalist, rather than a believer. Whenever I saw that people were cheating in the name of God, my interest grew."

Then T Koovoor, head of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, visited Premanand's home town. "I bought a ticket months in advance," Premanand says, "and when he finally came, I was so excited. Everything he said made perfect sense." At the end of Koovoor's talk, Premanand rushed to the front and gave him his list. He was immediately invited to join the committee.

It was Koovoor who encouraged Premanand to tour the villages. "I said I wasn't proficient enough to take on the work because I didn't have an education, but he replied that, if there is truth, people will believe you." Premanand learnt 15 tricks and practised them at home. "When I arrived at the first village, I set off the car alarm to get people's attention. I jumped on the bonnet and started waving flames under my arms. Then I grabbed a man from the crowd, made a fire on his head and boiled some tea. At first people wondered what I was doing, but by the time I came to explain how these ludicrous tricks are performed, the excitement and noise had grown so much that I had to shout loudly to be heard."

It was an auspicious start to a career as India's biggest mischief- maker. Since then, Premanand has toured up to seven villages a day, travelling 20 days every month. And, as his fame has spread, his audiences have swelled to the hundreds, proving him a better crowd- puller than his opponents. In the name of education, Premanand will perform any trick. He has walked on fire, hung weights from his skin, lain on beds of nails, stopped his heartbeat and produced bags of holy ash, Sai Baba-style, from nowhere. Each time he performs a trick, he takes care afterwards to explain how it is done. Over the years, his acts have become increasingly irreverent, ridiculing every trickster by name, from the smallest "baba" upwards.

As a result, Premanand's books, village tours and increasingly frequent television appearances have won him enemies as well as admirers. His brother- in-law, for example, will not let him in the house, for fear that Premanand might turn his children into rationalists. More seriously: among the godmen who feel threatened by his work, he is known as "Rakshasa" or devil. When he published his first book on Sai Baba, The Lure of Miracles, it was burned by the guru's followers.

Premanand says he has received numerous anonymous midnight phonecalls, threatening everything from public flogging to murder. More than once, his group of fellow magicians have doubled as bodyguards to protect him from being stoned or knifed. Four of them suffered severe burns trying to save him from an "accident" during a fire-walking demonstration. "Some men pushed me just as I was about to walk across the fire. They had put glass in the fire, too, to cut my feet so the heat would go straight to my brain." Eight years ago, a lorry ploughed into the back of Premanand's motorbike one night, throwing him off, but failing to inflict real damage. He rolls up his trousers leg to show me a misshapen knee. "There is a metal rod in here," he says proudly, "from when some Hindus came once with big sticks to beat me. They broke an artery and my leg became an elephant's leg."

These attacks, he believes, have been by followers of godmen, Hindu fundamentalists, or Christians who object to his dismissal of miracles. But Premanand is anything but intimidated. Once, when he needed some information on Sai Baba, he even paid a visit to the great guru's ashram in Andhra Pradesh. "I shaved my hair off and went as a Muslim," he says. "When I left three days later, I left a note saying `You did not know me. I was Premanand.'"

As president of CSICP, Premanand can now file cases against godmen who he says break the law. "We have great laws in India," he says. "The Magical Remedies Objectionable Advertisement Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the Monopoly Restriction of Trade Practice Act have all helped us to get godmen behind bars." There is only one problem - the authorities charged with enforcing the law are often reluctant to oppose godmen. "Politicians make use of the power of godmen such as Sai Baba. No police officer or government official can go to him and ask for records. He is exempted by the state government."

None the less, Premanand's rationalist crusade shows no sign of losing momentum. For 2001, he has two big gurus in his sights. First is Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, head of Sahaja Yoga, whom Premanand says he hopes to get into court under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. And Sai Baba, Premanand's personal bete noir, is next. Once, he managed to get the guru arrested on smuggling charges - only for Sai Baba to be released after one night in gaol following a confidential government order. Now Premanand is returning to the book he has been writing, Muggers in Sai Baba's Bedroom, a 900-page tome which levels some hefty allegations against Sai Baba. "This is going to be the greatest fight in my life," he says. "It will be sensational."

Premanand adds that he will not be going home after the Magic Fiesta. "I don't have a home. My Jeep is my home," he says, launching into a list of plans for the future. They include a museum dedicated to science in every village, and a series of videos demonstrating each of his 1,500 miracles which are in the pipeline, even an ambitious world scientific society. In fact, he is so busy that his biographer is allowed to ask him just seven questions a week, and only via his brother's e-mail. He still publishes the monthly Indian Skeptic, and replies to around five letters a day. "People write asking how such-and-such a miracle is done," he says. "I must write back and explain."

Increasingly, these letters are from children complaining that their parents follow godmen and asking advice on how to dissuade them. Premanand believes this shows the success of a recent drive to educate the young. "Adults are so stuck in their superstitious ways, that when I expose one godman, they turn to another," he says. "Children are different."

When the Fiesta is over, Premanand heads off to Calicot with his brother and his newest devotee - me. We spot some children buying drinks from a roadside stall, and Premanand insists on jumping out for a quick demonstration. Within minutes, he is ushered into the schoolyard by teachers wishing to know his business, and invited to perform. The children jostle to see, as Premanand begins producing holy ash.

Suddenly there is a heated argument among the teachers, and Premanand is asked to leave. As we drive off, the children run after the car, trying to get a last glimpse of the bearded man. "I will come back this time next week," he shouts from the window, "I will be outside the gates." Speeding off, he turns: "You see, every minute of my life is an adventure. How can I stop?"

Publication date: 2000-12-24