Date: 11-01-04

By: Andrew Marshall

Copied from: http://www.cnntraveller.com/2004/issue3/india/

Using basic conjuring tricks to simulate unearthly powers, India's fake gurus command legions of followers while creating business empires that are worth millions. But the country's rationalists are fighting back.

For his performance today, Mr Vikram requires two tablespoons of fake blood, 10cm of chicken gizzard, and a plump volunteer from the audience. A generously bellied man steps forward and is instructed to lie shirtless on a table on stage. Now the operation can begin. Vikram's right hand probes and massages the man's stomach until, with a sudden jerk, his fingers disappear up to their knuckles inside him. There is a little blood, but otherwise the volunteer seems curiously unpained. Vikram rummages around a bit, then begins slowly to pull from the man's belly a distressingly long and stringy tumour. Only later will he tell the applauding crowd that the 'tumour' hailed originally from a chicken.

It is not yet noon in the sleepy Indian town of Tenali, and already the Federation of Atheist, Rationalist and Humanist Associations is having a most memorable annual conference. About 100 people from many walks of Indian professional life - teachers, tax collectors, doctors, bank clerks, journalists - sit in a community hall watching a trick first seen here in Andhra Pradesh state a year before.

Then it had been performed by a visiting Filipino called Alex Orbito, who had used his 'psychic surgery' to remove patients' tumours without anaesthetic or knives. It was, of course, a massive fraud. After a rationalist-led campaign that included debunking shows such as Vikram's, Orbito eventually fled India, although not before extracting millions of rupees from desperate and gullible punters.

The rationalists are a seldom-met but vocal minority in a subcontinent often hobbled by superstition, sectarianism and corruption. Sending Filipino fraudsters packing is the least of their tasks. In recent years India has been blighted by bloody anti-Muslim pogroms and burgeoning Hindu fanaticism, while some gurus have become rich and influential members of India's ruling Úlite. So say the rationalists, who feel they now are fighting to keep alive the whole post-independence dream of a modern, secular India. 'Our voice may be feeble,' says conference delegate Lavanam who, like many atheists, goes by a single name, 'but we are far from weak.'

India's rationalists - and their fellow-travelling humanists and atheists - have always opposed extremism in all its forms. They run schools where children are encouraged to question everything, including their lessons in 'atheist morality'. They support blood-donation programmes, which in the past have been crippled by caste and religious considerations, and conduct 'atheist love marriages' to counter caste-dominated matchmaking. They boycott Indian universities offering courses such as 'vedic mathematics' or 'astrological studies', and demand the scientific proof behind daft treatments such as pranic healing, yogic chemotherapy, and urinology.

Such opinions have led rationalists to be harassed, assaulted, jailed and even kidnapped. Among the delegates I had hoped to meet was Pasala Bheemanna, a professor who had been abducted by Maoist guerrillas, but had then won his release by giving his captors classes in radical humanism.

They also fight to expose a seething pantheon of gurus, godmen, fakirs and faith-healers who find their greatest support among high officials and business leaders. Garoju Kanakachari, AKA Sight Swami, claimed he could cure Aids and other serious diseases by peering into a patient's eyes. While the head of a giant Indian pharmaceutical company supported Kanakachari's claims, a local science group last year challenged him to prove them before hundreds of witnesses. He failed and was arrested. 'Sight Swami stares at defeat,' announced a newspaper headline.

But the influence and financial clout of other gurus grows, proving again how intricately Indian politics and mysticism are enmeshed. Mata Amritanandamayi, AKA the Hugging Mother, claims to cure the sick by embracing them. Based in Kerala in southern India, she has clasped an estimated 21 million people to her ample bosom over the past three decades - the equivalent of hugging the entire population of Texas. There is no more science to her claims than to poor old Sight Swami's, yet her devotees include president Abdul Kalam, who is also the father of India's nuclear weapons programme. 'Kalam is supposed to be a man of science,' says delegate Dr Innaiah Narisetti, author of Lie Hunting and other rationalist books.

While some of India's politicians promote superstition, conference delegates are dedicated to banishing it. This requires the appliance of science, as I had discovered a few days earlier at the Gora Science Centre in nearby Vijayawada. The centre is housed in a building that was pointedly inaugurated during a 1980 solar eclipse, an event that many people believe contaminates water and deforms the unborn. It contains what look like outsized executive desk-toys. In fact they are simple hand-made instruments devised to demonstrate concepts that might perplex the untutored: gravity, magnetism and so on.

Our main aim is to dispel superstition through the explanation of basic science,' explains avuncular curator Mr Niyanta. The centre also has a model of an escalator - the first one in Vijayawada had been built only a few years ago. 'Some people from the countryside had never seen such a thing,' he says. 'They thought God must have made it.'

A delegate called Kiran Nanavati has the challenging post of secretary-general of the Indian Radical Humanist Association, which is based in Gujarat, a place plagued by sectarian violence. 'Our progress was shattered in 2002,' laments Nanavati, referring to riots in which the horrors inflicted on mostly Muslim people - hundreds were hacked or burned to death - recalled those of Partition half a century before. Nanavati's group is wrongly labelled 'pro-Islam' if it tries to combat racist Hindu prejudices about India's 140 million-strong Muslim minority. (One example: Muslims breed faster.) Yet, if it criticises Islam: 'Then we are giving Hindu fundamentalists our shoulder to rest their rifles on,' he says. 'These days we can't even talk about religion.'

At the back of the hall sits an extravagantly bearded old man with nicotine-yellow hair and large square glasses. This is B Premanand, a living legend among rationalists who turned guru-buster after he was deceived by various godmen as a wandering youth. An accomplished magician, he has since visited countless Indian villages on 'miracle-exposure tours', demonstrating the simple tricks that fraudulent gurus claim are God-given powers. In a single day in Patna, the state capital of Bihar state, he once taught 500 people how to walk on fire. His face bears the scars of stones hurled at him by angry devotees, and several attempts have been made on his life.

Premanand publishes Indian Skeptic magazine, and is the author of the cult classic Science Versus Miracles, which explains how to bend spoons, spit fire, eat glass, read minds and 'dip your finger in molten lead without getting burnt'. The book ends with Premanand's challenge to pay 100,000 rupees (over $2,000) to the first person to demonstrate anything truly supernatural. So far, nobody has. That includes a holy man who claimed he could walk on water. Premanand made him fall in.

Premanand's arch-enemy is ailing godman Sai Baba, widely recognised for his flowing orange robes and enormous Afro hairstyle. Sai Baba's millions of devotees overseas include not just celebrities such as the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, but also two former prime ministers of Italy. His global empire is worth, by Premanand's estimate, a staggering $1.7 billion.

'Miracles are my visiting cards,' runs a Sai Baba motto. No they are not, says Premanand - they are cheap tricks. The godman's signature illusion - sprinkling vibhuti or 'holy ash' - is achieved by palming then crumbling pellets of rice starch.

'More dangerous' than even Sai Baba, maintains Premanand, is the Hugging Mother. 'Some men faint when she hugs them,' he muses. 'She has big, big humps.' She also has big, big money: her organisation raked in about 515 million rupees (nearly $11.5m) in foreign contributions in 1998-1999 alone. 'Sai Baba took 60 years to make the money she has made in 20,' says Premanand.

Less than 200 miles away, in the dust-choked town of Kurnool, preparations are underway for the birthday party of a guru named Bala Sai Baba. Guests include a cabinet minister, state-level politicians, and various actors. Bala Sai Baba has stolen from Sai Baba not just his name - bala means 'child' in the local Telugu language - but also his look. He too wears orange robes and an absurd Afro. The party takes place at Bala's school-cum-ashram, a pink-and-blue confection of onion-shaped domes and curvy oriental roofs. The place supposedly cost $1.2m to build, and is lit up at night like a Bangkok cathouse. A few hundred spectators sit before a stage bearing a giant Bala image as a backdrop. Among them are the 40 or so occupants of the ashram, who are nearly all middle-aged Germans. They give him authority and money, and are presumably the reason he speaks Bavarian. 'Yes, he speaks Bavarian,' confirms Roland, a beaming German teacher who flew over just for the party. 'He speaks all the languages.' Like his compatriots, Roland wears an ankle-length white robe and one or more gold rings, the latter 'materialised' by Bala himself. 'He produced it from the air above his head. And you know what?' bubbles Roland, holding up his hand to show a ring so small his chubby finger bulges alarmingly around it. 'It fits perfectly.'

Bala Sai Baba's showbiz entrance is announced by two girls who scatter flowers onto a red carpet leading up to the stage, where a flower-bedecked love-seat is waiting. Then we catch a glimpse of the blessed Afro. It bobs above the jostling crowd like a giant furball in a mosh-pit. Finally, there is Bala Sai Baba himself, a geisha-pale Indian with a Botox permasmile.

The party begins. There is music, and a yoga display by pupils in loincloths. Then an enormous birthday cake is carried in on the shoulders of six men, sliced up and handed out to the crowd as a holy offering. A stout Indian man takes centre stage. He is the speaker of Orissa's state legislature - proof again that, in India, wherever there are gurus, a senior politician is always on hand to sing his praises. 'We have been looking for God in every temple,' he booms in English. 'That God now sits before us in flesh and blood.' The politician breathlessly concludes: 'He is immortal.'

Some musicians prostrate themselves before Bala, who sprinkles 'holy ash' in their hands.

'Did you see that?' asks Roeme, an amiable British maths graduate who became a devotee after witnessing Bala 'materialise' gold rings and chocolate bars. 'It breaks a law of nature,' he says, astonished.

'But I saw it with my own eyes. And if you can break one law of nature, you can break them all.'

But any magician can 'materialise' small objects. Why not really prove his mettle and produce something bigger - say, an elephant?

'Because babaji can only materialise what the divinity wants him to,' replies Roeme. 'He's not David Copperfield. I know what you're going to say. Why doesn't swamiji just materialise a whole bunch of money and give it to the poor?'

Now you ask?

'Because that,' says Roeme, 'would cause inflation.'

Back at the conference, Vikram has set his mouth alight before some delighted locals in a Tenali square. This is done with a lump of camphor, a substance that burns brightly while its underside remains cool, allowing Vikram - and a bold schoolgirl volunteer from among the crowd - to rest it safely on their tongues.

With this show, performed for a 100-strong audience in a nation of one billion, the task facing Vikram and his delegates remains immense. Everywhere, it seems, irrationalism reigns. A day or two later, Bala Sai Baba will be appointed chancellor of a local university, while India Today will report that growing numbers of prosperous, educated urbanites are using 'black magic' to curse business partners.

The rationalists are not just fighting cash-fat godmen and religious fanatics, but also power-crazed politicians and a millennia of accumulated superstition. They are fighting against bestsellers called Scientific Palmistry, against Sai Baba bumper-stickers which read: 'Don't fear when I am here', against the millions of people who believe a dead Albanian nun should be remembered as Saint Teresa because her touch cured a 35 year-old Indian woman's cancer. They are fighting for the very soul of India.