Abraham Thomas Kovoor (April 10, 1898 – September 18, 1978) was an Indian professor and Rationalist who gained prominence after retirement for his campaign to expose as frauds various Indian and Sri Lankan “god-men” and so-called paranormal phenomena. His direct, trenchant criticism of spiritual frauds and organized religions were enthusiastically received by audiences, initiating a new dynamism in the Rationalist movement, especially in India. Born at Thiruvalla in Kerala, Kovoor was the son of Rev. Kovoor Eipe Thomma Katthanar, Vicar General of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar. He was educated at Bengabasi College, Calcutta. After working briefly as a junior professor in Kerala, he spent the rest of his life in Sri Lanka, teaching botany in several colleges before retiring in 1959 as a teacher at Thurston College, Colombo.
As a rationalist
After retirement Kovoor devoted his life to the rationalist movement. He spent most of his time building up the Ceylon Rationalist Association, and was elected in 1960 as its president, a title he retained until his death. He edited an annual journal, The Ceylon Rationalist Ambassador. In 1961 he traveled in Europe and established contact with the World Union of Freethinkers. Under the pseudonym Narcissus, he wrote newspaper and magazine articles about his encounters with the paranormal. These articles were translated and published in India, initially in Malayalam by Joseph Edamaruku and later in other Indian languages.
Kovoor traveled in India several times during 1960s and 1970s, addressing hundreds of meetings. His brilliant oratory, enlivened with a scientific approach and critical thinking, worked like magic in Indian villages and towns. During four Miracle Exposure lecture tours in India, all organized by the Indian Rationalist Association, Kovoor challenged and exposed ‘miracles’ performed by godmen. During his last journey to India in 1976 Kovoor visited Sai Baba’s ashram and challenged him to face a test. The baba refused.
A controversy arose when Kovoor was awarded an honorary doctorate by the obscure (and now defunct) Minnesota Institute of Philosophy, calling itself the theological seminary of a “Church of Materialism.” Kovoor had never visited the US. A strong critic of fake diplomas and doctorates used by charlatans, he later returned the honorary doctorate.
Abraham Thomas Kovoor died on September 18, 1978. “I am not afraid of death and life after death”, he wrote in his will. “To set an example, I don’t want a burial.” He donated his eyes to an eye bank and his corpse to a medical college for anatomical study, with instructions that his skeleton eventually be given to the science laboratory of Thurston College. All of these wishes were honored.
Exposing the famous guru Sathya Sai Baba
One of the main targets during his miracle exposure campaign was Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh state, India. Sathya Sai Baba is perhaps the most prominent god-man in India today, and was during Kovoor’s time. Sai Baba claims to this day to materialize vibuthi or holy ash. Kovoor believed that the Baba performed this through sleight of hand. Many Indians throng to the ashrams of holy men who claim to perform such miracles. To expose Sai Baba and others, Dr Kovoor would produce holy ash seemingly from nowhere and distributed it amongst the audience. He would then demonstrate to his audience the sleight of hand, explaining that after some practice, anybody could perform the feat .
Kovoor wrote repeatedly to Sai Baba, requesting a meeting to discuss the baba’s miraculous powers. Upon receiving no response, Kovoor communicated his intention to come to one of Sathya Sai Baba’s ashrams, at Whitefield near Bangalore. When Kovoor arrived, Sathya Sai Baba had gone to his other ashram at Puttaparthi. He was an efficient hypno-therapist and applied psychologist. The famous Malayalam movie “Punarjanmam” and Tamil movie “Maru piravi” was made on basis of his case dairy. Bharathiya Yuktivadi Sangam declared a national award called A. T. Kovoor Award for the secular artist. The first award was conferred to the legendary Indian film star kamal Haasan for his Humanist Activities and Secular Life.
Abraham Kovoor’s challenge
After his numerous encounters with god-men, astrologers, and other people who claimed to have psychic powers, he came to the conclusion that there was no objective truth behind such claims. He wrote, “Nobody has and nobody ever had supernatural powers. They exist only in the pages of scriptures and sensation-mongering newspapers.” His books Begone Godmen and Gods, Demons and Spirits, about his encounters with people claiming psychic powers, are still best-sellers in India.
In 1963, Dr Kovoor announced an award of Rs. 100,000 for anyone who could demonstrate supernatural or miraculous powers under foolproof and fraud-proof conditions. The challenge listed 23 miracles or feats that godmen (and some western mystics and performers such as Uri Gellerand Jeane Dixon) were claimed to perform, such as reading the serial numbers from currency in sealed envelopes, materializing objects, predicting future events, converting liquids from one kind to another, and walking on water. Some sought publicity by taking on his challenge, but forfeited the initial deposit amount. After his death in India, the Indian Rationalist Association continues his Rs.100,000 challenge. Similar challenges have been posed by Basava Premanand and James Randi.