Prologue: Disenchanting India

Johannes Quack

Friends, I am an activist of the organization Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti.’ The van you see outside belongs to ANiS. There is a big board in the front of the van which reads vijnanbodh vahini (science-awareness vehicle). Can you guess what that means? It means that we help people understand science. But we are not here to teach you science. This is a science program but it is not going to teach you science and it is not a science quiz. This is a different sort of program. Friends, you must have seen the various things that we keep here. You can see a lamp, a coconut, a nail hoard, a candle, and many other things. We do not usc such things in our science studies. Rather, we collected these things from our devghar (prayer room) and from the bag of a bhagat, tantrik, or mantrik (religious specialist or healer). They use these things to cheat you, but we will use them to educate you.

Friends, we are going to watch a program about chamatkar (miracles). We are going to learn about bhüt (ghost) and bhanamati (sort of black magic), and how one becomes possessed by a ghost; we will also learn about quackery and karani (witchcraft or sorcery). We will learn about what all these are, how and why these things happen, and about the people who engage in such acts. Friends, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti has worked for the past twenty years. We show the same program to audiences everywhere we go. Our organization works towards the eradication of such superstition. Why does the organization work on these issues? Because it is our duty! Our constitution tells us to encompass a scientific approach, to value humanity and an inventive mindset, and help others to do the same. It is our duty as Indian citizens. This is why the organization works on these issues.

These are the opening words of a program conducted by activists from the rationalist organization Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition – ANiS). During my ethnographic fieldwork on the aims and activities of this organization, I accompanied groups of activists who traveled for several months with their “science vans” throughout Maharashtra giving lectures and performing programs in villages, schools, and colleges. Their declared aim is “to promote scientific temper and to eradicate superstitions’

The procedure used is generally the same each time they give such a program. The activists spread out the tools needed for their program on a large table, as the village square or lecture hall gradually fills with interested students, teachers, or members of the public. After the introductory words, the head of the science-van team usually continues by informing the audience of the legacy of which they, as rationalists, see themselves a part. They are aware of the criticism sometimes directed at them for being an extreme and anti-religious organization and also that some accuse them of being westernized, of eroding Indian identity religion and tradition by spreading “Western thinking”.  Although the rationalists do not evade confrontations with such critics, they anticipate certain common reactions, and work to counter these with statements such as:

We at ANiS carry forward the work of the government and earlier reformers. This work is not ours alone; all of us are part of it. Even though it is us who go around wearing the badge of ANiS and do this work, we believe it is the teachers who are the real activists. From our textbooks we learnt about the words of saints and the thoughts of reformers. They have attacked traditions and rituals. Have you heard of Tukaram, Gadge Baba, Dnyaneshwar, and Eknath, or of other saints? Have you read their abhanga (hymns)? Or have you read the texts of reformists like Charvaka, Dr. Ambedkar, Rajaram Mohan Roy or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar including those of Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule or Agarkar? If you read their literature, you will see that they held the same thought as we do today.

All the saints devoted their lives to spreading awareness. Some 350 years ago; Saint Tukaram realized that nobody can conceive by a navas (taking a religious vow) but this belief remains in people to this day. In his Bhajans (devotional songs) Saint Gadge Baba sing us ‘asa  kasa tumcha dev,  jo gheyi bakaryacha jiv?‘ (How can you have this kind of a god, who believes in taking the life of a goat?), but the meaning of his words were lost on people. Even today, people sacrifice cocks or goats to a “god” who is just a stone colored with sindhur (vermillion). Many such superstitious acts continue to take place in our society. Some of these are connected to possession by ghosts and d jadu tona (black magic). In other instances people give their money to quacks and receive mistreatment and exploitation at their hands.

Slowly but surely the speaker from the science-van team becomes more enthusiastic, revealing his dedication and commitment to the rationalists’ cause. His self-confident and challenging demeanor is evidence of his conviction that he knows what is wrong with Indian society and what needs to be done to solve the problems in question. In this manner, the ANiS activist elaborates on the importance of their work. According to him it is of utmost importance not only because science disproves many religious claims but also because irrationalities and superstitions are often at the heart of injustice, exploitation, cheating, malpractice, quackery, and other harmful activities. (On the question of whether “science” should in this case be written with a capital ‘S’, see chapter 12.) To illustrate the danger of superstitious beliefs, the activist lists several examples of harmful practices associated with them:

Last year in Mumbai, the salty seawater suddenly turned sweet during the rainy season. People said it was the work of some Muslim Baba and because of the darga (the tomb of a Muslim saint) nearby. People believed it was holy water. They drank the water; they anointed their foreheads with it and took it home in bottles. Actually, rainwater which drains into the sea made the seawater sweet. People drank the dirty water that actually came from the Mithi river (a river in Salsette Island, on which the city of Mumbai is located), considering it a blessing. People even paid for bottled water from the Mithi. These sorts of incidents continue to take place in our society. People believe all kinds of things….

In the village we stayed in last night, a young boy died because his father refused to take him to the dispensary. The local bhondu (trickster, quack) had told him that he could cure the boy through jhãdni (dry twigs or broom; when jhadni is used on a person, it is believed to sweep away the evil spirit from a person’s body). These superstitions are strongest in, but by no means limited to, our villages….

When we go to the market to buy a TV, we bring it home and put it on the table. But we do not turn it on until we have performed the necessary rituals. We place flowers in front of the TV, burn incense-sticks, and break a coconut before we turn it on. On moonless days, villagers clean their vehicles and tie lime, chilies, and a black doll (hung upside down) to their cars in order to ward away bad omens. They believe that doing so will protect their vehicles from accidents. If this was true then we could have done this to every vehicle. Even today, people tie up black dolls at the entrance of a new house which has just started being built to keep evil spirits away. This is blind faith. I am here today to talk about this issue.

People still believe in black magic. It is unfortunate that certain incidents still take place in our society. Two months ago a teacher from Bhandara district sacrificed his daughter. Some Babã had suggested that he should sacrifice his daughter in order to secure a better future. The teacher then killed his daughter. Many such incidents take place in Maharashtra. People are killed or are buried alive owing to superstition and their belief in witchcraft and black magic. Women are burned because people accuse them of being witches. Our traditional system is patriarchal and Hinduism, as in the case of all other religions, sees women as inferior to men….

Friends, we can find many such bãbäs, buvas, bhagats, mullãs, phakirs, mantriks, and tantriks. They perform so-called miracles and strengthen the hold of superstition over people. There is a Babã in our country who moves his hand in the air and then “conjures” up a gold chain to present to an ãmadãr (member of State Assembly). The next time he conjures a gold ring to give to some VIP. If you or I were to go to him, he would present us with vibhuti (holy ash). The present he gives depends upon the status of the visitor so the Bãbãs end up doing politics. There are many such Bãbãs in India and they have demarcated their own territories: one in Gujarat, another in Karnataka and a third in Tamil Nadu. We are very small in comparison to the influence they have but our movement is growing. Maharashtra has two or three big Babas and countless small ones. One of the more well-known Babas proclaimed that the world would be submerged in 1999 and that only devotees wearing his locket or in possession of one of his pens would survive. Every one else would die, he said. Friends, there are many such people spread superstitions in our society and we get unknowingly taken advantage of.

After nearly an hour of lecturing, the performance part of the program begins. It consists of the performing of alleged miracles as they are used by “godmen”.  Godmen is a generic term the rationalists use to refer to people who claim to have aloukik shakti (supernatural powers). For the rationalists such “godmen” are malevolent tricksters, conjurers, charlatans, quacks, thugs, and liars; rationalists object to and try to debunk them, especially those who claim to heal, foretell the future, or perform miracles in order make an income. It is a shared decisive aim among Indian rationalists that such people should be imprisoned as they are considered to be exploiting peoples’ gullibility.  The group that ANiS targets in this criticism is heterogeneous and includes all kinds of local healers, representatives and specialists of various religious traditions, wandering sãdhus, astrologists, and so on. The Hindi and Marathi terms used to refer to them include Babã, bhagat, buva, mullã, sãdhu, maulavi, phakir, tantrik, or mantrik.  In this book, I will use these Hindi and Marathi terms in reference to specific “professions,” but will use “godman” in general since it is the term most often used by ANIS (even in Marathi) and can be understood in a neutral, positive, or negative sense.

After the performance, the rationalists explain the science behind the alleged miracles in order to show the audience that all supernatural claims can be explained naturally. The “miracles” the activists of ANiS stage in front of the astonished and enraptured (not to say, “enchanted”) audience include tricks such as materializing rings and necklaces from thin air, banishing a ghost from a pot of rice, producing water from an empty pot, sticking a trishül (a “trident” that has religious connotations) through one’s tongue, and walking over glowing coals. Moreover, for each miracle they tell us a corresponding story about how some “godman’ is made rich in the process, how many people died as a result of mistreatment, or how ANiS managed to put the “godman” behind bars for harming or exploiting people. In one instance, for example, the activist starts to mumble a made-up mantra and trickles some “holy oil” onto a (chemically prepared) coconut which bursts into flames within seconds. To the astonished and amazed audience members he announces:

This is a miracle! The same miracle was demonstrated in the form of a larger yajna (fire sacrifice) when Indira Gandhi was present, but she did not believe in the miracle. She didn’t get trapped. She started thinking and then thought all night about how this might have happened. She was educated; that is why she started thinking. She could not quite get her head around it. Then, the next morning, she called up a scientist who gave her the scientific explanation behind the miracle. She realized that if the Prime Minister could be so easily duped, how much easier it would be for these bäbas and buvas to cheat and exploit the common people. She therefore recommended stressing the value of scientific temper in education. In addition, she declared the spread of a scientific temper to be the duty of all Indians. Scientific temper means to not just believe blindly but to question and confirm.

The same experiment was demonstrated in Gangakhed (Parbhani district) but people never bothered to pay close attention to what was really on display. The yajna went on for seven days and was meant to bring rain. The Baba in charge did the same experiment for rain and the people were duped. People started believing him and bowed down in his presence. While paying visits, as usual, people started putting money in the collection box. They gave away their money without even counting how much they were giving away. Over seven days, the total amount collected was 13 lakh and 70 thousand rupees (1,370,000 Rupees). This news was printed in the local paper. We kept the news cuttings. The total cost for this experiment is 50 paise. With a 50 paise capital, those people earn 13 lakh rupees. That is how much business they do. How do they get away with it? It is because people like us trust them so easily.

When we see a person with long beard, wearing garlands and saffron-colored robes or religious clothes, we feel he must be some great person. So we should visit him and bow down to him. You should not do this! There is usually a badmas (thug) hidden behind the long beard. So we should make sure first. If I had on a saffron-colored robe with a mãlã (garland with religious connotations) around my neck and vibhuti (holy ash) on my forehead and had demonstrated this experiment in your village, there would have been a long line of villagers waiting to visit me. They would have bowed down at my feet and given me money; they would have given me acclaim (by saying) chamatkari baba ki jai (praise the miracle-man). They would have believed that I had the power to   cure all their illnesses and would have stopped taking real medicine or visiting the doctor. The people who demonstrate miracles are cheats and they cheat us. We should not let them trap us; we should not believe them. We should ask ourselves how and why this happens. There are no miracles. Miracles can never happen.

This is one of the key messages of the rationalists: “Miracles can never happen”.  There is nothing aloukik (supernatural, remarkable, or singular) in the world; in principle everything can be explained through science, they say.  The rationalists do not only try to inform their fellow Indians of the different ways they are cheated and exploited in the name of the religion and the supernatural, they also want them to take on new worldview. Their aim is to make them realize that most Indians live in a backward condition and that pragati (progress) and vikas (development) necessarily require a rationalistic attitude concerning ill spheres of life. Central to the particular stance toward the world that rationalists try to propagate is their ‘ideology of doubt,’ which includes the urge to question and confront religious and traditional authorities and to adopt what they call a “scientific temper”.

All regions in the world have superstitions, even a country like America. Superstitions exist everywhere, but in different forms. Our forms are very magas (backward). We are lagging a century behind Europe. Their blind faith allows them to buy plots on the moon while ours worship the moon. Science has progressed so much that Sunita Williams, a woman with Indian origin rotated the earth in space for six months. At the same time out society is so backward that out highly educated women including doctors and engineers rotate (circumambulate) a vat (Banyan tree- ritual performed to secure the lives of their husbands and keep the same groom for several births to come). Nobody knows whether this really works or not as nobody ever tried to verify it. We just never raise doubts or think about the issue. Our society continues to follow these traditions. The child does what his father does and his child follows him in turn. Nobody reflects on why we do what we do. From childhood onwards, as in nursery school, our teacher teaches us to be quiet. (hatachi ghadi  tondavar bot – hands  folded and finger on the lips), in other words, stop talking and do not ask any questions. If someone asks questions, they get a spanking. ‘Keep quiet, no questions, let things happen the way they used to and always have.  Science insists on asking questions and encourages us to never believe anything blindly.  Science asks you to check and andhasraddha (superstition or blind faith) asks you to believe without doing the necessary check. We have to adopt a scientific temper because we and our parents get cheated. Our parents take us to such people. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents never went to school. That is why; they do not have the scientific perspective.  But we are science students; we should be more progressive these days. Long ago, human beings lived in the jungle. They had no clothes, and no shelter. Even though humanity has progressed gradually, it seems that we cannot develop further. Superstition has hampered our growth. That is why we should learn; this program will help to understand these issues. When watching every such experiment, do examine, observe, rationalize, and draw conclusions. Try this by yourself. You should keep this in mind.

Some four hours later all the lectures have been given and several rationalist songs have been sung at intervals to entertain the audience. After many miracles have been performed and the science behind the alleged miracles has been explained, the rationalists make a final announcement. They ask the people whether the local healers and “godmen” are willing to make some money. At the approval of the audience, they announce that ANiS will award 21 lakh rupees (2,100,000) to anybody who is able to prove their supernatural powers under scientific conditions. This underlines again the message they wish to spread: their conviction that all supernatural claims can be explained naturally using science. They admit that they were not able to tackle and debunk all existing supernatural claims but are convinced that, in principle, this would be possible.

There are so many such miracles, which we should crosscheck and discuss. But we do not have that much time. So just remember that there are no miracles. People who believe in miracles are stupid, people who perform tricks are thugs and people who do not make an effort to crosscheck are cowards.

Courtesy: Extract from his book,

Disenchanting India,

Organised Rationalsim and

Criticism of Religion in India

Published by OUP)