While travelling across India in 2010, I stopped off at the Hindu spiritual mecca of Varanasi and the river Ganges. The city of Varanasi is among the oldest inhabited cities in the world and is a place that Hindus believe can bring spiritual purity to the dead. Bathing in the river Ganges is believed to cleanse the person of all sins, and dying at Kashi can end the cycle of death and rebirth and achieve the highest plane of existence (Nirvana). My arrival coincided with September monsoon rain and subsequent flooding of the mud laden roads that lead to the well-known “Ghats” or sites of bathing for the hundreds of pilgrims who arrive daily. I took a motor rickshaw from my hotel to the river, only for the driver to tell me that this was as far as he could take me, as the road was flooded. The surrounding area was full of small shops with eager locals trying to sell whatever they had at their disposal. My desire to avoid the torrential rain bought me into one of the numerous market stalls. I veered out from under the canopy at the multitudes of energetic bicycle rickshaw drivers heroically using manpower to bring even more tourists to the bustling market area. Before I had time to catch my breath, I was greeted by the store owner, who politely asked me where I was from? He then explained the floating of the dead ritual on the river. The conversation changed, before I had time to catch up, to the subject of fortune tellers on the river bank. As I looked out at the incessant downpour, the enthusiastic store merchant told me he could bring me to a very good fortune teller, who he declared was one of the best in Varanasi. My refusal to participate bought out a more practical sales pitch. “Can I get you an umbrella”? This was a purchase I was more than happy to make. Unperturbed by the fact he didn’t have an umbrella in stock, he uttered a few words in Hindi to one of the younger members of his family who hastily ran off, coming back a few minutes later with a used umbrella.
The above story is symptomatic of a larger problem within Indian society, a problem that has immeasurable consequences for locals and westerners alike, that is a thriving industry of false hope. It would be grossly unfair to single out India alone for this practice, as similar charlatans exist throughout the developed world, even within the world’s largest superpower. Arguably all religious leaders are the CEO’s of corporations that are purveyors of self-deception which comes at a very high price. However Indian superstition is worthy of mention in its own right simply because of the flight of westerners, who are rightly sceptical of their own local merchants of superstition , but believe that they can drink from the same cup abroad and not be a victim to the same exploitation they experience at home. The disillusionment many feel with the Catholic Church over the child sexual abuse scandals or the torture of single mothers, to the anger many feel toward the Christian conservatives who are sexist, homophobic and anti-scientific, provide a fertile market place for those who detest conventional western religion, but who are still yet unable to accept the world as it actually is. They have the requisite scepticism to doubt the Pope’s claims of infallibility with regard to homosexuality or contraception but lack the emotional capacity to form the opinion that no one else can replace the vacuum left from their desire to find meaning in their lives, other than themselves.
The inspiration to write this blog came from the visit of the president of the organisation Rationalist International to Ireland this week. Sanal Edamaruku, a well-known Indian sceptic, faces a jail sentence at the behest of the Indian Catholic Church for exposing a reported miracle of water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus on a crucifix in Mumbai, to be nothing more than capillary action due to faulty plumbing. Indians should be all the more grateful to this distinguished sceptic as his advice could help combat a potential public health issue as pilgrims were collecting the dripping water to drink, in the belief it could cure disease. Thus like its counterpart in the west, the Catholic Church is having an undemocratic and unjust influence on Indian affairs, one that is aided by a culture that is rich in superstition and folklore.
But institutional religion is not the only source of superstitious exploitation in what will ultimately be the world’s next super power alongside China. Numerous Indian gurus have charmed enough westerns to part with large sums of money for all varieties of unproven health claims or spiritual benefits.
Perhaps the most notorious of all these prophets of false hope was Sathya Sai Baba. He claimed to be a reincarnation of an earlier guru Shirdi Sai Baba, who died 8 years before the former’s birth. If ever there was a person to debunk the CS Lewis claim, that one would have to choose between three different viewpoints that Jesus was either, a liar, a lunatic or a messiah, it would be Sathya Sai Baba. This imposter’s death in 2011 was not mourned by the sceptic community, but his funeral, in Puttaparthi, was attended or watched by millions of Indians and among the congregation were the Indian Prime minister, the President and several members of the cabinet. This infamous charlatan showed that it was possible for a narcissistic lunatic and a pathological liar to be granted messianic status by millions of Indians and westerners alike across all religious divides.
The monumental failure of a society to embrace evidence based thinking and critical thought would result in a legacy of unprosecuted sexual abuse cases, in a society that revered this mad man as a deity, capable of supernatural powers. The Sathya Sai Baba legend was believed to have commenced in 1940 when, after being stung by a scorpion, the child fell into a coma. The story goes on to tell how when he awoke, his personality had changed and begun to sing local songs in a dialect previously unknown to him. Doctors had diagnosed him with “hysteria” and his parents bought him to several priests and faith healers. An exorcism that involved his torture in Kadiri, where he remained calm, further drove this legend to hysterical proportions. When he reportedly manifested flowers and other objects for his parents, they bet him in fear and demanded to know what wicked entity possessed their child.
Four years later devotees built his first temple in his home town of Puttaparthi. Among other miracles that were attributed to him was the supposed curing himself of several heart attacks and a stroke in front of crowds of thousands. He was also believed to be able to spontaneously manifest holy ash (Vibhuti). All of his supposed manifestations have been duplicated by sceptic magicians, the most notable being James Randi. A brief search on Youtube exposes just how easy it was for this individual to deceive millions.
While Sathya Sai Baba was probably the most infamous con artist ever to have come from India, he is not alone. In the 1960s the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi developed a cult following both in India and the west. Among his most famous devotees were the Beatles, with the exception of John Lennon who was wary of him from the onset. Among the more ludicrous of his claims was the ability to levitate during meditation. Another bizarre belief of the transcendental meditation movement is that meditation affects the physical environment and that multiple people undergoing this process better the society around them. In 1978 Dr. Robert Rabinoff, professor of physics at the Maharishi International University, claimed during a lecture to students at the University of Oregon, that if hundreds of people meditated, the surrounding area would become mostly crime free. He cited the low level of crime in Fairfield Iowa as an example of this. Among other supposed benefits of TM was the excellent crop yield and low rate of traffic accidents in the region!
The famous Indian guru Deepak Chopra left a career as an endocrinologist and medical lecturer in Massachusetts to train in the practice of Ayurveda meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh yoga. He went into partnership with the Maharishi, becoming the medical director of the Maharishi Ayurveda Health centre. In 1989, the Maharishi awarded him with the title “Dhanvantari (Lord of Immortality), the keeper of perfect health for the world”. Deepak Chopra has consistently made references to the relationship between quantum mechanics and healing and once claimed to be able to diagnose conditions by simply taking a pulse.
While peddling false hope and anti-science, these gurus have amassed millions and contributed to a societal lack of understanding of science and the scientific method. The superstition that they endorse undermines democracy and societal progress. It is time they are given the same degree of scrutiny and examination as traditional religious institutions.