Pseudoscience & Religion

In the Name of Ayyappa

The name Ayyappa evokes many things- the bare chested devotees chanting the bhajans of Ayyappa, going on pilgrimage to Sabarimale and many others of its kind. Now that the frenzy of the season is over, it is for us to take a rational look at the phenomena associated with it.

From some angles the Ayyappa rituals look good- abstinence from all intoxicants, egalitarian rites like common meals, cold water baths, secular nature of the initiation etc. But along with it are deep rooted prejudices like barring women of the reproductive age group and the many superstitions associated with the observance of the rituals. The guru swamis are also claimants of supernatural powers particularly with respect to fire and heat.

About a decade ago, a school boy in a village near Chitradurga started acting funny as if he was possessed by some spirit. The teacher was unable to control the boy who claimed that he was possessed by the spirit of Ayyappa. Totally at a loss to take any further action, the teacher brought this matter to the attention of the school correspondent. The latter summoned the boy put camphor on his palm and lit it. His logic was that if the boy was really possessed the camphor would not burn his skin. But, alas it did! It was immediately taken as irrefutable evidence that the boy was faking the possession part. It was the argument of the correspondent that if the boy was really possessed by Ayyappa, the god would have protected his skin from burning. The boy had to be hospitalized with severe burns and the correspondent ended up in police custody as the boy’s father lodged a complaint for causing injuries to his son!

Well, Ayyappa and camphor have a very close relationship. The swamis going on tour to Sabarimalai perform arati with camphor on their palms to show their devotion and the power of their god. On the 14th of January the makara vilakku or the divine flame is seen from a hill opposite Sabarimalai called Ponnambala Medu. This is claimed to be a flame lit by gods residing there as a tribute to Ayyappa. Though this was exposed by the activists of Kerala Yuktiwadi Sangham nearly 3 decades back, the gullible still believe the story. The reality is that the flame is from a vessel full of camphor lit by the employees of the Kerala State Electricity board on that day. Despite of all the exposures the gullible still believe the cock and bull story. The last nail in the coffin was when one of the top officials of the temple admitted that the so called miracle was a man made phenomenon. After that the reportage has been subdued. The Kerala government. regardless of which combination be in the ruling has supported this activity in the guise of the Ayyappa festival being a tourist attraction and an industry worth billions of rupees.

It is not that Ayyappa has close relationship with camphor related burning. He seems to have the power to guard against all types of fire. The swamis on the way to sabarimalai routinely do many things to show their immunity to fire. One would be fire walking or rather walking on embers. This is an activity which is said to be due to the power of Ayyappa to cool fire. But, this is actually due to the short time taken for one to walk across the embers, the Liedenfrost effect causing an insulating layer between the skin and the fire and the well prepared embers. We, rationalists perform fire walking quite regularly to show that no divine powers are needed for that. That has been done by children as young as eight or nine, women and in fact people of all ages. However, this so called miracle of fire walking is not the monopoly of any religion or cult. Muslims perform it during Moharram, some tribes do that in Papua New Guinea, some of the so called ‘self improvement’ courses promise that at the end of the training one can get immunity from fire. I was told by quite a few friends from Europe that I could mint money by making people walk on fire! Till date there have been no serious injuries reported by thousands who have done that in our programs.

Another feat of the Ayyappa devotees is to keep fire on the head and prepare tea with that. The trick lies behind the towel kept on the head of the performer. Either it is a wet thick towel or a thin one which contains a lump of wet dough. This offers protection from the heat for the time duration needed to brew tea. That is no miracle at all and any one with capacity to stand the heat for a short time can do that.

The Ayyappa miracle that hit the headlines most recently was that of dunking a baby into “boiling oil”. This photograph as well as the video footage was given wide publicity by the media of Karnataka. It showed a baby being dipped into a cauldron of apparently boiling oil. That was being done by a Guru swami of the Ayyappa cult. It was claimed as a proof for many things from the power of Ayyappa to existence of God. This stirred the print media of Karnataka into frenzy and I got calls from many news papers asking my opinion of the same. I explained that the oil was only apparently boiling and how the juice of several lemons could be added to oil in a frying pan and heated from below. The liquids of different specific gravities would cause two layers and when heated the convection currents would make it appear that the liquid was boiling when the temperature of the top layer of oil would not be more than a comfortable 40º C for quite some time. More than anything it was the fear that though what was being shown was a trick, some gullible devotee having the confidence in his faith may actually heat oil and dip a baby into that and end up burning the baby’s feet. That has prompted me into action and the press supported us by publishing the statement in the front pages. After a couple of days, I came to know that the practice had been stopped.

Actually when I got the phone call on the 4th January, I was in a meeting at Dalith village in Andhra Pradesh and in this village we were demonstrating another Ayyappa miracle. That was removing fried things from oil with bare hands. Not only that we were doing it, we were also encouraging the audience to try it out and many of them were doing it. That was the demolition of yet another Ayyappa myth that only those who were following the prescribed rituals could have the power of removing fried things from hot oil without burning their hands due to the immunity conferred by their devotion. We were demonstrating that how one could surreptitiously dip the hand into a container of cold oil kept out of sight and then remove things from hot oil. This feat was done by women and some teenagers too. This has a perfectly normal scientific explanation that the cold oil on the hands prevents the hot oil from sticking for the short time needed to remove things from it. When one dips hands into hot oil, it is not the immediate heat that matters, but the hot oil sticking to the skin that caused the burns. If that could be blocked by the cold oil already on the skin, the miracle of removing fried things from oil could be done by any one! This so called miracle is not exclusive to the Ayyappa devotees. Quite a few places have it including some temples in Uttara Kannada district. In Gujarat we are told that there is a roadside restaurant in which fried things are removed by hand and the customer is charged extra for the ‘hand’ removed stuff!

In Kannada there is a saying- jana marulo jathre marulo– which when loosely translated means we cannot say whether the people are crazy or the gathering, but such miracle mongering goes on in one name or the other, particularly in gatherings of the devotees. One only fears the consequences of such could cause permanent injuries to innocent people put to the test or experimented upon. If one were to stand on embers or dip their hands into really boiling oil believing that Ayyappa could protect them it could cause severe injuries and no power in the world could save them. It is such fanatic devotion that is the most dangerous.

About the author

Narendra Nayak


  • Thanks for sharing this. Some of these things remind me of stories of the witch hunt that happened in US some two-three hundred years ago. They would put women into fire they thought were witches. Apparently if they did not burn they were witches, which appeared to doom their fate in either case. If not witches, they were burnt to death, if not and lived after going through the fire, they were tortured and if survived, set in to rot in prison from stories I read.

    I always wondered what inspired this thought- as putting burning camphor in peoples hand to see if they are burnt and protected by Ayyappa- without any trick to prevent burning, humans being humans would get burnt.

    It’s amazing to think of all these superstitions….and magic tricks…

    • These events are more in the nature of displays of the supernatural powers conferred by Ayyappa on his devotees. Putting burning camphor on the palm is an old trick performed by many who claim supernatural powers. Fire walking is a part of many religious rituals and some pseudo scientific “self development” programs. The “boiling baby” trick is meant to show the power of Ayyappa which can be transferred to others. The main reason why the bay is used is that it cant tell what is happening!
      Of course there is the strong element of mysogyny in the Ayyappa cult. During their period of rituals leading to the trip to the temple at Shabarimalai the devotees are expected to abstin from all so called “vices” inclduing contact with women along with dressing in prescribed back etc. Another discriminatory aspect is that women of the reproductive age group are not allowed to vist the shrine of Ayyappa or take part in any of the rituals.

    • These rituals are not in any way connected to persecution of women. But, the whole Ayyappa cult has an element of misogyny. Women of the reproductive age group are not allowed in any of these rituals or to visit the Ayyappa shrine at Shabarimalai.
      Performing worship with the lit camphor on one palm is supposed to exhibit the supernatural powers conferred by a variety of gods, godesses, spirits etc. But, it is a trick which has been exposed by us many, many times. In my reports of my tours you can see some pictures of burning camphor on the tongue.

  • Great post Narendra. Keep up the good work. Not being from the southern part of India, I wasn’t aware of all these miracles in the name of Ayappa.

    Btw, I am curious to know how you manage the organization financially ? I am sure travelling and other parts of this project require financial commitment? Is there any organization that supports this cause and helps you and other rationalists financially?

    • The financial aspects of our organisation are hand to mouth. FIRA works with contributions from members. I have resigned from my job at the Manipal University in November 2006 to spend my time fully for the rationalist movement.
      Some of my tours are in connection with training programs in exposure of so called miracles organised by the NCSTC(a wing of the department of science and technology, govt. of India. Some of them are taken care of by those organise these programs. Many times my own funds take care of these.
      For the year 2009 the International Humanist and Ethical union has released a travel grant of 3,600 euros for my tours and training programs. Some how or the other, the movement goes on. You are welcome to contribute in any way you like and it applies to all those who want to support the movement.

  • Really appreciate the article. Very informative.
    I am from Kerala, and the ones who take the 41 days fasting and all here dont do any of those ‘fire tricks’. I see that most of them even dont wear the ritualistic black dress. Their rituals include the basic poojas, abstaining from meat, liquor, other similar stuff, and women. Basically controlling your mind where it tends to slip the most. They believe that Lord Ayyappa protects, but they also believe that camphor burns their hand. Lik they say ‘trust in God, but dont forget to lock your car’.
    Its now almost like a business and you gotta use many techniques to bring in devotees. So you do all these stuff, or you make others do it. Its obvious. Bad news is that still several people fall prey to these tricks.
    Thanks for the article.

  • Deepak the problem is religion has always been built around false stories and is an economic activity. Religion is open for all sorts of interpretations and religious places of worship are places of business. And the fact is you are also contributing to the business of religion by taking part. One does not need religion or rituals to lead a disciplined life.

  • Good work Mr Nayak. I commend you.

    Bye the way, if the devotees want to induldge in burning their hands and expect Lor Ayyappa to protect them, I have no issues.

    But who gives them the right to blast Ayyappa songs using loud speakers in high decibals early in the morrning?
    Some of them are re-mix of Bolywood/South Indian movie songs. It gets on my nerves. If people are supsertitious/relgious why not keep it to yourself and not disturb others?

  • Raj the permission is given by the same people who give rights to the muslims to blast their call for prayers over loud speakers from mosques and christians to indulge in loud hymns in churches located in residential areas. I cannot stand it either but in India one cannot protest against religion and its practices. If we do we will be thrown in jail for hurting the religious sentiments of another person. Its a double standard.

  • Ajit, I aggree with you 100%. We are a lone voice.
    I don’t really understand why people need to use loud speakers to get the message of God (be it muslims, Christians, Hindu). Did the god ever tell them in the Bible,Quron or any of the other million Hindu relgious book? I haven’t seen a “Thou shall use Loud speaker to blast my preayer” in any religious script. The relgious fanatics want to hold on to ancient, primitive and barbaric customs that are out dated and no longer compatable with the socieity we live today. Becuase it is Culture!. yet they want to use modern technology to spread the message of GOD. It is pure hypocracy.

  • Raj, All scriptures are surely man made. Ever wonder why ‘god’ stopped speaking to the world through religious books after science discovered the earth was not flat? Ha ha. Religion is authoritarian politics in disguise and it is big business i.e money !

  • Raj we are not that alone, there are plenty of non believers in India and the numbers will keep increasing. But religion has kept India back for a long long time.

  • Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we
    call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is
    an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say any-
    thing bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because
    you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t
    agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you
    like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels
    aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or
    down you are free to have an argument about it. But on
    the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light
    switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.
    Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support
    the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans
    or Democrats, this model of economics versus thatMacintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion
    about how the Universe began, about who created the
    Universe . .. no, that’s holy? . .. We are used to not
    challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how
    much of a furore Richard creates when he does it!
    Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re
    not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it
    rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be
    as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed
    somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.

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  • Dear all

    All the instances mentioned above are done by humans to gain popularity no where in any of our Sacred and revered texts has ayyappa or any other god has mentioned that to prove devotion one must be dipped in hot oil or such acts but at the same time i can say that sincere faith does help one realise the presence of GOd and as far as Ayyappa is concerned i have been experiencing for the last 14 years and no amount of rationalism or rationalist’s would be able to convince me the other way

  • Well, ultimately its the ‘fear which is killed’ that matters..And if lord Ayyappa is a reason to culminate that fear, then it indeed is an absolute miracle..Commonly an average individual even after knowing these scientific evidences would surely hesitate to combat wit a ‘pyre’ inside him and if the ‘bhakti’ nourishes him with the potential and energy to kill his fear, i would rather consider its the ‘source’ which makes him eligible and that source is absolutely the strength of mind i.e a belief that lord ll uphold him against all his fears.. *Sharanam ayyappa*

  • whatever be the stories about the tricks or miracles, a true devotee will observe all the vritha rituals and go barefoot to the temple for he or she feels that it is time to do justice to the creator by spreading messages of good deeds to save the posterity from the mounting evils of today and tomorrow

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