As I am sitting in an Ashram and writing this, eating ‘satwik bhojan‘ devoid of all intoxicants and tamasik foods like onion and garlic, I am reminded of an old adage- if you want gay nights and good dinner, board with saints and bed with sinners! Some of the Ashrams where I am staying as of now at Haridwar could put five star hotels to shame, except that there would be no bars and the food restricted to that of the Satwik variety. It is not that this category of food is bad- it is very tasty and quite filling, but the saturated fat and cholesterol content would be enough to clog the arteries of the leanest of the saints! Those things apart, I am here to conduct training programs for young people in collaboration with an organization called SPECS and sponsored by NCSTC for miracle exposure. That means that I have to train people to create scientific temper among a population whose main means of sustenance is a money order economy for the year round and pilgrimage tourism during the season from May to September. In the state of Uttarakhand, which is called as Devabhoomi, the other source of income are the hydroelectric projects on the river Ganga. In fact it is this river that provides the means of living for the most of the population including the hordes of priests waiting to fleece the gullible tourists who come to these places seeking salvation for the souls of their departed ancestors. Haridwar where I am at present has numerous ghats where in the river Ganga has been diverted to facilitate a dip in the holy waters. I am also enjoying bathing in the holy waters of this sacred river in the safety and comfort of my hotel room! In fact, right from the day I stepped into this state my bathing has been in the water of the sacred river, first in Dehradun, then in Uttarakashi and now in Haridwar.
It is not the first time that I have been to this state. The last time I was here was in 2006 July during which I had conducted training programs at two other places on the eastern side of this state. At that time itself I had found out some things about the superstitions prevalent in these areas. The programs at that time were conducted in two places in the area known as the Kumaon region. This time the areas where we had them are the areas in the Gharwal region and the plains. One of the most important areas where superstitions were the most exploitative was that area concerned with death. To send the soul of the departed to heaven in a proper way the surviving members of family had to provide rations for a full year to the priestly class. That would be a very heavy blow for the people struggling with a subsistence level economy, carving a precarious existence with terrace cultivation, bringing water from streams running far below the fields. But, it had to be done to ensure a comfortable journey and stay in the ‘other world’ for the departed! The other prevalent superstition was spirit possession. Whole families would get ‘possessed’ by spirits whom they call as devatas, and start dancing. This would go on for hours. The priest conducting these rituals would also perform many ‘miraculous’ acts like licking red hot rods, holding heated rods in the hands, fire walking etc. In fact, these supposed miracles were no different from those of our very own bhootha kola, Aiyappa swamis etc. Some others like dipping hands into ‘boiling’ oil, removing fried things from hot oil were also claimed as miracles. One thing that I have noticed in my long career as a miracle buster is that miracles every where are not very different from each other!
How do these so called miracles with fire and heat work? One has to look back to the effect described by the Dutch scientist Liedenfrost who stated that when a liquid comes into contact with a surface whose temperature is well above that of its boiling point, it evaporates and forms an insulating layer for a short time. In fact, when water comes into contact with a surface like a heated metal or embers or any other for that matter, it forms steam which is a good insulator and this acts so for a short time. That is how one can lick red hot metals, walk on embers, dip hands into molten lead and do a lot of things that appear to be superhuman and miraculous! What one has to remember is that hotter the surface better it is for this effect to take place. That is why we prefer red hot embers for a fire walk over those which may not be that hot. Again, licking a red hot rod is better that doing that with one which is not that hot. What one has to remember is that this effect lasts only for a very short time. One would observe this very same effect if we were to sprinkle water on a hot griddle- the drops would dance up and down over its surface and take some time to evaporate this would not happen if it were not hot enough. One could wet ones hand and dip it into molten lead without any damage if we could do that quickly. This would apply to other liquids as well. One could take liquid nitrogen into the mouth and blow it out without the risk of frost bite as the body temperature would be well above its boiling point and the vapor would insulate the mouth from the cold. This effect seems to have been discovered by many civilizations independently of each other for such so called miracles with heated objects exist in many cultures. Many American Indian tribes, those of Papua New Guinea, not to say of many in Asia, follow some rituals involving fire walking which is passed off as a miracle.
Again, like every where else, the young people of Uttarakhand have been brought up in a way as to never question their elders. We had one training camp at Uttarakashi, which is supposed to be a holy place in the Himalayas, attended by mostly young people who were post graduate students in Botany. Though their educational background should have taught them to question, they were trying to defend superstitious practices using pseudo-scientific justifications. One such so called miracle was supposed to be happening at a Shiva temple in their town. This temple had a huge trident which was kept in a depression in a rock. This weighing several quintals was supposed to a special one. It could be moved by ones little finger and according to the local lore by that only. It was claimed by all that one could not move it with any other finger and certainly not by any other part of the hand or the rest of body. We managed to visit that temple with two local boys who devotedly shook it with their little finger. I shook it with the little finger of my right hand and it moved. I tried with another finger and the same happened. Ditto for the thumb followed by the palm! We repeated it with my left hand and again the trident moved. The boys were very much surprised. When I asked them whether they had tried that before they said never! Their implicit faith in what was said by their elders had robbed all their faculties of reason and logic. They had never asked themselves or others as to why something that could be moved with very little effort by a little finger would not move when more effort was put. When we questioned some elders they too gave the same reply. Their implicit faith in the local miraculous event had prevented them from performing a simple practical test like shaking the object with some other finger or some other part of the hand! A piece of very good engineering, as making a two storey high trident, putting it into a finely made pit where it could balance and be moved very easily was converted into a matter of blind faith. Perhaps the one who had made it had intended it to be so well balanced that it could be moved very easily even by a little finger and the locals had distorted the whole thing into a superstition that it could be moved only by the little finger and not any other.
The trainees had queries about one more alleged miracle. It was said that the heavy palanquin bearing the idols of the gods would be lifted by a number of people only after the priest uttered a mantra. It was their claim that this would make the palanquin so light that only then it could be lifted. My explanations that it was because all of them would lift it at the same time and hence it would appear to be light did not convince them until I could demonstrate the same by four of them lifting a heavy person with their fingers. Such is the state of their minds that every little thing is ascribed to the power of gods.
One more common superstition is that of spirit possession by the Pandavas, of the Mahabharata. It was the claim that the spirits of these five brothers would enter the bodies of men and each one of them would assume the role of one of them. It is the typical case of ‘spirit possession’ due to the delusional beliefs of those who were supposedly possessed. It is also claimed that Pandavas were from Uttarakhand.
During the training camp at Uttarakashi I was asked to address the students of Maharishi School about the science behind so called miracles in the meditation room. The flooring was made up of rubber mattresses about 6 inches thick. Students would meditate sitting on them and then jump up and down and then claim that they could levitate by the powers of meditation. However, my talk was well received by the students despite the suspicious looks of the faculty!
The next training camp is going on at Haridwar as I am writing this. This place is chock full of so called ashrams and dharmashalas including one of Kashi Math samsthan which claims affiliation of most of the Gowd saraswath Brahmin community. As already mentioned they compete with each other for five star comforts including air-conditioned marble-floored rooms and dining halls etc. Here I was invited to lecture to the residents in the meditation hall of the Mohyal ashram where I was residing. I was expecting to be lynched for expressing my views about many issues and also for demonstrating so called miracles. But, the audience was surprisingly receptive and the expected did not happen. I was also invited to speak at a so called youth convention held by a local ‘university’ in which speaker after speaker spewed venom on so called atankawadis, intellectuals, and foreign influences and so on. Some youngsters condemned blood thirsty terrorists their violent acts etc. and in the very next breath demanded for the summary public hanging of terrorists. There was also a Sadhwi who sang bhajans set to the tunes of bollywood songs to the accompaniment on a Japanese synthesizer and in the introduction to her program condemned the degradation of cultural values and foreign influences. There were also some senior citizens decrying the downfall of the value systems of the younger generation and singing praises of the good old days. I was supposed to address this audience about scientific temper! I started with praising the youth and reminding the older generation that it was we who were responsible for the degradations of the value systems and the hopes were that the younger generation would go about changing the corrupt system which was made by us! In the course of my lecture demo I also mentioned about Hinduism being one of the oldest systems which was broad minded enough to accept anything which came from anywhere and condemned those who claimed to be protecting it not forgetting to mention that something which had survived for so long did not need the protection of a rag tag band of self proclaimed protectors! I also mentioned about sundry miracle mongers and purveyors of superstitions who claimed to be the public face of this religion. I also
mentioned about terrorist attacks on our land and people being warded off by our brave soldiers and not by any religious mantras or spiritual powers of self proclaimed holy men! In retrospect I must have been lucky to get off with these hard hitting truths! But, to my surprise the organizers apologized for having given me only half an hour and promised me that next time I would be given at least 90minutes to speak!
The tragedy in this place is that while religious tourism based on superstitious beliefs is the main source of income here, the residents themselves are the victims of such practices. Every one of the trainees had something to say about how they had been taken for a ride by some one or the other in the name of some supposed evil effect of a planetary configuration or some spirit possession or as ceremony for the departed family members. As the people get fleeced by the sly crooks who have their hold over such places, the river Ganga gets polluted by plastic material being thrown into it. While most of what goes into the river in the form of worship is bio degradable, the modern industrial waste and plastic is not.