(Editor’s Note: This is Narendra Nayak’s 100th article for Nirmukta. He has been associated with Nirmukta right from the early days when Ajita Kamal founded Nirmukta. In this series he would be sharing his reminiscences about his tireless work).
I feel that it is time we have a serious discussion about an activity which has become the flagship program of our movement and has helped us to build it up to whatever it is today. While it is needed to get more people involved, the present build up can be ascribed largely to this activity. It has been a mixed bag for me who has been involved with this movement for about four decades now. Some have alleged that we are trivializing the movement by performing godman tricks; we have been criticized for exposing magicians (because inevitably, when godman tricks are exposed they also reveal the secrets of the magic tricks), of being repetitive and so on. But, these are the plus points too. We need bells and whistles to attract the attention of the public, curtain raisers for our ideological discourses and so on. So here is an attempt to go to the past, present and the likely future of this activity.
Miracles have fascinated humankind since millennia. Those who claim to have ‘supernatural powers’ have brought gullible people to be entrapped in their webs of deceit and what better than a so called miracle? Wave your apparently empty hand in the air and produce something, hold a burning flaming thing in your hand and show that it does not burn you, pass a skewer through your tongue and demonstrate that it does not pain you and so on. We could have hundreds of such so called miracles used by these unscrupulous men and women to deceive the gullible. So when we need to expose them it is natural that we reveal how they are done and one does not need any supernatural power for their performance. It would be better for us to demonstrate these ourselves and then reveal the trick. It would be even better if we could get them done by the members of the audience in a conclusive flourish that it could be done by anybody! Again, for the common person, the manifestation of the so called supernatural is not the debate about the mysteries of the universe or the complexities of evolution or the theories about the origin of the universe. For him or her it is the miracle monger around the corner who apparently has supernatural powers and can demonstrate them! Say produce something from thin air, dip his hands into boiling oil or any of the hundreds of such tricks to show that one is not just an ordinary human being! So, the rationalist whether an activist or not is confronted by such claims and many of us are not in a position to negate them! Again, the most effective way of negating them would be to perform such ourselves. I can say very confidently that learning these and performing them has given me an effective weapon to combat superstitions.
Going into the history of this exercise which we call as the Divine Miracle Exposure Program we have to go back to the days of E.V.Ramaswamy also known as Periyar. He would speak for hours to crowds about the need for rational thinking, point out the irrationalities which are laying them open to exploitation and end his programs with the session on fire walking which went a long way to show that there was no need for any supernatural power for that. The activists would shout ‘no god, no god’ before walking on embers to show that there was no need for the invocation of any supernatural power to perform this apparently impossible physical feat. Later on it was Abraham Kovoor, the President of The Sri Lanka Rationalist Association who started his round of the nation with what he called as the Divine Miracle Exposure programs.
He would speak about his experiences, followed by a magician performing the so called godman tricks and a hypnotism demonstration. The whole program would be for about three hours. The explanation for the so called miracles would be just a line – the miracle mongers claim that they do these things by their so called supernatural power, we say that anyone can do it. There were no proper explanations as to how they were done or even the principles of science behind them. Kovoor himself would do a trick of Satya Narayan Raju(aka Satya Sai Baba) of ‘materialising’ holy ash from ‘thin air’ and explain it. These programs got a lot of publicity for the movement and good deal of press coverage. The golden period for this program was the infamous emergency of Indira Gandhi in the 70s during which there was press censorship and not many catchy headlines could be put up! So, here was a topic of eternal interest which was one of permitted ones as Mrs.Gandhi had also brought an amendment to the Constitution of India incorporating Article 51 Ah which stated that it was duty of every citizen to promote scientific temper, spirit of enquiry and humanism. So, into this Orwellian world of big brother type of stifling of opinion, the entry of a so called non-controversial program which could also provide catchy headlines was a boon to news starved media and the sensation loving readers.
The end of this era and the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi in the elections of 1977 gave more interesting topics for the media and our campaign was relegated to the inner pages and with indifferent coverage! However, it was at this time that Dr.H.Narasimhaiah, the vice chancellor of the Bangalore University hit the headlines by forming a committee for the investigation of so called miracles. However, that is a totally different story which I shall narrate some other time. After Kovoor passed away in 1978 or so, our movement had no attractive presentation to go to the public. It was a couple of years later that B.Premanand stepped into the picture. He had compiled a dossier of hundreds of so called miracles and had shown that to Kovoor. He told me that it was at the insistence of Kovoor that he chose to go public with them. Premanand bought a jeep, went to villages stood on its bonnet and called people to watch him when he burned his arms with a flaming torch, produced ‘holy ash’ from ‘thin air’, put burning camphor on his tongue and performed some of these godman tricks. He would also explain to them the principles of science behind them. For example one could put burning camphor on the tongue because, it is a substance which undergoes sublimation, it has a low flash point etc. This picked up well with the public as the magical always attracts people! He started getting invitations from all over the country for his performances and he developed a large network of people and organizations. It was during one of his visits to Delhi, that he came into contact with Dr.Narendra Sehgal, the director of NCSTC who was impressed with this program and wanted to use that as a method to develop scientific temper. The organization also a published a book called ‘Seeing is not believing’ which listed out about a hundred items to convince people that things are not what they appear to be. However one can say that this tome was quite weak on ideology or rather one can say there was none of it! That was because NCSTC was a govt. department and hence not at liberty to speak out the truth when it was controversial! In other words, it could not name the so called miracle mongers, make comments about the existence of supernatural powers except in vague terms etc.
However, later on Premanand came out with a book – Science vs miracles which took care of all that. This got published first in English and then translated into many Indian languages. Premanand in his usual style-he had a tendency not to mince words – named all the so called miracle mongers and had also his broadsides against them. The book became runaway success. Premanand always used to say that this was the first of a series of ten volumes which he would publish one after the other, but he passed away before he could do that. Anyway, that one volume itself is more than enough for any worker in the field.
The organization to which I belong, the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist association was founded in 1976 when we wanted to invite Abraham Kovoor to Mangalore for his presentation. The Indian Rationalist Association which was conducting the program informed us that they would not sanction any program for individuals, only organizations were eligible. So, in a hurry we started our outfit and printed a letter head and dashed off a letter to them on that! The proposal was accepted and a date too was fixed. The program was a roaring success and it was houseful, compound full and even the road outside the hall was choked with people! Later on Kovoor was diagnosed with carcinoma of the bladder and passed away a few years later. It was a co-incidence that exactly 30 years later Premanand too was diagnosed with carcinoma of the stomach exactly on the same date 26th of November and incidentally that too on the day I was relieved from my duties from the Kasturba Medical College from where I had resigned to devote all my time for the movement.
It was in 1981 that I first met Premanand. One common friend of ours, a magician, informed that he had met two brothers from Podanur Premanand and Dayanand who could produce ash from thin air, walk on fire and do a number of such so called miracles. So, he wanted to arrange two programs at Mangalore and Udupi. They were combination programs – Premanand’s talk on rationalism would be followed by a magic show by his son (Shankar’s four year old). The first of these would be at Udupi and the second at Mangalore. There was entrance fee too with tickets! In the Udupi program Premanand had just started to speak when a mob descended on the stage – those with tilaks, with sacred threads, tufts and what have you! They shouted at Premanand and told him ‘we have not come to listen to you, we want magic!’ We had to wind up his talk and start the magic! However, a few things like firewalking could be shown. The one at Mangalore was a couple of days later and I could manage that without any problems. What happened later was an eye opener for us. A newspaper of the district which was owned by some reactionary elements, started a campaign against us by manufacturing letters to the editor. Some of them attacked us saying that ‘the rationalists will say today that there is no miracle and tomorrow there is all likelihood that they will say no god.’ For that, I replied ‘why tomorrow today itself I am saying no god!’ This was followed by more attacks on us who had organized the programs and the co-organiser, the magician chickened out and gave a public statement that they were only magicians, entertainers and they had nothing to do with the ideology of rationalists! After three decades this very troupe had given programs at Puttaparthi under very humiliating conditions that they should not utter a word about the resident miracle man-Satya Narayana Raju! Anyway at that juncture we decided that henceforward if we were to conduct such programs we would do that on our own or in collaboration with likeminded individuals, something to which we have stuck to even today.
So, with this introduction I propose to go into details of this program from my perspective in a series of write ups as and when I find time to do so.