[This is the second article in a series of write-ups by Narendra Nayak on his efforts to expose and educate people on claims of miracles. The first article in this series can be read here]
While we look at the Miracle Exposure Program as a major boost and an anchor for our movement, we have to see the details of the presentations that have made it an attractive program. The plus points are that this is an activity which catches the imagination of the people, just like the so called miracles of those who claim to have such powers. If a Satya Narayana Raju (aka Satya Sai Baba) could earn billions with his cheap tricks of so called ‘materialisation’ of objects from apparently ‘thin air’, debunking of that should be equally productive, if not in material terms, at least in terms of creating awareness about how fake it was. If a Sudha Mani (aka Mata Amritananda Mayi) could do the same with lighting a lamp with water and such so called miracles, exposing that should be equally interesting! But, what we do not do is exploit the gullibility of the people to serve our own ends. We would rather use our knowledge to make people aware of the falsehood behind these claims.
Another aspect we have to note is the non involvement of the vast majority of people who in spite of knowing very well that such claims are nonsensical, would not open their mouths or even raise a little finger against these. In fact, when someone in a position of power is a devotee of such people, those who would like to be on the right side of this person would go out of the way to support such claims. However, there can be exceptions to this! In fact, there are people who do go out of the way to challenge such authority. I can recall an instance where I was invited to the University of Mysore for a miracle exposure program a few decades back. Since the then Vice chancellor of the institution, Dr. Selvi Das was a great devotee of the Puttaparthi guy, I thought I would try to insulate the organizers from any blame for what I had to say and mentioned in the commencement that the views expressed by me were solely mine and those who had organized the program should not be blamed for them. There was an immediate reaction from the Head of Department who had organized it. He said “No! He is wrong. They are ours too and if anyone wants to do anything about them they are welcome and we are capable of taking care of ourselves!.” When I had an interaction at one of the branches of ISRO, I started my talk soundly condemning the irrational attitudes of some of their top people who were making offerings to temples for the success of their missions and was applauded. When I told them that such an approval would jeopardize their careers, they said that they were not bothered and that it was their opinion too!
These programs have helped us to build up strong national networks too. Since this program is an activity that can be supported by the state, we have had these programs supported by many central and state government departments of science and technology. In fact many of the people in these departments have been very sympathetic to our cause and there are many who think on the same lines as we. But, being Governemnt servants they cannot express themselves openly. So, they are very happy when some like us comes out openly and says the same things that they would like to say. This has led to my being invited to a number of science conferences at the national level. In fact for some like the National Children’s Science Congress, I am invited every year to train the teachers accompanying the child scientists on methods of creating scientific temper among students. The National Children’s Science Congress is an annual event and is conducted right from the district level to state and national levels and there are representatives from all the states in this. The late B. Premanand was also a regular visitor to this event every year. We used to use this opportunity to meet people from all over the country and build up contacts to take our movement further. I have been invited to the National Science Congress too, but only a few times. There is also a National Teacher’s Science Congress where I have been invited some times. We have used this program to build up contacts here too.
When the National Council for Science and Technology Communications (NCSTC) was set up with the idea of building up people’s science movements and to create scientific temper, its first director Dr. Narenda Sehgal had met Premanand and he liked the program that he was doing to build up scientific temper in the country and as already mentioned a book too was brought out which is still being used. This Governmental department has been of great help to us in building up the movement as many rationalist organizations are also involved in the children’s science activities and through this we can help to bring the younger generation into this movement.
In retrospect, I think this program has helped to build up the movement in a big way. The rounds of Premanand in Maharashtra resulted in startups of two organizations there- the Akhil Bharath Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samithi and the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samithi. The latter, started by Dr. Narendra Dhabolkar, actively lobbied for the anti superstition law for the state which resulted in his assassination. In the same way, in Punjab, the Tarksheel Society was started by people who had converted some of Kovoor’s books into plays and subsequently the miracle exposure programs. It was mainly B. Premanand who went around the country building up the movement by having these programs all over and training people to do these tricks to attract people to our ideology. The largest single contribution towards building up this movement has been by him through his tours all over the country and this has been possible only because of the program on miracles!
It is not that all agree with me in this idea that the program has helped us to build up a movement. We have many critics too. Some have said that the rationalist movement has been degraded to the level of street level prestidigitations. I have been told that rationalism is not just doing magic but involves a lot of study too by people who have never bothered to take the campaign to the common man. So, we have the dilemma whether the projection of this as the flagship program of the movement has been counterproductive. I can say that my experience has been to the contrary. The main need for us is to reach out to the younger generation and that to reach out to them we have no better message so far. Of course it is subject to this condition –so far! It is always up to someone to develop something more attractive and imaginative which can attract more people to the ideology that one should put everything to the test of reason before accepting them. A live demonstration right in front of one’s eyes and many times allowing the audience to experience such things themselves can be a very life changing event. I can even recall some reactions from children who have been absolutely thrilled to perform some of the so called ‘miracles’ themselves.After having conducted thousands of such interactions, it is my firm conviction that the children are our best audience. In fact when we take a general audience, I see roughly three types of people there. One is those with very firmly rooted beliefs and they will never change- some of them even walk out or react violently. I have even had feedbacks in writing that people like me are menace to the society and should not be allowed to exist! The second are those who nod their heads and agree with what we say and also state that superstitions are dangerous etc. But, all this lasts only as long as our interactions are going on. Once they go out they will be back to their same old ways. But, there is a third group too for whom our program is directed. Some of them come to our side for life. It is for them that we should have these programs.
The third group are the ones from whom we have the best reactions. Many have changed their lives after coming into contact with us. Some have joined our movement and have become active workers too. This group also consists of people who have been closet atheists or rationalists all the time, thinking that they do not know anyone who is like-minded and when they meet someone like-minded are absolutely thrilled. I have met adults who have told me that they saw this program at school when they were children and their whole life changed after that. It makes us very happy to meet someone like that. In fact, many activists of the movement have gathered around our organizations because they attended one of our interactions and met other like-minded people. Now, with the advent of the internet, the means of communication have improved, but still we find this program to be a gathering point for like-minded people to be drawn into the movement.
Well, as the effectiveness of this program was understood, there was a need to conduct these on a larger footing. Kovoor had been only a communicator, though quite successful. Premanand had started off as a very bad communicator, but improved his skills as he gained experience. It was he who understood that we are in need of more such activists to carry the message to people. Thus started our miracle exposure training programs! The earlier communicators who started out on their own were not the products of any such organized training programs. I was always under the impression that I was the first one to take after him until he corrected me. He said that his first trainee was Shyam Manav, the founder of the Akhil Bharath Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samithi, now based at Nagpur. In those initial stages, we had no concept of any training programs. It was Premanand who used to be invited to places to conduct these interactions and we used to wait for him to come to our places so that we could have public programs. It was by repeatedly going around with him that I learnt to conduct this interaction. After my first meeting with him which has been already mentioned in the previous write up, our group came to a conclusion that henceforth we would organize programs on our own and not with any collaboration with groups who do not have any ideological background. So, that ended our joint programs with magicians.
After a year or so we invited Premanand again for a round of our District and this time it was our program. We had some street plays along with his programs and since he did not know, I was asked to translate. After a few of these sessions, he made a suggestion that since I knew what he was going to say there was no need for him to speak in English and that I could tell the audience what he was going say in Kannada and then he could be told in English what he had to do. So, I would lecture about some ‘miracle’ and then tell him to perform it. Say, something like the Puttaparthi guy’s spurious ash materialization in Kannada and then tell him in English “Premanand, now give vibhuthi” and he would do it. So, it went on for some more programs. Then he told me that since I knew what he was going to say and had learnt it why not learn to do the things too. That is when I started learning to perform these so called miracles and that was the beginning of my career- if it can be called so!
Well more as we go to the next one!