By Jeremy Fejfar, August 3, 2014
Published in the La Crosse Tribune.
Skeptical hero challenges credulity
Belief in Tantric power is common in India. Common to Hinduism and Buddhism, Tantra is an ancient, esoteric Indian spiritual practice. It is believed that it can cause nefarious acts and could be described as “black magic.”
Belief in the power of Tantra is powerful enough that in 2008, a local politician named Uma Bharati claimed her political opponents were trying to use it to harm her. After this accusation, a major TV network had the discussion, “Tantric Power Versus Science.” Widely known Tantric Pandit Surinder Sharma and the president of Rationalist International, Sanal Edamaruku, were invited.
At one point during the program, the Tantric claimed he could use his power to kill people in fewer than 3 minutes, to which Sanal replied in the most sublime way, “Prove it. Kill me right here and now.”
The Tantric took up the challenge and took to chanting, attempting to kill this skeptic on live television. Over the course of the rest of the program, the Tantric continued his chanting, seeming to have no effect on the confidently smiling skeptic.
The program should have ended there, but it overran as “breaking news,” and the great Tantra challenge preempted all program schedules. After two hours of this ceremony involving chanting, sprinkling water, pressing on Edamaruku’s temples and the waving of a knife, he concluded that Edamaruku must be under the protection of a very strong god, to which Edamaruku replied, “No, I am an atheist.”
With hundreds of millions of Indians glued to their televisions, this lone skeptic stood stalwart against this charlatan who had everything to lose by failing. That night, one of the most widespread superstitions in India suffered a major blow.
This was when I first became aware of Sanal. I saw the courage it must have taken to back a fraud into a corner and invite him to end your life. All Edamaruku had to gain was to decrease the credulity of his countrymen and women by a small measure, and I admired his drive to promote skepticism.
Edamaruku again made international headlines in March 2012 when he was asked to investigate a crucifix statue at Our Lady of Velankanni church in Mumbai that was dripping water “miraculously” from the feet. This statue was visited by more than a thousand people daily, and many were offered this water by the church, which the people drank, hoping for some kind of divine healing.
Upon a brief investigation, Edamaruku noticed a wall behind this statue was wet. When he investigated the source of the water, he found there was a toilet that was leaking, and the drainage system ran beneath the stone base of the statue. The toilet water from this clogged drain was drawn up by capillary action into the wooden cross, and dripped down the nail through the feet of statue, where it met clergy all too willing to dispense to the masses.
Contaminated water is nothing unique to this statue. A 2013 study found fecal bacteria in a majority of church fonts tested. This should give believers pause as they dip into this church-supplied microbe soup.
Needless to say, the local Catholic bishop was not happy with Sanal exposing this “miracle,” as attendance to the church promptly plummeted. They used a part of the Indian penal code which prohibits “deliberately hurting religious feelings,” and sought to have him arrested. Because of these threats, Sanal has been forced to leave his country. He has since moved to Finland to avoid arrest.
In 2013, Sanal’s fellow skeptical campaigner, Narendra Dabholkar, was assassinated, and Edamarukunow fears that returning to India could put his life in danger. When asked whether he regretted his decision to intervene in this case, Edamaruku replied, “Why would one not intervene when somebody gives gullible people sewage to drink? But my reason is broader. The promotion of superstition and belief in paranormal phenomena dulls people’s minds and establishes dangerous misconceptions about reality in our society. Such efforts have to be countered.”
Edamaruku has my respect as an individual who has the courage to stamp out credulity and charlatanism wherever it exists. Whether it is the Hindu astrologers or “Godmen” of India, or the local Catholic priest and archbishop, Edamaruku has helped many to pierce the veil of superstition and to wrest power from the unscrupulous. For this he deserves the respect of not just those in the skeptical community, but truly all people who value truth and honest inquiry.
Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society