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Scourge of the Godmen
One extraordinary man's fight against deception

By Lewis Jones

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic [UK] 6(3), 1993. The author is a freelance writer living in London. His skeptical writings appear regularly in the quarterly Skeptical Briefs [USA]. Two updates not in the original have been added in smaller print.

On the afternoon of the last Saturday in March 1993, London's Conway Hall was packed with 350 people who had come to see miracles. They were not disappointed.

The performer was everyone's idea of a bearded Indian guru. He ate glass, ran flaming torches along his bare arms, handled burning camphor freely and put it into his mouth, hung a weight on a hook stitched through his skin, shoved a nasty-looking spike through his tongue without any harm or bleeding, caused pieces of paper to burst into flame by the power of thought, changed a single biscuit into a pile of dozens of them, produced enough holy ash out of thin air to decorate half the audience, showed spoons that bent and broke at a touch, and, of course, turned water into wine. Miracles every inch of the way.

Premanand And that would have been enough for any self-respecting guru. But this was no guru. This was the Indian skeptic Basava Premanand, whose mission was not only to demonstrate miracles, but to explain how they were all done. And this he did, to the further amazement and amusement of his audience. There was a time in his youth when Premanand was highly impressed by the miraculous feats of those Indian yogis he calls "godmen". He was willing to learn from them, and he spent a great deal of time and effort trying to acquire their magical powers, but doubts began to creep in. The yogis were for ever telling other people how to achieve good health, not to mention immortality. So how come a number of the godmen had cancer, rheumatic complaints, liver complaints, tuberculosis, asthma, diabetes...?

One yogi's reply to Premanand's query was "I could achieve health, but I am consciously atoning for sins in a past life". But it was soon obvious that a critical frame of mind was not welcome, and he was invariably asked to leave the yogi's temple. For example the yogi Sivananda's response to Premanand's probing was "No questioning! Get out!"

The young Premanand's skepticism took a practical turn. One godman was regularly brought out and put on show while apparently possessed. Premanand wondered if gods ever went to the toilet. So he laced the godman's bottles of country liquor with epsom salts. In mid-performance the mystic called out for a wooden barrel. He sat on the barrel and evacuated into it while his head and body continued to sway in tune with the supposed possession. A disappointingly human response. It was soon clear that every one of the godmen's miracles was merely a trick, and since 1976 Premanand has been mercilessly exposing their methods.

He became particularly incensed by poor people being tricked into handing over sizeable amounts of their hard-earned money for worthless remedies and advice. "Religion," he says, "is a means to exploit people who believe in god." Even worse, the famous and highly influential Sai Baba "has followers amongst bureaucracy, law enforcement departments, revenue departments, the judiciary, the state and central ministry, and among the elite and the influential".

Premanand toured the villages and small towns of India in a jeep, and deliberately set off the jeep's alarm when he stopped at the roadside. He treated the crowd of onlookers to a miracle show in the manner of a godman, and then set about exposing the trickery. "If the claims of the godmen are false," he says, "then godmen should be prosecuted for cheating the credulous public in order to exploit them. Or, if they are true, the education department should stop teaching the theories of science to their students". Right now, Premanand is gunning for Sai Baba in particular, and is in the process of taking him to a court of law.

Premanand's case was that Sai Baba deals in gold but does not have a license for this as required by India's Gold Control Act. However, the judge ruled that the law does not apply to Sai Baba because he materialises his gold from thin air.

Premanand has given over 7000 lectures, "educating our people in the scientific temper". And by now he has met about 20 million people, and visited 27 countries. 25 days of every month are spent travelling, and he has written 30 books in Malayalam (the main language of SW India) and 6 in English.

In 1989, he was awarded a fellowship by the Director of the Communication Department of India's Council for Science and Technology. His brief is to complete a video library of 1200 miracles, to write books, and to train 1000 people to tour 50,000 villages. "They will explain the science and tricks behind miracles, superstitions, and blind beliefs, so that exploitations in the name of gods and miracles are stopped". He is now close to fulfilling a dream of 40 years: the building of a research centre, with a library where explanations of religion, magic, science, miracles and psychic phenomena are available to everyone. This is to be on a 15-acre site in Kerala, at a spot that the poet Rabindranath Tagore named "Shrishaila".

Premanand has not achieved all this without attempts on his life. He has been physically attacked by the godmen's followers. He has been hospitalised, his car has been tampered with by Sai Baba's goons so that it overturned at speed, and a lorry has tried to run him down. None of these things has dampened the energy of this remarkable man born in 1930: he is Convenor of the Indian Rationalist Association, and since 1976 he has been Convenor of the Indian Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, otherwise known as the Indian Skeptics.

In 1988 he began publishing Indian Skeptic, and it still comes out every month. It's a magazine that goes in for plain speaking. Premanand led the August 1991 issue with an article headed: "Uri Geller -- the liar, the crook and the fraud". And to make sure the message reached its target, he sent a copy of the magazine to Geller by registered post. Each issue includes the methods for performing a number of miracles, a long-term project because there are 1200 miracles to get through.

Talking of miracles, everyone who was in that Conway Hall audience can now perform the feats that at first seemed impossible. And so can you. For example, you can mimic holy ash with a pellet of anything that will crumble into a powder. (In India, cow-dung works wonders.) Hide the little pellet between your fingers, and when you're ready for the miracle, start crumbling. The supply of "ash" can seem endless. Some items require simple gimmicked apparatus. The spike doesn't really go through the tongue: there's a little U-bend in the middle that fits around the tongue. But it looks alarmingly realistic. [You can see a picture of it in History of WA Skeptics]

Is there anything else Premanand would like to accomplish in his lifetime? "Oh yes," he told me. "To see a real miracle before I die". But I can't convey in print the twinkle in the eye, or the blossoming grin. It was like so many of Premanand's performances. You had to be there.

Postscript 2007. Premanand is still active, as is the Indian Rationalist Association and Indian Skeptic, but so is Sai Baba. Premanand's dream of a research centre in southern India is not yet realised, nor is his hope to see a real miracle.

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