The ghost, myth, superstition and fake baba busters of India

India is home to many superstitions – from relatively innocuous ones to practices which are dangerous. Those who fight against such superstitious practices often do so at the risk of their lives.

The recent floods that devastated Kerala saw a rather ugly side of human nature emerge. While the state was reeling under the distress that the floods had caused, a few on social media, including RSS ideologue and director of RBI, S Gurumurthy, linked the Kerala floods to the Supreme Court ruling allowing women to enter into the Sabarimala temple . While some claimed that the floods were a manifestation of Lord Ayyappa’s wrath, others blamed it on the fact that Malayalis ate beef .

Indians are superstitious people, and this often transcends economic and educational barriers. While some superstitious beliefs are harmless, others are downright dangerous.  According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), around 52 people have been sacrificed to appease a god since 2014 . Around 156 have sacrificed for witchcraft purposes in 2014, 135 in 2015 and 134 people in 2016.

 

It has been five years since rationalist and anti-superstition crusader Dr Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune . Since then, India has seen more such deaths – rationalist and left-winged politician Govind Pansare from Maharashtra; Professor MM Kalburgi, Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Dharwad, and Gauri Lankesh, journalist and activist have all lost their lives . Like Dr Dabholkar, these rationalist thinkers were also fighting against archaic and harmful religious practices and superstition that is prevalent in India

 

However, undeterred by the fate that these crusaders have met with, some organisations are carrying on the fight against superstition :

Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti:  After Dr Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in 2013, his son Hamid took over the reins of the organisation, which has since grown in strength from 220 branches in Maharashtra in 2013 to 320 branches in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. The organisation was successful in bringing about India’s first anti-superstition law, the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. After decades of fighting for it, the Law was finally promulgated on 26 August 2913, four days after Dabholkar’s death. MANS is also fighting to ban the Sanatan Sanstha, the radical right-winged group reportedly behind Dabholkar’s murder.

Founded by Dr Dabholkar, MANS has been vocal against a number of religious and superstitious practices, including the immersion of Ganesha idols during Ganesh Chaturthi festival and the ‘miracles’ that various god-men claim to perform. The organisation also protested against the canonisation of Mother Teresa in 2016, based on miracles that she had reportedly performed after her death. MANS had written a letter to the Pope stating that the word ‘miracle’ should not be used and the focus should be on the good deeds she had done, instead.

Tarksheel society: Based in Punjab, Tarksheel Society has undertaken campaigns to expose miracles, charlatans and godmen. The Society has even announced an award of Rs 5 lakhs to any yogi, god man, saint, psychic, fortune teller or telepathist who can perform miracles such as walking on water, regrowing an amputated leg, leaving the body and materialising in another place, moving or bending an object with psychokinetic power, reading the serial number of a currency note, etc. Members of the society also perform various nukkad nataks (street theatre) to create awareness about fake godmen, miracles and superstitious practices.

Human Rationalistic Association: The Godhra based association of rationalists has gone a step further by announcing a cash award of Rs 1 crore to anyone who thinks they have superpowers and is willing to perform a miracle. So far, only one person has accepted the challenge. Back in 2003, Rashmikant Shah from Ahmedabad took part in the challenge but was unable to perform a miracle. The Association has been active since 1965 and the prize money earlier was Rs 1,00,000.

Akhila Karnataka Vicharavadi Sangha: When Professor AS Nataraj, who hails from a family of priests and used to practise as an astrologer, realised that astrology does not determine one’s fate, he decided to dedicate his time towards dispelling superstitions and promoting a more rationalistic and scientific approach towards life. Prof Nataraj founded the Akhila Karnataka Vicharavadi Sangha, through which he set up a Rs 1 crore challenge, where astrologers are given a test horoscope along with a set of 10 questions.  For the astrologer to win the challenge, he should be able to answer at least 80 per cent of the questions correctly. Despite increasing the prize money from the earlier Rs 10 lakhs to Rs 1 crore, no one has taken up the challenge so far and the prize money remains unclaimed.

Indian Rationalist Association: The voluntary organisation, founded by Sir Raghunath Purushottam Paranjpye in 1949, has taken on claims such as milk-drinking statues, the Monkey Man of Delhi, superstitions which are associated with the eclipse and godmen who claim feats such as walking on coals or producing ash from thin air. The current President of IRA is Sanal Edamaruku, journalist and rationalist Joseph Edamuruku’s son.

In 2012, Sanal was charged by a group of Catholics for debunking a claimed miracle at Our Lady of Velankanni Church in Mumbai, where the crucifix was allegedly dripping water. Edamuruku proved that far from being a miracle, it was the capillary action caused by a blocked drain that led to the water dripping. The Catholic Secular Forum filed a complaint against Edamaruku under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for deliberate and malicious intention of hurting religious sentiments. The Archbishop of Mumbai asked Edamaruku to apologise if he wanted the charges dropped,  Fearing indefinite jail time, Edamaruku was forced to leave India and relocate to Finland.

Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ):  In the Khicha village of Sanand in Ahmedabad, villagers stood under the scorching sun for 12 hours as a religious head had told them that the community deity was angry as they had not kept to their promises of offerings.  When the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ) an NGO which works towards promoting rational and scientific thinking, got to know about it, they did a survey and found out that there were atleast 15 cases of heat stroke and diarrhea that day, as per a report in the Indian Express. Jayant Pandya, the Gujarat chapter chairman of BJVJ then got the village sarpanch and the religious head to issue a public apology.

Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha works with rural communities and state governments to fight against superstitious beliefs and promote rationalistic and scientific thinking among people. The organisation has also exposed fake babas, faith healers and has held campaigns against animal sacrifice.

Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations: The FIRA is an umbrella body of around 83 atheist, secularist, scientific and rationalistic organisations across India. The Federation is involved in promoting scientific and critical thinking and tolerance and dispelling myths and superstitious beliefs, pseudoscience and child marriage.