Skeptics gives Gurus Curry

From: the Skeptic, Vol 11(4) by Tim Mendham and Harry Edwards.

During September, a number of Skeptics groups throughout Australia played host to B Premanand, president of the Indian Skeptics.

Mr Premanand, a professional magician, has been exposing "miracles" performed by India's estimated 100,000 god-men, psychics, clairvoyants and astrologers for almost 50 years. In that time he has exposed between 10,000 and 20,000 miracles and has trained over a thousand people in his methods. He has put his life savings on the line in exposing cheats and charlatans and is not in the least disposed to tread warily - he has suffered a number of death threats and attempts on his life.

The Indian government has made a grant to Premanand to enable him to make video tapes of his performances and to explain his methods, so that they may be shown in villages throughout the country. He has offered a 100,000 rupee challenge, similar to that offered by Australian Skeptics, to anyone who can perform a miracle that he cannot emulate. However, he told a Sydney gathering, "I think I will die without seeing a genuine miracle". To demonstrate, he amazed the audience with a selection of "miraculous" acts, popular in his country and used by many of the "god-men" to convince their devotees of their special powers.

He began by producing "holy ash" and depositing some in the hands of every member of the audience. Godmen claimed that the ash could cure cancer, epilepsy and other conditions. The seemingly endless supply of ash came from a concentrated ball, secreted in his palm and was, he stated, composed largely of cow dung. He followed this with a demonstration of the body's ability to withstand flames for short periods. "It takes about three seconds for skip- to absorb heat" he explained, waving a flaming wand under his arm. While this is not recommended as an activity for the faint hearted, Skeptics president Barry Williams volunteered to bare his arm for the treatment and survived unscathed, apart from a few singed hairs.

Premanand then lit a small amount of camphor, which he extinguished by popping it into his mouth. He did not recommend this for people with beards, although his own is quite luxuriant. A volunteer from the audience also experienced this trick without harm.

He suspended a weight from a thread passed through the skin of his arm, explaining that this was a very popular trick in his country. He also astonished the audience by pushing a skewer through his tongue, or at least that is what he appeared to do. In fact, the skewer had a kink which passed around his tongue, but it certainly was realistic enough to cause shivers up the spine of many in the audience (shades of the old `arrow through the neck' trick, beloved of comedian Steve Martin).

Finally, he ate the glass from a light globe. This was not sleight of hand (or tongue), he actually ground the glass to powder between his teeth and swallowed it, followed by a glass of water. When this demonstration was performed on the Midday and Good Morning Australia shows, close to a microphone, the effect was nerve shattering. Overall, Premanand said, the "miracles" performed by the godmen of India were either tricks or feats which could be performed by anyone with a minimum of training. He suggested that some of the miraculous feats were straightforward frauds, instancing a temple where infertile couples can go to be blessed with a pregnancy, courtesy of one of the gods. That the "god" was in fact a very human assistant in a darkened room, only too pleased to impregnate any gullible women, was an exposure that Premanand was particularly pleased with. Premanand's female confederate went to the temple to be "blessed" and was shown into a windowless inner sanctum containing a life sized statue of a naked god with an erect penis. When the door was closed, and the room in darkness, she heard footsteps coming from the direction of the statue. She picked up a plank of wood used as a prayer platform and blindly hit out with it, rendering the priest senseless and unmanning the statue with one blow. The temple was subsequently closed, the "god" having been made infertile.

He also described how Indian holy men performed some of the tricks that have so impressed Western visitors. Sitting naked in the snow is made less distressing by a liberal application of yak fat; stopping the pulse by muscular contraction (simpler than the rubber ball in the armpit used by many Western gurus) and the seeming suspension of heart beats by compressing the lungs and stomach, thus making the heart beat difficult to detect.

Finally Premanand, in response to a question from a magician in the audience, said that the famous Indian Rope Trick was a fake, not often performed now. In earlier times, when lighting was not as efficient as it is now, the supports of the rope could easily be concealed. It remains as a reminder of simpler, but not necessarily more superstitious times.

Premanand showed that "miraculous" feats are no more likely in "mysterious" India than they are in materialist Australia. The only substantial difference is that cultural differences in the two countries predispose people to believe in different irrational things. The public interest in what Premanand had to say was attested by the number of calls we received after his public appearances, from people who were attracted to gurus, particularly Sai Baba and who were planning trips to India to sit at his feet. Those we spoke to took a lot of convincing that he was only using magic tricks and not performing miracles.

After his successful Sydney appearance, Premanand visited Melbourne, Adelaide and Newcastle, meeting with Skeptics members in each location and achieving considerable media publicity.

Premanand's visit was a great success and Australian Skeptics is very grateful that he gave up so much of his time to entertain and instruct us. He has advised us that he is planning to visit Australia again next year and hopes to be a speaker at our annual convention.

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Last update: July 20. 1995