Having spent a considerable amount of time in impoverished and developing countries around the world, I did not rate India high on my list of travel priorities. Believing however that experience is the best teacher, and the time being opportune, a visit to the sub-continent became imminent.
With 834 million inhabitants and with an annual increase equal almost to the total population of Australia, India fulfils the worst fears of the demophobiac. More numerous than it is possible to imagine, people throng the streets, along with free ranging cows, pigs, goats and camels, dodging the auto-rickshaws and the ubiquitous bullock carts, oblivious to the honking horns of frustrated motorists. Add to this the generally poor conditions of the roads themselves, apparently designed by chiropractors with an eye to future business, and it's not surprising that train travel is preferred by foreign visitors. The broad, tree-lined avenues of New Delhi are an exception to the rule, however, even here the sacred cows still have right of way.
India is an assault on the senses - a land of extremes, contradictions and anomalies, plagued with a religious culture which dominates the way of life to the detriment of social and economic advancement. Magnificent palaces - extravagant monuments to obscene self-indulgence, stand side by side with the most unimaginable examples of poverty and squalor; the all pervading odour of the open drains mingles with the fragrance of jasmine; brightly coloured deities, sculptured by long gone artisans, look down from their multitiered temples, appalled by the sight of their sacred walls being used as urinals and no doubt musing on the fact that, while livestock and children excrete wherever and whenever nature calls, the worshippers must tread the hot and dirty path barefoot.
The purpose of my visit however, was not, like a latter day James A Fitzpatrick, to gather material for a travelogue, but to meet with members of sceptical groups and to acquaint myself with the belief systems endemic to India and to observe their effects. The findings will be reported in greater detail in future issues of this journal.
My eight week stay was both productive and enjoyable and for this I am greatly indebted to B. Premanand, a prominent Indian Rationalist and the convener of the Indian Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and to his magician brother Dayanand who, in addition to their generous hospitality, prepared an itinerary and organised my tour through most of the Indian states.
My wife, son and myself were welcomed, hosted and feted by sceptics, rationalists and atheist groups wherever we visited, from Trivandrum in the far south of Kerala, to New Delhi in the north, and from Bombay in the west to Calcutta in the east. In Nagpur, the entire committee of the local rationalist group turned out to meet us at the railway station, with bunches of flowers and a photographer. Their willingness to please throughout our stay was almost embarrassing.
Apart from the friendship and the rapport with all we met, enthusiasm and dedication was evident for what they considered to be a fundamental cause - the eradication of the superstitious beliefs which bedevil their country. As the guest speaker at nearly two dozen meetings convened for the purpose around India, I spoke on the beliefs and paranormal trends in Australia, gave examples of the types of investigations carried out by Australian Skeptics and on the parallel endeavours of our respective groups. It soon became obvious that most, if not all, irrational beliefs had universal followings. Astrology and palmistry are not the prerogative of Indians or Australians, frauds and charlatans claiming supernatural powers ply their trade worldwide, spirit possession and reincarnation are just as "real" to some Australians as they are to some Indians, and gullibility is not confined to the illiterate and uneducated.
of my audience expressed surprise at the extent of paranormal beliefs in Australia and the most frequently asked question was, "Why do people in an affluent and literate society, like Australia, hold such beliefs?" Positing that there was no correlation between intelligence and rational beliefs, I gave examples such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; who exhibited, through his fictional characters, deductive abilities, yet who had been convinced of the existence of fairies and who had consulted a spiritualist medium in an attempt to contact his dead son. Closer to home, I instanced a neurosurgeon I had met in Bangalore, who told me he had prayed for three days over a terminally ill patient who had subsequently recovered. When I asked him why, if the power of prayer was so efficacious, we needed neuro-surgeons at all, there was no response. I concluded that perhaps a seed of doubt had been sown.
Other frequently asked questions centred on Nostradamus (even in India), ESP, astrology and the existence of the soul.
The prime concern expressed by the Indian Rationalists is the extent to which the godmen, babas, gurus and religious fundamentalists use alleged miracles to influence and exploit not only the uneducated but also the politicians, bureaucrats and judiciary, thus undermining efforts by the government of the Democratic Socialist Secular State to inculcate a more pragmatic and rational approach to the nation's problems.
Typical is the current dispute over the alleged birthplace of Lord Ram Janmabhoomi at Ayodhya, where the Hindus propose to build a multi-million dollar temple. Unfortunately for them, a small obstacle, in the form of a Muslim mosque, has stood on the site since 1528. Whipped into a religious frenzy by the BJP fundamentalist party, seeking to use the dispute for political expediency, hundreds of people have lost their lives, thousands have been arrested, nationwide communal riots have become the order of the day, arson and destruction of property is commonplace, the public transport system is all but paralysed, and with the resignation of the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, the government was almost toppled.
A bus on which we were travelling was attacked by a rock hurling mob and the driver was badly injured. Despite his broken arm and lacerated chest, he had the presence of mind to keep going. Had he not, this report may never have been written.
One friend in New Delhi, Supreme Court Advocate K.N. Balgopal, commented "The last thing we need in India is another temple". How true, I thought - unlimited money for idol worship while Delhi's six million inhabitants are restricted to two hour's water supply per day.
Similar problems are evident in the neighbouring country of Pakistan, where holymen were telling their followers that a vote for Benazir Bhutto would preclude their entrance into heaven - she lost the election.
Despite the odds, the Indian Freethought groups have had their successes - godmen, miracle mongers, astrologers, palmists and firewalkers have all been exposed and prosecuted, rationalists taking advantage of consumer protection laws such as The Monopolies and Restrictive Trades Act and The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act. (We could probably use one of those here. Ed)
In Trichur, a challenge was issued to a local astrologer who claimed to be able to tell exactly how much money a person had in his pocket, to come along to my meeting to be tested. As I had on my person four different currencies in notes, coins and travellers cheques, he would indeed have had a claim to fame had he been successful. Needless to say, he didn't turn up. Unlike most Western astrologers, who confine themselves to predictions, horoscopes and character assessments, their Indian counterparts also sell "lucky" charms and stones, claim to be able to cure disease, prevent pain and drive out evil spirits with yantras and mantras (techniques and chants).
While the main aim of sceptical groups around the world is basically the same - the encouragement of critical thinking - as can be seen by the examples I have given, the task in India is compounded by a deep seated and ages old traditional culture. Belief in the supernatural, miracles, omens, charms and idol worship is endemic and is unfortunately not confined to the peasant, trudging stoically behind his camel-drawn wooden plough, but permeates the whole fabric of Indian Society. The spectacle of human beings humiliating themselves by genuflecting to two life sized and garishly dressed dolls in the sanctum sanctorum of a magnificent marble temple in Jaipur, while on the opposite side of the road their kinfolk fought just to exist in the indescribable filth of their hovels, emphasised the need for a more realistic approach to life. To me, beneficent smiles painted on the faces of the idols had a twist of cynicism as they gazed on the priests guarding the huge padlocked donation chests, as if to ask why they, the omnipotent, needed cash and the protection of mere mortals.
Exploitation of the gullible in India, by the toleration and encouragement of untenable beliefs, is a corrosive disease which inhibits any improvement in the standard of living of those born in a resource rich country. The potential is there and to the Indian Rationalists it is self-evident that the situation is best addressed by exposure of the frauds, the self appointed godmen and by teaching scientific temper. To this end, the Indian government has awarded a fellowship to B. Premanand to make a series of video tapes exposing the miracle mongers and to lecture teachers who, in turn, can alert the villagers to fraudulent practices and enlighten them to more practical ways in which they can improve their lives.
During my eight week tour, I gave 20 lectures, spoke at two public meetings, attended four press conferences and was reported in ten newspapers in six different languages. If, in any way, my small contribution has helped or encouraged the rationalist cause in India, then it is but small repayment for the unstinting kindness, hospitality, generosity and friendship shown to my family and myself by the many people I met during my trip. I will always remember them with warm affection.
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Last update: 22 July 1998