The don town North railway station yawns with studied boredom. The pearls-and-pumps travelers delicately dodge the poor-and-perspiring passengers. All are scurrying by; catching, leaving, or meeting trains that chug in and out of the Station with routine indifference. But when a certain man walks - no, strides into the platform, all eyes follow him. His beard is white and flowing, his voice, as he spots and greets me, is the confident kind, and he's able to scale curious stares with ease. This tiny kurtaclad man settling comfortably onto a crumbling cement bench is committed to a certain cause - The cause of eradicating ignorance from the layman's mind regarding his fixation with miracle-merchants and self-appointed godmen. The mercenary 'messengers' and the religious message merge into one marathon messiah of materialistic manipulation. A crowd gradually gathers around him - the locals can't help gawking over their inflatable pillows and the tourists stop sipping their mineral water - to which he is completely imperious.
Born of theosophist parents in Calicut (1930), B. Premanand has had no formal education He was dismissed from school in 1942 during the Student Freedom movement. At home, so as to be able to debate with his father, Premanand immersed himself in the works of Madam Blavatsky and the main religious texts like Koran, the Gita and the Bible. "I cannot argue over something I'm ignorant about," he points-out. He then perfected the art of magic into a fine one and set out to haunt and harass the godmen minting money out of the poor public. His irreverence has often been deemed controversial. In an era of sell-styled gurus who promise peace at a premium, this magician sticks out like a sore thumb with his brand of nirvana minus a price-tag. The man has a mission and that is to take science out of the school-rooms to the masses.
The Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of theParanoral came into existence in 1959 and Dr. Abraham T. Kovoor was the lone light in India around whom the rationalists gathered. With his 'Begone Godmen' stance. Kovoor attracted quite a following. In 1976 Premanand took over from Kovoor as the latter was too old and sick to continue traveling to the villages of India explaining the tricks behind miracles and superstitious psychic phenomena. Premanand, who is the author of about 26 books, presides over the Vijnan Yatras arranged- by state organisations which take him to more than seven thousand villages and cities in India where he lectures to about two crores of people. He also conducts workshops - where he choreographs about 150 miracles and spread awareness about the history of gods. Religion and miracles in each religion. Thus for the exploited, the dancing in the dark comes to an end.
While waiting for his train to Madras, Premanand answered whatever -questions were put to him.
Q: Is your crusade against godmen rooted in atheism or a distrust of institutionaIised religion?
A: Belief or non-belief in a god is a matter of personal choice. It doesn't harm anybody as long as there is no exploitation by impersonal external forces. When there is nothing called God, except as a concept, he can do no harm. All definitions about God are washed out today. How can he be the Creator when nothing can be created or destroyed? The need for a god doesn't exist for some people. The issue becomes irrelevant. There is no god protecting the Hindus and Muslims. It is they who are destroying each other to protect Him at Babri Masjid and Ramajanmabhoomi. This is the mischief of the agents who claim to be the prophets or avathars of gods. People go to them in despair, an emotional state which is easy to exploit. Religion is a part of our cultural ethos. Certain laws and philosophies prevailed and were carried over. God is necessary to those who need a crutch, to those who'll go mad without this crutch. But I'm concerned about those who believe more than they can handle and go mentally berserk. So instead of arguing over the existence of any nebulous entity, I try to arouse the curiosity and scientific temper of people. Once they start asking 'why', there is no regression.
Q: What made you the natural successor of Dr. A. T. Kovoor?
A: At first I believed all that I read about gods and gurus. I wanted to possess all the siddhis available. At the age of 19, I set out to find myself a guru. I went to Aurobindo and Tagore was father's friend. Like Swami, who in his book 'In Search of God' writes about his tour around India without money and claimed that God took care of him, I set out on a trip around India penniless. But I didn't see any god helping me, only human beings. I met a lot of swamis who told me they'll teach me all this kundalini stuff. KundaIini, or sexual energy, is pushed up by creating a vacuum inside the body by yoga through sushumna nadi. Scientifically speaking, it is the semen that rises up, but where is this nadi? They say it's a mental nadi that can be perceived only in meditation, that is sheer imagination. Sexual energy cannot be transformed into mystical strength. Celibacy affects the prostate gland most painfully. I found all the yogis and rishis to be tricksters.- Then I grew interested in the tricks. I can make a lot of money as a godmen if I want. I know about 1500 miracles as opposed to 50/60 that an average godmen knows. Dr. Kovoor used to come from Sri Lanka and hold miracle exposure campaigns from 1969 onwards. I wrote a book called 'Lure of Miracles' on Satya Sai Baba. Publishers refused to touch it, so I published it myself and Kovoor released it for me. I was with him in that tour as he was ill and there were also a lot of people who wanted to kill him. I became a member of the Rationalists Association. We used to go to village interiors where first I used to burn my body to attract attention. Then we used to give our lectures.-
Q: Are efforts to combat Sai Baba's miracles with science always successful?
A: When you go to buy Sai Baba `s pictures from the samiti, they first make a pretense of wiping the frame. Actually they are anointing it with mercuric chloride solution. When the aluminum frame dabbed with this comes into contact with moisture a gray powder mistaken for holy ash falls out. While Karanjia used to write Pro-Sai Baba articles in his Blitz I used to write anti ones in 'Current'. And all the Karanjia writers were advertisements. They were sponsored articles.
Q: How can you discount palmistry and astrology when even educated people are turning to these for solace and information?
A - When you have a joint in your body there has to be some loose skin to support it. This loose skin will be creased naturally. If you take up a different kind of work you'll find that the creases have changed direction. It all depends on how we use our hands. A person who writes will have more lines under his thumb. But what about handless people, what about their futures? People with stiff joints have no lines on their palms. I have a monkey at home which has foreign travel and immense wealth in the lines of his palms. Once when I went to Rome people flocked around me thinking I was an Indian spiritual person. l pretended to read their palms. The all thanked me and even offered me money! Take Nostradamus. His original predictions are vague. It is the interpreters who give it meaning. And it is only after something happens that the interpreters make a noise. not before. Erica Chetham. the main interpreter. says Indira Gandhi's death was predicted. If you read the original quatrains you will see that only an assassination is foretold. It could be any one from Mahatma Gandhi to Indira Gandhi. Mrs. Gayatri Vasudev who brings out an astrology magazine. had predicted that there will be political assassination during elections and that Rajiv s era will dwindle down. But when has there ever been an election without a death? And what about the second part of her prediction? That she conveniently forgets.
Q: What is your opinion about the latest trend of mixing religion with politics?
A: It is the cocktail that sends the cash-registers and the ballot-boxes ringing. The BJP's claim that the Indian religion is the Hindu religion is not true at all. There has never been any religion in India. Only philosophies. In the Vedas and the Upanishads there is no mention about god. Only debates and discussions. In the Rig Veda there is a chapter called Nasadiya Sutra where it is discussed whether God created us and the conclusion is that we were created from heat and that God is a creation of the human mind. Even the Bhagavad Gita is originally an atheistic philosophy. Shankaracharya changed it into a theistic philosophy. The Dhyana Sloka says: "Dhyana vartita tathgatena manasa pashyantiyam yogino" - you can perceive God only in the mind. It is true, he has only existed in imaginations. Religion is big business. The Gita was therefore given religious touches and transformed from its original impressions of the Buddhist philosophy on work and materialism. In Nagpur once while I was talking about 'Om' being the 'shrishti mantra' (symbol of creation) and therefore a sexual emblem. a mob of 200 RSS students rushed towards me in anger. I pacified them and was invited over for a debate on the issue. When I reached there. they began to hoot at me. I went towards the stage hooting and prancing madly like them. This made them silent. l then talked about 'lode'.
After the debate they agreed that, hitherto. 'love' to them had been a selfish and possessive emotion and they became fans of the rationalist movement.
Q: What is the extent of your commitments today?
A: I bring out a magazine called "The Indian Skeptic". Rahul Singh and Mrs. Margaret Bhatty are members of the editorial board. Once in two years I tour abroad. This month I'm going to Australia. I've done more than 70 TV shows abroad, here not a single one. Maharashtra was our first base outside Kerala. There we have about 12 associations affiliated to us. NCSTC connected me to North India. National Council for Science & Technology Communication have also given me a Fellowship. The work includes the following:
l. Lecture-cum-training sessions for selected students and teachers to be used subsequently as resource persons.
2. Working with some film/TV producer(s) to create a library of tricks. miracles etc. with their detailed scientific explanations, including using animation, if necessary.
3. If possible. help with the above material in conceptualizing, planning and/or making a dramatized serial of video programs.
4. Help put selections from this material into the form of publications to supplement (2) and (3).
It is a challenge to face fundamentalists. When they take off the taavezes and 'sacred' threads from their bodies I know I've reached them. Religion thus encounters rationalism and not emotional forces.
Q: What about this dial-a-guru scheme?
A: You know Nirmala Devi Srivastava is the first god-woman to hold a dhana outside the PM's house asking for protection from us! We had sent her a notice under the Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act and under the Medical Practitioner's Act which says no one can treat without a medical license. And we exposed her. I had gone to meet one Prabhaar Yogi in Kottarakkara who claimed to be 800 years old, older even than Kerala! He refused to meet me. He had a photograph taken when he was youth! In 1980 one man calling himself Jappanam Siddhan came from Sri Lanka and claimed it was God who helped him to break a 100 coconuts with his bare head. We watched him carefully and saw that he used only tender coconuts that even we could break. We exchanged one of his coconut bags for one filled with hard coconuts. In the temple he found he couldn't crack the nuts. He tried to save face by saying that he had seen a woman bathing in that morning and this had disturbed his concentration. But the people had already understood his trick. All these Muktanandas and Amritananda Mayis refuse to meet us in the open. In fact the often go underground
Q:-How do you hope to accomplish your work?
A - My desire is to build a research centre where all the miracles and psychic phenomena will be exhibited and explained with a library on religion magic. science etc. But this costs money and I cannot conjure up money from thin air!
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Last update: December 15 1995