When Sanal Edamaruku visited a church in Irla, Mumbai, in March, he was the only one not surprised by what he saw.
Yes, there were drops of water falling from the feet of a statue of Jesus. But he had seen — and explained — much stranger events in his 30-year career as a rationalist and debunker of myth.
What did surprise him was the outrage — and arrest warrant — that followed his explanation that the water came from a leaking tank nearby.
“They wanted me to apologise for airing my scientific opinion on TV. Why would I apologise for stating a fact? Saying that a statue cannot release water on its own is not blasphemous,” says the 56-year-old author, rationalist activist, president of the Indian Rationalist Association and co-founder and president of 17-year-old Rationalist International. “Let them arrest me. It will only highlight how intolerant religious leaders can be.”
Born in Kerala to Joseph and Soley Edamaruku — journalists, activists and practicing rationalists — Sanal grew up in an atmosphere of scientific inquiry. As children, he and his younger sister were told they should not adopt a religion until they were old enough to choose for themselves.
Joseph even petitioned a local court to enable his children to keep religion off their school admission forms.
It was the death of a young woman in the neighbourhood, however, that pushed Edamaruku to embrace rationalism as a cause.
When he was twelve, a 22-year-old state-level athlete who lived 5 km from his home was diagnosed with leukaemia. “Local doctors said she should be admitted to hospital for a blood transfusion, but her family belonged to a Christian group that believed transfusions were a sin, and that prayer would heal her,” says Edamaruku.
The entire neighbourhood, including Edamaruku, prayed for the girl’s recovery, but she could not be saved.
“The idea that these beliefs had cost her her life disturbed me deeply,” he says. “From being a passive rationalist, I was galvanised into action.”
Three weeks after her death, Edamaruku started attending local rationalist meetings. By age 15, he had founded a rationalist group for students. Two years later, he became convenor of the Rationalist Forum of Kerala, a position he continued to occupy while pursuing his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in political science.
By his mid-twenties he was already busting myths and exposing false godmen by explaining their tricks and replicating them for devotees.
“Statues and portraits cannot release holy water or suddenly spring out of the earth. People should question such phenomena without anyone prompting them,” says Edamaruku. “The fact that a spirit of inquiry is still not encouraged in our country, whether through our education system or general upbringing, pushes me to continue my work.”
Edamaruku now lectures extensively, has written books on rationalism and conducts free workshops in which he demonstrates how ‘miracles’ are wrought.
“I don’t charge to impart common sense,” he says. Edamaruku earns his living mainly from royalties on his 20 books on rationalism.
For 17 years, ever since he used physics to explain the ‘miracle’ of Ganesha idols drinking milk, Edamaruku has also been the go-to man every time another phenomenon needs to be explained.
“My schedule for the past four years has involved travelling around the country for TV shows,” he says. “But it is my work with youngsters in colleges and science camps that is my real mission.”
Every year, Edamaruku trains about 100 volunteers to conduct workshops on their own. “Our work should be replicated all over the country,” he says. “Word must spread even after I am gone.”