Sanal Edamaruku, India’s ‘miracle buster’, is the president of Indian Rationalist Association and also the Rationalist International based in Helsinki. He was forced to flee to Finland two years ago after several complaints were lodged against him under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, a British-era law that seeks to punish anyone who, “deliberately and maliciously attempts to harm the religious feelings of another.”
Edamaruku, who has an Mphil degree in international Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, had accused the church of being anti-science and mocked the Pope for condoning exorcism, during a TV debate following his debunking of the case of "miracle" water dripping from a statue of Jesus in a Mumbai church.
He speaks to KumKum Dasgupta on godmen, the ongoing drama around Rampal Maharaj in Haryana, and why godmen thrive in India.
Why do godmen manage to do so well in India? Is it because we lack scientific temper?
My efforts to expose godmen for more than three decades have helped thousands of people to come out from the clutches of godmen. Nevertheless, some hardcore followers will never leave these godmen even if you give them irrefutable proof. The more time and devotion they invest in a godman, the more adamant they become to defend them. This is textbook example for the "cognitive dissonance" theory. This theory offers the key to a social and psychological mechanism behind such irrational behaviour patterns of people.
Why do devotees find it so difficult to come out?
Godmen ask for total submission or surrender. Once trapped in that situation, the devotees find it difficult to exit. In fact, they will go to any extent of irrationality to defend a godman. When facts or ground realities counter their deep conviction, the dissonance between conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotions can cause stark discomfort. This triggers a strong drive to reduce their disagreement by altering and adjusting cognitions or adding new ones.
That is why the devotees are willing to believe that the godmen hold the key of their destiny. They become vulnerable to the extent to believe that these godmen have miraculous powers or they can cure ailments.
How do we control this phenomenon?
We must promote scientific temper as a fundamental duty. Now we only teach science but don’t inculcate a scientific outlook. Politicians ally with godmen to get a share of their following and money for political advantage. Godmen flourish in India due to political patronage.
Are governments too weak to control these men?
Governments should take a clear stand on controlling these godmen. Most of them are clearly involved in fraudulent practices. When godmen use muscle and money to protect their empires, or when they hide behind the shield of "faith", the government should be able to clearly stand with reason and justice. Religion or any faith should not be allowed to be used as a protection against crimes or human rights violation.
What’s your take on the Rampal story?
I have been following the case of the Hisar godman. His public speeches and statements claiming special powers and divine authority show that he is a fraudster who exploits the gullible common man. The media is doing a good job in exposing his claims. The quick rise of godmen like him shows that our common people have to be immunised against such dangerous influences. There are serious criminal charges against Rampal, including murder. That he could use a fanatic and violent crowd to seek protection from criminal investigation is shocking. The attack on policemen by Rampal's devotees is condemnable.