An eye-opener for India

  • Date / 15 August 2008

In an illustrated article on the occasion of India’s Independence Day, Babu Gogineni highlights the superstitious obstacles to India’s progress and warns of the dangers of departing from the path of reason.

India’s ‘Progress’

India as a country has today in her 61st year of existence found a place on the world’s radar – dazzling many with the explosive economic growth nearing that of China’s, creating the world’s largest pool of persons with technical training, producing food that can sustain a billion citizens even if there were no rains for one year, and even managing to get an agreement with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while remaining outside the ambit of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty!

Pleasant but traffic choked Bangalore, and chaotic Hyderabad have become the destinations for many Western IT firms. Several are still making a bee line for these cities and other cities which are cheaper, transforming the urban landscape. Today, parts of Indian cities resemble western cities, and the Special Economic Zones that are being set up are the symbols of the resurgent India. What if this means displacing farmers, and offering only token compensation for the lands forcibly acquired by the state on behalf of private companies? And even if the affected farmer is suddenly homeless and has nowhere to go, and even if the amount of arable land under cultivation is decreasing alarmingly, raising food prices to levels where nutritious food is becoming a luxury, is it not true that general prosperity can be seen in the cities? Real estate prices and rents are starting to match those of the Western countries, and 13% inflation, a sure indicator of furious economic activity, is now a matter of fact. A social safety net or health care or universal education are not yet available, but a country cannot do everything for its people, can it?

The new India is becoming interesting. Reebok and Nike are available, Mercedes, Audi and Toyota have arrived as well as the annual foreign holiday. The affluent as well as the upper middle class in India is excited. For those who belong to these classes, India has joined the big league. There is talk in the media and in drawing rooms of the knowledge economy. But in a country where 40% of the population is illiterate, and in a society which houses the biggest concentration of child labour in the world and in a country where many, old and young sleep hungry, this is a joke.

The youngsters who have seceded from India and live in their own world, speak in call center accents in flashy offices about the Indian way of doing things. The necessity to honour and celebrate Indian values is stressed by their managers, launching their businesses on auspicious days and signing contracts at times advised by their favourite astrologers. They all visualising the day when India would have a formidable nuclear arsenal, wield a veto at the UN Security Council and host an Olympics soon.

Lo! An Idol Opens It Eyes

18 July 2008 was an auspicious Full Moon Day, on which Guru Purnima is celebrated. It is a day on which according to Indian tradition one’s teachers should be honoured. The Guru is God, and God is Guru. It is the Guru who sustains and guides Indians in their earthly endeavours, and it was the right day to go to temples and to pray to one’s favourite guru.

Sai idol with painted eye

A day filled with piety and devotion was the right day, then, to play a hoax on the devout and the gullible.

The plan was perfect and in the afternoon of Guru Purnima, TV news channels started flashing news about how an idol of the late Sai Baba (who lived and died in Shirdi in Maharasthra state) opened his left eye in a far away Bangalore home.

Hordes of people rushing to witness the ‘miracle’

Men and women rose from their seats in front of computer terminals and hordes of them made their way to witness the great miracle. Thousands of them started forming queues, to see what the dozens of TV Channels have been showing the whole country for well over 8 hours: an eye painted black on the face of the idol, making it appear that the eye was open.

Opening People’s Eyes

The situation seems not to have changed for the better since 1995. That was when rumours were spread around the country in a calculated manner that idols of Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed god, were drinking milk. It seemed as if for the next two days all of India was queuing up outside temples to witness the miracle. With the exception of a few, reporters from the news media assured viewers and readers that it indeed was a miracle. Only a few scientists (most ‘practitioners of science’ said they had to examine the evidence first!) and the rationalists nationwide spontaneously reacted to the claims by explaining that surface tension and the porosity of the stone idols was the explanation for the disappearing milk. The hero scientist of the time was a lowly cobbler sitting outside the National Physical Laboratories – he showed to TV channels how even his instruments could drink milk – a rare common sense that was not available to most of the educated. Some intelligent youngsters clicked pictures of the streams of milk being drained away from behind the idols by the priests – so after all Ganesha was not drinking the milk! It took two days for the hysteria to die and for common sense to prevail.

This time too, Humanists and Rationalists were sought out by TV Channels, and interviews were conducted. In the case of the statute with the supposedly open eyes, we took great pains to explain that it was impossible that the eyes on a stone idol could open. An idol was a human creation; it had no life, exclaimed one of us. Some asked with a twinkle in the eye, why Sai Baba chose to open his left eye and not the right one. Others queried whether Sai Baba would perform a miracle which was also useful to humanity, like producing food for all, instead of simply winking at all of us.

Screen shot of TV interview with Babu Gogineni

I pointed out that to start with the viewers should observe that next to the idol was placed a Hundi – a collection box for money that the devotees were giving. That gives us a clue as to the motive behind the hoax, and I called for an official investigation into the cheating of the general public. A multi-level marketing firm was being prosecuted for cheating people, and here was a hoax that is going unpunished. It has spread through a conspiracy and a deliberate act to deceive. People who cheat others are gaining immunity from prosecution simply because they are using religion as a shield. In any case, why was Sai Baba, a Muslim Fakir who never claimed to have performed any miracle in his life time, performing a miracle not in Shirdi, but in Bangalore, on a Hindu festival day, and that too so many decades after his death? It is not enough that we wake up every time there was a crisis like this, it was important to get children to think critically and to take the right steps in school education. I also predicted that based on the pattern of claims made in 1995, even this time Sai Baba idols elsewhere will also shoe this same miracle. That too happened!

Apart from repeatedly airing the contribution, the popular Telugu Channel ETV produced the next day a Special Program ‘Which Way are we Going?’ focusing on superstition, featuring many prominent rationalists and atheists from different organisations like Mr. Ramesh of the Jana Vigyana Vedika, Humanist Dr. Innaiah, Rationalist magician Mr. Vikram etc.

Reason Eclipsed Again

On 1 August 08 as the world witnessed with excitement the spectacular celestial event of the total solar eclipse over parts of Russia, China and Mongolia, India was covering in fear – temples were shut to ward off the evil influence of the eclipse, astrologers warned of danger, pregnant women were asked not to cut certain vegetables, and in general people were asked by astrologers to remain indoors. TV channels were tracking the eclipse, and had invited science popularisers to comment on the happenings, but almost all these channels also had an astrologer to comment on what was happening, from their geo-centric view point!

While the eclipse was on full swing, the Atheist Center organised a program to denounce the superstitions surrounding the eclipse, and women cut vegetables, demonstrating that it was not harmful. Science popularisers went to great lengths to explain that the eclipse was a natural phenomenon and that the demons Rahu and Ketu had nothing to do with it.

Maybe so. But for many, educated, and otherwise intelligent persons, it was safer to take that bath after the eclipse to cleanse themselves.

A few days later, the Christian Chief Minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh (a medical doctor by training) claimed that the much delayed rains came only because of his prayers at the Tirumala temple. He has been silent ever since the rains became really heavy, the rivers flooded vast areas of the state, took the lives of nearly 60 persons, and destroyed nearly 40% of the standing crops.

Many states are encouraging religious rituals in official functions; the Swamis are crawling back into public life. Rajasthan, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Orissa … None of the states have set a good example.

The Warning Bells

The warning bells have been sounded. Increasing rituals. Greater role for astrologers in private and even public life. Continuing news of human sacrifice from the rural areas, and of lynching of suspected witches. Reinforced caste identities, neglect of the weak and the helpless … the list is endless. India, despite all the tall claims of becoming a modern nation is doing nothing about the ever increasing superstition amongst her people and their leaders, nor about the rapidly disappearing human values.

This neglect of the scientific temper will prove to be a costly affair for the nation.

Babu Gogineni is IHEU’s International Director

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