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Catholic groups in India have brought blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamarauku, the country's most prominent rationalist. They may get more than they bargained for, says Caspar Melville.
Sanal Edamaruku is facing up to three years in an Indian jail for telling the truth.
For the past two decades Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association
, has been spearheading a campaign of de-mystification and public education aimed at undermining the power of the fake gurus and God-men who still wield considerable power in India. In a never-ending series of rationalist roadshows Edamaruku and his merry band of debunkers have traversed India, setting up on street corners in big cities and small towns. On first glance they are no different from the travelling shows of the sadhus and gurus who criss-cross India performing miracles for cash. The rationalists perform a series of these same "miracles" - coconuts crack open and appear to bleed, beds of nails are reclined on, bodies levitated under sheets, flesh pierced without blood. Once the crowd is sufficiently enraptured, the curtain is dropped, and Edamaruku's team explain that each miracle is a trick, and how that trick is performed. When they pack up, they leave ordinary Indians inoculated against the tan-tricks and supernatural claims of the fakirs, and better informed about basic scientific processes. "What may look like Sunday entertainment for children," Edamaruku says, "is nothing less than breaking the little hook on which the god-men's enormous power, and the fate of their victims, hangs."
In recent years the roadshow has moved into the TV Studio. Edamaruku has become something of a star, the hardest working man in the debunking business - last year he estimates he did 200 appearances. He is usually called on to pour cold water on supernatural claims. In one famous instance, the "Great Tantra Challenge" of 2008
, he challenged the self-styled guru Pandit Surinder Sharma to prove his claim that he was so powerful he could kill with the power of his mind. After several hours of trying to kill Edamaruku he was forced to withdraw, utterly deflated.
Alongside vanquishing charlatans Edamaruku delights in debunking miracles - revealing the mundane scientific processes that lie behind these supposed supernatural events. The statue of Ganesh that actually drinks milk? No, capillary action as the stone dries. The coconut that rolls by itself compelled by mystical force? Nope, there's a mouse inside. A statue of Christ dripping holy water? Sorry, it's just a leaky tap.