He beats holy men at their own game

June 13th, 2008 - 10:25 am ICT by IANS  

By Jeevan Mathew Kurian
Kozhikode, June 13 (IANS) He walks barefoot over glowing embers, conjures up sacred ash with a wave of his hand or produces gold chains in the twinkle of an eye. But Narendra Nayak is no holy man professing magical powers - in fact he is their nemesis. Nayak is the current president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. Once a professor of biochemistry, he quit the job to devote his life to exorcising superstition from society.

“I demonstrate to people that many of the acts by holy men are just tricks and can be executed by anyone,” says Karnataka-based Nayak who was here at the invitation of local rationalists. “It is a sleight of hand,” he explains, showing the trick of producing a chain out of thin air.

Nayak, 58, a native of Mangalore, quit his job at the Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, in 2006. In the last 18 years, he has conducted around 3,000 demonstrations across the country to expose witchcraft, black magic and fake godmen - the term commonly used in India for holy men who woo followers by doing the seemingly impossible.

His observations on “the relationship between beliefs and happenings” led Nayak to rationalism.

It was his association with famous rationalist Abraham T. Kovoor that gave him the first experience of the rationalist movement in the mid-1970s. Nayak has since travelled abroad extensively, giving interviews and taking part in talk shows.

“Superstition is there everywhere. Abroad it comes out in more subtle forms like colour therapy or numerology. You won’t see a British prime minister falling at the feet of a godman.

“But in India, it is blatant. They produce sacred ash or a gold chain from thin air to fool people. Some of them even get away with crimes like murders,” Nayak told IANS in an interview .

Nayak has been to villages where those accused of black magic have been lynched.

“The victims are mostly women. The attackers usually cut the victim’s hair, break their teeth and smear them with human faeces to weaken their so-called magical powers. Sometimes the victims are even killed and burned.”

On many occasions, he has gone to villages at the invitation of the police to enlighten people.

He says one of the reasons for superstition was wrong education. “We give only literacy but no education,” he says.

“Nowadays, 21st century technology is being imposed on a 16th century mental set-up. We now have internet advertisements on ‘ek mukhi rudrakhsa’ (sacred bead) or ‘vaastu’ (Indian treatise on the construction of buildings).”

He says influential godmen are seemingly above the law. To stop superstitions and godmen, laws should be applied equally to all. “The country also lacks comprehensive laws to control these practices.”

Before the Karnataka assembly elections last month, Nayak offered Rs.200,000 each to five people who could predict the results. The challenge was mainly intended for astrologers.

“I got 200 entries. The contestants were to answer 25 questions. To win the prize at least 21 of them had to be correct.”

He even allowed a 10 percent margin of error on the number of seats for political parties and votes polled by important candidates.

“The maximum number of correct answers was nine. That was done by a woman who is not an astrologer. She said she used the results of opinion polls to answer the questions. However, the maximum scored by an astrologer was only four,” said Nayak.

He is happy that the tide of fortune has turned against godmen in Kerala who face action from the government.

On May 13, Santhosh Madhavan alias Swami Amrithachaithanya was arrested in Kochi for alleged rape and possession of narcotics and pornographic films. After the incident, complaints against godmen started pouring in from various parts of the state, prompting the government to initiate a statewide crackdown.

“The momentum of this drive should remain and cleanse society of godmen as well as superstitions,” says Nayak.

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