Sanal Edamaruku, a rationalist is facing the legal trap for abusing others’ faith. (April 2012) At the same time in another event, Nirmal Baba, who is supposed to be having divine powers and who has been flashing his paid programs in over 40 TV channels, advising people on solving their problems with various’ divine’ solutions, is facing case of fraud. Recently a local court has directed the police to register a case against him for allegedly cheating people. Both these cases coming in different religions have a deeper connection. In case of Sanal Edamaruku, he was able to show the root of the water seeping from the feet of Jesus Christ on cross in Mumbai’s Irla area. This water was regarded as divine and many followers were thronging the place to have access to the divine water. Sanal showed that water was from the choked drain and getting pushed up by capillary action. Sanal is facing the wrath of section of the community for hurting their faith.
Nirmala Baba, Nirmaljit Singh Nirula, a failed Businessman had disappeared in 1970 and then later repapered claiming to have divine powers and started building up his enterprise by organizing paid TV shows in which those in the audience were initially paid to ask solutions for their problems and later people in thousands thronged, paid money to enter these TV shows, ‘Nirmal Darbars’ and Baba started dishing out ‘solutions’ while his bank accounts swelled. In few years time the ‘faith-business’ flourished and now Baba is a multimillionaire with good deal of property under his belt.
The large section of followers thronging for the divine water seeping from the feet of Lord Jesus, to explain the source of water came as an insult of their faith. To the multiple people seeking solutions from Nirmal Baba, it was again a matter of faith. The boundaries between faith and blind faith many a times are very blurred. As such faith and reason have been counter-posed in the society. Faith has been ruling the roost in the areas of ‘unknown’ and the future. It has been constructed around the supernatural powers and clergy of different religions or self made Godmen have been the custodian of faith. Many an areas which were in the domain of faith shifted to reason over a period of time like nature of earth, eclipse, diseases etc.
At the same time faith has been used or manipulated for different purposes in society, including for political ones’. Ram Temple movement is the example of such use or abuse of faith. Hiding behind Sharia to continue with certain retrograde social practices is another such example.
The natural phenomenon being interpreted through the angle of faith, Earth is flat, God created life in such and such fashion, is one thing and to create a well planned show to rouse people’s faith and then to make business of it with the help of section of TV, media, unmindful of their social responsibility is another side of the same coin. One concedes that the insecurities of the society have gone up by leaps and bounds and this faith gives a emotional support to many to sustain in the midst of the hardships prevalent all around. Still we do need to bring out the boundaries where the rational thinking, the one our Constitution ordains us to promote, needs to be adhered to sincerely.
In case of Nirmal Baba state has correctly woken up and case has been put up against him. In case of Sanal state and society need to protect him from the trappings of law to uphold reason. The mechanical interpretation of laws ‘hurting the faith’ of others needs to be sanitized for protection of the mandate of Indian Constitution to promote rational thinking and to protect the likes of Sanal. In case of Nirmal Baba, the media, which has aired the sponsored shows of Baba and built up his fraud, needs to introspect.
The claims that these are matters related to religion are again far away from the truth and have a distorted perception of the complex phenomenon of religion. The core part of any religion is the morality developed by the prophets and society over long period of time. The institutions built around religions and the hyper-emphasis on rituals, sharia is an insertion by the clergy, who has its own vested interests and which has ensured the suppression of rational thought all through. One recalls the battles between Charvak and clergy related to the oldest struggle of reason to come up in social thinking and pull the society out of the clutches of the vested interests of clergy.
In Europe the scientists like Bruno, Servatus, and Galileo suffered immense torture at the hands of powerful mediators of the institutional religions. One must re-emphasize the difference between the teachings of the prophets-religions and emphasis on identity and rituals by institutions of religion and variety of Godmen. Prophets were for radical changes in the society to come out from the evils prevalent in society, they were for change and for justice. The institutions built in their name are there for status quo and for preserving the system where few benefit and most in the society suffer. The rational thinkers, scientists had to face imprisonment or other harassment for discovering things like Earth is round, diseases are not due to wrath of God etc.
The response of the clergy was a severe condemnation of this rational thinking as it would undermine their privileges in the society. While Europe has seen its battle against the blind faith, faith based knowledge; it seems at broader level that we in India are still struggling to come out from the impositions of faith. One can say that even in recent times those who stood for social change and justice like Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker and Bhagat Singh resorted to rational thought and those for status quo of social relationships took recourse to identity of religion. Their politics took cover under the name of religion and they harped on faith and issues built around identity issues.
The continuation of the mind set of feudal society has got mixed up with the new challenges of globalization and contemporary insecurities faced by the average people. Nirmal Baba may be a crude example from the battery of these Godmen. There are others who are more sophisticated and have a vast reach through diverse mechanisms. Godmen, faith merchants are those who have en-cashed on the insecurities of people by mixing the creation of miracles with faith, mixing spirituality and faith in a variety of ways. As Meera Nanda, an eminent social scientist, in her book ‘God Market’ has demonstrated this phenomenon has expanded by leaps and bounds in last three decades. The proliferation of Babas of different hues all around has put a brake on the growth and promotion of rational thought and scientific temper. The patronage of high and mighty to these Godmen, or persecution of people like Sanal is a matter of deep concern and is a mirror showing us as to where our society is going in the matters of faith.
The litmus test of the values of Babas and those putting cases against the likes of Sanal has to be, how much these elements are talking of prevalent social injustices, how much they are promoting the morality inherent in their religions? On this count the God men are tongue tied. It is time we build the conduits to promote rational thinking and confronting the tricks played by the likes of Nirmal Baba and those propagating the existence of miracles out of phenomenon which can be explained by scientific inquiry.
(Ram Puniyani was a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.