India's spiritual underbelly exposed

Self-styled god-man Asaram Bapu after his arrest on Sept 1 for sexually assaulting a follower's underage daughter, and (above) indulging in Holi splashing with his followers during the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad in March.

In recent weeks, India has seen the murder of an anti-superstition campaigner, followed by the arrest of a "god-man" on sexual assault charges.Dr Narendra Dabholkar, 67, who used scientific experiments and reasoning to disprove claims of miracles and superstitious beliefs, was shot dead by two men in broad daylight in the western city of Pune on Aug 20.

He had dedicated his life to travelling extensively to expose god-men and astrologers, aside from fighting animal sacrifice and India's caste system. He had received hate mail from Hindu extremist groups and his killers have not been caught.

On Sept 1, Asaram Bapu, 72, a spiritual guru who runs 425 ashrams, peddles miracle cures and claims god-like qualities, was arrested for sexually assaulting a follower's underage daughter. The self-styled god-man is a controversial yet influential figure with millions of followers, who have been protesting against his arrest.

The god-man, who was born into a poor family and worked his way up from low-paying jobs, now owns properties estimated to be worth millions of rupees, and lives at his ashram in Ahmedabad. He is said to have high political connections. Even as India builds intercontinental rockets and its own nuclear submarines, age-old superstitions hold sway among large swathes of the population, providing a livelihood for thousands of holy men, soothsayers and astrologers.

The murder of Dr Dabholkar and the arrest of Asaram Bapu, although unrelated episodes, have exposed India's spiritual underbelly. "In the name of religion, a lot of these god-men are exploiting people and they have different modus operandi," said Mr Avinash Patil, a member of the Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, founded by Dr Dabholkar.

"One god-man, for instance, claimed he could perform surgery with his hands and nothing else; another went around with a magic sheet he said could cure any disease. We filed cases against them. They just dupe people."

While some god-men and soothsayers travel through villages and towns, making money by selling talismans and stones said to provide protection from evil spirits or to cure disease, others run large-scale enterprises and attract hordes of followers, including members of the middle class.

"In the neo-liberal society we are living in, we have created a lot of uncertainty. When there is too much to bear, some people facing uncertainty look for solace," said Dr T.V. Venkateswaran, a scientist with Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous organisation under the federal government that promotes scientific and rational outlook.

The rationalists scored a victory when the Maharashtra government approved an ordinance to eradicate black magic, blind faith and superstitious beliefs with a maximum punishment of seven years for anyone propagating black magic, practising animal sacrifice or peddling supposedly magical remedies to cure ailments. It was passed a day after Dr Dabholkar's murder.

Last Wednesday the first arrest was made with the help of Dr Dabholkar's outfit - two men were nabbed for charging people up to 3,000 rupees (S$59) as payment for cures for cancer, diabetes and Aids.

Across India, small but determined groups of people are trying to spread awareness through science to counter superstitious beliefs, targeting everything from black magic to astrology, the caste system and even fengshui, which has gained popularity with middle-class Indians.

The Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, for instance, has offered a reward of 500,000 rupees to any god-man who can prove his miracles and it has also launched programmes encouraging inter-caste marriages.

The West Bengal-based Science and Rationalists' Association of India has offered 2.5 million rupees to anyone who can demonstrate his supernatural powers to heal the terminally ill, walk on water or predict the death of a famous personality.

Rationalists believe they are making a dent in overall psyche. "There is growing awareness in society and there is change," said Mr Prabir Ghosh, 68, general secretary of the Science and Rationalists' Association of India.

But astrologer Pandit Siva Prasad Tata said that while superstition should be condemned, not everything ought to be dismissed, particularly astrology. "If millions have followed it, there is some solid substance to it. Good astrologers have a 72 to 75 per cent success rate," he said.

Agreeing that there was "a lot of fraud in astrology", he said: "There are quite a few educated fools in India. If an astrologer tells a man don't marry a girl, he won't." The battle between the two sides is far from over, and rationalists say Dr Dabholkar's death is a setback in an important war.

"Even if the battle is lost, the war should not be given up because these efforts are essential for countries like India, which are multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic," said Dr Venkateswaran.

The death of Dr Dabholkar moved Delhi tyre factory technician Jitender Goyal, 47, to join a rationalists' outfit. "He was doing good work and I would like to contribute. I always tell my friends and family not to indulge in superstitious activities," he said.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

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