(President, Indian Rationalist Association)
I have campaigned against superstitions for several decades now and am convinced that it is the single most destructive force in India’s development.
Let me start with a small piece of advice, just in case. If one fine day you get to know that some tantrik, generously paid by your arch enemy to kill you, has managed to lay his hands on a used handkerchief or a strand of hair or yours, don’t panic. Here is the counter spell that can save your life: just laugh. For whatever mantras he may chant over a midnight fire in the local burial ground and whatever cruelties he may commit to your handkerchief, it cannot harm you as long as you are not afraid. If you are afraid, yes, you could die - out of fear that is.
In March 2008, I had an opportunity to prove my point. During a panel discussion live on India TV about “tantra power versus science” my opponent Pandit Surinder Sharma, a well-known TV-tantrik, boasted that it would take him just three minutes to kill whomever he wanted by the sheer power of his mantras. “Then kill me!” I challenged him. And he tried. That was the beginning of an unprecedented experiment. When I survived two exhausting hours of “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili….”, the show was continued in an open air midnight special with the “ultimate destruction ritual”, in which the tantrik fired off the full stock of his black magic arsenal. Finally he furiously crucified, massacred and burned the little clot of wheat dough that was meant to represent me. But all the tantra and mantra could not harm me. Of course not! How should abracadabra and chicken bones spell death?
Fear from freedom is looming large
We are living in a time where scientific and technological revolutions are dramatically changing the way we live and the way we think. With the fast and easy flow of information at our fingertip and the whole world just a call away, borders are opening, old monopolies and privileges breaking and social prisons crumbling. It’s a good time to do away with the last balance of age old superstition and tribal rituals in our mind and to try to understand the world in its complexity. To take control of our lives and develop our own capacities, to be efficient, strong, confident, responsible – and happy. This is not only a personal affair, it is also the best way promote India growing into a developed country and unfolding its strong potential to take a leadership position in tomorrow’s world order.
Many are ill prepared to cope with the challenging situation. For them, all changes create a feeling of insecurity and fear. People who could not overcome their childhood fears and weaknesses tend to remain trapped lifelong in a bizarre world where ghosts and spirits are lurking behind every shadow. They are the ideal customers for tantriks and babas, who unscrupulously exploit fear and insecurity.
Blisters and a flush of enlightenment
I have been a spirited campaigner against superstition for several decades now, as I am convinced that it is the single most destructive force in people’s lives and India’s development. My encounters with “supernatural” charlatans enlist much more colourful figures and more dangerous situations than the “Great Tantra Challenge” on India TV. There were people like the fiery Balti Baba, who performed his fire tricks allegedly for the benefit of a top politician’s re-election, when I exposed him. He got so furious that he tossed a huge burning mud pot on my face. Running TV cameras recorded my narrow escape. I got some minor blisters, but the baba burnt his hands down to the bones and hasn’t been seen in public ever since.
Among all those sinister creatures, Pandit Suriner Sharma deserves a special place. As a somewhat sedate thinker he understood the consequences of our experiment in a nationally broadcast live programme too late. Killing nothing but his own career, he helped me – though against his will – to spark a flush of enlightenment in the minds of millions of viewers. I still receive touchy mails from people of all wages of life who found their way out of superstition that night. In case you missed the programme: you can see some clippings on YouTube.