guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 March 2010 14.30 GMT
In different cultures, sense of humour varies. In the south Indian state of Kerala, from where I come, many people have great fun with this arguably shortest joke anywhere in circulation: A dog tried to open a coconut. And what happened? you may ask. Well, nothing; that's the joke. It did not work, of course.
My encounter with Pandit Surender Sharma had something of a Kerala joke stretched out for hours. Nobody laughed, though, when he tried to kill me with tantric rituals on live TV. Except me, of course.
It was in March 2008. The tantra master and I were studio guests on a popular TV show to debate on the subject of "Tantric power vs science". He boasted that he was able to kill anyone by mantra and tantra within three minutes. I grabbed my chance to put him in check and offered myself for a test. Caught on air, he couldn't escape without losing face – and his high-profile clientele. So our unprecedented experiment began. The master started chanting his trade mark "killer" mantra that has become quite a hit on the internet since: "Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili…"
After several rounds of chanting failed to knock me out, he tried the whole arsenal of his tantric gimmickry on me, obviously without any result either. I was just laughing. In his embarrassment, he proposed I was protected by a supreme god whom I served – never mind that I am an atheist! Finally, he resorted to foul play, pressing his thumbs against my temples, hard enough to kill me the conventional way, but was cautioned by the umpiring anchor. With no way to escape, he upped the stakes and agreed to perform the "ultimate destruction ceremony" that would kill me dead sure. With ratings soaring, the programme overran, rolling on and on in "breaking news" mode. The channel announced another round of our epic battle for the night show.
Same game, this time in proper style: open night sky, the auspicious hour before midnight, me sitting on the tantric altar, blazing flames, white smoke, voodoo doll, peacock feather, mustard seed and all that. The master, besmirched with ashes from the cemetery ground and after the prescribed ritual consumption of sex, meat and alcohol at his tantric best, was assisted by a chorus of vigorous mantra chanters: "Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili…"
Well, the pig still didn't fly. But the mere idea of it kept millions and millions of viewers all over India glued to their TV sets. I was laughing throughout. Not just because it was a scene of superb absurdity, but mainly because I felt that so many people out there in front of their screens urgently needed a signal from me that there was nothing to be worried about. In fact, I laughed the tantric out of power. After hysteric escalation and a dramatic countdown, it all ended as you would well have anticipated, with the defeated tantric silently quitting the field – down, out and over. Reason had won the day, as James Randi later happily commented.
Life is not always like that. But this TV show turned the tables. It influenced the climate in public debates inside and outside Indian TV studios far more deeply than I expected when I caught hold of Sharma. Our experiment became a textbook example for the hollowness of tantra-mantra power. Prick a pin in the great balloon and it comes crashing down, that was the message. But make no mistake; it's not always as easy and rarely as amusing. Recently, we were able to put behind bars, with the help of a TV documentary, a tantric who used to make his living with a dangerous stunt of rare brutality: he trampled on the bodies of little infants brought to him in hundreds by their illiterate parents to benefit from the godly powers of his feet. A local politician and high priest, to whom I talked during the programme, defended the holy man in the name of religion. This shows the complexity of the problem.
For several decades, rationalists in India have been working quite successfully on different levels to educate people against spiritual fraudsters of all denominations and ranks. In earlier years limited to (still important) village campaigns, the television revolution has opened up new dimensions. Last year, I personally attended some 240 programmes on various channels. Some of them made an enormous impact.
While Sai Baba celebrated a recent birthday, as usual surrounded by India's high society including top politicians, one TV channel gave me an opportunity to perform and explain his trademark tricks for any kid to try at home – a landslide success, but the king kept sitting on his throne. However, these kinds of superstitions are slowly coming into the firing line of a courageous new media force supporting the rationalist line. The next generation of India's top godmen are already starting to appreciate the shift. Recently, one of them threw away the mic and fled with bodyguards and armored cars when I came into a TV studio. Pity.