India opening its eyes to tricksters who prey on blind faith

Reuters/October 3, 2002
By Jayashree Lengade

Bombay -- In tradition-bound India, if someone claims to be able to exorcise ghosts, levitate or pull a gold chain out of thin air, it does not take long for him to become known as a "godman."

While many godmen are not confidence tricksters, there are numerous "miracle babas" who are just out to get rich by duping as many people as quickly as they can.

But Bombay police are cracking down on the charlatans and have enlisted the help of a group known as the All India Committee to Eradicate Superstition and Blind Faith to convince people that special power is more often than not a sleight of hand or an illusion.

"The campaign is meant to be an eye-opener. We want to put a complete stop to those posing as godmen. They are involved in outright cheating and violent acts," S. S. Vagal, joint commissioner of police for crime in Bombay, said.

Mr. Vagal said the campaign, which includes public meetings and television programs, has begun to show results.

"Certainly, we have been able to make an impact. Several people have voluntarily made complaints, and we have nabbed at least 25 of the fake godmen," he said.

Activists say the "miracle babas" come to India's commercial hub from poorer parts of the country and seek their fortune by exploiting people's insecurities.

"It's easy money -- without any investment. As long as fear exists among people such godmen will thrive," said Narendra Bhabolkar, founder of the 20-year-old committee that seeks to expose the tricksters.

A committee worker at a public gathering shows how a gold chain that looked as if it had been plucked out of the air had actually been tucked up a sleeve.

"It's simple. If you want people to bow down at you then you perform a trick," said magician Anand Tayade, who is helping with the campaign against the fraud.

"There's no such thing as performing miracles on this Earth.

"These godmen are unlike learned saints who renounce worldly life, give sermons and induce a feeling of positive energy. They are out to cheat gullible people to make money," Mr. Tayade said.

In another demonstration, a man clad in saffron robes and a false beard seems to sit suspended in mid-air without any support but for a hand resting on a pole.

A superstition-busting activist tells the hushed crowd of more than 100 people that the long garment actually hides a wooden seat fixed to the pole.

Many godmen call themselves "tantrics" -- followers of the esoteric Hindu and Buddhist tradition of ritual and yoga. Some claim to be able to perform miracles and solve just about any problem under the sun -- from helping jilted lovers and solving marriage problems, to comforting those with job worries and healing the sick. "It's the environment one grows up in that's usually responsible while others are looking for avenues to overcome stress in adversity," said Shyam Manav, another activist trying to educate people about superstition.

The godmen charge anything from about 150 rupees ($5) up to millions of rupees. And people seeking help from all walks of life can fall prey to their tricks.

While most godmen restrict themselves to relatively harmless fraud, others get caught up in much more sinister affairs, including human sacrifice to appease "evil spirits."

In July, a nine-year-old boy was found dead on the outskirts of Bombay. A man told police he killed the boy after a godman told him doing so would save his troubled marriage. "We have intensified patrolling day and night to arrest fake godmen. Another human sacrifice cannot take place," R. D. Jagtap, assistant police commissioner, said.

While Bombay police say the fake godmen are becoming scarce in the city, the activists campaigning against superstition are travelling to towns and villages to spread their message.

"We understand that blind practices cannot be ended easily. It will take generations. But our effort will continue," committee member and Bollywood actor Shreeram Lagoo said.

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