Sunday, 2 October 2011

Premanand – A Life in Search of Miracles


This interview with Premanand (17 February 1930 - 4 October 2009) was published in Bangalore Skeptic (an ezine now defunct)  in its July 2008 issue. In memory of this great skeptic and human being, we reproduce the interview here as it is not available online elsewhere.

I met Premanand in May 2008 at Podannur and later at his sister’s residence in Bangalore, where he was undergoing chemotherapy.  In this freewheeling interview, conducted partly in English and mostly in Malayalam, Premanand speaks on various topics – his initial search for spirituality, his conversion to atheism, Dr Abraham Kovoor the rationalist, Puttaparthy Saibaba the godman …
- Manoj
Search for Spiritual Insight!

When I was a student at Kozhikode (Calicut) in Kerala, I took part in the Indian independence movement. I was just 12 years old then. To avoid the wrath of rulers, the school authorities expelled me from the school, thus ending my formal education. My father, however, took care to educate me at home by keeping a private tutor.

As a teenager, I read extensively on yoga, spirituality, and other topics on religion. The fact that my father was a theosophist also might be one of the reasons for my adolescent interests in these subjects. In 1947, at the age of 17, I left home to learn yoga and to gain other occult knowledge. As I was leaving home my father gave me ten rupees so that I could send a telegram to him in case I wanted to go back home and be picked up.  I never felt the need to spend the amount. Moreover, I was eager to follow Swami Ramdas who in his book “In Search of God” said that he had toured India without any money and god helped him everywhere. I also had similar experiences when I was helped by people wherever I went. There is an important difference: while Swami Ramdas gave credit to a non-entity called god, I give credit to the real people who helped me.

In Rushikesh

During my travel I visited the ashrams of various Hindu sannyasins and gurus throughout India.

Once I spent about six months at Rushikesh at the ashram of Swami Shivananda alias Dr. Kuppuswamy Iyer of the ‘Divine Life Society’. One Balakrishna Menon was then one of the senior inmates of the ashram. He, in his later avatar, traveled widely throughout India and abroad giving religious discourses on ‘Gita’ and was known as Swami Chinmayananda. One of Swami Shivananda’s pet topics was Kundalini and by raising which, he told us, anybody could get rid of any diseases. Paradoxically, Swami Shivananda himself was suffering from diabetes and other chronic ailments. When I asked him how he himself was not free from those ailments, he said that he could easily get rid of those diseases if he really wanted to. But since those diseases were due to, according to him, his past sins he wanted to endure rather than recover from them! I, of course, was not convinced.

Later, in 1949, I spent about five months at the ashram of Swami Narayanananda, the guru of the yoga expert BKS Iyengar, at Rushikesh itself. Here I had my first encounter with what could be called a ‘miracle’. Narayanananda once showed us a blank sheet of paper and drew, in double-line, the Sanskrit letter “Om”. When he touched it with a burning piece of wood, it seared the paper precisely between the lines forming the Sanskrit letter “Om”, leaving the remaining part of the paper intact! He explained that anyone could do it by chanting “Om” for one hundred thousand times. I attempted to replicate it. I chanted “Om” as many number of times as he had claimed and followed his instructions scrupulously. But nothing happened – the letter “Om” refused to appear on my paper! This naturally aroused my curiosity and I decided to find out the truth behind it. One day I peeped into Narayanananda’s room and there he was, writing the letter “Om” on a sheet of paper using some chemicals! Once dried, the writing would become invisible and he would show it to us as a blank sheet though it in fact was not!

Narayanananda had a habit of, like other Sannyasins, advising us on the importance of celibacy (brahmacharya) to attain spiritual insights. He had written a few books on this topic. He sprinkled his text with plenty of words borrowed indiscriminately from sciences, thus giving an impression that he had approached the subject scientifically. But it was in fact all nonsense. Every morning I used to go to the nearby river to have my bath. One morning when I returned to the ashram, having forgotten to take my soap, I found Narayanananda in a sexually compromising position with the landlady of the building where the ashram was located. This showed me that his (and others of his ilk) talk of brhamacarya was only hogwash. I soon left the ashram.

My experience with sannyasins and yogis taught me that the yoga and other tantric knowledge imparted by these self-delusionary swamis, gurus, and tantrics had no scientific basis. I soon returned home rather than wasting more time with these godmen. However, I continued to read books on these subjects and also tried to find out the truth behind miracles. I never tried to publicize my findings as I was doing all these for my own knowledge.

Arrival of Abraham Kovoor

All these changed in 1969, when I met Abraham Kovoor who was in India with his “Miracle Exposure” campaign. When he came to Coimbatore at the invitation of Advocate Kasturi, he took time to visit my home at Podanur. After seeing my collection of books and other records on miracles and other occult subjects, Kovoor asked me to take up the cause of exposing the spiritual fraudsters.

Abraham Kovoor
When Kovoor came to India next time for his lecture tour (which also happened to be his last tour of India), I accompanied him most of the time. An interesting episode of that tour happened in Kollam (Quilon) in Kerala. A large crowd of followers of Sai Baba, including Mr. S.K.Nair, the editor of Malayalanadu, a popular Malayalam Weekly now defunct, confronted Dr. Kovoor asking him to guarantee that he would be able to pay one Lakh Indian rupees if they arranged an audience with Sai Baba and showed him a genuine miracle. Since Dr. Kovoor was a Sri Lankan national, they knew that he would not be able to satisfy their demand. I was in Podanur when this incident happened. Dr. Kovoor phoned me up, narrated the incident, and told me that all his efforts of twenty years would go up in flames if they were not confronted headlong. I asked Johnson Iyeroor, a young rationalist activist, to come to Podanur and handed him over a cheque written in favour of Dr. Kovoor for one lakh rupees, supported by a letter from the bank vouching that there was a bank balance of one lakh rupees in my account and that the cheque would be honoured. Dr. Kovoor produced the cheque at a meeting at the office of Janayugam (a daily owned by Communist Party of India) and asked the followers of Sai Baba to come forward. They never turned up!

After the demise of Dr Kovoor in 1978, I decided to devote the rest of my life to spread scientific awareness amongst the Indian people. I have continued his challenge of offering one lakh Indian rupees to any person/s who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural, or paranormal ability of any kind under fraud-proof conditions.
 
Jappanam Siddhan and the Media Exposure

In the early 1980s one Sri Lankan godman named Jappanam Siddhan (from Jafna) came to Kerala. He broke 101 un-husked coconuts in one sitting smashing them one by one on his forehead without any visible injuries to him. He attributed this ‘miracle’ to his spiritual powers. The local dailies, especially Mathrubumi daily, gave wide publicity to his activities. He was portrayed as a divine man who proved through this miracle the existence of spiritual prowess. The newspapers claimed that the rationalists had no answer to his. I decided to challenge this.

I conducted a series of sessions throughout Kerala demonstrating that there is nothing miraculous about that and it could be done by anybody, even by those without any practice. My team also decided to expose the godman.

We visited Thiruvananthapuram where he was having his show. We had earlier found out that the coconuts used by the godman were extremely tender ones that could be broken easily even by crushing them with ones’ bared hands. We also found out from where the godman was sourcing his supply of coconuts. We made a clandestine arrangement with the supplier and the next day out of the four sacks of coconuts supplied to the godman, only one contained tender ones; the remaining three bags contained mature coconuts with hard shells.  When the godman conducted his performance that day, he obviously could not proceed further than the first bag of tender coconuts. When he realized that somebody had out-cheated him, his imagination found out an escape route. He imputed his failure to his seeing a naked woman in a nearby temple pond where he had gone for his morning ablutions! This ‘unholy sight’ of a naked woman had weakened his spiritual powers, the godman claimed! Despite his claims, the people could see through what actually went wrong. With this expose, Jappanam Siddhan left the shores of Kerala never to come back. This was perhaps the first miracle exposure that gave me wide publicity.
 
Targetting Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi

In 1968 I left Thikkodi (Kerala) and settled at Podanur (Tamil Nadu). I decided to distribute the land inherited from my parents. At the request of K. Kelappan, a Gandhian and Congress stalwart in Kerala, 90 acres of land was given to a trust to start a college complex. When Kelappan later expressed his inability to continue with the project, the land was transferred to Kerala Satya Sai Trust. Though the land was gifted to start a college complex, it was not used for the purpose for which it was given. In fact, no such institution has ever come up on the land till date, even after more than three decades. Aggrieved by this I filed a case against the Kerala Satya Sai Trust for appropriating the land giving false promises. The trust – then headed by a retired Supreme Court judge – retaliated and made me arrested during the infamous Emergency falsely alleging that I was a Naxalite. I spent three days in a police station. It was my moral outrage against this blatant act of misusing my land that first prompted me to investigate Sai Baba.

The fact that Sai Baba cheated others too through his tricks was a motivation to debunk him. He gave Vibhuthi (holy-ash) to his devotees to treat “incurable” diseases and thus made thousands of crores of rupees by exploiting them. On the other hand, he started hospitals to treat his own diseases. When he injured his hip-bones, he was not treated with his Vibhuti but was operated upon in his super-specialty hospital.
 
On Yoga

After astrology, Yoga is perhaps the most pervasive superstition prevalent in India today. Yoga is not an exercise though many people are taking to yoga believing that it is an exercise. When you do exercises, you do not keep your body in a fixed position for a long duration.  On the other hand, when you do yogic asanas (except Surya Namaskar), you keep your body in a stationary position up to twenty minutes. This is not very natural and it may adversely effect the blood circulation in the joints. Almost all the yogis (Aurabindo Ghosh and Flying Swamy, for example) whom I have known died after prolonged paralysis. 

On being an Atheist

Though I was born as a non-theist like everyone else, I was brought up as a believer in god like most people. In my youth, I wanted to experience god the way in which Swami Ramdas described it in his book, “In Search of God”. This took to me to various gurus and their ashrams, as I have already said. Gradually, though, I realized that it was not sensible to believe in a god, who is described as omnipresent, omnipresent, and omniscient by various religions. Had he been so, he would not have created cannibals; he could have created better human beings; he could have made our life better. All the life forms here in this world survive by preying on another life, resulting in extreme hardship and pain to every single living being. This could have been easily avoided had the god been omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

On Miracle Exposure Campaigns and Workshops

As I said, I started my campaign in the late 1970s and offered to pay one lakh Indian rupees showing any genuine miracle. Many people have, for their own publicity, published in newspapers claiming that they had accepted my challenge. But none of them ever contacted me and accepted my challenge by depositing the earnest money of one thousand rupees.

During the last three decades my associates and I conducted hundreds of science workshops and lectures in various parts of India and abroad giving scientific explanations behind various “miracles”. We trained hundreds of activists who now conduct similar workshops on their own. One of the best programmes of National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) was the Miracle Exposure Workshops it conducted, where I and my students trained more than 3000 activists for Bharat Jan Vignan Jatha which toured more than 50000 villages and explained the truth behind miracles.

Though we are not believers in any supernatural powers, we do not tell the people not to believe. It is for them to decide whether to believe or not. The reason why people believe in supernatural power is that they are unable to solve their problems on their own. Spreading scientific awareness and critical thinking, showing them a way through scientific method to solve their own problems, will make them face the reality with more confidence.

When we explain miracle and expose frauds, it is the duty of the law enforcing authorities – the government, the police, and the judiciary - to initiate criminal action against such fraudsters. We now hear, almost everyday, the arrest of this or that godman somewhere in the country. Had the government done 60 years back what they are doing at present, our country would, by now, have largely been free of these exploiters.

On being diagnosed with cancer

I am not afraid of death. When I was diagnosed with intestinal cancer during a campaign in Mangalore about one and a half years back, I decided to terminate my life if my health worsened as I had no money to go for an expensive surgery and treatment. Before leaving for Podanur, I told my acquaintances that I would not come back if I were not able to sell a piece of my land and get the money necessary for my treatment. As it turned out, I could sell the land and go ahead with the treatment.

Being diagnosed with cancer has not changed my outlook on life. If at all, it makes me to strive more, to be more aggressive with my activities, and spend the remaining part of my life still more fruitfully to strengthen the skeptic community in India.

1 comments:

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