The Great Indian Swindle – Debunking Indian Mysticism

While travelling across India in 2010, I stopped off at the Hindu spiritual mecca of Varanasi and the river Ganges. The city of Varanasi is among the oldest inhabited cities in the world and is a place that Hindus believe can bring spiritual purity to the dead.  Bathing in the river Ganges is believed to cleanse the person of all sins, and dying at Kashi can end the cycle of death and rebirth and achieve the highest plane of existence (Nirvana). My arrival coincided with September monsoon rain and subsequent flooding of the mud laden roads that lead to the well-known “Ghats” or sites of bathing for the hundreds of pilgrims who arrive daily. I took a motor rickshaw from my hotel to the river, only for the driver to tell me that this was as far as he could take me, as the road was flooded. The surrounding area was full of small shops with eager locals trying to sell whatever they had at their disposal. My desire to avoid the torrential rain bought me into one of the numerous market stalls. I veered out from under the canopy at the multitudes of energetic bicycle rickshaw drivers heroically using manpower to bring even more tourists to the bustling market area. Before I had time to catch my breath, I was greeted by the store owner, who politely asked me where I was from? He then explained the floating of the dead ritual on the river. The conversation changed, before I had time to catch up, to the subject of fortune tellers on the river bank. As I looked out at the incessant downpour, the enthusiastic store merchant told me he could bring me to a very good fortune teller, who he declared was one of the best in Varanasi. My refusal to participate bought out a more practical sales pitch. “Can I get you an umbrella”? This was a purchase I was more than happy to make. Unperturbed by the fact he didn’t have an umbrella in stock, he uttered a few words in Hindi to one of the younger members of his family who hastily ran off, coming back a few minutes later with a used umbrella.

The above story is symptomatic of a larger problem within Indian society, a problem that has immeasurable consequences for locals and westerners alike, that is a thriving industry of false hope. It would be grossly unfair to single out India alone for this practice, as similar charlatans exist throughout the developed world, even within the world’s largest superpower. Arguably all religious leaders are the CEO’s of corporations that are purveyors of self-deception which comes at a very high price. However Indian superstition is worthy of mention in its own right simply because of the flight of westerners, who are rightly sceptical of their own local merchants of superstition , but believe that they can drink from the same cup abroad and not be a victim to the same exploitation they experience at home. The disillusionment many feel with the Catholic Church over the child sexual abuse scandals or the torture of single mothers, to the anger many feel toward the Christian conservatives who are sexist, homophobic and anti-scientific, provide a fertile market place for those who detest conventional western religion, but who are still yet unable to accept the world as it actually is.  They have the requisite scepticism to doubt the Pope’s claims of infallibility with regard to homosexuality or contraception but lack the emotional capacity to form the opinion that no one else can replace the vacuum left from their desire to find meaning in their lives, other than themselves.

The inspiration to write this blog came from the visit of the president of the organisation Rationalist International to Ireland this week.  Sanal Edamaruku, a well-known Indian sceptic, faces a jail sentence at the behest of the Indian Catholic Church for exposing a reported miracle of water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus on a crucifix in Mumbai, to be nothing more than capillary action due to faulty plumbing. Indians should be all the more grateful to this distinguished sceptic as his advice could help combat a potential public health issue as pilgrims were collecting the dripping water to drink, in the belief it could cure disease. Thus like its counterpart in the west, the Catholic Church is having an undemocratic and unjust influence on Indian affairs, one that is aided by a culture that is rich in superstition and folklore.

But institutional religion is not the only source of superstitious exploitation in what will ultimately be the world’s next super power alongside China. Numerous Indian gurus have charmed enough westerns to part with large sums of money for all varieties of unproven health claims or spiritual benefits.

Perhaps the most notorious of all these prophets of false hope was Sathya Sai Baba. He claimed to be a reincarnation of an earlier guru Shirdi Sai Baba, who died 8 years before the former’s birth. If ever there was a person to debunk the CS Lewis claim, that one would have to choose between three different viewpoints that Jesus was either, a liar, a lunatic or a messiah, it would be Sathya Sai Baba. This imposter’s death in 2011 was not mourned by the sceptic community, but his funeral, in Puttaparthi, was attended or watched by millions of Indians and among the congregation were the Indian Prime minister, the President and several members of the cabinet. This infamous charlatan showed that it was possible for a narcissistic lunatic and a pathological liar to be granted messianic status by millions of Indians and westerners alike across all religious divides.

The monumental failure of a society to embrace evidence based thinking and critical thought would result in a legacy of unprosecuted sexual abuse cases, in a society that revered this mad man as a deity, capable of supernatural powers.  The Sathya Sai Baba legend was believed to have commenced in 1940 when, after being stung by a scorpion, the child fell into a coma. The story goes on to tell how when he awoke, his personality had changed and begun to sing local songs in a dialect previously unknown to him. Doctors had diagnosed him with “hysteria” and his parents bought him to several priests and faith healers. An exorcism that involved his torture in Kadiri, where he remained calm, further drove this legend to hysterical proportions. When he reportedly manifested flowers and other objects for his parents, they bet him in fear and demanded to know what wicked entity possessed their child.

Four years later devotees built his first temple in his home town of Puttaparthi. Among other miracles that were attributed to him was the supposed curing himself of several heart attacks and a stroke in front of crowds of thousands. He was also believed to be able to spontaneously manifest holy ash (Vibhuti). All of his supposed manifestations have been duplicated by sceptic magicians, the most notable being James Randi. A brief search on Youtube exposes just how easy it was for this individual to deceive millions.

While Sathya Sai Baba was probably the most infamous con artist ever to have come from India, he is not alone. In the 1960s the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi developed a cult following both in India and the west. Among his most famous devotees were the Beatles, with the exception of John Lennon who was wary of him from the onset.  Among the more ludicrous of his claims was the ability to levitate during meditation. Another bizarre belief of the transcendental meditation movement is that meditation affects the physical environment and that multiple people undergoing this process better the society around them. In 1978 Dr. Robert Rabinoff, professor of physics at the Maharishi International University, claimed during a lecture to students at the University of Oregon, that if hundreds of people meditated, the surrounding area would become mostly crime free.  He cited the low level of crime in Fairfield Iowa as an example of this. Among other supposed benefits of TM was the excellent crop yield and low rate of traffic accidents in the region!

The famous Indian guru Deepak Chopra left a career as an endocrinologist and medical lecturer in Massachusetts to train in the practice of Ayurveda meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh yoga. He went into partnership with the Maharishi, becoming the medical director of the Maharishi Ayurveda Health centre.  In 1989, the Maharishi awarded him with the title “Dhanvantari (Lord of Immortality), the keeper of perfect health for the world”. Deepak Chopra has consistently made references to the relationship between quantum mechanics and healing and once claimed to be able to diagnose conditions by simply taking a pulse.

While peddling false hope and anti-science, these gurus have amassed millions and contributed to a societal lack of understanding of science and the scientific method. The superstition that they endorse undermines democracy and societal progress. It is time they are given the same degree of scrutiny and examination as traditional religious institutions.

A Royal Case of Papal Fallibility

The Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is never one to hide his disdain for Secularists, Atheists and those who are sceptical of the teachings of this time trapped institution. In the past, he has laid the blame for global warming on the shoulders of Atheists, citing the Soviet Union as an example,  despite the glaring fact that the biggest contributor to man-made climate change are the religious conservatives of the United States, who refuse to even believe in the evidence for its existence. While on a visit to Britain, a while back, he also showed his disapproval of Britain’s established secular culture. In a more recent attack, he has orchestrated a campaign to silence priests and nuns who show any degree of evidence based compassion, the most recent being that of Irish priest Father Brian D’Arcy, who was threatened with expulsion from the priesthood for showing support for such things as the freedom of priests to marry and the acceptance of homosexuals.  His latest attack is on so called moderate Christians; those who have a loose admiration for the man they believe Jesus was, but do not necessarily endorse belief in the more superstitious aspects of religion. It was reported in the Catholic News Agency today that the Pontiff has declared that these liberal Christians are more dangerous than Atheists, because at least, the latter have thought deeply about god before choosing to reject the idea of his existence. If one was not familiar with earlier papal verbiage they would be forgiven for believing the Pope was showing a degree of respect for Atheism. On the contrary, his comments are designed to show an even greater degree of contempt for what is probably the lion’s share of the Catholic Church, in the developed world at least.

It is not my intent to start a debate on the virtue or vice of so called moderate belief. I would even go one step further and declare moderate belief to be a myth. There is nothing moderate or reasonable in the belief that a 2000 year old Israelite was born as a result of the divine impregnation of a Middle Eastern teenager and who subsequently rose from the dead, is watching every individual in one of trillions of planets in the observable Universe and will come back at some time in the future to judge people on their adherence or lack thereof to obey edicts from a book supposedly inspired by god and delivered to desert dwellers in Iron age Judea. My position is there is nothing moderate about Christianity other than the belief that some of Jesus’ teachings were exemplary for a period of regional human history that was marked by religiously motivated barbarity. I prefer to use the expression Christians who can function in the normal secular world versus those that cannot. As it happens I take the position of Sam Harris that the supposed moderate belief of the many provide the critical mass of people to bolster the belief of the religious fundamentalists in books that are clearly not of 21st century intellect with regard science, ethics or anything else for that matter.  My intent is to draw attention to the more absurd reasoning that one would expect from an organisation that views the modern world with such contempt.

He states” the Christian faith was the everyday reality for most people in what used to be called Christendom. The burden was on non-believers to justify their disbelief. But today the tables have turned following a long slide into atheism, scepticism and a secular worldview that was ushered in by the Enlightenment”.

 This statement is simply astonishing. The enlightenment era was, without doubt, the single most important revolution we have ever undertaken in over 50,000 years of our species history. By saying he regrets the fact that the burden of proof is now on believers, he is lamenting the birth of the scientific method, the most revolutionary approach we have ever devised to understanding the world. It is a method that has trebled life expectancy, slashed infant mortality and put satellites into space and provided the means for his very words to be disseminated to millions of people throughout the world.The core uncompromising principle of the scientific method is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He is correct in stating that this is the single most important differentiation between the pre and post enlightened world. One cannot prove Jesus is not the son of god, who rose from the dead and oversees human affairs.  Neither can we disprove the claims of Islamic suicide bombers who see martyrdom as a reasonable option. Science cannot in theory absolutely and unequivocally disprove the claims of Jim Jones who proclaimed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus, the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. Yet despite the absence of absolute evidence to disprove this claim, science, in the absence of positive evidence supporting his claims, declares him to be insane. There is no more evidence that Jesus rose from the dead or will ever come back from the dead, than there is for the claims of Jim Jones or the hundreds more of those who frequent the halls of the most secure asylums for the mentally insane.  The scientific method is incapable, in absolute terms, to disprove the claims of, David Icke, that  political leaders are shape shifting lizards or Charles Manson’s claim to be the Messiah or L Ron Hubbards belief in Scientology that Xenu, an intergalactic alien planted the spirit bodies of aliens at a volcano millions of years ago and now invade our body. The scientific method, out of absolute necessity, looks at the positive evidence for any truth claim and changes its position, regardless of culture, as new supporting evidence arises. Science does not respect the edicts of authoritarian figures. It does not necessarily respect cultural beliefs. It does not respect beliefs that are thought to be handed down from revered figures and most importantly it does not respect beliefs simply because they give us comfort. The only beliefs that science respects are those validated by empirical data that is shown by multiple observations and that are reproducible under rigorous experimental conditions. Science never has a burden of disproof and this is precisely why we have had so much progress in the last three centuries.

The next matter is his supposed reasons for believing in god, the first being our scientific ignorance.

He states

“The first path involves contemplating creation. “The world is not a shapeless magma, but the more we know, the more we discover the amazing mechanisms, the more we see a pattern, we see that there is a creative intelligence,”

The fact science has not yet found an absolute theory of everything seems to justify his and many people’s belief in god. The same false argument could be made about every hypothesis in the previous paragraph. His claims are patently false, the universe is not fine-tuned for life. Out of the trillions of planets observed over the last 50 years, only a handful has the conditions appropriate for carbon based life form. Even the conditions on these few will not remain indefinitely. The vast majority of species that once roamed the earth are now extinct. The concept of intervening agents is anti-scientific in the extreme. The probability of a creator bringing the universe into existence is exponentially more improbable than the Universe spontaneously creating itself, and even if an intelligent creator did spark the universe into existence, its reasons could surpass human urges such as the desire for immortality and justice for those who hurt us etc. The motives of a creator could be perfectly hostile to our interests. We could use the argument for complexity to presuppose that the creator is using life for some other means other than the prosperity or happiness of humans or other creatures. The argument that the creator is cruel and vengeful could be extended by the fact that approximately 99% of everything that moved, flew, swam or grew is now extinct. It could be promoted further by the fact that regimes that promised false non-evidence based hope and consolation led to human destruction on a massive scale, everything from the three branches of Judaic religion to the horrors of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. All these regimes promised the undeliverable. In the case of Stalin it was a communist Utopia. It was the prospect of all citizens being equal and an end to starvation and poverty. In the case of religion it is the lure of the concept of everlasting life and cures for the crippled. Even those who promote Sharia law declare it a universal law given by god to promote peace happiness and harmony on earth despite the evidence to the contrary, that it is cruel, barbaric and furthers the needless suffering of women.  Thus if Christians use the argument of complexity to justify a belief in god they must also consider the possibility that their creator may in fact be a malevolent higher power rather than one that acts as a would be guardian angel who intervenes positively in human affairs.

The argument from complexity is a non-starter is it involves the creation or eternal existence of a degree of complexity infinitely greater than the universe itself. If god can create itself from nothing than so can the Universe. The concept of Occam’s razor is used by science. The likelihood of a more simple entity appearing from nothing is much more probable than a vastly more complex entity. Once the universe is in existence, there is no further role for a designer.  Another possibility the pope did not mention was the possibility of a creator sparking the Universe into existence and then leaving it to its own devices.  This position of Deism as opposed to Theism is much more intellectually credible with scientific evidence than an intervening god. The laws of physics do not allow intervention. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy will increase in all cases and is not affected by the power of prayer or spiritual intervention. In the 13th century cancer was a consistent terminal illness, now it is not. People prayed in far greater numbers back then, than do today, yet modern science has vastly increased the survival prospect of cancer sufferers.  The laws of evolution by natural selection do not require an intervening agent in order to create ever increasing living complexity. While the Deist argument is much more powerful than the interventionist Theist argument of world religions, it nonetheless ignores the concept of Occam’s razor as mentioned above. We cannot use a more complex entity to explain the existence of more simple ones.

His second method of finding god is even more dubious than the first.

“The second way of finding God is through inner contemplation. The Holy Father quoted St. Augustine’s famous saying, “Do not go outside yourself, come back into yourself: truth dwells in the heart of man.” He also observed that the modern world is full of distractions that make it hard “to stop and take a deep look within ourselves and read that thirst for the infinite that we carry within, pushing us to go further and towards that Someone who can satisfy it.”

The view that meditation, reflection or prayer can be used to determine empirical reality is about as bizarre a notion as the view that the same can be achieved under LSD, psilocybin or other hallucinogenic drugs. The scientific method is a relatively new invention, however prayer and meditation are not. While no one can argue the peace people get from these practices, the view that we should accept truth claims (other than a personal subjective alternate view of reality) from those who are under the effects of these is truly preposterous indeed. The Catholic church, during the dark ages, was of the opinion, that the moral thing to do was burn at the stake, those who did not believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Those who were not of the opinion that one consumes the living flesh of the body of Jesus even though he is dead, risked persecution, torture, imprisonment and death. Were the practitioners of such barbarism any less versed in prayer and meditation than their modern day priests?  Are the Taliban who legislate for prayer five times a day and going so far as to ban music and television as distractions to spiritual pureness, any less skilled in the art of prayer and meditation than the Vatican in its present day form? Have the Taliban any truth claims to make with regard to science, ethics or the existence of god? The death of the pregnant Indian woman Savita Halappanavar was reported last week in Ireland. She had requested a termination of a non-viable foetus on several occasions and was refused an abortion on the grounds that the foetus was still alive. Those who believed that prayer and meditation are a path to truth had been led to a very definite set of moral beliefs. They were of the belief that the only moral thing to do in this case was to force a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant with an unviable foetus to full term and then allow her to witness the death of her child when a full maternal bond would have been formed. In the end both mother and foetus died. When challenged about this deplorable action, the religious pro-life movement, despite prayer and mass attendance cited “we do not know her exact cause of death”, an utterance that was oblivious to the wicked suffering that would be unnecessarily imposed on this woman even if she had been fortunate enough to live. All of this in the name of self-righteous religious morality. Is prayer or meditation an intellectually or morally legitimate path to knowing a benevolent god in this respect?  Or what about the case of the Ugandan “Kill the Gays” act imposed this week. In this sickening turn of events legislators termed the law a gift for Christmas. Are the Ugandan people any less versed in prayer and meditation than the pope or his associates of celibate evidence deniers?

The quote from the late Christopher Hitchens just about sums up the argument.

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

The pontiff’s third and final argument for the existence of god is even more intellectually lame and shows an even greater contempt for science and reason than its predecessors.

“The third path, faith, is a dimly lit path for many people who view it as a limited aspect of life, if not a form of “illusion, escapism…or sentimentality.“Faith concerns the truth about mankind and our eternal destinies.  Faith … is an encounter with God who speaks and acts in history and which converts our daily life, transforming our mentality, system of values, choices and actions,” he said. Faith is “not illusion, escapism, a comfortable shelter, sentimentality, but involvement in every aspect of life and proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News which can liberate all of man.”

This is an utterly stupid statement and as such is not even worthy of a lengthy critique. One only has to replace the word god with Spiderman, Batman or Atheists favourite, the flying spaghetti monster, to realise its patent absurdity. Why is it true? Its true because you believe it to be so.

If you have read this in its entirety and are still of the belief that the Atheist movement or those who argue for religious institutions to cease control of any publicly run body are on a par in terms of extremism or lack of moderation or intellectual rigour as the Catholic Church or any other religious grouping, then you may have a reasoning problem. The fact that you have a vote and are prepared to use it does not enhance democracy but threatens its very fabric. I am not arguing for removing the right to vote for religious people but unwillingness on your part to see the organisation you donate to every Sunday for what it is constitutes a democratic deficit. One which can only be resolved by challenging your non-intellectual position at every given chance.