Originally published in Organiser on 11 July 2017.
What is common between great spiritual master and Nobel Prize winner His Holiness the Dalai Lama and rationalist leader Sanal Edamaruku? Both had to flee their respective countries and seek asylum elsewhere. While Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959 at the instance of the bigotry Communists, Sanal had to flee from India in 2012 to Finland, thanks to the intolerant and powerful Catholic Church.
Since 2012, Sanal Edamaruku, son of the famous atheist late Joseph Edamaruku has been living in exile. His crime; He exposed the “miraculous” drip of ‘holy’ water from the statue of Jesus Christ in a church situated in Mumbai. Fearing jail - or even assassination, he was compelled by the powerful Catholic Church to flee the country of his birth.
So far, none of the so-called secular parties, including the Leftists, who day in and day out cry in full throat about democracy, secularism, fascism, freedom of expression, etc, has uttered a single word against the Catholic Church or about the forced exile of Sanal Edamaruku. Recently Sanal Edamaruku gave an exclusive interview to Organiser representative Pradeep Krishnan from his place of exile in Finland.
Tell us in detail about the incident that compelled you to go in exile from India. Do you think it right to hurt the sentiments of a large section of people?
I don't intend to hurt anyone's sentiments. But when I exercise scientific attitude and my common sense, and engage in peaceful activities in the spirit of social reform, if anyone feels hurt, it is an attitude problem; it is sheer intolerance.
In early March 2012, a Catholic Church in Mumbai claimed that the steady drips from the toe of a statue of Christ at their premises were holy water and it was a miracle. The Church organised prayer meetings in front of the statue of Christ and priests led ceremonies there. Hundreds of devotees gathered there and they offered spoon full of the “holy water” to them to drink. The Church invited TV and print media representatives to report the miracle. Suddenly the “miracle” was on the TV in front of the nation.
I was first invited to the Delhi studio of a Mumbai TV channel to comment of the “miracle”. I suggested the church authorities to investigate and find what caused the water dripping, if they did not “manufacture” this miracle. No statue would drip water unless there is a water source. It was ridiculous on the church to claim that the statue of Christ was crying. A statue is a statue and it does not have tear glands.
The priest and other church representatives challenged me to visit the premises, and to investigate to find if the water dripping of the statue was not a miracle. At the agreed time, on March 10, 2012, I visited the church along with TV reporters and some friends. When I arrived at the venue, a Catholic priest was leading prayer in front of the dripping statue. Around 300 people were attending the ceremony on the public street. A vessel of dripped water was brought to the audience by the assistant priest who gave spoonfuls to all on their palm. As advised, they all drank or licked it.
After the prayer was over, I was given time for my investigation. But before I started, one of the church leaders brought me a hammer and advised me to hit and break open the Christ statue to see if there was any water inside. What an idea! I immediately understood that that was a trap. If I took the hammer, they would easily accuse that I tried to break their statue. I refused the offer. Behind the Christ statue there is cemented wall. I noticed fresh algae grown on it. That indicated water presence inside the wall. I followed the algae line and reached a drainage junction. The drainage line was carrying dirty water from the nearby toilet.
As I opened the cover, we all could see stinking, dirty toilet water clogged there, perhaps for several days. The trapped toilet water raised through the small pores on the wall. This process of water going up through pores is known as capillary action. It climbed up through the cement base of the Christ statue, leaked through the nail hole on the statue of the crucified Christ. Through syphoning it came down to the toe and dripped.
What forced you to flee the country?
Later in the evening, there was a TV programme on Prime Time on my investigations. My explanation provoked the waiting five representatives from the church. They all later joined me in a TV debate that continued for an hour. It was difficult for us all sit in one studio room as some of them shouted at me and tried to attack me. In the debate, they first could not accept the idea that it was not a miracle. But suddenly, after receiving a phone call, they changed their position and started claiming that they never considered it a miracle. Still they threatened me with dire consequences, warned me that they would “teach me a lesson” in jail. Some minutes later, a Mumbai bishop joined the TV debate via phone.
Later when the TV programme was over, the TV people informed me that there was a small crowd of 50 people waiting for me outside with sticks in their hands. The channel crew had observed that they were brought in some vans. Though they pretended to be angry Christians, they were in fact known professional gangsters of the city, hired by the Church.
Next day, as threatened by the Church guys during the programme, they had filed 17 or 18 cases against me using the Section 295 (a) of IPC, a law enacted during the British colonial times. Some three police stations accepted the complaint while others rejected it straight away.
This law could easily be misused by police officers as it gives unbridled rights to the officer. I immediately decided to fight these cases, if necessary through all official channels up to the Constitution bench, as this “blasphemy law” is violating my Fundamental Rights and the Fundamental Duty of every Indian citizen to promote scientific temper.
The plan of the church, however, was different. They wanted to “punish” me and planned to attack and lynch me by a hired crowd when I reached court. Also I was warned by informed sources that there was a plan to attack me at Delhi, and that even some mafia gangsters were hired. I went in hiding for months, but I talked to media and even appeared on TV from my hiding place. Then I travelled to Europe, to Poland for a scheduled lecture tour. When I reached Europe, I was told by informed circles that it would be dangerous for my life if I returned back. Still I expected that the situation would relax and waited for the moment when I could return to India. But this moment never came.
The Church authorities who always pose as great champions of liberty, compassion, universal love etc wanted you to apologise for your sin. What are your comments?
The Church has never been the champion of liberty, compassion and universal love. Through history one sees the height of suppression of anything that it considered heresy, of intolerance to inquiry and brutality to its opponents. With the opening up of Europe with Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, Church publicly tried to play the role of championing the great values of modern world. The fundamental nature of the intolerance of Church can be seen in the statement of Pope Francis when French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by terrorists.
In my case, Arch Bishop of Mumbai asked for my apology as a condition to stop trouble for me. Some enthusiast church man offered huge sums of money to the co-prisoner who would kill me in the first prison night. My reply was simple and straight: Even if the Catholic Church brings all torture machines that they used against heretics and scientists during medieval times and apply them on me, they may be able to hear screams of pain from me - but they would never get an apology from me.
Did you ever write to the Pope or any other Indian Church leader about your exile or about your predicament? What was their response?
I have not asked Pope or any church leader on my exile, and I don’t have to do it. But the media has asked. The church found me as the biggest challenger in India against their interests from the liberal side. While most of the Indian liberal leaders are church friendly, I systematically educated people on the true designs of the church in India. That has a long history from the time of my father. A British online campaign, with the first signatory Richard Dawkins, also signed by several dignitaries from across the world, was addressing the Arch Bishop of Mumbai and the then Pope. It asked to stop troubling me and to respect my right to question and criticise. In response to this online petition, the Mumbai arch Bishop demanded my apology, which I refused.
What could be the reason for the so-called mainstream media in India and Kerala to have totally ignored your plight?
The Kerala media is too busy with several local issues. Though world over my case was reported and discussed widely, the main stream Kerala media did not take it up. International media and agencies from BBC, CNN, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, New York Times to Russian TV and Latin American televisions reported and or featured my story. Even national media discussed it. But the careful silence of the Malayalam media shows deep influence of the Catholic Church in Kerala society. As an institution, the church is much more powerful than many people think, especially in Kerala. While world over the number of priests is declining dramatically, Kerala is the only place where the number of priests is increasing. While nuns are getting extinct worldwide, Kerala supplies more than 50 per cent of the nuns in the world. Kerala is a rich resource of the Church. Like in the old times when colonial masters from Portugal found Kerala its way to global glory, the present day Catholic Church finds Kerala as a master recruiting centre and resource. All over the world the Church is in decline. The Keralites abroad are the new enthusiasts for Catholic faith world over. Knowingly or unknowingly, Kerala media plays a silent role in keeping the interest of the Church.
How do you view the various charity activities undertaken by the Church in India?
Most of the charity activities of the Church in India are either commercial business houses that aim at tapping funds from donor agencies, or religious conversion centres. Funds seemingly meant for orphanages and charities are diverted to build up church institutes. In many cases it is an easy cover up for activities aimed at conversion. Conversion by choice is every one’s freedom; but the church in many places is busy in promoting conversions by enticing the poor and suffering. There has to be strict monitoring that the weak and suffering people are not exploited and that the charity activities are strictly done in a secular way.
Do you consider Jesus Christ as the only saviour of mankind?
There is no single saviour for mankind anywhere in history. There have been many people who influenced human progress. So will there be many more people in the future. As for Jesus Christ, there is no historical evidence that such a person ever existed. Jesus is a mythological hero, codified by the Roman emperor Constantine who died in 337. He collected all major myths of the then Roman empire and got it approved in a one year long religious meeting. The present day Bible was approved in the first Synod organised by him. He also adopted most of the Judaic religious texts as the Old Testament of the Bible. The founder of Christianity therefore is Roman emperor Constantine. The story of Jesus Christ is a combination of Assyrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Babylonian myths. I do not believe in Jesus Christ, Christianity or its myths.
Have you ever faced any threat from any Hindu organisations for criticising Hindu Gods or God men?
My major activities in India included systematic education of the public against the influence of astrologers, god men and superstitions, mainly in the realm of Hindu faith. I have relentlessly criticised the influence of self-styled god men and god woman in our polity and society. Sometimes individual God men tried to attack me in exceptional situations (eg. fire attack by Balti Baba or call on attacking me by one Pilot Baba), I did not face any threat from Hindu organisations. Once a Rationalist meeting where me and my father were speakers was attacked in Uttar Pradesh and my car was damaged - an unexpected provocation by some Keralites living in that town in UP. Some days later some Kerala Hindu leaders visited my Delhi office and apologised for the mischief made by some local activists.
I have written a book - A Critical study of Vedas, and my father wrote book - A Critical Study of Bhagavad Gita. As we have also written books and articles criticising Islamic and Christian faith from a rational point of view, the Hindu organisations may have understood that our criticism was not one sided, or prejudiced. The tolerance of Hindu organisations to my criticism has surprised me, especially since I know that the Muslims and Christians are angry over our critical views on them. Having said this, I am extremely unhappy and pained about the assassination of three famous rationalists in India - Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Kalburgi. The suspects are from a radical Hindu group - Sanatan Sansta.
While the Left politicians of Kerala campaigns a lot for Kalburgi, Pansare, etc rationalists who were killed elsewhere, why are they not raising your issue anywhere in Kerala?
The Left politicians have not taken interest in taking up my case in Kerala or elsewhere. They all are aware of the hard situation I was going through due to the threats of the Catholic church. The Left leaders do not touch extremism, intolerance or fundamentalism of the Catholic church or Muslim organisations as they consider them their potential vote bank. Appeasing these religious groups is part of their policy. I personally knew Polit Bureau members of CPM Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechuri, SRP and MA Baby. Sitaram was my batch mate in JNU and we have very good personal rapport. Also I know many Left leaders of Kerala personally. It always surprised me why they all looked the other side in my case, while the national media vigorously discussed and debated it.
Not only Left leaders - but the Congress leaders also kept a careful silence. I knew personally many cabinet ministers in the Manmohan Singh government. I have written to the Prime Minister and talked to some cabinet ministers. Some of them explained me their helpless situation as they all thought the Mumbai Bishop and Catholic Bishops’ Conference might maintain close links with Mrs. Sonia Gandhi.
What are your views about the Upanishads? Have you studied it?
The spirit of dialogue in Upanishads has always excited me. Many streams of great thought can be seen in some of the Upanishads. In the book that we published with Indian Atheist Publishers, they are evaluated with respect and high esteem. That doesn’t mean that all that is written there is in accordance with modern science. The limitations of the times of their origin have to be seen when you try to understand any great works. I have also written a book on Vedas, very critical about many aspects of them, including the Varna system. But I have great appreciation for Vedas as outstanding ancient literature – for their language and aesthetic beauty. Upanishads, like any other old texts, have the limitations of the human knowledge of those times when they were codified. But they represent high levels of thought, inspiring readers after several centuries.
Your comments on Sri Shankara’s advaitic philosophy that states that, “Aham Brahmasi” and “Tatwamasi”?
“Aham Brahmasmi” was a conceptual position expressed in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Shukla Yajurveda, composed about 700 BCE, much before the time of Shankara. The idea that the self is only part of the Infinite Reality is a beautiful thought. Similarly “Tat Tvam Asi”, the idea that “You are That”, comes from Chandogya Upanishad, codified in 800 to 600 BCE, again much earlier than Shankara. As I wrote earlier, the Upanishads are efforts to understand universe and they express wisdom of those times. Adi Shankara’s period was around early 8th century CE. He was a great scholar who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta and established the foundations of modern Hindu thought. His commentaries of the ten major Upanishads are outstanding scholarly pursuits.
(Note: I do not use the terms BC and AD. Instead I use BCE (Before Common Era), and CE (Common Era))
Do you agree with the view that in India, since time immemorial thanks to Sanathana Dharma, there were no religious persecutions?
The term “Sanatana Dharma”, while used by a major section of modern day Hindus as a common name for Hinduism as an eternal faith, was till recently used differently. While in South India Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shakthism formed the major Hindu denominations, in North India the Sanatani identity subdued it in many areas. Till recently, the term Sanatana Dharma was used by many people in Northern India to emphasise an “orthodox” or sanatani (“eternalist”) outlook in contrast to the socio-political Hinduism embraced by movements such as the Arya Samaj. Coming to religious persecutions in India: India does not have any long period of persecution of heretics or people of other faith, like the Inquisition and Witch Hunting in Europe where millions were tortured and brutally killed. We, however, have developed a very inhuman system - a hierarchical caste system and untouchability. Though caste discrimination and oppression are prevalent even now, no major socio-religious group now justifies in principle the discriminative caste system. There is almost universal acceptance that the caste system was inhuman and oppressive. I am confident that with this awareness and with systematic efforts on all sides, we will walk past caste system and hierarchical social divisions.