Published originally in The Guardian (London), New Humanist (London) and Times of India (Delhi)
In different cultures, sense of humour varies. In the south Indian state of Kerala, where I come from, 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: it did not work. That's the joke.
My encounter with Pandit Surendra Sharma had something of a Kerala joke about it, stretched out for hours. Nobody laughed, though, when he tried to kill me with tantric rituals on live TV. Nobody - except me of course.
It was in March 2008 when I met Sharma on the set of a popular live show on India TV, one of the country’s major Hindi language news channels. He was a regular on certain shows at that time and claimed to be a great tantric master and the guru-of-choice of top politicians and business magnates. Both of us were studio guests, invited to debate on the subject of "tantric power versus science".
The show started with a case that was hitting the headlines then: Uma Bharti, former chief minister of the Indian state Madhya Pradesh and later a cabinet minister in the central government, claimed that her political opponents were using tantric powers to damage her. After a video clip about the troubles of the politician was shown, my counterpart elaborated on his trade with the routine of a specialist, obviously trying to promote his business. He went so far as to demonstrate various standard techniques for causing harm to any person (what surely could be ordered for a price), such as burning the intended victims photo or torturing a little doll made from wheat flour and named after him.
Soon half of the 30-minute show was over without me having an opportunity to say a single word to counter these absurdities. Watching Sharma devotedly “strangling” a sticky clot of dough with a thin red thread, I suddenly knew what I had to do.
With some casually expressed doubts, I prompted him to boast about his personal tantric powers. He took the bait and claimed proudly that he could kill anyone with mantra and tantra within just three minutes. That was where I trapped him. I challenged him to demonstrate his powers there and then - on me.
He tried to ignore my challenge. I obstinately repeated it. Caught on air, he couldn't escape without losing face – and his high-profile clientele. Still he was hesitant and it was only during the next commercial break, that I could finally pin him down - thanks to the help of the anchor and the TV bosses, directing him via his earphone. The trap snapped shut.
What then followed was an unprecedented experiment. Call it an experiment with truth, if you like, or: experimental rationalism. The film document of it is still causing fits of laughter to those browsing YouTube. Somebody posted it at double speed on their website, amplifying the ludicrous effect. But experiencing it in real time, live on India TV, even rationalists held their breath.
There was pin-drop silence on the set when Sharma started chanting mantras. With full concentration, his eyes fixed on me, he raised his voice and filled the air with something that sounded like “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikili... !”
When his piercing chant failed to kill me after fifteen long minutes, he realised that he had to change his tactic and prepared his trick number two, sending for water and a knife from the studio kitchen. Would he now try to kill me the conventional way? Was he crazy? I could not really judge what this feisty middle-aged man in white robes, who carefully avoided eye-contact with me, was up to.
Meanwhile our programme time had long run out, but the exciting twist to the situation had prompted the station managers to cancel the planned schedule and switch into “breaking news” mode. Uma Bharti – still smiling on the backdrop – was long forgotten.
Chanting more mantras, Sharma sprinkled water and brandished his knife in front of me. I was watching him carefully, always prepared to land a fast uppercut in case the knife erred. The situation was anything but comfortable. Nevertheless I kept smiling. Sometimes I even broke out into laughter. I knew that laughter was my only weapon now.
After the knife failed, Sharma got visibly desperate. He gripped my hair and forcefully moved my head around in circles, pressing his fist against my skull. This was no mantra or tantra, it was a serious physical attack! I protested and the anchor intervened. But Sharma did not stop resorting to unfair means. He tried to press my eyes, my temples, was warned, and tried again. The situation became quite stressful.
After several rounds of chanting failed to knock me out, Sharma tried the whole arsenal of his tantric gimmickry on me, obviously without any result now either. I just laughed.
In his embarrassment, he proposed that I was protected by a supreme god whom I served – never mind that I am an atheist! Finally the anchor declared the official result of the experiment: the tantric master had failed to fulfil his claim.
That would have been a great end, but now Sharma tried desperately to save face again. He introduced an allegedly infallible “Ultimate Destruction Tantra” (UDT), that he would be able to perform at night.
Announcing the nocturnal continuation of the Great Tantra Challenge, India TV pushed its ratings up to an all-time high. The challenge got the largest prime time viewership in India. Hundreds of millions were watching the unfolding drama.
I have to admit, I was worried during the next hours, and so were my friends. Not that we suddenly believed that the UDT could harm me. But couldn’t Sharma, who had pressed my skull in the afternoon so passionately, have some dirty tricks up his sleeve? Blades? Contact poison? Or just some harmless chloroform that could knock me out till the programme was over?
We decided to play it safe and deployed some observers and my personal bodyguard in the studio courtyard where the nightly recording took place. Their intervention was, thankfully, not necessary.
Before the show, some of the technicians pleaded with me to cancel the event. When I refused, employees of the channel gathered silently in a corner of the courtyard to pray for me. Last minute, one of the camera men lost his nerves and fled the scene and it caused some delay to find a substitute. But finally it was ready, steady, go…
The UDT was a quite magnificent spectacle. Flames were blazing under the open night sky, when I took my place on the tantric altar. The air was filled with the crackling sound of wood, white smoke, peacock feathers, mustard seeds and all that. Besmirched with ashes from the cemetery ground and obviously strengthened by the prescribed ritual consumption of sex, meat and alcohol, the master seemed at his tantric best. He was assisted by a chorus of vigorous mantra chanters.
"Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili…!" Sharma, his eyes glittering with inspiration, was sprinkling water and boiling butter oil and throwing mustard seeds and all kinds of mysterious unguents into the flames. He dramatically destroyed a piece of paper with my name on it and wafted a bunch of peacock feathers over my head. I was expected to get crazy within three minutes, then cry with pain and die.
Time was scrolling. When about 15 long minutes had passed and I was still laughing, Sharma got furious. He gave me his sticky wheat piece, smeared with oils and spices, for a touch and then committed a lot of cruelties on it. For some minutes, the mantra chorus chanted hysterically, then faded and finally stopped. Silence. Beyond the crackling of the fire, Sharma was fighting with increasing breathlessness. Then suddenly - in a desperate “finale furioso” minutes before midnight – he destroyed the wheat-dough me with nails, knives and fire.
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 hysterical escalation and a dramatic countdown, it all ended as you could 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.
My final triumph was celebrated and the show ended. So did Pandit Sharma’s career. I did not hear of him again. When the lights on the set went off, I saw him sitting silently and lonely on his chair, gazing into the darkness. Perhaps he really believed he would be able to kill me.
This article is a chapter of
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WATCH THE VIDEO: Tantra Challenge.