Interview by Janne Kontala. Pictures: Jonne Sippola
Published in Ananda, Finnish journal for Yoga. Read the interview in Finnish here.
Sanal Edamaruku's relationship with yoga is unusual. Known in media amongst other things as 'guru buster', he thinks yoga as an exercise is good. It is unsubstantiated miraculous claims that need to be targeted.
Some years ago I met the famous Indian rationalist, Sanal Edamaruku. He was giving a public presentation about his work in Stockholm, and one of the topics he discussed caught my attention as very important: cheating in the name of yogic miracles. Some years have passed, and now that Sanal's book, 'My Incredible India', has been published, I thought the time would be ripe. The book is about Sanal's experiences in trying to investigate rationally any extraordinary claims, unfortunately often connected to yoga.
Sanal's has Master degree in political science and philosophy, and research degree in International Relations, but he is better known for his rationalist activism that has stirred controversy. Growing up in a non-religious atmosphere, he admires his father who was a prominent rationalist of his time.
-I don't want to say that rationalism is my family heritage. It was never imposed upon me, I was free to explore, go to churches, mosques and temples with friends and relatives. Rationalism is my own choice.
Rationalism, for Sanal, is more than just a passively held worldview. He is known for his active work for promoting rational thought, and as the flip side of it, to expose unsubstantiated claims. One of his investigations on an alleged miracle in a Catholic church directly caused him a threat to the extent of shifting his residence from India to Finland.
-The Catholic church of Mumbai was claiming that the statue of Jesus in their church was weeping tears. People were coming, and holy water was collected and passed on. I don't want to hurt anyone's sentiments, but when a TV-channel invited me to comment on it, I suggested there would be a natural explanation. Soon I was invited by the church itself to investigate the case. It turned out that a drainage line from the toilet was located behind the wall where the statue of Christ was placed. The line was clogged, and now the dirty water was coming up by capillary action, and dripping out through a nail hole in the Christ statue.
Despite the fact that the revelation could save people from drinking dirty toilet water, the Church got upset. The church has quite some influence. Under fear of jail, or worse, mafia-type violence, Sanal was advised that it would not be safe for him. Thus, under a lecture tour, he came to Finland in 2012, and has been living here ever since.
It is perhaps ironic, that it was the Catholic church that presents the most tangible threat to Sanal. Previously, he was well known for exposing gurus and yogis making extraordinary claims. One such person is called Pilot Baba. Known for public shows of sitting under water or underground without breathing for days, all the while meditating for world peace, he was exposed in one such show by Sanal.
-A water tank was installed in a public place. Pilot Baba went in, the tank was covered with curtains, in order for not his mediation to be disturbed. He claimed he was meditating for world peace without breathing, so the consequences for disturbing him would be grave! Anyway, after the curtains were covering the tank, water was poured in.
When it became time for Pilot Baba to come out, new water was poured into the tank, which does not make sense if the tank is already full of water. Pilot Baba came out in front of thousands of people. Most were impressed, but Sanal was not.
-I talked to one of the masons who worked with the tank. There was a pipe through which water could be led out, so the tank remained dry. Some years later, he claimed he could be buried under ground. We exposed him, there was a secret underground room where he was staying.
Despite being exposed, Pilot Baba still has following in some parts of India and Japan.
Another yogi, Balti Baba, claimed to be immune to fire. Baba gave public shows of sitting in the midst of fire. Sanal explained the trick: there is a large pile of rice husk. Rice husk burns slowly, so the edges of the rice husk pile were lit and in blaze, whereas the middle section was not inflammable as that part was protected by a chemical. To the outside, however, it looked like the person was sitting peacefully in the midst of flames.
-I challenged him afterwards, when he was walking around with his hands holding supposedly burning hot mud pots, which he had lifted from the fire pit. Of course, there was an arrangement that the pots were not hot inside, so he would not burn his hands. I challenged him to lift any of the remaining pots and holding them for some time. He got so angry that he in fact did it, only to throw them at me. My clothes caught fire, and he attacked me with another pot. I was saved, but Baba was not. He in fact burned his hands badly. I guess he thought he could catch a hot pot quickly and throw it at me without getting hurt.
These personalities are not particularly well known in Finland. I therefore wanted to ask Sanal whether he had engaged in similar work with gurus with international profiles. It turned out that Sanal had quite a bit to say about one of the most famous ones, Sathya Sai Baba.
-He is known for his public shows of magically making things appear out of nothing. We did a TV-show, side by side he was showing his tricks, and elsewhere I was explaining how he was doing it, and also showing exactly the same tricks. I have also trained thousands of students how to do these tricks.
Once, however, he was exposed in a TV-show, when he was magicking a necklace that he wanted to donate to a person that had helped him. Unfortunately for him, one of the TV-cameras was placed in an unusual angle, and it captured the moment when he pulled the necklace, not out of nothing, but from underneath and object where it was hidden.
-A particular problem with these people is that they not only utilised the gullibility of the man on the street. Often, they have followers amongst people with a lot of influence: presidents and ministers are known to give their support. For instance, several newspapers both in India and abroad have published articles about Sai Baba's alleged pedophile activities. But the political system was supporting him, and not a single case was filed against him.
Does Yoga heal HIV?
Cheating and misleading people in order to attract following is one thing. Sometimes, however, things get more serious. This is particularly the case when people are led to believe that yoga and meditation can be used instead of medical treatment. Sanal names Baba Ramdev, the pranayama guru known for his TV-shows.
-Ramadev has stated that his yoga could protect people from HIV. Moreover, he said that during the swine-flu epidemic, people would become immune by combining yoga techniques with digesting leaves of the sacred Tulsi-herb. This is quite dangerous.
Considering his statements and actions against extremely popular gurus, it is no wonder Sanal is not liked by everyone in India. Perhaps the most extreme example of antagonism against him was seen during a live TV-show. A tantric master claimed that he could kill people with his powers. Sanal offered himself as a guinea-pig. In front of TV-cameras and live broadcast, the tantric did in fact spend considerable effort trying to cast spells to kill Sanal.
- I did not die, and was laughing. Then he said that it is because I am protected by gods. However, if I was willing to come with him to a graveyard at midnight, in the company of maximum 12 people, I would meet a most painful death. I agreed, and the TV followed along. The graveyard experiment was filmed, and I came out alive.
Coming back to Sanal's reason for staying in Finland, he says that whenever he thinks of moving back to India, he is held back by sad news. According to Sanal, atmosphere is not getting easier for rationalists: three of his collegues have been murdered in recent times, a reminder for him that it is relatively safe in Finland.
-I admire the tolerant atmosphere of the Nordic countries. Religion here is a private matter. This is very good, and I wish larger countries would follow the example. The world would become a better place.
Any last words for the yoga practitioners who read Ananda?
-Though media call me “guru-buster”, I am not against all gurus. In fact, I appreciate some gurus and public spiritual leaders. Though, I would not agree with everything that they said, I respect Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati and Narayana Guru. Vivekananda was a reformer. I think his general contribution was positive. Dayananda Saraswati was against caste system. Narayana Guru, tried to liberate people through education.
Sanal concludes that he is not opposed to yoga as such. He himself practiced it quite a bit previously.
-I have interest in the Indian classic dance, Kathakali, and in my teens my teacher suggested I try out yoga. It was good. Nowadays, I keep fit by walking in nature.
This sounds like a person who feels at home in Finland.
Some short questions
Who are you?
"Sanal Edamaruku, born in Kerala, rationalist activist and president of Indian Rationalist Association and Rationalist International. I am also Fellow in the International Committee for Skeptical Inquiry."
Your family / children?
"My two adult children, a son and a daughter, are important to me. My son works as TV production executive, and my daughter is head of media diplomacy in a European embassy in India. They both share my views."
Where do you live?
Your favourite food?
"I like fish: salmon soup, smoked salmon, herring."
Your favourite asana?
"My main exercise is taking walks."
Reading at the moment?
"Richard Dawkins' book, 'Science in the Soul : Essays of a Passionate Rationalist'. I know him personally, already before he wrote God Delusion."
Your most important teacher?
"I have been inspired by many people. In my early years my father influenced me a lot. His tolerance and his attitude of giving me freedom have helped me to become who I am. There are many other people, scientists, reformers and authors, who have inspired me as well."
What makes you happy?
"The whole of life is beautiful and source of happiness. I like literature, music, theatre and performing arts. In general, the exuberance of life, and being with good friends make me happy."