New Delhi: In a country where people worship everything, including the living, rationalists like Basava Premanand dedicated their lives to piercing the myth of India’s many self-proclaimed godmen by exposing one ‘miracle’ at a time.
Premanand was born in February 1930 to a Hindu theosophist couple in Kozhikode, and his way of life was deeply inspired by the teachings of Helena Blavastsky. She was a Russian spiritualist and the co-founder of the Theosophical society, which promoted theosophy — a pantheistic philosophical-religious system.
Growing up, Premanand engaged with religious texts like the Gita, Quran and Bible. These texts sparked his curiosity about the world of spirituality and he sought various babas and gurus to answer his queries. Instead, he encountered quacks duping people with trickery sold under the garb of spirituality. It was then that Premanand decided to make it his life’s mission to educate people about the reality of this jaadu-tona.
Sathya Sai Baba was ‘nothing but a mafia man’
One baba in particular, Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, was the object of his ire. Premanand once said, “Sai Baba is nothing but a mafia man, conning people and making himself rich.”
Sai Baba had once claimed he could “materialise objects made of gold ‘from the air’,” so Premanand filed a petition against him in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, under Section 11 of the Gold Control Act, “which mandates permission from the gold control administrator for manufacturing gold”.
Unsurprisingly, nothing came out of the writ petition given that the baba was respected by many political elites and counted many celebrities among his followers. Former prime minister of India, Vajpayee, was one of the many political leaders who signed a statement that said, “The attacks on Bhagwan Shri Sathya Sai Baba are wild, reckless and concocted.”
Sai Baba, also reportedly, shared a close relationship with the state police and the head of the state police once served as his chauffeur.
Premanand also investigated the murder of six inmates of Sai Baba’s ashram in 1993. He published his findings in the book, Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom. Again, nothing came out of this investigation either.
Premanand was featured in a documentary by Robert Eagle called Guru Busters. The film captured Premanand and his team performing ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ miracles even though they were untouched by religious faith, in an attempt to debunk the enigma around godmen.
Premanand also published a monthly magazine called The Indian Skeptic,aimed at evoking rationalism and a scientific temperament.
He also founded the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) on 7 February 1997 in Palakkad. In the 1980s, he travelled extensively, performing ‘miracle-exposure campaigns’ and visited existing rationalist organisations to help set up new ones.
A man of science till the end
When Premanand found out that he was diagnosed with cancer, he was concerned, but not about his death. Months before his death, in an interview, he declared that, “He wanted to move from the small town in Tamil Nadu where he resided, since ‘it might be difficult to do what I want to be done with my body’, to the metropolitan city of Bangalore, ‘where the facilities are better… I want all parts of my body to be donated to others so that they can be put to use. I don’t want to be buried or cremated. I would like my remains to be used for study or research.”
Basava Premanand died on 4 October — a rationalist to the very end.
The legacy of Premanand is an interesting one. He once challenged palmists, astrologers, gurus and babas to prove their powers ‘under fraud-proof conditions’ and win Rs 1 lakh. He remains undefeated.