Prof. Narendra Nayak doesn’t believe in miracles. He’s manufactured too many of them himself to do so. So what if the mystic can light a lamp with water or a place a flaming ball of camphor on his tongue? It proves little if the priest can pull holy ash out of thin air or pour holy water from a vessel you saw for yourself was empty moments before – whatever he can do, Narendra can do as well and he claims no divine favour; instead he is willing to pull back the curtain and show you just how the trick works.
|“Atheism is a conclusion that I arrived at when I was 11 years old”|
The National President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and the head of the Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Narendra is an earnest propagator of scientific inquiry and fierce campaigner against charlatans and pretenders. His usual stages are village commons, lecture rooms and school halls, but his work has often reached wider audiences through shows on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the BBC along with a handful of Indian channels.
Narendra was in Sri Lanka recently to address gatherings in Colombo, Kandy, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Galle. His demonstrations here were part magic show, part science experiment and his tricks all came from the arsenal of godmen and women – mystics who would convince a gullible public to pay in cash and adoration. His approach couldn’t be more different from that of his western counterparts, Narendra tells me. “In a country like India the picture is totally different.
You can’t convince people with academic discussions.” He knows a large portion of the Indian population are functionally illiterate – they can sign their names but would be overwhelmed (and disinterested) in a thesis on evolution. “That’s why we need all these bells and whistles,” says Narendra. “If the godman around the corner is dipping his hands into boiling oil, I am also doing it, if the godman out there walks on fire, I am also doing it, but I say there is no divine power involved in that. That’s the most effective way of convincing people.”
He is unlike Dawkins and his cohorts also in his focus: “See, I am not bothered about gods. Gods do not exist. Religion is the interpretation of God by the agents of God, whether they are prophets or priests. So it is these interpreters, these intermediaries between you and God that exploit people.” (He further contends that even the most selfless priests do what they do in pursuit of personal salvation.) He is aided in his work by the fact that despite the abundance of wandering prophets and mystic healers, India, like Sri Lanka has a long tradition of atheism.
“In India it stretches back thousands of years. Gautama Buddha was an atheist, so was Mahavira. That means two major religions in India are atheistic religions – Jainism and Buddhism. I think humanism is also a part of it, and I think Gautama Buddha was one of the first humanists.” He is fiercely anti the idea that religion and morality are in any way intertwined or that religions can promote harmony – “one of the greatest massacres in history is the blood bath during the Partition of India. They were all done by religious people, not by atheists,” he says, citing many other examples.
A native of the Indian city of Mangalore and gifted linguist (he speaks nine languages), Narendra has devoted himself in recent years increasingly to this work. In fact, a one-time Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the Centre for Basic Sciences, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore, he chose to retire in 2006 so he could pursue it more freely. He believes more and more people are rallying to the cause. “The Federation of Indian Rationalists started with 15 groups twenty years ago, today we have 88 groups,” he says, adding that he hopes their increasingly high profile activities will encourage the “silent majority” to speak up. “You need to contest the lies, so that people know there is an opposite view and so that the closet atheists know there are others like them.”
He also remains deeply involved with the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association which he founded and has been the secretary of since 1976. Interestingly, the organisation owes its very existence to the eminent Indian rationalist Dr. A.T. Kovoor who spent most of his life as a resident of Sri Lanka. Upon being told by the main body that they could not organise a lecture by Dr. Kovoor if they weren’t part of an association, a handful of likeminded souls decided to create one so they could do just that. Narendra remembers that the event was a wild success, the hall was packed, the compound outside where people could listen to the speech over loudspeakers was packed, and even traffic came to a standstill. Whether people agreed or disagreed with Dr. Kovoor, they wanted to hear what he had to say, Narendra explains.
Narendra himself seems to thrive on scepticism. After all, it’s the quality he so wants to cultivate in his audience. The son of a Brahmin family, he discovered that his doubt overcame the faith he had been born into. “Atheism is a conclusion that I arrived at it when I was 11 years old,” he says, adding that when he began to doubt the existence of God, it inevitably followed that his faith in miracles, spirits, astrology and demons was also shaken. When he shared his doubt and was challenged by people citing supernatural phenomena and divine signs, he found himself in the position of becoming a professional debunker of miracles.
Today, he prides himself on two things: “I have never bribed man, I have never bribed God.” On a personal level his choice to be atheist has proved liberating. “I have the freedom to do what I want according to my own conscience…I do what I want, but I don’t infringe on the human rights of others, and I don’t commit cruelty on others in the name of religion, I do not discriminate between people based on where they were born.” In his work, he remains best known for his swift dethroning of many a revered guru. That this has led to the charge of blasphemy being levelled against him frequently doesn’t disturb him in the least. “We feel that blasphemy is a fundamental right. Just as you have the right to propagate, I have the right to question.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 11 March, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala