Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Mangalore
Last week, Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), was at Adyanadaka village in Mangalore, near the town of Vittala, talking to students of a government junior college about the “spirit of inquiry”. It was at this village some 33 years ago that the man who is now one of India’s foremost rationalist thinkers had performed one of his first ghost-busting tasks.
“People were saying a grocer’s store in the village was haunted. A local who knew me asked for help. When we arrived, we found there were two ‘ghosts’ — a teenage girl and her father. They lived behind the store and would throw stones inside to scare the grocer away so that they could occupy it,” Nayak told the students.
As he related this story and others over the next couple of hours, the 65-year-old performed some ‘magic tricks’ of own. He produced holy ash out of thin air and distributed it, saying it would help students do well in exams, and then showed how he had achieved this. He brought forth rings, gold chains and money, and also explained to students how they could do fire-eating.
Behind each of these tricks, he said, were simple chemical, physical and biological elements, comprehensible even to high-school science students. Hands rubbed with phenolphthalein and lime turned pink when rubbed together — used by godmen to claim people were sick or possessed — while natural moisture on skin gave momentary insulation from burns when a person walked on fire, Nayak said.
It was September 1995 that India first came to hear of this assistant chemistry professor, then teaching at Kasturba Medical College in Mangalore. People had been flocking to temples at the time, dutifully egged on by TV cameras, to witness the “phenomenon” of Ganesha idols drinking milk.
On September 21, Nayak took them on. At the office of a chemical laboratory he ran in Mangalore, he brought a spoon of milk to the mouth of an idol, and it disappeared. The milk drained out of the idol at another spot, but the people gathered there hadn’t noticed it.
What was on display, Nayak demonstrated, wasn’t a miracle involving the Lord, but the basic scientific principle of surface tension.
While he was still in the middle of his experiment, alleged right-wing activists pelted Nayak with stones and he had to be rushed to hospital.
In the years since, Nayak has debunked dozens of unscientific practices and beliefs — from weeping mother Marys to fake ‘godmen’ and ‘godwomen’.
FIRA, founded by Basava Premanand, is today an umbrella organisation for 83 rationalist, atheist, sceptic, secularist and scientific groups. “It is a loose collaboration of like-minded organisations,” says Nayak.
Nayak’s initiatives have also resulted in the creation of nearly a dozen ‘Freethinkers Associations’. “We want to have at least two persons who can respond to blind beliefs and superstition in every district,” he says.
It was through FIRA that Nayak knew Narendra Dabholkar who, like him, supported passing of a law to counter irrational practices.
Asha, Nayak’s lawyer wife, says, “When Dabholkar was killed, some people thought it was my husband, since they share a first name. There were a lot of phone calls. I did not know why people were calling me, till I saw the news.”
Development of scientific temper, Nayak explains, is a “step-wise process”. “You cannot get up one morning and say you have become a rational person. You start questioning things — the most blatant things, harmful things, things that are evil to society… Dabholkar’s death served as a challenge to us to see that his deeds and what he stood for do not go in vain. As rationalists, we are all part of one family.”
Nayak has held over 2,000 demonstrations and lectures for groups ranging from schoolchildren and ashram dwellers to IIT researchers and ISRO scientists.
“I once gave a talk in Chandigarh at an ISRO facility. I started by saying sarcastically that I am glad to be in a place where the chairman makes a replica of satellites and presents them at a temple before their launch. Everybody clapped. I said I am criticising your top man and you are clapping. They said, ‘We do not agree with him’.”
“Our education system is faulty,” he says. “It is focused on making individuals literate in engineering, biology, astrophysics, but it does not teach you to think. Someone can be a PhD in astrophysics but persist with the belief of taking a bath during an eclipse. They are only literate, not educated.”
The latest claim taken on by Nayak is “mid-brain activation”, which promises to help children see through blindfolds and obstacles.
“Several children who they claimed were seeing through a blindfold have told me they were told to lie. You put them through a test and they cannot see… It is a big scam,’’ says Nayak.
The campaign has resulted in cases being slapped against Nayak by a New Delhi-based lawyer.
At many places where he has held his demonstrations, Nayak has faced threats, but found locals coming to his rescue. In Kerala, a mob once turned on him when he showed that a picture of St Mary was not weeping. In Raipur in Chhattisgarh, supporters of a ‘godman’ threatened him when he challenged the ‘godman’ to guess the amount of money put away in an envelope. “The people at the workshop, especially the women, protected me. They asked supporters of the ‘godman’ to go and ask their guru to guess the amount of money hidden away in Swiss bank accounts,” Nayak laughs.
It is small successes such as these that keep Nayak going. “Our campaigns haven’t eradicated superstition, that is a gradual process. But a beginning has been made.”