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Posts Tagged ‘pseudoscience’

I could never have imagined that a seemingly innocuous comment on Facebook relating to the late lamented Sathya Sai Baba would stir up a hornet’s nest of criticism from some of my close friends and lead me to revive my long-dormant blog, if only to put my own standing in perspective. I am not too sanguine (and neither hopeful) about the rebirth of the Baba for the third time, but I will give him full credit for reviving my blog from the dead. (Well, to be honest, the Baba deserves only partial credit for this, the other part due to my current position as a summer intern in the HR department of a multi-national corporation – the italicized words representing the perfect ingredients for idleness.)

What had happened was this: I had shared a link to a blog post by the journalist C.P. Surendran in which he recalls an encounter with the Sathya Sai Baba when, as a child he went to visit him with his mother. The article is most interesting, particularly the part where the Baba insists that the lady express a wish which he would fulfill, but is caught on the wrong foot when all she asks for is a ripe and succulent jackfruit, which the Baba, in spite of all his sagacity and sleight of hand, is unable to conjure. The article can be read here. The innocuous comment that I had attached to the shared link was as follows: ‘And to think that there will be a State Funeral for a confidence trickster! I would bet P.C. Sorcar is a better jackfruit-conjurer.’

To this, my friends on FB were scandalized and some even went to the extent of calling my comments ‘cheap’ and that I have no business to badmouth a saintly personality who has done so much good for mankind, and that too after his death. Looking back, I admit that my choice of adjectives could have been a tad less colourful and better chosen. I offer my sincere apologies to those who have been offended.

I have nothing personal against the ‘godman’ per se. In fact, I feel his unconventional hairdo was quite ahead of his time. Rather, my problem is not with the Baba, but with the kind of things he (and all other men of his trade) expects his customers to believe, and which take us back in time to the mediaeval ages. It is being pointed out to skeptics like me that great men from all walks of life – sportspersons, politicians and heads of government alike – have been ardent followers of the Baba, and hence he deserves to be held on a high pedestal in public memory in spite of the all the mumbo-jumbo that he claimed to do throughout career, including his claim that he was a reincarnation of the original Sai Baba, and his ability to regurgitate Shivlingas and the like. Examples of his philanthropic activities are also being brandished in the face of people like me (who do not believe in his miracles or the fact that he was anything more than a pretender) in the hope that we would stop criticizing someone who gave so much to the poor and needy.

Well, there is something fundamentally wrong in calling the Baba’s social activities philanthropy. The essence of philanthropy is giving without the expectation of receiving anything in exchange. Whatever good work the Baba did was in exchange for a belief by his followers and beneficiaries in the divine concept called ‘Sai Baba’. He purchased blind faith in his supernatural powers by giving poor and illiterate people in some villages essential commodities like food, water and electricity- things for which they can believe any incredulous and absurd nonsense that they are asked to. Had he done all this as an ordinary, mortal being sans any divine pretensions, I would have held him in utmost respect. But alas, all of his philanthropy was only an exercise to grow his popularity and feed his vain ego through the ignorance of the uneducated or else irrational masses.

If we are to measure his life in terms of the number of followers he gathered, then he is a very great man indeed. But if the measure of his life be his contribution to humankind in terms of spiritual, philosophical or religious output, I fear a close inspection would only reveal that whatever he preached was mostly banal, commonsense or restatement of the teachings of other men who have come before him. His life, in that sense, would be really insignificant. It is our great misfortune as a nation that sends spacecraft to explore the universe and swears by Satyameva Jayate or the ‘Triumph of Truth’ that we are glorifying and legitimizing the life and work of an impostor and an apostle of ignorance and pseudoscientific belief by according him a State Funeral. Were I to even believe in reincarnations, I would never wish another version of the Sai Baba on a thinking and rational populace.

There are many who say that spirituality is a matter of faith, and some have it while some don’t. To them, all I say is that if spirituality means, as Anil Dharker asks in his blog, ‘stopping your mind from thinking for itself and allowing it to do the bidding of someone else’, then I am happy to be non-spiritual. At least, I am doing justice to my intelligence and rational upbringing. The world, as Carl Sagan said, ‘is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there is little good evidence’.

According to me, the entire institution of the Sathya Sai Baba has been nothing more than a pretty story with little good evidence.

(P.S.: At the invitation of The NRI, an online magazine, I guest-posted a piece on the Sai Baba. I would urge readers to read it here.)

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Pope Benedict XVI is all too eager to set his predecessor Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood. The latter is one of the most controversial of popes, particularly because of his alleged relations with the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the Second World War. The Vatican, under his papacy, is also suspected to have facilitated safe passages and refuges for Nazi war criminals. Many historians have written about Pius’s Nazi leanings, and many have also refuted these allegations. Amongst all this confusion, it is indeed difficult to get the true picture, more so because much of it is shrouded in wartime history. We can only believe one camp or the other, but the better thing to do would be to reserve our judgement. Pius’s complicity in the wartime excesses of Nazi Germany is not the real issue here. The point to be considered is that he is perceived as a very controversial figure, and by literary definition alone, not someone on whom the epithet of saint should apply. A saint, after all, is someone who is supposed to be above all controversies. Benedict’s undue eagerness to sanctify him is therefore showing him and the church he represents in a very bad light.

I would however like to question the very institution of sainthood and its relevance in the current times. The award of sainthood is based not on any achievements (though achievements might be a factor in considering the candidate for the award), but rather on the attestation of so-called ‘miracles’ performed by the candidate, either in life or in death. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest hoaxes to be perpetrated on thinking and reasoning minds. In an age in which science is helping us discover the most fantastic secrets about our world and to find solutions to the many problems which plague humanity, the Roman Catholic Church is openly propagating a pseudoscience which traces its origins to the age when rain was considered to be the tears of the rain-god, and the stars the angels’ daisy chain! What is more, one miracle gets you a ‘blessed’ status, while two make you a full-fledged ‘saint’. What can be more ridiculous than this? I wonder if three miracles can make you a demi-god, four a full-time practising god, and five a super-duper-god to beat all other gods! Even assuming for the sake of argument that these miracles are ‘divine’ interventions beyond our grasp, how can the testimony of mere mortals be sufficient to attest their veracity? For these reasons, I also do not see any reason to be upbeat about the prospective sainthood of Mother Teresa, howsoever genuine a social-worker she might have been. Before considering her, the Pope might as well consider P C Sorcar, and I’m sure there are thousands of people in Calcutta itself willing to testify in his favour, myself included!

The story of the human species has been one of a continuous conflict between ignorance and knowledge, the former manifested as religion and the latter as science. Ignorance is necessary in as much as it spurs the quest for knowledge. Thereafter, it must be discarded in favour of the revelations of that quest. With every step that we have taken forward in the scientific direction, religion has been progressively marginalized. With minor local fluctuations, this trend has been consistent so far. The obvious extrapolation of this in the foreseeable future leads us to pose a fundamental question to ourselves – that of the relevance or necessity of religion in human affairs. There are those who perceive this eventual showdown as a threat, and they are the ones who make an institution out of ignorance and champion the cause of religion like naïve candle-makers hoping to make a living in a land of eternal sunshine. Phenomena like ‘miracles’, ‘beatification’ and ‘canonization’ are products of this stupidity, and those who practice or profess them are stupid people.

The conflict between the miraculous and the natural, or between religion and science, is a futile one. “Science is only a Latin word for knowledge”, said the British mathematician Jacob Bronowski, “and knowledge is our destiny.” We, as an intelligent species, are destined to know more and more, and believe less and less. As far as miracles go, my thoughts are best expressed by Joseph Conrad in The Shadow Line:

“All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.”

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Lately, television audiences in our country have been treated to a particularly despicable ‘reality’ show on the channel NDTV Imagine, which professes to find solutions to mundane emotional and psychological problems through hypnotism and something called “past life regression therapy”. Apparently, if you suffer from claustrophobia, you have, in all likeliness, died inside a burning elevator, filled beyond capacity and trapped between two floors in your previous life! Perhaps the name of the channel itself is a disclaimer of sorts regarding the degree of reality that is being shown.

The fascination with the possibility of past and after-lives is understandable as long as it is exercised within the scope of fiction. Everybody enjoys the Bengali film Sonar Kella, as it should be enjoyed, without taking it literally (though many, I fear, do take it literally), but if such a thing as hypnotic regression to reveal secrets of one’s previous life is performed on reality television, it definitely is a matter of concern. I used to think that uneducated viewers were most vulnerable to such mumbo-jumbo, but I was surprised to find a college professor and even family members professing faith in such dubious ideas. A distant relative was even a participant in one of the episodes, which was why I happened to watch it in the first place. (For the record, there were glaring historical inaccuracies in his tale, but one should perhaps allow for some data transmission error across lives.)

I wonder why those who believe in a multiplicity of lives do so. None of the believers whom I have met have ever experienced it themselves, or have any evidence to support such claims. For them, even a fifth-hand account of a long-deceased person, whose claims can no longer be examined, is sufficient evidence. There is a reason why the gullible are called gullible! I personally think it may have something to do with our fear of eventual death, and the fact that we will not have a role to play in the affairs of anybody, or partake in any significant event, after we pass away. But do such fears befit an intelligent and thinking species whose brain has been shaped through millions of years of slow and tedious evolution, and which now considers itself the pinnacle of creation? Should our intellect be so shallow as to take refuge in myths and fantasies that offer false hopes of outlasting one’s scheduled time on Earth? A pigeon does not need such myths to help it through its life, and neither should we.

I believe the only sense in which we outlast our life-span is that the elementary particles that make up our body are destined to outlast all the planets, stars and galaxies in the universe. Life, otherwise, is in all respects transitory, and this eternal truth is poetically reflected in every line of the popular Hindi song Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon, Pal Do Pal Meri Kahaani Hai. At the risk of sounding philosophical, I will, however express my concurrence with the thundering yet deep import of the following lines from Bertrand Russell’s essay, What I Believe:

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”

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