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A fakir is an initiate in a mendicant Sufi order. The word derives from the Arab word for poverty. By extension, the word is used to refer to ascetic Indian holy men (sadhus). The term is also used, however, to refer to itinerant Indian conjurers and alleged god-men who travel from village to village and perform "miracles" such as materializing vibhuti (holy ash) or jewelry. They do other conjuring stunts such as walking on hot coals, laying on a bed of nails, eating fire, sticking their hands in boiling 'oil', piercing their faces with long needles, putting large hooks through the flesh of their backs attached to heavy objects which they pull. Some conjurers are even said to levitate or to have performed the famous Indian rope trick. Others are said to have been buried alive for months and lived to tell about it. Some cut off their tongues and restore them. Others can make fire materialize out of nothing. The conjurers sometimes have accomplices and they pretend to do exorcisms or other strange feats. After each performance, they pass the hat, collect what they can, and move on to the next village.
Some conjurers become very famous and are considered to be god-men, such as Sai Baba.
B Premanand (1930-2009) of Indian Skeptics spent over fifty years exposing the tricks of the god-men. His method was simple. He demonstrated how the "miracles" of the fakirs are done by performing them himself. The Indian Rationalist Association has carried on the work of Premanand in exposing the deception of Sai Baba and those of his ilk, astrologers, psychics and clairvoyants. They were featured in the British documentary "Guru Busters" (Equinox)*, which followed Rationalists around India as they demonstrated how the god-men perform their "miracles" without doing anything supernatural.
The Discovery Channel's "Science Mysteries" series included an episode (October 20, 2001) entitled "Physical Feats" which was in part a rehash of "Guru Busters." The cameras followed members of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) as they went from village to village pretending to be fakirs. The IRA considers the god-men to be frauds who use trickery, legerdemain, conjuring, deceit, and other unfair means of convincing ignorant villagers that they possess miraculous powers. The IRA firewalk and explain anyone can do it without a need for supernatural intervention. They walk on glass, lay on nails, pull cars with hooks poked through the flesh on their backs, jab long needles through their cheeks and tongues, etc. The goal of the IRA is to debunk the god-men and reduce superstition among their countrymen and women. They obviously have a long way to go, as is evidenced by the monkey-man hysteria that gripped New Delhi in the spring of 2001. Witnesses reported to the mass media that they had seen "a giant ape that could jump 40 feet into the air and fly through windows."* Other claimed they saw a 4-foot monkey that turned into a cat. Mass hysteria led to deserted streets and panic. One pregnant woman fell down a staircase and died as a result of trying to escape from the monkey-man. It was all a hoax that played upon the religious superstitions of the people. One commentator put it bluntly:
had we not been a nation nurtured on Hindu epics to become Hanuman worshippers, most people would have laughed at the very idea of a monkey-man and would have considered the so-called "witnesses" liars or demented maniacs from the outset, instead of waiting for the scientific community to debunk this hoax in its own, soft way, and lay it to rest. For, when it comes to religion the first "principle" that is taught by preachers to believers is that of blind acceptance. One may not question any religious dogma if he/she is a believer, and, he/she must necessarily accept the dogma/doctrine in toto....(Mehul Kamdar)
Religious gullibility and the monkey man hoax - Mehul Kamdar
'Monkey man' fears rampant in New Delhi - CNN.com
Mysterious 'man-monkey' strikes Delhi - BBC.com
'Monkey man' does not exist: Delhi police Basharat Peer in New Delhi
Show me the monkey! - Salon.com
Monkey-man Madness - Strange magazine
Notes on a Strange World - Don't Try This at Home - Massimo Polidoro
New B. Premanand, on his deathbed, has posted a declaration of attitude and temperament:
Declaration of attitude and temperament
I, B. Premanand son of the late Sri Basava Prabhu, 80 years of age, resident of Chettipalayam Road, Podanur, sound of mind though suffering from physical complications caused by metastases in many organs caused by carcinoma of the stomach, herein solemnly wish to place on record the following:
1. I have been closely associated with the rationalist movement from 1975 onwards and have been a rationalist of full conviction since then and continue to be so.
2. It is common for the purveyors of superstitions and such anti-rational forces to start spreading rumors about rationalists turning to god and other supernatural forces at the end of their lives and becoming devotees of gods and god men of various types.
3. It is also claimed that at times of crises that we staunch rationalists through the major part of our lives, turn to spiritualism and religion.
4. I wish to clarify that as on today the twentieth of September, 2009, I remain a staunch rationalist and wish to place on record the following:
a. I continue to be a rationalist of full conviction.
b. I do not believe in any supernatural power. All the powers that we encounter are in the realm of nature and nothing exists beyond that.
c. I do not believe in the existence of the soul or rebirth.
d. I have not turned to any religion, god, or any sort of spiritual pursuits.
e. When I pass away I shall be leaving only my body which is to be donated to a medical college and no spirit or soul to cause problems for the living.
I want to convey to all that the struggle against the exploitation by god men and so-called supernatural forces, is a long and hard one but the ultimate victory will be ours.
My very survival has been a challenge to astrologers and their so-called "science" of astrology, as they had all predicted that I would die soon after birth and refused to cast a horoscope for me.
I wish to convey to my colleagues of the rationalist movement to continue the work that I have been doing with renewed vigor and that will be the best of tributes for me.
*note: Guru Busters follows the activities of the Indian Science and Rationalist Association in their grass roots campaign to debunk India's "god-men". They hold vast public meetings to expose the fraudulent tricks employed by local medicine men and gurus. The Indian Science and Rationalist Association demonstrates the science behind a wide range of miracles seen everyday in India such as producing holy ashes, producing fire by mental power, inserting needles through the tongue, being buried head-first in sand and walking through hot embers. They even try to go one better, with volunteers pulling a jeep with hooks threaded through the skin on their backs, instead of a wooden chariot. In a disturbing section of the film, they shame a medicine man who has been selling a 'magic anti-cobra potion' to save a dog from a cobra bite. The Indian Science and Rationalist Association hopes to prove that scientific rationalism is a better route to follow to escape from disease and poverty.