NEW DELHI, India — Chingali Saaji rolled up his trousers and walked barefoot across a bed of glowing embers to prove his lack of faith. "No God!" he shouted.
Saaji was taking part in a firewalking demonstration put on by the Indian Rationalist Assn.
India is known the world around for its gurus, saints and swamis. Naked sadhus (Hindu holy men) wander the streets of India's cities. Saffron-robed religious ascetics ride free on Indian railroads, a practice that Rudyard Kipling described in his classic adventure book "Kim."
Many prominent businessmen and government ministers will not make a decision until they have consulted their personal astrologer or palmist. The late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had her own yogi and spiritual adviser, a tall, bearded, bare-chested holy man named Dhirendra Brahmachari.
Co-owned Gun Factory
Brahmachari's light dimmed a bit in the Gandhi household after it was learned, in 1982, that he owned a half-interest in a gun factory in Kashmir. Still, he was given a place of prominence at the Hindu cremation ceremony for Indira Gandhi after her assassination last October.
India has 740 million people, about 80% of whom are devout Hindus who pay homage (and money) to numerous godly incarnations and miracle men. Even most of the minority religious communities of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis (Zoroastrians), Jains and Sufi Muslims have living saints.
"There are many self-styled \o7 bhagwans\f7 (gods), swamis (lords), \o7 rishis\f7 (sages), maharishis (great sages), \o7 acharyas \f7 (teachers) and \o7 sants\f7 (saints) and gurus with large followings," Khushwant Singh wrote in a book on holy men. "It is not possible to make an estimate of their numbers because widely exaggerated claims are made by each one of them."
Engaged in an often-lonely battle against this rampant religiosity is the Indian Rationalist Assn., a small (10,000 members) organization of atheists, doubters and skeptics who seek to debunk organized religion and disprove all miracles.
Active and Noisy
Despite their small numbers, the Rationalists are an active and noisy group. Their ranks include scientists and educators. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said he was a Rationalist.
Teams of young Rationalist missionaries are sent into the countryside on crusades against religious fakery and shamanism--"fakes, frauds and phonies," Sanal Edamaruku, general secretary of the association, said. "We are challenging all the gurus and godmen."
Organized at the turn of the century as part of the worldwide Rationalist movement, the Indian organization has developed its own methods of combating religious faith. Whenever they hear of a new miracle worker, the Rationalists set out to find a scientific explanation for what he has done.
One popular act of debunking performed by the Rationalists is the firewalk. Throughout India, holy men seek to demonstrate their special powers by walking barefoot across glowing embers. In the last several years the Rationalists have taken to putting on their own firewalks. One such demonstration took place in a flower bed at the Delhi Press Club.
A large fire was built while the Rationalist leader Edamaruku issued a challenge to Indian holy men to perform under "fraud-proof conditions" any one of 22 miracles listed by the association. The Rationalists, he said, would pay any holy man 100,000 rupees ($9,000) if among other things he could read the serial number of a hidden bank note, move or bend a solid object using psychokinetic power, walk on water, make an amputated limb grow even one inch "by prayer, spiritual powers, Lourdes water, holy ash, blessing, etc."
After the flames subsided in the flower bed, the embers were raked into a trench about eight feet long. Two Rationalists, Saaji and another man, then walked over them, several times for the benefit of photographers.
"See, it is no miracle," Edamaruku said. "Anyone can do it if they have confidence and walk fast. There is not long enough contact with the coals to burn the feet."
Nevertheless, the demonstration managed to confuse some of the witnesses. Despite reassurances from the firewalkers that their feet were undamaged, an Indian journalist angrily described the event as "media sadism."
Not Always Easy
A Soviet journalist said he thought that Saaji had shouted not "No God!" but "Oh, God!"
The Rationalists' campaign against religious fraud is not always easy. In order to disprove the miraculous powers of a Buddhist holy man who said his powers permitted him to break whole coconuts on his forehead, the Rationalists had to try it themselves in order to learn how it was done.
"He was using tender young coconuts," Edamaruku said. "After we learned his trick, even young boys--15 years old--were breaking coconuts on their heads."