Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: when quackery doesn't kill (but science does)

Orac at Respectful Insolence hates "woo" (for some reason I dislike that term; I prefer to call it quackery). He's a surgeon and has seen cases where that kind of stuff killed people through delay or refusal of treatment. Fair enough. But I am fascinated by this example where it didn't kill someone:

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube [here's one version, shorter than the others but with an obnoxious soundtrack. However the images tell it all.]

First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man. (Times-on-Line, hat tip Nothing to do with Arbroath)

Mr. Edamaruku is a heroic rationalist, to say the least. The Indian Rationalist Association traces its origins to the influence of writings from British secularists like (Aldous) Huxley, Darwin and H.G. Wells, and was founded in 1949 with the help of another famous atheist, Bertrand Russell. Edamaruku took over in 1985 and his organization is said to have over 100,000 members. He spends much of his time traveling India and debunking the "miracles" performed by the many holy men and gurus who bilk the public and wealthy patrons out of millions of dollars and curry favor with politicians. Sounds a lot like the US:

One reason is that Indian politicians nurture and shelter gurus to give them spiritual credibility, use their followers as vote banks, or to mask sexual or criminal activity. That explains why India’s Parliament has never tightened the 1954 Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, under which the maximum punishment is two months in prison and a 2,000 rupee (£29) fine.

Another reason is that educated, middle-class Indians are feeling increasingly alienated from mainstream religion but still in need of spiritual sustenance. “When traditional religion collapses people still need spirituality,” he says. “So they usually go one of two directions: towards extremism and fundamentalism or to these kinds of people.”

Since richer, urban Indians have little time for long pilgrimages or pujas (prayer ceremonies), they are often attracted by holy men who offer instant gratification — for a fee. The development of the Indian media over the past decade has also allowed some holy men to reach ever larger audiences via television and the internet. “Small ones have gone out of business while the big ones have become like corporations,” says Mr Edamaruku.

So this kind of quackery isn't powerful enough to cause your death (that requires your cooperation). Alas, Reality isn't so forgiving. While I don't like to repeat a clip, especially when I've used it recently, it does seem this one is just too appropriate, so here it is again:

More like this

We have TV psychics here in America that seem to do pretty darn well considering they are complete and utter frauds. In India they have a tantrik (black magician) who claims to be able to do things like cause a woman to lose her uncle, hit her head against the car door and find her legs covered…
The laughing fellow on the left is Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International and atheist. The cranky old man in the robes on the right is Pandit Surinder Sharma, a self-described Tantrik Magician. The scene is in a studio on Indian television, where the magician is trying to kill the…
Premanand is a notable rationalist and publisher of Indian Skeptic magazine, and he is in a hospital dying of cancer as I write this. He is alert and fully aware of his condition, and he knows his death is imminent. He also knows that when he is dead, the contemptible ghouls of spiritualism and…
As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of his native land but as a stranger in the process of discovery, "India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by invisible threads." These invisible threads were the spiritual beliefs of the…

Ah, but Pandit Surinder Sharma is much more clever than you seem to give him credit. He implanted a Delayed Action curse for which there is no possibility of reprieve. At a time when Mr. Edamaruku least expects it, the curse will activate and he will drop down dead on the spot. He will live his life with the terror of not knowing whether today may be the day the guru's curse will overtake him. It may be tomorrow, it may be fifty years from now, but the Terrible Tantric Curse has never failed.

Kali is not mocked.

By Bill Sheehan (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

Funny but his imitation of someone being poisoned is not that good.


Not terribly surprising since I'm sure very, very few people have actually seen somebody imbibe a deadly poison like potassium cyanide. I know I haven't, and I'm not sure I'd want to either.

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

How many deaths from potassium cyanide has Alex seen exactly? Seems rather sure that Current was faking.

eddie: I've never seen a cyanide death, so I can't say much about that, but I can say with certainty he was faking. It was satire and he is still very much alive.

This needs a PG-13 sticker.

i get it and appreciate it but I'm not so sure about some brainwashed 7 & 8 year olds somewhere that are exploring the internet would.
Suggesting others drink poison, survive and send the videos, well.......


I have been looking for a video I believe you posted in a Freethinker Sermonette recently, in which "priests" told an interviewer that the purpose of the Catholic Church was to enable sexual molesting of children. I've looked through the first few pages of Sermonettes, and tried the search function, to no avail. Unfortunately, I don't remember the comedian's name, so it's hard to just search on Google or YouTube. Do you recall it?

caia: Alas, it doesn't ring a bell. Not even a church bell. Did you use the category, Freethinker Sermonettes in the left sidebar?

I did. But apparently I must have seen it somewhere else. Hmmm. (When I first saw it, I though perhaps the humor went too far, but recent events have... impacted that perception.)

Thanks anyway.

Aha! It was actually rather easy to find -- it was the first YouTube video searching Catholic Church comedy. (Apparently some other people have been finding it apropos as well.)

It's Louis CK. Here's the link, if you're interested.