(Investigator 57, 1997 November)
One usually associates godmen, holymen and gurus with India, and as their influence often extends world-wide and in many cases have become part of the New Age, it seemed appropriate to include one of the best known, Sri Satya Sai Baba.
Born in Puttaparthi, India, in 1926, at the age of thirteen, he was allegedly stung by a scorpion and from that day on seemed to be imbude with remarkable powers. His psychic abilities increased and he became known as Sai Baba, Man of Miracles, after the original Sai Baba, a Hindu holy man who came from Shirdi. When he died in 1918, he told his followers that he would return. Many now believe that Sri Satya is the holy man reincarnated.
Satya Sai Baba’s following has been estimated at over 50 million devotees and his influence permeates the entire political and social fabric of India. He claims to be able to perform miracles, and supports those claims by producing large quantities of vibuti or holy ash from an upturned empty urn, or materializes it from his fingertips; gives birth to lingams or egg shaped objects from his mouth; materializes gold objects, jewelry, gems and coins from thin air; turns water into gasolene; makes flowers thrown haphazardly onto the ground form perfect words; produces a large glass bowl from nowhere and other assorted “miracles.”
Sai Baba also claims to have resurrected a man pronounced dead by a doctor; have complete telepathic knowledge of all his devotees undertakings; performed countless healings and rescues at a distance when devotees have been in danger; claims to be omnipotent and omniscient, and that his life fulfils ancient prophecies.
Is Sai Baba really a reincarnated godman? Can he really perform miracles? Like those recorded in the Bible, Sai Baba's "miracles" are performed in a similar unsophisticated environment, India’s people are steeped in superstition and a belief in the supernatural, and Baba’s followers are willing to exaggerate and even invent in an effort to promote their master.
To critically examine Sai Baba’s claims of being a "godman", it is only necessary to expose his and other godmen's "miracles" for what they really are – simple magic tricks capable of being performed by even amateur magicians. Mr B Premanand, the convener of the Indian Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has spent most of his life investigating Indian godmen and gurus, and can replicate well over twelve hundred of the "miracles" attributed to Sai Baba and others - they are all simple magic tricks and illusions. The following are but a few, and should suffice to show that in accordance with Hume’s reasoning there is a rational explanation for any putative supernatural claim.
Stopping the heart beat. The heart beat can be stopped by breathing in deeply and trying to exhale without exhaling. But what is generally done by godmen is to stop the pulse at the wrist. This is done by stopping the flow of blood to the hand by concealing a small ball under the armpit and pressing. Doctors in the confusion are persuaded only to check the pulse and confirm that it has stopped. They do this trick to make people believe that by practising yoga and pranayama a person can stop the heart from beating and still he alive – proof that they are above normal human beings.
Making vibhuti from air. Producing vibhuti, or holy ash, from thin air, is a favourite trick of Sai Baba. Creating something from nothing is contrary to the theory of conservation which teaches that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. To get ash one has to burn wood, paper or cowdung, the ash so made has no smell unless perfume is added to it. Sai Baba claims to be able to create something from nothing, he accomplishes this by mixing perfumed ash (cow dung) with a starch solution into small balls of dough and allows them to dry. These balls are hidden between the thumb and index finger and after circling the hands palms down and while raising the hand to produce holy ash the balls are bought to the finger tips, powdered and sprinkled on the devotees. To show it were possible to create something from nothing one need only hold one’s hands palms uppermost and wait for something to appear, it is not necessary to wave one’s hands around to distract and to conceal. It should be noted too, that the expensive objects manifested are only given to the rich and influential devotees, the deserving poor get the ash!
Producing fire by mental power. An impressive little trick guaranteed to fool even the most intelligent unless they are conversant with the reactions caused by an admixture of chemicals. The godman prepares a pile of wood chips and on to it pours a spoonful of ghee (a solid white oil used in soap and ointment manufacture). He then sends his "mental powers" through his eyes and circles his hands over the woodchip pile which starts to smoke and then catches fire. What he has done is to secretly hide potassium permanganate below the woodchips and pour onto the wood a little glycerine. When the two come together, oxygen and heat is generated and smoke and fire produced.
Cutting off the tongue. (Not performed by Sai Baba) To perform this bizarre illusion one first makes the tongue supple by pulling it daily for about fifteen minutes and then curling it back into the throat. After practising this position one places the tongue of an animal in the mouth, and as if it is cut remove it and curl the real tongue up inside the mouth. People really believe that the tongue has been cut off. Then as if refixing the tongue, palm the animal tongue and bring back the original tongue to its usual position.
Sai Baba's claim to have resurrected the dead has been exposed as false, and he was recently caught red-handed on Indian television cameras performing one of his alleged miracles later seen to be a simple sleight-of-hand trick. On August 29, 1992, the Indian Prime Minister, Mr PV. Narasimha Rao, and many other dignitaries, gathered at Hyderabad to celebrate the inauguration of Sri Satya Sai Baba’s kalyana mandapam, the largest in India. During the celebration Sai Baba "manifested" a gold chain from "thin air" and presented it as a memento to the architect. To Baba’s followers this was another miracle but frame by frame the TV cameras revealed Baba’s assistant secretly passing him the chain.
[From: Skeptoon an illustrated look at some New Age Beliefs 1994, Harry Edwards. Published by Harry Edwards Publications]