Skepticism v. the Indian Blasphemy Law: Free Speech, Free Inquiry and Religious Tolerance

Ryan Shaffer

Sanal Edamaruku has been campaigning for critical thinking in India for more than three decades. As head of the Indian Rationalist Association, he travels throughout India showing how gurus or “godmen” perform supposedly science-defying miracles by means of simple stage magic. In a country where superstition is backed by poverty and illiteracy, rural Indians often turn to gurus for everything from finding a spouse to cures for bites from poisonous snakes. While Edamaruku has his supporters, he has also made enemies, including one person who tried to kill him by chanting mantras. More recently, he angered Catholics for his investigation into a statue of Jesus that was dripping water. The Catholics turned to an arcane colonial era “blasphemy law” under which Edamaruku could be fined and imprisoned for three years for exposing an alleged miracle. (The water coming from the statue was actually a by-product of wastewater.)

Edamaruku grew up in Kerala, India, where he was influenced by his father, Joseph Edamaruku, a famous Indian rationalist. Joseph had been raised a Catholic, but he began doubting religion when his Sunday-school students questioned him about Jesus Christ. He published Christ: A Man, which led to his excommunication. He began investigating other religions, including Islam and Hinduism. Joseph became known for his books about the historical origins and textual criticisms of different faiths. In a country where religious sensitivities have repeatedly been sharpened by sectarian violence, his efforts led to his arrest on several occasions, notably in 1975 during the Indian Emergency, when Indira Gandhi suspended the country’s constitution, citing “internal disturbances.” Joseph, along with other political, social, and religious leaders, was held by the authorities without charge.

In addition to his father’s influence, the younger Edamaruku became interested in rationalism following the death of a neighbor that could have been prevented using modern science. As journalist Vrushali Lad has recounted, when Edamaruku was twelve years old, a young woman in his neighborhood was diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors told the family she needed a blood transfusion, but it was against their religious beliefs and they believed praying would heal her. The whole neighborhood prayed, Edamaruku included, but still the young woman died. He told the journalist, “The idea that these beliefs had cost her her life disturbed me deeply,” and he became more involved in rationalist activities, including starting a student rationalist organization.

While his father was jailed during the Emergency, Edamaruku attended the university of Kerala, earning a master’s degree in 1977. After studying toward a PhD in international studies, he began working closely with the Indian rationalist Association, becoming its general secretary in 1983. Joseph resumed his activities following his release, writing Christ and Chrishna Never Lived, which was edited by the younger Edamaruku in 1981. Joseph continued to research and write, translating many rationalist books into his native Malayalam language until his death in 2006. Concurrently, the younger Edamaruku began making a name for himself throughout India.

Like his father, Edamaruku has devoted his life to exposing the hazards of superstition and alleged miracles. Besides training rationalists to expose the scams of itinerant gurus, he roams the land teaching critical thinking. Notably, Edamaruku was featured in the 1995 British documentary Guru Busters, which depicted rationalists traveling the countryside for weeks demonstrating how godmen appear to pierce skin, eat flames, and get buried alive. By showing crowds in village after village how these feats could easily be accomplished by ordinary means, Edamaruku’s group unlocked the mystery behind seemingly miraculous feats.

Edamaruku made over two hundred appearances on Indian television in 2008 alone. In his most famous appearance of that year, millions watched him challenge Pandit Surender Sharma–a Hindu mystic or “tantrik” believed to have magical powers–to kill him by incantation. Edamaruku laughed as he told the tantric, “Do anything you want to do.” During the program, Sharma chanted and pressed against Edamaruku’s head but failed to injure him. Sharma refused to concede any doubt of his abilities, telling Edamaruku, “You’re going to die,” and promising that it would happen “shortly.”

To which the skeptic replied, “I know now” that there’s “nothing” to the tantra.

More recently, in 2011, 60 Minutes of Australia followed Edamaruku as he targeted “gurus who offer miraculous medical cures for enormous fees, which is illegal in India.” The program showed Edamaruku’s team exposing common guru tricks like fire walking, and criticizing Sunderlal Bhargav, who promised to cure cancer by reciting a mantra in exchange for a fee of twenty thousand dollars. Edamaruku called the claims fraudulent and warned Bhargav that he was breaking the law.

In April 2012, Edamaruku was invited by India’s TV-9 to examine an alleged miracle where a crucifix of Jesus was dripping water from the feet. Hundreds of people had been traveling to Our Lady of Velankanni Church in Mumbai to collect the water in bottles and witness the supposed miracle. Edamaruku examined the site with permission from the church. After only a few minutes’ investigation, Edamaruku discovered the source of the drip. Behind a wall was a clogged sewer drain; backed-up water seeped through the adjoining wall and onto the feet of the Jesus. Photos and video of Edamaruku’s investigation and commentary subsequently appeared on television. According to journalist Nirmala Carvalho, Edamaruku accused the church of “creating the miracle” for donations and said that the pope was antiscience.

Despite local Catholic claims of miracles, the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai released a statement saying: “The Church is always cautious in attributing supernatural causes to out of the ordinary phenomena. Whenever possible, it always tries to find ‘scientific’ explanations for similar events. It does not pay great attention to things like this, although it accepts the possibility that God can intervene in human life in ‘extraordinary’ ways: what we call ‘miracles.’”

Members of the Catholic Church in Mumbai filed a complaint of “deliberately hurting religious feelings” against Edamaruku. The applicable law, sometimes called the “blasphemy law,” dates back to 1927, during British imperial rule. Section 295(a) of Indian Penal Code declares it illegal to commit “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” After the filing, Edamaruku’s attorneys began receiving calls from police requesting that Edamaruku turn himself in. His attorneys, in response, filed three separate motions. The first sought “anticipatory bail” to avoid jail time, but this was turned down. The other two motions requested that the case be thrown out; one additionally requested that the Supreme Court of India remove 295(a) from the Penal Code as an infringement upon freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Those motions await decisions.

With the initial motion for bail denied, Edamaruku subsequently left India and traveled to Finland, where he has been monitoring the legal issues. While he was in Finland, the case took a dramatic turn on July 4 when police entered his Delhi home to serve a warrant for his arrest that had been issued by a metropolitan magistrate court in
Mumbai. As I write, Edamaruku is on a speaking tour in Europe, discussing the blasphemy law as an infringement on free speech and a detriment to critical thinking in India. He also is asking the public to sign a petition requesting that the Catholic Church withdraw the charges and is seeking donations for fees associated with the legal battle at www.RationalistInternational.net.


Further Reading

Carvalho, Nirmala. “Water from the Cross of Irla: Indian Atheist Accuses Church of ‘Manufacturing’ Miracles for Money,” AsianNews.com, March 13, 2012. Available online at http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Water-from-the-cross-of-Irla.-Indian-atheist-accuses-Church-of-manufacturing-miracles-for-money-24218.html

“Edamaruku: An Update.” The New Humanist, June 18, 2012. Online at http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2012/06/Edamaruku-edamaruku-update.html

“Indian Rationalist Edamaruku vs the Catholic Church–Lend Your Support.” The New Humanist, May 17, 2012. Available online at http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2012/05/indian-rationalist-Edamaruku-edamaruku-vs.html.

“Jesus Water Dropping Miracle in Mumbai, Edamaruku Explains.” Youtube.com, March 11, 2012. Available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUqhq9MuRG8.

Lad, Vrushali. “Batting for Reason in a Land of Faith.” Hindustan Times, May 6, 2012. Available online at http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/Mumbai/Batting-for-reason-in-a-land-of-faith/Article1-851455.aspx.

Langdon, Allison. “The Guru Busters.” Ninemsn.com.au, November 18, 2011. Available online at http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8376295.

Mohan, Vineeth. “Indian Rationalist Under Attack for Exposing Catholic Church ‘Miracle.’” Vineeth.in, 2012. Available online at http://vineeth.in/post/21004419862/Edamaruku-edamaruku-under-attack-for-exposing-catholic-mirac.

“Police in Edamaruku’s House to Arrest Him,” RationalistInternational.net, July 4, 2012. Available online at http://www.rationalistinternational.net/article/2012/20120704/en_1.html.

Tacopino, Joe. “Indian Guru Tries to Kill Man with Tantric Ritual Live on TV.” New York Daily News, March 19, 2010. Available online at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/indian-guru-kill-man-tantric-ritual-live-tv-article-1.173021.


Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He is currently a PhD candidate at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Ryan Shaffer

Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He has a PhD in history and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University.


Sanal Edamaruku has been campaigning for critical thinking in India for more than three decades. As head of the Indian Rationalist Association, he travels throughout India showing how gurus or “godmen” perform supposedly science-defying miracles by means of simple stage magic. In a country where superstition is backed by poverty and illiteracy, rural Indians often …

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