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.