On the 10th of March 2012, leading Indian rationlist Sanal Edamaruku was called out to a Mumbai chapel to investigate claims that a statue of Jesus was spontaneously weeping tears. Despite his long a colourful career debunking superstitions and religious myths, there was no way that Sanal could have foreseen that the reaction to his simple explanation - that the ‘weeping’ was caused by the capillary action of water from a nearby blocked sewage drain - would change his life forever and become a watershed case in securing India's secular future.
Instead of apologising to the thousands of pilgrims to the church for letting them drink the filthy sewage water under whilst under the impression that it was blessed and holy, the Catholic bishop went on the offensive and demanded an apology from Sanal.
When rightly refused, on the grounds that he had done nothing wrong, Sanal was charged with violating 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, India's “blasphemy law,” which prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” The charges effectively forced Sanal into exile to avoid a jail term of indeterminate length, without hope of bail, or, as was clear from the Church’s influence over the police, an absolutely fair and proper trial. In June that year, he left India to live in with friends in Helsinki, still yet to return to his home, family and friends.
A year to the day later, he was sat in our tiny flat in Lørenskog, eating my wife’s homemade blueberry scones and telling his story, my pride at being able to host one of my rationalist heroes for lunch, tempered by the knowledge that it was brought about because he has been forced from his home country to live in Finland, fighting his case from abroad and waiting for such a time when the Church and the police back down and guarantee him the fair chance to defend his case.
Instead of being cowed by the Church’s bullying tactics, Sanal has taken the opportunity created by his exile to take some of the issues facing India today to the world stage, to bring put a spotlight on the divergent worlds that India occupies: the growing, modern economic superpower and the steadfastly superstitious and religious world that is stifling free and critical thought. It's with cheeky glint in his eye he quotes Hosea 8:7 from the Bible: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”
Visa issues forced Sanal’s trip to Norway to be cancelled in September of last year, but once I heard he was still interested in coming, I took up the baton and decided to see what I could organise. With a generous budget from Skepsis, a little help from the Human-Etisk Forbund, and the invaluable time and effort of a a dedicate group of volunteers from Oslo and Trondheim Skeptics in the Pub, we managed to put together a series of fantastically well-attended events in Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim.
I’ve been meaning to write about Sanal’s visit and collate all the different reports for a while now, but my fingers were drawn away from the keyboard and stuck in other pies, and my attempts to fight the biological necessity of sleep failed me; my body insisted on taking back the time it was owed.
Thanks to the hard work of Alvin Brattli, Sanal’s talk on March 8th, which coincide with Skepsis’ AGM (at which I was voted on to take position of Events Manager; HOORAY!) is available in full, split over three parts. The slides that accompanied the talk are also embedded below.
Norwegian readers can read Sanal’s interview with Even Gran for Fri Tanke here, and for an slightly different take on his story there’s an interview with one of Norway’s leading Christian newspapers, Vårt Land (also in Norwegian). The article isn't available online but I can email the PDF to anyone interested.
There’s also a podcast interview, for which Saltklypa came out of semi-retirement, during which you can learn of Sanal’s other passions, such as the traditional Indian dance (in which he is trained and has directed award-winning Shakespeare inspired performances), painting and drumming. The podcast’s being edited at the moment but should be up soon!
I also have an article in the next edition of Argument, out in a couple of days, 'Who give a flying fakir about the evidence?' inspired by part of one of Sanal's talks on Indian 'holy' men. I'll post it up here as soon as it's available.
Sanal was lovely enough to include his visit to our flat for lunch in the Rationalist International bulletin, and my very lovely wife has now also volunteered to translate the regular newsletter into Norwegian, which you can subscribe to here.
From his talks, and the many chats we had over dinner, I learned some important lessons from Sanal on how to be a good skeptic and how to reach people in effective ways. Here are just some of them (in no particular order):
- You won’t win people over by laughing at them, but genuine humour is a whole lot better than derision and sarcasm.
- Aim your ire at those in power; most people do not hold the same views as those in positions of (particularly religious) authority and it’s important not to alienate them by tarnishing them with the same brush (Sanal is clear that his problem is with the Christian authorities in India, not Christians themselves).
- Be careful not to get stitched up. When investigating the weeping Jesus, Sanal was offered a hammer and told to strike the statue to prove his theory. Knowing that it would only take for him to hold the hammer for a photograph to be taken and misrepresented as him attempting to destroy a religious figure, he stayed well clear.
- Make sure that your work/campaigns survive you and your enthusiasm. His big personality and decades of good work mean that Sanal is inextricably linked to rationalism in India, but one of Sanal’s aims is to start phasing himself out of senior positions with the Indian Rationalist Association (if they let him; at the last election they voted him in in absentia). (This really spoke to me because it’s something I didn’t manage to achieve with the Aston Humanist Society. I had a great time and a great small committee of helpers, but I never managed to get it running on it’s own steam, something which I saw frequently happen to new societies.)
- Demonstrations are much more powerful than explanations at effectively debunking myths and superstitious ideas. His Rationalist Reality Theatre roadshows don’t just tell people, they show them.
- Debunking a myth is good, but teaching people how to debunk myths is even better because that increases outreach exponentially. To date, Sanal’s youth workshops with have reached ten of thousands of people, who now have the skills to and knowledge to help others break free from superstitions. This a model that more free-thinking groups and societies should adopt. The picture below shows young rationalists being showed how easy it is to perform the levitation trick.
Sanal's fight is by no means over. An initial online petition calling for the Catholic Church to drop the charges reached thousands of signatures, but, for the time being, the religious authorities have chosen to simply ignore it. A new petition with the support of the Rationalist Association (UK) is underway, which you can sign here. As Sanal continues to travel the world, telling his story and inspiring rationalists, the hope is that the Catholic church will back down, allow Sanal to fight the case properly in court and hopefully set a precedent that will see an end to India's ludicrous blasphemy law.
It was a real honour to host someone who's work is so inspiring and important. On behalf of Skepsis, HEF and everyone who helped organise and attend Sanal's visit to Norway, I can say that we are proud to have played some small part in keeping the winds of Sanal’s whirlwind blowing.