MOST people know India is the land of gods but not many know eight million of
them are alive and walking around there.
This is the estimated number of holy men and women - mainly men - who claim everything from divine powers to the grandiose title of God on Earth.
These living practitioners of the holy path vary from street market swamis who bamboozle the credulous with cheap tricks to multi-million religious corporate heads with wealthy communities attracting millions of followers in India and abroad.
Now this bastion of light, or superstition, depending on your view, has been formally challenged for the first time.
The government of the most populous state in India, Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, have adopted a bill to outlaw superstition and black magic and those who practice it.
The secular Congress-led Democratic Front, which
includes the Communists, passed the legislation but already the sub-continent's
nationalist parties, including the BJP, who have gained from the rabble rousing
Hindu nationalism many 'gurus' often promote, are lining up in opposition to the
purge of India's living god community.
At the apex of this holy pyramid are self-styled godmen including Chandsraswami, Sai Baba, Kalki and Premananda who have all generated vast fortunes from their holy antics and preaching.
Baba is seen by his numerous followers as a full-on living god.
One witness account by a reporter from Asiaweek Magazine of his divine entrance at his Ashram in Puttuparthi describes the scene thus:
"..the music begins, soft Carnatic rhythms issuing from the loudspeakers. A waifish man with Afro hair appears. Satay Sri Sai Baba has arrived to demonstrate his morning miracle.
"The Baba moves slowly and the seated devotees hold up envelopes containing petitions, requesting favours of themselves or their loves ones.....the Baba speaks a phrase or two, turns his palms down and traces circles in the air. Thumb and middle finger join and gray ash appears to flow from their tips. The ecstatic devotee received the gift with cupped hands and the Baba continues down the line proffering the....holy ash."
Such an exalted person could not, of course, have had a normal birth. His was a steer on the Christ birth legend. Baba's mother was fetching water when a blue ball of fire emerged from the village well and entered her stomach, she fainted, woke-up and found herself pregnant. The result was Baba born 23, November 1926.
The little lad has come a long way since then. His cult has made the Puttuparthi ashram a sizeable market town with hotels and an airstrip.
Baba lives in a large house with a balcony like a prop from a kitchy Bollywood film. He runs a BMW sedan and a Mercedes-Benz limo.
Part of the power of these top gurus is that they are frequently sought out by politicians. Politics in India is often an uncertain profession but often the door to great wealth. To be seen paying homage to these figures is good for gaining support especially in the gurus home state.
But there is a dark side - Baba's kingdom has now been tarnished with accusations of corruption and homosexual child abuse. Worldwide many of his centres are shutting down.
At the other end of the scale are the street and market tricksters. Organisation like the All-Indian Committee to Eradicate Superstition and Blind Faith are campaigning to open the eyes of these people to the charlatans.
The Society puts on its own demonstrations.
Said magician Anand Tayade, who is helping: "It's simple. If you want people to bow down to you then you perform a trick. There's no such things as performing miracles on this earth."
In a demonstration of trickery held before a hushed crowd of 100 village people a man in saffron robes seems to sit suspended in mid air without any support but for hand on a pole. A superstition-busting activist tell the hushed crowd ....that the long garment actually hides a wooden seat fixed to the pole.
Some are even more gullible like the female doctor who asked, for help over her husband from two self-styled godmen who set up shop in a Hyderabad market.
They asked her how old her husband was and being informed 40 told the woman to bring 40 gold coins in a box.
They held the box for four days doing their 'magic' and then handed it back to her instructing the woman not to open it until she got home. Needless to say the box was empty and the holymen fled. In Mumbai the police, prompted by the anti-superstition campaign, have arrested 25 fake godmen.
"These godmen are unlike saints who renounce worldly life, give sermons and induce a feeling of positive energy, They are out to catch gullible people to make money," says Mr Tayade.
The campaign has even spread to the UK.
Asian News has already reported several times on prominent Imams denouncing the so-called Muslim healers and saints. Now the Asian Rationalist Society of Britain are challenging the charlatans and occult practitioners. They have offered a prize of £2,000 to any person who can prove he has magical powers - no-one has come forward and the society intend to increate the reward to £10,000 - any takers?