James Randi on SB
By: Brian Steel
I offer you some Christmas reading from the interesting and eminently visitable website of the internationally famous magician, myth debunker, and author, James Randi.
In 1996, Randi set up the James Randi Education Foundation. (See: www.randi.org - which apparently receives something like 1,900 visits per day, making an impressive total of just under 700,000 per year). For those who may need it, this is the brief biography of James Randi available on the above website.
"James Randi has an international reputation as a magician and escape artist, but today he is best known as the world's most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
Randi has pursued "psychic" spoonbenders, exposed the dirty tricks of faith healers, investigated homeopathic water "with a memory," and generally been a thorn in the sides of those who try to pull the wool over the public's eyes in the name of the supernatural.
He has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1986.
On October 19, 1993, the PBS-TV "NOVA" program broadcast a one-hour special dealing with Randi's life work, particularly with his investigations of Uri Geller and various occult and healing claims being made by scientists in Russia.
He is the author of numerous books, including The Truth About Uri Geller, The Faith Healers, Flim-Flam!, and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. His lectures and television appearances have delighted - and vexed - audiences around the world. "We may disagree with Randi on certain points, but we ignore him at our peril."
- Carl Sagan
"In 1996, the James Randi Education Foundation was established to further Randi's work. Randi's long-standing challenge to psychics now stands as a $1,000,000 prize administered by the Foundation. It remains unclaimed. "
In connection with that last generous offer from the Randi Foundation, and in view of the multiple Omni-claims of Sathya Sai Baba, and the constant need of the SSO for funds for its charitable activities, it may strike readers as more than curious that the SSO does not enter the name of their allegedly multi-talented champion, at least once a week, to collect a possible $52,000,000 per annum from the Randi Education Foundation for their charitable coffers. The Randi challenge is, naturally, subject to scientific verification of the performance.
The following EXCERPT about SB is taken from one of James Randi's fascinating weekly website Commentaries (12 December 2000) on all sorts of alleged paranormal phenomena. (See www.randi.org/jr/12-08-2000.html)
Don't think that it's only folks in small Oklahoma towns and leaders of religious movements who believe this stuff. It's regular folks everywhere, of every level of education and sophistication, who embrace devils and deities. What follows deals with unsavory allegations about an Indian "god-man" who uses simple tricks and the same tired old feel-good techniques that such frauds have offered for so many generations of our species. I present it here as an example of what happens to a wonder-worker when he's been in the public eye just too long, and is finally revealed - though I think they "got" this one for the wrong reason.... More importantly, I think this man is so firmly established with the ruling powers in India, that he's immune to prosecution, and will simply continue on as always.
The Afro-coifed guru Sathya Sai Baba, 74, for years the subject of allegations of fraud, has left India only once, in the Seventies, and that was to briefly visit Uganda. His devotees - and contributors - across the world are estimated at up to fifty million, yet his reputation outside of India has been spread largely by word-of-mouth. He is worshiped as a living god who can profoundly change people's lives, and work miracles, though those are - to any conjuror's eye - simple sleight-of-hand, and not even at all well done. But now his followers are seriously divided by allegations, not that the man is a faker, but that he has for years been sexually abusing young male disciples to whom he has paid very special attention.
In India, his followers include the former prime minister, Narasimha Rao, the present Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and a great number of senior members of the judiciary, academics, scientists and prominent politicians. For more than fifty years, Sai Baba has been India's most famous and most powerful holy man - a worker of miracles, an instrument of the divine. His following extends not only to every corner of the Indian sub-continent, but also to America, Australia, Europe, South America and Asia. Estimates of his followers around the world vary, between ten and fifty million.
To his devotees, Sai Baba is believed to be an "avatar," an incarnation of the supernatural, one of the divine beings such as Krishna or Jesus Christ who are believed to take human form to bring their message to our species. According to his late secretary and disciple, Professor N. Kasturi, Sai Baba was born "of immaculate conception" in the southern Indian village of Puttaparthi in 1926. As a young boy, he says, he displayed miraculous abilities such as "materializing" flowers and sweets from thin air. Sai Baba's "miracles" now include materializing various keepsakes for devotees, from watches to rings. I've always wondered why these watches - mostly Seikos - are materialized bearing serial numbers indicating that they were sold from Japan to a distributor in India, and the rings have cheap lithographed-tin portraits of the guru in a fake gold-colored mount which is invariably represented by the believers to be "pure gold." This man's sleight-of-hand technique is abominable, not worthy of a rank amateur, but he doesn't have to be good, just charismatic. After all, he's fooling people who have happily suspended their critical faculties and who need to be fooled.
Incidentally, this is the very same routine that Madame Blavatsky (Madame Elena Petrovna Blavatskaya, née Hahn) the founder and chief guru of the Theosophy religion, used to convince her followers - who were also drawn from the wealthy and powerful - that she was divine. She regularly caused objects to "apport" for the faithful, and won disciples based on really sophomoric parlor tricks. She reigned in the mid-1800s, and did very well in the business.
There are even gushing accounts - from believers - of Sai Baba having performed medical healings, and of his having raised people from the dead, but his major and most advertised "miracle" is the production from his apparently empty hand of a substance known as "vibhuti" ("holy ash") which turns out on analysis to be powdered ashes of cow dung mixed with incense. Street conjurors in India (jadu-wallahs) perform this trick by preparing small pellets of ashes and concealing them at the base of their fingers, then working their fists to powder the pellets and produce the flow of fine ash. Their trick is indistinguishable from Sai Baba's miracle.... Like Christ, this man is said to have created enough food to feed multitudes, and to have "appeared" by divine means to his disciples in times of need. Documentation of this, however, is not readily available. What is available is a videotape of the guru clumsily trying to produce a necklace for a politician at a public event, fumbling about under a trophy he is carrying, and almost dropping the "apport" in a really sloppy performance. Despite the faithful trying to suppress this embarrassing tape, it is widely available.
At the age of thirteen, this cunning child declared himself to be the reincarnation of the revered Indian saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918. When he was asked to prove his identity, he threw a clump of jasmine flowers on the floor, which "arranged themselves" to spell out "Sai Baba" in the Telugu language. (This demonstration, too, is a standard "guru" trick, most recently used by magician David Blaine in a simpler variation to charm his street audiences.) So many pilgrims flock to Prasanthi Nilayam, the original ashram (a Hindu retreat area) established by Sai Baba, that an airstrip has been constructed near the sizeable town that has quickly grown up around the ashram. Into the shrine pour the largely middle-class, well-educated, family-oriented, folks who just cannot believe they've been fooled by a clever con-man. These aren't stupid people, just naive individuals with far too much trust in their ability to detect fraud.
This Sai Baba man claims that he is an instrument of the divine, and that he is omniscient, capable of seeing the past, present and future of everyone and everything. If so, his powers apparently failed to foretell for him the present scandal that has now developed around him. The principal event that takes place in the Sai Baba ashram is "darshan," a ceremony in which the guru emerges twice daily from his quarters adjacent to the main temple and walks among the thousands of devotees seated on the hard marble floor. Hands reach forward to touch his feet or to pass him letters of supplication. Occasionally he pauses, to offer a blessing or to "materialize" vibhuti for a supplicant. It is during darshan that Sai Baba, by some unseen criteria, chooses people from the crowd for private interviews. It appears that those chosen few persons are frequently attractive young men, who thereafter seem to develop an aversion to further selection by Sai Baba.
Recently, a committed adult English devotee named David Bailey, 46, was cautiously approached by students from the college who came to him alleging that they had been sexually abused by the guru. They asked, "Please sir, can you go back to England and help us." They were unable to tell their parents what was happening to them because they were afraid of being disbelieved, and they feared - quite rightly - for their personal safety. Dismayed by their allegations, Bailey severed his association with Sai Baba and began to assemble a dossier of evidence from former devotees around the world. This document became known as "The Findings," a chronicle of the reality behind the façade, the fakery, trickery and even the financial irregularities in the funding of several Sai Baba projects such as a water supply to villages around the ashram, and a hospital, often cited as evidence of his munificence. Regardless, Sai Baba has proved remarkably immune to controversy, the accusations doing little to dent the esteem in which he is held. All that, it appears, is about to change. Bailey's document The Findings recently found its way onto the Internet, where it has become the center of a raging debate about the guru.
All this is nothing new to B. Premenand, a prominent Indian Skeptic and my good friend, who has made a career out of debunking frauds like Sai Baba through his publication, The Indian Skeptic, and who very effectively duplicated the "vibhuti" trick and the other "materializations." Premenand points out that there have now been serious numbers of defections from Sai Baba groups throughout the West. In Sweden, the central group has closed down completely. Some devotees, however, express their total disbelief and denial of the accusations. "No," they say, "Sai Baba is God." One very prominent still-faithful follower in America says, "All I know in my heart is that Swami is the purest of the purest, and that everything he does is for the highest good of everybody. If other people feel something else, that's how they feel. It's a mystery to me, and that's how I'm leaving it. I just know in my heart what I've found." Sai Baba is quoted by the faithful as saying, "When doubt walks in the front door, faith walks out the back door. Keep your doors closed." Well, some doors are ajar...
I've said it before, and it's still true: no amount of evidence, nor the quality of it, will serve to un-convince the true believer. Their belief is something they not only want, they need it. Anil Kumar, Sai Baba's principal English translator, typifies this fact. Every great religious teacher, he says, has faced criticism in their lifetime. Such allegations had been leveled at Sai Baba since childhood, "but with every criticism he becomes more and more triumphant." Kumar considers the controversy "all part of [Sai Baba's] divine plan. It's a paddy field with husks around the rice. Eventually all the unwanted parts will go to leave the true substance inside." Jerry Hague, the American trustee of the Sai Baba operation, shares that view. Sai Baba, he says, would never respond or say anything about all this. "Why would he? That's the human way. That's not his way. You can try and write about this, but you won't be able to make any intellectual sense of it. Nobody can."
Well, I can. And I think you can. What really disturbs me about all this is that Sai Baba is not being criticized for his fakery, his cruelty to believers, his lies, his trickery and deception, but for his peccadillos - however harmful and reprehensible those are - that make more newspaper space and are "spicier" than his more far-reaching and criminal acts. We got Al Capone for income-tax evasion, not for murder, and faith-healer W. V. Grant went to prison for income-tax problems, too, not for swindling millions of dollars from innocent victims and removing them from medical care. Where are the priorities here? Frankly, I don't much care about Sai Baba's sex life, but I do care about the millions of people he's bilked, ruined, and betrayed."