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Premanand

At 71, B Premanand is the oldest member of India’s International Brotherhood of Magicians and its youngest at heart. "I already have nine years of bonus," he laughs, "as the average mortality rate in India is 62." This is despite the several attempts that have been made on his life over the years - which say something about the kind of magic that Premanand performs. For while other members of the group are hobbyists, Premanand's mission is more ambitious - to expose any man who pretends his magic tricks are miracles.

To this end he has spent nearly 50 years touring Indian villages, drawing crowds of people by demonstrating how "miracles" are performed. "See these scars," he says, pointing at one on his nose, and another on his lip. "These are from stones, thrown by the followers of one guru whom I exposed as a fraud. He used to walk on water - until I made sure he fell in."

India is a haven for gurus, yogis and godmen, all making easy money from the most ludicrous claims. "There are even godmen going about with cups and balls, pretending they are performing miracles," Premanand says. His recent opponents include a 600-year-old man, a yogi who had not eaten for 45 years, and a man who claimed that even the flowers bowed down to him. They were all eventually shown to be frauds, although the last should be applauded for his ingenuity - he was spraying the flowers with anaesthetic. In Premanand's view, the godmen share one goal - to make money by false means. "There was one guru who went from village to village, building huge bonfires. He would invite everybody to throw their gold pieces into the fire, then he would pull out a big silver statue of Ganesh. This was seen as a miracle by local people who didn't know better. In fact, it was nothing more than a simple trick to make ignorant people part with their jewellery."...

After the afternoon's performances, we head off to eat dinner and watch magic videos at Kannur's Chinese Roof Garden. It's been a long day, and most of the magicians flop into their chairs looking exhausted. Premanand, by contrast, embarks upon the story of his life, demonstrating the kind of energy that has propelled him around almost every village in India, and driven him to make 7000 speeches, write 36 books, travel to 27 countries and train thousands of young magicians. That energy has also enabled him to fulfil joint roles as head of the Indian Rationalists Society, president of the Committee for the- Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CS1CP), and editor of the Indian Skeptic. All his efforts have but one goal: to arm the public against fakes and frauds.

My mission began only when I found that I, myself, had been deceived by godmen," he says. I was a great believer, you see, and from a young age I really wanted to know God." At the age of 18, he left home in search of a guru. "I went everywhere looking for God, from Hindu temples to Buddhist monasteries. I followed many gurus and practised all the 300 yoga sidas."

But, somehow, Premanand failed to find convincing spiritual guidance, despite the fact that each of his gurus could perform miracles and was well-known for his holiness. First came a Bengali called Auro Bindo, from Pondicherry. Next he followed Rama Na Maharisha. "He believed he was atma', or the soul." Third was Rama Krishna Paramahansa. "I liked him for his social work. He believed we were all gods, and had 13 disciples. Years later, I met the last disciple left alive who confessed it was all a scam." Fourth came Shiva Nanda, who taught kundalini yoga, and had diabetes. "One day I asked him how he could be ill when he was a godman. Like all the others, he replied, 'Don't ask questions’."...

Premanand and his brother Dayanand were brought up in a small house in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state. "From a young age, our theosophist parents encouraged us to be outspoken; we once had an official five-day family debate about right and wrong. The conclusion was that there is no right or wrong, only relatives."

His parents took the unorthodox view that all religions were the same. When it was time to enrol Premanand at the local school, they refused to fill in his religion or caste on the application form. It was the start of a rebellious school career, at the end of which Premanand was thrown out for joining the student movement for independence. When a teacher came to his house asking Premanand's father to beg for a pardon, he refused on the grounds that his son had done nothing wrong.

Instead, from the age of 12, Premanand was given an imaginative schooling at home. His father had a laboratory in the garden shed which he used for concocting products for his various soap and ink manufacturing businesses. "One day, I broke my father's thermometer, so I hid it on an aluminium plate under my bed. When my father found out, he ordered me to wash the plate vigorously. But, when I did, a frothy grey substance appeared." Later on, Premanand was to find that this is how Sai Baba produces "vibhuti", or holy ash from the photographs of himself...

He still publishes Indian Skeptic and replies to around five letters a day. "People write asking how such-and-such a miracle is done," he says. "I must write back and explain."

Increasingly, these letters are from children complaining that their parents follow godmen and asking advice on how to dissuade them. Premanand believes this shows the success of a recent drive to educate the young. "Adults are so stuck in their superstitious ways, that when I expose one godman, they turn to another," he says. "Children are different."

When the Fiesta is over, Premanand heads off to Calicot with his brother and his newest devotee - me. We spot some children buying drinks from a roadside stall, and Premanand insists on jumping out for a quick demonstration. Within minutes, he is ushered into the schoolyard by teachers wishing to know his business, and invited to perform. The children jostle to see, as Premanand begins producing holy ash.

Suddenly there is a heated argument among the teachers, and Premanand is asked to leave. As we drive off, the children run after the car, trying to get a last glimpse of the bearded man. "I will come back this time next week," he shouts from the window, "I will be outside the gates." Speeding off, he turns: "You see, every minute of my life is an adventure. How can I stop?"

Beatrice Newby (2000). "Miracles don’t happen". London: The Independent on Sunday, 24th December, 2000, pp. 4-8.
Extracted with permission.
Copyright The Independent on Sunday, 2000

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