India is no stranger to headline-making miracles. A few years ago, statues of the Hindu elephant God Ganesha reportedly drank milk placed before them. But as reports of the supernatural spring up, groups of rationalists in India have made it their job to disprove them. Sanal Edamauku is the president of one group called Rationalist International.
Last March, when water began dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus in Mumbai, Edamauku visited the site to investigate the claim.
His investigation has infuriated some Catholic groups and leaders in Mumbai, and led to a larger debate about secularism in India.
Sanal Edamaruku is a devout rationalist. He believes that all phenomena can be explained by science. Edamaruku has taken it upon himself to travel around India disproving miracles. In 2010, on live television, he challenged a tantric who claimed he could kill a man with one look. He survived.
But Edamaruku says it's not just about theatrics, miracle men and superstitions are a deep problem in India.
"The problem is, unlike the small superstitions, like people being afraid of a cat crossing their way, in India, superstitions have a deeper impact," he said. "It's making them weak, and it's blinding them."
He points to many cases where people worry they've been the victim of witchcraft and actually kill the people they believe have cursed them.
I met Edamaruku three years ago in Delhi. But this time, we spoke over Skype, because he has decamped to Europe, for "an extended lecture tour." Few believe he'll be giving all that many speeches. Edamaruku faces jail time back home.
So what happened?
The controversy began in a sleepy backstreet in a middle class neighborhood of Mumbai, with a 12-foot tall statue of Jesus. It is pretty conventional: thin body, fallen head, stigmata on the hands and feet highlighted in bright red paint.
"This cross was built in thanksgiving by parents of AM Dias after his birth in 1873," said Gordon Jacobs, president of a Catholic organization in Mumbai. Eight months ago, in March, a Hindu woman who cleans the statue noticed water dripping from the feet. She spread the word and soon the place was packed.
Church leaders say they never claimed it to be a miracle. But newspapers were filled with headlines like "Mad Rush to See Jesus Miracle."
A local TV station called up the "mythbuster," Edamaruku, to get his opinion on the phenomenon. He responded, characteristically, that such a miracle was impossible.
The Catholic groups insisted that he come investigate. So he went. And he looked.
It's not surprising that the Catholics didn't like what he found.
On a national TV program, Edamaruku explained that a wall behind the statue was damp with water and algae. He figured the water source was likely a sewer line running close to the cross. And that was the so-called miracle.
In that televised discussion, which included the Archbishop of Mumbai, Edamaruku went further. He accused the church of being anti-science and mocked the Pope for condoning exorcism.
Archie Sodder was part of the TV debate. He is a lawyer and a Catholic. He said they asked Edamaruku repeatedly to apologize for the comments he made on air about the Pope and the Catholic Church, but he refused.
"We gave him an open opportunity to apologize for what he did," Sodder said. "The telecast was being watched live by millions of people. We gave him an opportunity; we told him 'apologize in true Christian style,' which he refused. Therefore we had no option but to lodge the complaint."
Two complaints were lodged under law 295 A — commonly called the "Blasphemy Law." It's an old law from the time of the British Raj, to punish anyone who, 'deliberately and maliciously attempts to harm the religious feelings of another.' It was created to prevent religious fighting and intolerance. But it's often used to quash religious dissent.
John Dayal, former President of the All India Catholic Union, which represents some 16 million Catholics in India, said in this case, the law is being misused.
"He has a right. He is a fanatic atheist, and a fanatic rationalist, but that is he," Dayal said. "I think India needs its rationalists. They are the pinpricks that keep us on our toes. They are the ones that show a mirror to the society. Rationalists are not questioning faith; they are questioning blind faith. They are questioning fake miracles; they are questioning sleight of hand. Real faith doesn't require all these things."
But the lines have been drawn. The complaints are being investigated by the police and the Catholic organizations remain stalwart. Catholics make up only 2 percent of the 1.2 billion people in India.
Edamaruku said he is not singling out the Church. Rather, denouncing miracles and disproving superstitions is his life's work. And over the past 30 years, he has attacked almost every religion and spiritual leader in India, including the phenomenally popular Sathya Sai Baba, whose followers have included presidents of India. This is the first time a case has been lodged against him.
"I never ever believed that such a thing would happen in India. I never, ever though that doing something to promote scientific temper and educate people against superstition would be taken as a crime in India," he said. "That's a serious setback in the whole process of our growth in India."
The Catholic Church in Mumbai has released a statement saying they are not complicit with the complaints filed against Edamaruku. Though the Archbishop has reiterated that he should apologize and the complaints dropped.
Edamaruku remains in Europe on his 'speaking tour,' which he says will last until he can be assured of his safety.
Water dripped from the feet of this statue of Jesus in Mumbai, India. The dripping only lasted for about five days. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)
Sanal Edamaruku, the rationalist, paid a lot of attention to the feet of the statue. He believes water was traveling up the cross and along the nail to the feet through capillary action. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)