In June, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi concluded her visit to Castro Valley as part of her annual U.S. tour. Thousands lined up in a staging area, were shuttled to a large warehouse, given vegetarian meals, allowed a glimpse of Ammachi on flat screen televisions, and permitted to buy Amma dolls and medallions, arranged in booths that were painted to signify the cause they represented: proceeds from Amma photos in the green booth went to support her environmental causes, and so on. The devotees heard her sermon (“Be good to your fellow human beings, protect the environment, love rivers”) and the persistent among them received the principal gift that had drawn them to Castro Valley: a hug by Amma, a chance to place the head on her shoulder, have her rub the back and whisper “love love love” or “daughter daughter daughter,” or something in Malayalam.
Concurrently with Amma’s tour, I inaugurated my annual hand-wringing ceremony, asking myself as I do once every year: What am I to do about all these gurus? After all, one does not even have to be an atheist to recognize imposture, but merely possess a scientific temper, one that tries to explain physical and natural phenomena on the basis of generally accepted scientific principles and, in the absence of such an explanation, refuses to believe in them. Should I grin and bear it while Sathya Sai Baba produces gold chains from his sleeves? Do I make no comment on the Art of Living courses, Ammachi’s hugs, or the hundred other babas and matas who will touch you with their feet, hands, tongues, tongs, poles, prods, and tridents?
Perhaps I had best keep quiet, for everyone knows that our gurus count prime ministers and presidents among their followers. We have heard of physics professors dutifully following Sai Baba to the airport in October 2007, when he was about to manifest himself on the moon. We know of CEOs who skip board meetings when the “call” comes from Ammachi. And we know, of course, that so many powerful people cannot be fooled at the same time, even less than they can be induced to part with their money without getting good value in return.
There was a time when I could summon atheistic outrage at any mention of Sai Baba, when news that the Vatican had “certified” a miracle by Mother Teresa—after a team of doctors had examined the “medical evidence,” no less—would leave me seething at the idiocy of the world. In the company of decent, intelligent people, I would be flabbergasted to find someone who knew someone who knew someone whose heart disease had been miraculously cured by Sai Baba. My disbelief would be met with wounded pride and, aware of having offended, I would ask myself: What is a person of scientific temper to do about all these gurus?
Now, I know the question has risen in many minds, and the usual answer is: Why do anything at all? The gods who walk among us, offering ashes, bananas and hugs, are harmless snake-oil salesmen. If, while peddling a useless product, they untruthfully extol its virtues, they are merely practicing the art of marketing. Which businessman would not? And any liberal will tell you that people are free to worship whom they want in a free society: Ammachi or armadillos. Besides, you never have to hear of the hullabaloo in Castro Valley if you don’t want to, so the foolishness around you does not exist unless you look for it. Sure, our godmen induce a collective retreat into infantilism, and discourage the notion that self-fulfillment can be achieved without surrendering your intelligence and common sense to a fallible human being, but they do not plan to fly planes into buildings. So let them enthrall those who would be enthralled, and let us thank God (if we are not atheists) that we are not the suckers in line.
Thus ends, usually, my annual hand-wringing ceremony, but this happy conclusion is becoming harder to reach with each passing year. My days of blissful isolation—when I could pretend that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was the guy who tugs at sitar strings—have ended with the internet. And mailing lists. And spam. And desktop publishing. And Facebook. And the “Aasthaa Channel” on television. The empires of our godmen have grown and are growing yet larger, harnessing the internet to such effect that it has become impossible to escape their benevolence, bestowed on you through posters and postings wherever you are, whatever you may be doing. An innocent lunch at Bhavika’s in Sunnyvale is now an Amma experience: she beams at you from a dozen posters, hugging, force-feeding bliss. Now, what is a person of scientific temper to do?
Although the God-fearing person certainly has more to fear from godmen and godwomen, the burden of “exposing” men like Sai Baba invariably falls on the shoulders of atheists. Their labors have resulted in dozens of books devoted to debunking his claimed miracles, which have resulted in hundreds of books debunking the debunkers. But of course, our atheists have chosen to fight the wrong battle. By studying Sai Baba’s claims and subjecting them to scientific analysis, they admit that there are two sides to the issue, each deserving examination. This is exactly what our godmen want.
Consider George Bush’s assertion in 2005 that students ought to be taught “intelligent design” alongside evolution so “people can understand what the debate is about.” As additional candy for liberals, he added, “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes,” thus elevating intelligent design to the level of a scientific theory, as if the entire scientific world had not already dismissed it as “creationism in a tuxedo.” Thus it is with Sai Baba. When a professor questions the claim that the baba is able to spontaneously manifest vibhuti, he has already proven the baba’s miracle. Indeed, each attack by the rationalist community serves to endear the guru to his followers. So, what is a person of scientific temper to do?
The scientific temper is quite debilitating when it comes to the art of protest. So, after considering grand campaigns and historic marches, I settled down to write a play, Mataji, which has been staged by Naatak. In the play, Mataji has a simple gift to offer to the world: a loving hug. Over two decades, she has traveled to 65 countries, hugging thousands in one sitting, sending them into raptures through the transmission of pure bliss that accompanies her hugs. Her followers on five continents no longer regard her as a mere guru, but as Krishna incarnate. Then, on her 16th visit to California, she confronts a devotee she cannot satisfy. Through him, she discovers much about her powers, and the world discovers much about her.
In the play, I have been careful not to launch a debate about Mataji’s claims and powers. Her fraudulence is never mentioned or discussed, because it is assumed. Like frauds everywhere else, she is a decent, intelligent, warm human being who uses her “gift” to good effect. Money donated by Mataji’s devotees is spent on her charities: widow ashrams, orphanages, tsunami relief, and earthquake recovery operations. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing, embezzlement, or tax evasion. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with Mataji’s operation at all, and we are repeatedly reminded that her activities “support many good causes.” This is the type of guru the play chooses to demonize, and it does so not by painting her as a charlatan—that she is—but by letting her be as decent as fraudulence will allow.
I do not know if the play will change minds. Those whose hearts flutter in Amma’s embrace have already taken leave of rational thought; it is unlikely that mere argument will shake their faith. I am also aware that Sai Baba and his type are fixtures in human civilization—his ancestors flourished before Kalidas had written Abhigyan Shakuntalam, and his descendants will be changing granite into candy long after Google is extinct, while the play … who knows what happens to a play? Perhaps the play will finally teach the person of scientific temper what to do about our gurus: Stop pretending that there exists an opposing point of view that deserves diligent analysis, and call a fraud a fraud, however fragrant the fraudulence, and however noble the cause it supports.
Mataji plays through August 9 in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Ramon. If you possess a scientific temper, or at least a sense of humor, more information about the play is available at www.naatak.com. If you possess neither, I have an unused token—number N23—for you, placing you 673rd in line to be hugged by Ammachi in Castro Valley.
Sujit Saraf is the founder and artistic director of Naatak, a theater and film company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article first appeared in Siliconeer.