Miracles with fire

Narendra Nayak

Secretary, D. K. Rationalist Association    

Fire has had the fascination for man from time immemorial. We can say that civilisation of mankind began with the discovery of fire and cooking. Fire can be useful as well as destructive. For whatever purpose it may be used, man has not lost his awe for fire. So, if one demonstrates that fire does not burn him or her, others will have to come to the conclusion that that person has supernatural powers. This gullibility of man has been exploited by charlatans, quacks, pseudo scientists and those of their ilk. The so called miracles performed with fire vary from performing arathi with lit camphor on one's palm to dancing or walking on embers. It may vary from plunging one's hand into molten lead to licking red hot iron implements. The scenarios in which so called miracles are performed may be a 'bhootha kola' in a remote village to a five star hotel. From a Moharrum procession to a 'coming of age ceremony' in an African tribe. How can so called miracles be performed? Let us analyse them. One of the most common type is performing arathi, with lit camphor on one's palm or the tongue. Firstly, one has to examine the camphor that is used. A thick piece, about 5 mm in thickness, is used. It is placed first on one palm and lit. When the camphor gets hot, it is transferred to the other. When it gets too warm for either of the palms, it is placed on the tongue and the mouth closed when it gets extinguished! Here, one makes use of the few well known properties of camphor. One is that camphor is a unique substance which sublimates - that is, it passes directly from the solid to vapour state - there is no in term-ediate liquid state. SO-, there is no danger of the melted camphor running down one's palm or the throat! The camphor being a good insulator takes some time for the heat to pass to the lower portion. This particular 'miracle' with camphor has a number of applications! In parts of Karnataka, if a person shows any signs of mental illness, spirit possession has to be ruled out! That is done by placing a piece of lit camphor on the palm of the patient. If the skin is burnt, it is assumed that there is no spirit possession and the patient is taken for psychiatric treatment. As one head of the units at National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences put it: "We have to first treat the burn injuries and then treat the mental illness! Quite a few godmen have 'come up' in life by starting their career with this simple trick. One of the well known examples is a Satya Narayana who was a daily wager in the post office, who one fine morning woke up and called himself as Ganapathi Satchidananda Swamy! He has now built a huge ashram at Mysore and specialises in numerous types of quackery! Not to be left behind, some of the Bhootha Darshana pathries of our district perform the same! In 1977, when Dr.A.T.Kovoor, the eminent rationalist of Sri Lanka, had thrown challenges to godmen, one godman from Kerala had challenged him to perform arathi with lit camphor on his palm! We, the rationalists, trained hundreds of our grass root level workers to do that and challenged the changeller to do arathi, placing the camphor on his long flowing beard !Because our contention was that anyone could keep a lit camphor on the palm but, if someone could keep it on his beard, we would consider that one a miracle! In DK, we have a ritual called 'Deetige Deepina' The oracle, possessed by the spirit, takes a burning torch and touches his body with it. No harm is done because they say the spirit which possesses the oracle protects him from the fire. The fact is that there is no need for any spirit to protect the oracle.

What is done is that the torch touching the skin is moved slowly. It is well known that moving fire does not burn! Besides, the torch burns wild vegetable oils which are not volatile, their calorific value is lower than mineral oils. So, what appears to be a miracle is not! One of my close friends, who is a doctor and an unbeliever, used to be abused by the family spirit during its annual ritual. So, to take revenge, my friend bribed the oracle's brother with the help of a bottle of liquor and asked him to embrace the oracle tightly when he does the ritual of "Jeetige deepine'. The brother, fortified with spirits of the organic variety, tightly embraced his sibling possessed by the spirits of the nether world! Finally, the oracle ended up in the hospital with second degree burns! After making enquiries, he came to know the reason for his injuries and after that stopped abusing my friend! The very same principle of moving fire not burning is made use of in fire walking. Here, the spirit possessed walk over glowing embers. Their feet do not get burnt or they claim that the spirit which possesses them offers them protection from fire! This is due to what is called the Liedenfrost effect, named after the scientist who first described it. When wet skin comes into contact with a heated surface, the water vapour formed acts as an insulating layer for a few seconds. Within these, one would have passed over the fire. So, fire walking is no miracle. Anyone can do it. Fire walking is passed off as a miracle in quite a few situations, societies and cultures. In Dakshina Kannada, the oracles, possessed by spirits, walk and dance on glowing embers. They make their devotees walk on them also! As a part of Moharram celebrations, fire walking is performed. In many tribes coming of age ceremonies involve a fire walk. In the west, many weekend self improvement courses end with a fire walk. In Ramayana, Seetha had to do a fire walk to demonstrate her purity! So, we can see that this so called miracle is not confined to any culture, country, religion or civilisation. Many have discovered this phenomenon independently and made use of it! In fact, its exposure has been quite useful. In a remote village of Bijapur district, a sadhu appeared one fine day and started performing miracles. On an auspicious day, selected by him, he claimed that he would do a fire walk and demonstrate his divine power. On the appointed day, a fire was made and the embers spread out for him to perform a fire walk. However, at that time, one of the people, at the spot, who had read my book on exposure of miracles, knew that fire walking was not a miracle. So, before the sadhu could walk on the embers, our man walked across! He told the assembled crowd, that fire walking was not a miracle and the sadhu was a fraud! The miracle man was duly thrashed, tied to a tree and unceremoniously thrown out of the village! Fire walking is also practised by the devotees of Ayyappa Swamy! They perform a fire walk to show their devotion. For the devotee, fire walk is virtually a cake walk because they walk bare foot for nearly a month during their period of fulfilling the requirements for a visit to Shabarimalai. So, one can be sure that all the so called miracles with fire are no miracles at all! In fact, we have challenged those who claim that they can walk on fire by divine power to stand on glowing embers for 30 seconds. If their feet do not bum, we would believe that they really have supernatural powers! Sadly, to this date, none who claim supernatural immunity to fire have come forward to accept this challenge!


Prof Nayak is the Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the Centre for Basic Sciences, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore. He is known for his contribution in the field of rationalism. Since 1976 he has been the Secretary of the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association. He is also the Joint Convenor of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Organizations, which is an apex body committed to the development of scientific temper and humanism in the country.