Fundamentalist Arrogance and Foolishness  

Mehul Kamdar

A few weeks ago, an Indian teenager, Saurabh Singh, was able to fool India into believing that he had topped an international science exam conducted by NASA. The President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam is believed to have met him after he made his claim. The Uttar Pradesh state government and legislature awarded him half a million Indian Rupees and every legislator gave up a month�s salary to a fund for the boy. The boy�s story was itself farcical. He claimed (depending on which newspaper report one believes) to have stayed either at the Buckingham Palace or at a hotel in London, a city that he flew to on an Indian Airlines flight (the airline does not fly there) and took a taxi to Oxford University and back every day. The very idea seemed preposterous and yet Saurabh Singh got a lot more than his totally undeserved fifteen minutes of fame with his ridiculous claim.

This was not the first time that someone had gotten away with a massively fraudulent claim of this kind and managed to get the media�s fawning attention. Ramar Pillai, a fraud who claimed to create gasoline fuel from water by boiling a few leaves in it, still has his supporters especially the Swadeshi Jagran Manch convenor and Hindu activist, S Gurumurthy. One of India�s largest circulated magazines, The Week, carried a cover story on Pillai with the editors� visions of a future India that was a huge sheikhdom of sorts selling fuel made from common water to the rest of the world, despite several scientists professing their grave reservations about this fraud. In my own small way, I had a Letter of mine to the editor of The Indian Express published suggesting that this was a fraud that went far beyond Pillai, an attempt at selling organic solvents that were used to adulterate gasoline as fuel on the market. A few years later, the whole mess proved to be just that. And yet Pilla! i�s fan club did not let him down. S Gurumurthy would meet Director General of Police, D Mukherjee several times claiming that Pillai was indeed a �scientist� and not the swindler that he certainly was. While it would be fallacious to suggest that Gurumurthy was involved in this fraud, there is no denying that his judgement had been seriously influenced by his desire to believe in his religion and it�s scriptures. An otherwise successful investigator of several cases of corporate fraud, his need to believe in his religion had left him looking silly.

But then, if the President of India, a scientist himself, could be fooled along with the legislature of one of India�s most populous states by a charlatan, Gurumurthy, a believer in miracles and religious mumbo jumbo was definitely a much easier target. And therein lies a pattern that works not just with prominent names like President Kalam and S Gurumurthy but also millions of common religious people worldwide. The propagandists of religion have perfected the art of deceiving their followers and those who seek to combat this charlatanry do have their work cut out.

There have been even funnier incidents in the past. The Ganesha milk drinking episode, the monkey man hoax, and even earlier incidents like Maharshi Mahesh Yogi�s �flight� demonstrations which turned out to be jumping demonstrations - the list is long enough to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to fool most believers most of the time. And the media has invariable been a willing accomplice in this process, driven as it is to this in the rush to sell itself to it�s audience. Some years ago, the Times of India, on some festival at the Tirupati temple in south India, got itself some writer who claimed that according to some scripture, a dry branch that was thrown into the temple pond at some �auspicious� time would turn green. Had this been offered with a disclaimer, it would have been to the Times� credit. The newspaper was obviously focused on selling four colour pages as an advertising supplement and it allowed this complete nonsense in as an article probably as a perk to ! the advertisers. The fact also is that the Times had become just one more witting accomplice to those who would spread fundamentalism and foolishness among believers.

This foolishness among believers is something that comes out of the exclusivist nature of all religions. Every religion claims a monopoly on �eternal truth� and offers it�s followers �miracles.� Accepting a certain religion and it�s regulations, restrictions and teachings in toto guarantees rewards in life according to proselytizers who seem to have moved away from offers of an afterlife to people who are increasingly reluctant to believe in one. Dr Kalam as a Muslim Indian and S Gurumurthy as a Hindu are both religious people. Kalam has made no secret of the fact that he begins his day with a reading of the Qur�an and Gurumurthy�s harangues against Christians and Muslims on his website and the pages of the Indian Express are very well known in India. Both are extreme nationalists, too, and probably reserve a portion of their daily prayers for the country. Perhaps, it was this combination of religiosity and patriotism that left each of them anticipating a miracle in the two in! stances mentioned here. And whatever happened left both men looking like complete ignoramuses in each instance.

It is this same arrogance and smugness that permeates all religious fundamentalists. The recent Asian tsunami saw claims from Indonesia to India of religious structures having been �spared� destruction never mind that 200,000 people were killed. If a mosque survived in Aceh, there was talk about the San Thome cathedral surviving in Chennai, India and the Hindus found that the receding sea water had left one of 7 pagodas that had sunk in the sea some centuries earlier exposed in a half ruined form. To each of these religions it was a �sign� though what the sign was supposed to reveal is something that no one seemed to know. Even as far as religious matters are concerned, fundamentalism and ignorance do seem to go together.