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Genuine miracles or magic tricks? -- a personal experience

By Fabrizio the sailor ~

Genuine miracles or magic tricks?

The answer to the preceding question is often a matter of perspective, as the following story illustrates. My girl-friend Patricia and I had reached India from Italy in 1975, after an adventurous 10,000 km trip overland by camper. During our 6 months’ stay in India, once in the city of Indore, a city in Madya Pradesh, we paid a visit, which turned out to be a 15 days’ stay, to our friend Virendar Sing Babar, a very wealthy person belonging to the Sikh religion. Among his many other activities, he managed one of the family’s four steel factories. His education was remarkable, because, due to his father’s social position and wealth, he had had the privilege of attending a high school, before the university, where only four other students had been admitted: these had been selected because they were potential claimants to the “throne” of the state, while Virendar “ad honorem”.  I have mentioned these details to show that Virendar had the best education available in India, was a successful business man and, accordingly, was supposedly endowed with the best critical faculties to judge a fact or a situation. My opinion is that he indeed had a practical objective mind and was therefore the most suitable person I knew in India to fulfill a dream of mine: meeting a genuine holy man, a guru that was unanimously considered a saint and could give me a fair idea of the “powers” that Indian gurus traditionally display. At the beginning he was thoughtful and seemed to be reluctant, but, as I understood later, for none of the reasons I had anticipated in my mind: the reason was that he had heard a lot about a well-known nearby guru, but had not yet had the opportunity of visiting him. This holy man lived about twenty kms. from Indore.

Virender suggested, as a guide and translator, a person who regularly visited the guru once a month and spoke good English, besides the local language. The fame of the holy man was widespread; during festivals, he had allegedly regularly fed people by producing coconuts and fruits out of nothing, materialized gifts for some of his devotees and similar things; all of that, in my mind, entitled him to consideration as an “alter Christus”. He was also said to have read people’s minds in several occasions. In one of them, in particular, even with foreign tourists and, at a distance. He gave me, on his own initiative, a couple of astounding examples of prescience and telepathic powers which definitely convinced me that it would be worth, for that alone, to investigate the matter closely. In retrospective I can see that my ignorance, at the time, of the fact that all these “gifts” had always been traditionally attributed to magicians throughout history, made me go to visit him with an open mind even though I was going to use every bit of my critical faculties. I doubted that I would have witnessed any miracle but, the idea of proving the veracity of telepathy once and for all, was tempting indeed and , in a sense, it was in my powers to make it come true.

Should I prepare questions to test his telepathic powers? The occasion demanded it, so I thought I should formulate five questions to evaluate the telepathic powers of the guru in the event I would have been admitted to his presence. Aware that the occasion was unique, I had to devise a full proof test, where the random chances of receiving a correct answer would result as close as possible to nil. After 38 years, I do not remember all the five questions I wrote down; however, the first question was substantially the following:
"It is common knowledge that you have the gift of reading people’s minds? Is this so?"
 In case of a positive answer, I would have continued like that:
 "I am glad I am in the right place to learn something. I would be very grateful to you if you could read my own mind and tell me how many times I shifted into the third gear while driving from Indore to here”.
In retrospective, this appears to be a nasty question, but, after all, it was precisely through that very politically incorrect question that I was able to gain an insight on a few things that would have otherwise eluded my comprehension on one of the basic features of religion: fear.

The place was crowded with a multitude of people, many forming a long line and others buying garlands to be placed around their necks. The gentleman with us suggested that we too buy a garland, which we did, before getting ourselves into the line. After half an hour, we arrived in sight of the guru, a man of considerable girth, dressed in a very colorful attire, and sitting under a porch, probably of his own house, situated in the main square of the village. His assistant, not so brightly dressed but almost equal in size, was accompanying the utterances, prayers and chants of the guru with the loud sound of drums. Each person in the orderly, silent line, reached a position in front of him, stopped the necessary time for the guru to pronounce incomprehensible (to me) words and occasionally receive a small gift. On the two sides of the guru there were shallow baskets full of rice, herbs, holy ash, and a lot of “powders” of many different colors, as beautiful and appealing as those of the spices displayed by vendors on the markets throughout the country. Some other smaller baskets were barely visible behind his back. There was a palpable atmosphere of electric fervor; everybody was wrapped by it and taken captive: two out of the people in front of us were struck to the ground, as if by a lightning and filled with convulsions. There was no pretending here, as far as I could judge. I felt uneasy and almost considered renouncing to my first question. The guru was now pronouncing or reciting words at a very fast rate, moving hands up and down and on the side through the containers, and then joining them together as in prayer; all that at a considerable speed. The “distraction” of one more woman in trance, prevented me from understanding how the guru was able to materialize a nice ring in the open hands of a female devotee and apparently from nowhere. I had to be more attentive: thus I decided to disregard the guru’s right hand gesticulating in front of the devotee’s face, and concentrate solely on the movements of his left hand, whose side movements were visible from my standing place on the line. The guru was now picking up some rice from one basket and some gray powder from another; this went on for a while. Then, with a sudden movement, his left hand picked up something from a place almost behind his back: unfortunately I was not fast enough to see the contents of the container; that, of course, made me curious to see what he had picked up.

Would I have been able, later on, to figure out what he had picked up? Now comes the moment when the guru, with both hands joined as in the Christian act of praying, above the open palms of the devotee, ready to receive, starts pouring rice (possibly ritual rice) on those hands, followed by something else that I had seen him pick up; after that a gray powder, possibly ashes, starts coming down; so far so good: I had seen him picking up all these things. Suddenly, while the guru was uttering the loudest and most emotionally charged prayers, the gray powder turned into red: mystery solved: there is what he had furtively picked up from behind his back! The next woman in line, seeing that, was taken by a seizure: I guessed, even though I cannot prove it, that the guru must have “ demonstrated” to his audience that, possibly with the help of some spells to the deity in charge, he had turned the gray powder (ashes?) into red ashes (any possible connection with blood?) a miracle of which the guru and the devotees undoubtedly knew the meaning. The “comprehension” of the meaning of this miracle of transformation of something sacred into something else, even more sacred, caused a stir in the audience. I thought that this miracle, for those devotees, was at least as great as the transubstantiation of the Eucharist for Christians: perhaps greater, since, in the latter case, Christians do not see that transformation, but the Indian devotees were all witnesses that something great had indeed occurred! I had learned enough, and my first impulse was to get out of the line. However, after consulting Patrizia, we decided that we had to stay, if nothing else, out of respect for the white hair of our guide. He too seemed to be very impressed by what he had seen. Besides, I was curious to see the reactions of the guru to the questions I had prepared. Now I was almost feeling “entitled” to ask them. When in front of him, I greeted him and then turned towards our interpreter to listen to the translation of the words that the guru had uttered. “The foreigner has three questions“ he said. Actually I had five, but I nodded; I could not help thinking of how he was going to answer my “complicated telepathic questions” if he had already made a mistake in volunteering the number of questions. However, as disappointed as I was, I had no other choice but to go on. I asked the first question.

 That “daring nonsense” must have sounded like a lightening in a blue sky for our guide, who, at first, as it was to be expected, refused to translate: I do not blame him and I regret having placed him in an embarrassing situation. But I was young and impulsive, with a boundless enthusiasm and unrestrained eagerness to explore new frontiers. If I had had only a chance on a million to prove telepathy true, I was thinking, no stone must have been left unturned, in spite of the disappointing beginning. It was only on my insistence, that, eventually, the question was translated for the guru. His face turned red, his countenance altered and he was now uttering loud words:
 "The foreigner has come to test me!” 
 “In a sense, yes,” I replied “it would be very important to us to go out of here with a new insight about reading people’s minds”. 
The guru seemed to repeat the same words over and over again and some other words that were never translated. It was obvious that he had not expected such shamelessness on my part and, being unable to answer, or considering the question too futile, he refused answering. But his angered reaction “proved” he was unable to answer. I was smiling within, thinking of my exaggerated precaution, that had advised me, in the half hour from Indore to the village, NEVER to shift into the third gear a single time! Forget all the other “provocative” questions!

We stepped out of the line, while our interpreter stopped a little while in front of the guru, probably apologizing on our behalf, made his offerings and listened to what his spiritual teacher had to say. After that we walked back the 100 yards between the “open sanctuary” and the parking lot. Aware of a possible retaliation, the first thing I did when near the camper, was to check the tires. I was surprised to see they were all right. I was about to step on the driver’s seat, when our guest, who had remained silent a couple of steps behind me, drew my attention to something, silently pointing his finger underneath the camper. His face was pale and he had a look of fear in his eyes. I looked; I had to force myself not to laugh, when I saw a boulder just behind the front axle, semi-hidden by the left front wheel: possibly another “miracle” I thought. The boulder was huge and taller than the height of the axle. Almost matching in seriousness and in solemnity the expression of our frightened guest, in order to assess his reaction to the unusual occurrence, I dared ask him:
"When we parked, did you notice whether the boulder was there?”
 “Oh no, it wasn’t," was the answer, "otherwise we could not have parked here.”
 This was what I wanted to hear before going on with the next question:
"Do you think” I asked with caution, trying to keep the question impersonal, “ that somebody has placed the stone here or that it must have appeared by itself?” 
While I was scrutinizing his expression, that by now had changed from fearful to frightened, he answered:
"I do not know”. 
That was enough for me. I could go no further. I could not show further disrespect to this nice person whose religious fervor was literally shutting up his brain faculties. Unfortunately I could not exactly guess what he was thinking. Did he think that it was a miracle? Had he previously heard something that frightened him so much? Had he heard the guru’s threatening or “prophesying” of a divine punishment against us infidels? Was it the guru’s own initiative, or a “treat” to him by some of his faithful associate-apostles? While going back to Indore, I was reexamining the whole thing: on one hand I felt a little guilty for showing disrespect for our guide, much less for the impostor; on the other, I reasoned, it was precisely my boldness, my playing out of the rules, my being “politically incorrect”, that had provided me with a few important insights on the character of this religion, most of which can regularly be found in any religion:

ONE: The Divine Master, the guru, had used Magic, he had used tricks to convince the people that he was indeed the intermediary between them and the deity. In plain words, he was a deceiver. However, what is a trick for an educated person, is a miracle for simple unaware people. I had lived a situation very similar to the one lived by the two opposing parties that witnessed Jesus’ miracles. The first party, that of the devotees, illiterate and naïve, full of trust in somebody else because lacking of self trust, those who had showed dependence and trust in Jesus, could not once in a million have suspected that Magic was involved in the performance of “wonders” and “signs” and consequently be able to detect them for what they really were; that quite independently from the fact that a few of the healings might have genuinely occurred. The other party, composed of educated, self trusting and critical bystanders, who were able to detect the tricks and place them in the same category as those performed by magicians, could never bring themselves to believe that illusionism makes a performer of it divine! As my personal experience in India suggested, it is evident that not one of the people present there, at the same time as I was , would later say that he/she had witnessed only tricks; they did not have the mental, intellectual and cultural means to perceive them as such. Should some of them dictate a gospel about the guru, the net result would be descriptions of miracle after miracle. People like Celsus, Porphyry and Lucian, who exposed Christianity as a religion based on fraud, were silenced, and in the best of cases they had their books burned and were it not for their rediscovery during the Renaissance, we would have never heard of them. In other words; it is those who, unknowingly, have been deceived, and/or those who deliberately deceived, the ones who wrote the Gospels.

TWO: it is essential to understand that the ecstatic or convulsive trances, easy to explain as suggestion states that equally and pathetically occur also in our time, were mainly caused by the guru’s words and tricks, independently of the truth of the message; and there is a very strong possibility, almost amounting to a certainty, that most conversions were indeed caused only by the guru’s tricks. The message was secondary and its acceptation was dependent on the “divine powers” of the guru.

THREE :The flower garlands were certainly a juicy business and it seems logical to infer that the guru had a big revenue from it, in addition to the donations directly involved and part of the ritual.

India allows us to penetrate into a vision of life very close to that of the Jews in Jesus’ time, where reality and mythology, magic and religion, religion and spirituality could hardly be told apart.  FOUR: The aim of those people who placed the boulder near the fore axle of the vehicle, was to cause some damage, a damage that the “inexplicable, miraculous” appearance of the rock would have been understood as a just act of VENGEANCE on the part of the angry deity, to punish the infidels for their disbelief and audacity. Nothing new for religious systems , most of which are based on fear: fear of punishment, fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of hell, etc. and whose first aim has always been making proselytes, without which they cannot survive as institutions. And this was also supposed to be a mafia-type warning to stay out of their religious business, and never divulge what we had discovered about it. Disbelievers and heretics were treated with much less leniency in the long history of the Church. I couldn’t help imagining the guru explaining to his people about the “vengeance” of the God in charge towards the infidels, particularly in the case the boulder had been effective in causing real damage; however, even in the absence of damage, I suspect the guru found a way to capitalize on the incident to make more converts and revitalizing the faith of the old ones.

FIVE: a remark concerning my educated friend Virendar. When I related him the story, not without embarrassment for causing such a stir, I perceived that he felt equally embarrassed, for a different reason, though, as I was to understand later: he actually apologized for “sending us not exactly to the person I would have been interested to meet”.

SIX: There is a close parallelism between the story of the miraculous exploits of the guru, as told by Virendar, and the stories related by “witnesses” in good faith and later repeated by people who were not present; these people, like Virender, are not usually aware of an elementary fact: while they are convinced they believe in those miracles, what they actually believe is not the miracles themselves, but somebody’s NARRATION of miracles: two very different things. This is also the case of the evangelists of the gospels of the New Testament, unknown, anonymous writers who never witnessed Jesus’ miracles.

SEVEN;- This episode is emblematic because it shows the two different sides of the coin, two different perceptions, and consequently interpretations of “reality”. The judgment of the guru’s followers on one side, and mine on the other, perfectly match that of the two opposing parties in Jesus’ time. Morton Smith remarks: “Jesus the son of God” was the figure seen by that party of his followers that eventually TRIUMPHED ( the winners who “wrote history”); “Jesus the magician” was the figure seen by most of his opponents”(Jesus the Mag., vii). If well after the death of the Indian “holy man” a gospel will be written, we can be sure that his author will be one of those people deceived by his tricks. It is evident that there will be no chance that I may consider him worth as a founder of a religion.

India allows us to penetrate into a vision of life very close to that of the Jews in Jesus’ time, where reality and mythology, magic and religion, religion and spirituality could hardly be told apart. But we do not have to travel so far: in fact we find large pockets of society here in the Americas, particularly but not exclusively in underdeveloped countries, that share the same problem, i.e. a blurred distinction between reality and dream, miracle and science, between what is potentially possible and what is definitely forbidden by natural laws. On the other side of the world, in Morocco, during the eighties, a young man asked me whether the metamorphosis of the “Incredible Hulk”on T:V., was a real occurrence and if it was happening at the same time he was watching it! Television was relatively new technology, people had not yet acquired the experience of discriminating between fiction and, say, documentary films providing scientific info, and therefore were still debating the issue. That is due to a recent change of parameters the developing countries will have to adjust to, against a cultural background of centuries of incapability of telling reality from myth. A process of adaptation which might require centuries.