While many Indians believe in and rely on the cures and customs of godmen, others say they use gimmicks to cheat innocent people. Despite an anti-superstition law that has set fines and jail time for offenders since 2003, many people still expect the religious men to solve their problems.
“People travel long distances and spend [a] lot of money to visit goddess temples,” says Jayant B. Pandya, chairman of Bharath Jan Vigyan Jatha, an organization that aims to bring practical science to people throughout India, in part by turning them away from godmen.
Pandya wants to eradicate superstitions and fraudulent practices by giving scientific explanations for the supernatural claims and magic tricks that fake godmen use. He says he has exposed nearly 3,500 cases of fraud by godmen during the last 20 years.
When Gujarat, a state in northwestern India, was suffering serious drought, local godmen encouraged people to perform “yagna,” a Hindu ritul that involves burning wood and pouring ghee, a clarified butter, over a fire, Pandya says. Godmen told locals that when the fumes from the fire reached the gods, it would rain.
That is when Pandya and his team told followers to stop polluting the air with smoke and to feed the ghee to the poor instead.
“We told the organizers that rather than burning so much of ghee in the yagna and increase pollution, they can feed it to the poor,” he says. “We successfully stopped the yagna.”
Pandya tells people to follow their own role models, like their mothers and wives, instead of godmen.
“We tell them to regard the women in their house, their mothers and wives, as goddesses and respect them and keep them happy,” Pandya says. “They are the ones that take care of them throughout all times.”
India's anti-superstition law aims to protect people against blind faith, ignorance and "black magic" by godmen. In recent years, godmen have faced new scrutiny.
After a 23-year-old student was brutally gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi in late 2012, godman Asaram Bapu said the woman should have prayed to God to be released. His comments added to an already-furious national debate about sexual violence against women.
Other godmen have been accused of hoarding cash. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that godman Sai Baba's estimated worth at his death was about $10 billion. Godman Nirmal Baba, or Nirmaljit Singh Narula, has attained international prominence for advising disciples to stock their fridges with cold drinks or to eat panipuri, a popular street food, to cure health problems. The India Times reports that he is worth 2.38 billion rupees ($43 million), mainly earned from offerings paid by devotees. There are at least three recorded cases in which former disciples have sued Nirmal Baba for duping them with recipes for health ailments.
Pandya works to provide scientific explanations for godmen's "tricks," he says, such as showering money from the hand and producing various gifts from the air.
Pandya and his team have hosted hundreds of programs in schools, colleges and villages to educate people about the practices of fake godmen and godwomen. But the godmen and godwomen remain popular.
Pandya and his team have even endured physical attacks for their work.
“Once, we were attacked with acid,” Pandya says. “Other time, our vehicle was completely damaged. We faced many attacks on our lives.”
Pandya attributes the attacks to angry disciples. Their work also generates hostility because it causes godmen to lose followers. Pandya and his team of more than 500 activists learned martial arts to protect themselves.
“We have a very good team,” Pandya says.
Still, people here say that despite Pandya’s educational campaigns and media coverage of fake godmen, belief in their powers persists.
Spoorthi, 22, who says she doesn’t have a last name, is an Internet technologies professional in Bangalore, known as India’s Silicon Valley.
“Not only illiterate people but also literate people follow the fake godmen,” she says.
Raj Mohan, 52, runs a shop in Bangalore that sells items used in performing rituals and prayers often prescribed by godmen. He says faith leads to a thriving business.
He says people believe that performing sacred customs prescribed by godmen will make their problems go away. But even Mohan acknowledges that some local godmen are “fake and do such things for their popularity and money."
Despite the challenges of the work, Pandya’s team is determined to continue educating people here about the scams used by fake godmen. Pandya says he hopes he can persuade people to take a more practical approach to spirituality rather than fall prey to supernatural hoaxes.
“We tell people to regard their parents as gods and there is no religion other than humanity,” he says.