Indian Rationalist Exposes Superstitious Godman As Fraud

An Indian rationalist exposed a religious “godman” who claimed he could perform miracles in front of the public with a challenge the priest couldn’t take on.

Shyam Manav, a rationalist working in the state of Maharashtra in western India, heard about a religious leader named Dhirendra Krishna Shastri visiting the city of Nagpur to perform “miracles” last month. When he heard about it, Manav decided to step in and presented Shastri with a challenge.

“If he had not come to Nagpur, I would not have gotten entangled with him,” Manav said.

26-year-old Shastri is the head priest of Bageshwar Dham, a temple in Madhya Pradesh, a neighboring state of Maharashtra. He became famous for his televised “Divya durbars,” attended by large numbers of people, where he claimed he could “exorcise” spirits, heal sicknesses, read minds, and perform other “miracles.”

Manav challenged Shastri to prove his supernatural abilities through a public event. The rules of the challenge were simple. Shastri only needed to guess ten people's names, contact numbers, and other personal details, just like he usually did at his performances. 

The catch, however, is that Manav would choose the people the priest would need to guess. Had Shastri been able to take up the challenge and succeed, Manav would pay him 30 lakh Indian rupees, equivalent to more than $54,000.

But Shastri did not accept the challenge, and thus he cut his eight-day program short before leaving Nagpur.

“He fled.” Manav simply said.

While this wasn’t the first time the rationalist from Maharashtra “won” against religious leaders claiming to have supernatural abilities, Manv said: “To let him go unchallenged would have sent the wrong message.

However, the challenge did little to affect Shastri’s growing popularity. He continues to get favorable coverage from mainstream Hindi news channels. But more than powers, Shastri’s following has political patronage, as the ruling Hindu nationalist party, BJP, seeks to capitalize on his popularity for the local elections in Madhya Pradesh.

Shastri’s event in Nagpur was allegedly sponsored by a businessman and former BJP corporator based in the city, and many BJP ministers and politicians were invited to the event.

I knew that the organizers were from the BJP as well and that the police would not act either,” Manav said. “We considered these matters and that it would mean an entanglement with the BJP and the state government.

Despite this, Manav filed a police complaint against Shastri for violating federal law and a Maharashtra state law against black magic and superstition.

Manav argued that the videos of Shastri diagnosing and treating illnesses, even though he wasn’t a medical professional, were evidence of his guilt. However, Nagpur Police said that Shastri did not violate any laws and said no offense could be filed against him.

Born to a conservative Hindu family, Manav recalled believing in many superstitions and gurus himself until he went to college and met many people who introduced him to rationalism.

Since then, Manav founded an anti-superstition organization that challenged godmen who claimed to have powers. His challenges come at a time when India has become more conservative and religious under the ruling Hindu nationalist party BJP.

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