Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku Is in Exile for Fighting Superstition
Sanal Edamaruku (in white shirt) during a miracle-busting campaign in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Photo courtesy of Sanal Edamaruku.

How Trying To Stop India’s Superstitious Killings Ended in Exile

Human sacrifice, particularly that of minors, has been prevalent in many parts of India for a long time.

On Jan. 25, a couple in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh allegedly bludgeoned their daughters to death under the misguided belief the two women would arise from the dead.

Aside from the crime’s sheer brutality, what caught everyone’s attention was the relative wealth and education of the perpetrators. The husband, V Purushotham, was a chemistry professor while his wife, V Padmaja, was a mathematician at a corporate school in Chittoor city.

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Around 4000 miles away in Finland, Sanal Edamaruku, president of Indian Rationalist Association, was less surprised. 

Sanal is an academic expert in superstitions around the world, which he attempts to remedy via lectures, workshops and his written work.  

In Edamaruku’s experience, parents who sacrifice their children are somewhat common.

“These are shocking stories, but superstitions take people to dangerous depths. They harm themselves and others,” Edamaruku told VICE World News.

Edamaruku said when he heard about the professor couple in Andhra Pradesh, he was reminded of the first case he probed in 1988 in northern India’s mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. A couple beheaded their eight-year-old son after a mystic told them that human sacrifice would unearth gold hidden on their land. Those parents, too, believed that they had powers to revive their dead son. “They decided their son died because they incorrectly performed the ritual and not because of the ritual itself,” he recalled.

Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku Is in Exile for Fighting Superstition

Portion of the statue of Jesus Christ in Mumbai where water started trickling down in 2012. Photo courtesy of Sanal Edamaruku​.​

Over the years, Edamaruku discovered that superstition transcends class, caste and religion. In fact, he saw a pattern: rich people are more likely to be superstitious as they have more to lose. “Plus, money also gives you the confidence that you'll get away with the crime," he said. 

Prevalence of Child Sacrifice in India 

Human sacrifice, particularly that of minors, has been prevalent in many parts of India for a long time. More than 85 kids, all under 13 years, were ritualistically murdered in the country in the last six years, per government data. Last year, there were 14 cases of parents or relatives sacrificing or attempting to sacrifice children on the advice of a sadhu (holy man). 

In November 2020, two such cases appeared in the headlines. Alam, a man in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was arrested for murder because he believed that sacrificing his 10-year-old daughter would unearth buried treasure. The same month, police arrested two brothers in the northeastern Indian state of Assam for attempting to murder their kids on the advice of another holy man. 

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These are two well-publicised examples of superstitious murder, but in a country where  60,000 kids are reported missing every year, it’s unknown just how many disappear at the hands of their parents.

“When you look at the ages at which these kids go missing – before puberty – one cannot rule out sacrifice or superstition-based killings,” said Edamaruku.

Dogma is part of the reason why human sacrifice is deep entrenched in some cultures. “ It's in our ancient texts," Edamaruku said. “Several ancient texts prescribe human sacrifice to attain wealth, status, and better crops.

Fight irrationality at your own risk

In India, publicly denouncing superstition can be fatal. In 2013, Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, a Mumbai-based rationalist and author was shot dead by two masked gunmen. Investigators say that the same hardline right-wing group was responsible for killing Dabholkar, fellow rationalist MM Kalburgi, and journalist Gauri Lankesh. 

Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku Is in Exile for Fighting Superstition

Mourners pay their respects over the casket of anti-superstition and black magic campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed by gunmen on August 20, 2013. APF photo/STR.

A lack of laws compounds the problem, except in states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra which have outlawed black magic and superstition.

Edamaruku himself has faced the wrath of believers when trying to downplay the seemingly divine. In 2012, water started dripping from a statue of Christ in Mumbai. Soon, people began flocking to the church to drink the allegedly-holy water. But Sanal discovered that a drain behind the wall on which the statue was mounted was overflowing. “It was just bad plumbing,” he concluded.

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Within a week, the Indian catholic church filed three police complaints against Edamaruku for blasphemy. He was then questioned by police who wanted him to apologise.

Soon after this controversy, Edamaruku left for Helsinki to deliver a lecture. He did not return to India, and now runs a publishing company in London and Finland. “When I am sure that I am safe in India, and my freedom to speak is not curtailed, I'd like to come back.” 

Miracles and mass hysteria

More than stories of individuals, it is mass hysteria that leaves Edamaruku dismayed, such as when statues of the elephant-deity Ganesh drink milk or when a battery of police was dispatched in New Delhi to catch a mythical “monkey man”. Edamaruku was one of the critics who explained both the phenomena scientifically. “The sheer number of people who believed in these so-called miracles makes them my most shocking cases thus far,” he said. 

Edamaruku’s work has taken him to some of the most animated, bizarre and wacky personalities in the country. He exposed Pilot Baba, a holy man, who announced that he could survive underwater for five days. When he challenged a godman named Nirmal Baba during a live TV broadcast, his followers stood outside the studio to attack Sanal as he left. “I got death threats,” Sanal said.

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It has been eight years since Edamaruku left India, some stories continue to haunt him. For example, Manchulu Murmu, an occultist in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, who confessed to having eaten the three-year-old child of a farmer. “Hom, homkhaili (I indeed ate),” Murmu told the police, bragging that he’d also eaten his son to gain powers. 

“These cases weigh on me. It is often difficult to sleep, remembering them,” said Edamaruku.

 Follow Avantika Mehta on Twitter.