I was delighted to read of the adventures of Sanal Edamaruku in India recently. I differ very significantly from Mr. Edamaruku in that he's president of Rationalist International, which appears to be an atheist organization, whereas I'm a Christian, a believer and a (now-retired) pastor: but I respect his (and everyone's) right to believe as they choose, of course. In this case I'll gladly acknowledge that he's done all of us a service.
Everything started, when Uma Bharati (former chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh) accused her political opponents in a public statement of using tantrik powers to inflict damage upon her. In fact, within a few days, the unlucky lady had lost her favorite uncle, hit the door of her car against her head and found her legs covered with wounds and blisters.
India TV, one of India’s major Hindi channels with national outreach, invited Sanal Edamaruku for a discussion on “Tantrik power versus Science”. Pandit Surinder Sharma, who claims to be the tantrik of top politicians and is well known from his TV shows, represented the other side. During the discussion, the tantrik showed a small human shape of wheat flour dough, laid a thread around it like a noose and tightened it. He claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. Sanal challenged him to try and kill him.
Needless to say, the tantrik's efforts failed miserably, despite repeated attempts and a second, extended program later that night. You can read all about it at the first link above.
I'm all for exposing charlatans of whatever "conviction", religious or otherwise. I've had my own run-ins with them as a prison chaplain. In the manuscript of my book on prison life I recounted the following experience. For your entertainment, and because it ties in neatly with Mr. Edamaraku's experience, I'll share it here.
Inmates will try anything to con, deceive and bend correctional staff to their will. It’s a never-ending process. All of us are trained to spot such approaches, but inmates have all the time in the world to think up new angles and try out different tricks. We can never be sure. That’s one reason why it’s important for those in the corrections field to constantly update one another on their experiences. One of us might not recognize a particular approach as being potentially risky, but it’s very likely that another person will have encountered or heard of something similar. Every year during annual refresher training particularly egregious cases are discussed so that all staff are aware of them. It’s the ultimate ‘con game’, and it’ll continue as long as there are convicts in prison.
Such attempts are by no means restricted to Correctional Officers. Anyone and everyone working in a prison is fair game. Intimidation, bribery, coercion, offers of sexual favors, attempts at blackmail - we’ve all experienced them. Chaplains come in for our fair share of them because we’re able to provide special privileges to inmates (extra phone calls to their families, approval to bring in personal religious property, arrangements for special visits at times of family crisis, and so on). I’ve been offered bribes, promised information, threatened . . . you name it.
One of the funnier incidents happened in another prison several years ago and involved a self-proclaimed Satanist and ‘warlock’. He tried to wheedle me into arranging a number of special privileges for him. I refused, of course - there were no circumstances under which I could justify them. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and tried threats. Those didn’t work either. (When you’ve been threatened by experts you get used to it very quickly - and he was no expert!) Frustrated, he finally promised he was going to see to it that I was ‘sorted out’, which I took to mean that he would arrange for some inmates to assault me when I was next on the compound. I discussed the threat with the authorities, who tightened up surveillance, and we waited.
It didn’t take long for word to reach us through informers. He’d bragged to others on the compound that he’d cast a ‘death spell’ upon me. He confidently prophesied that I’d be dead within thirty days. I grinned and carried on as normal. As time passed his predictions grew louder and somewhat more desperate as I continued to portray the picture of good health whenever I came to the prison. (I took care to walk around openly to demonstrate the fact.) As the deadline approached he became frantic and tried to bribe a prison gang to attack me. Unfortunately for him, gang leaders knew all too well that visiting Chaplains such as myself were their lifeline in the event of family problems. Some of them had needed such assistance in the past. They passed the word that any attack on any visiting Chaplain would meet with their vigorous and extreme displeasure. The inmates got the message loud and clear. The attempt fizzled, the deadline passed, and I was still alive.
This curse-casting cretin now had problems of his own. Not only had his credibility been shattered by my selfish refusal to fall down dead, but certain over-credulous inmates had taken his boasting seriously. They had apparently paid him considerable sums to cast ‘death spells’ on other convicts and staff whom they regarded as enemies. Since his curse against me hadn’t worked, they were now wondering whether their investment had been well-advised. Sure enough, the deadline for those deaths also passed without so much as a head cold amongst his intended victims. He ended up requesting protective custody in the Hole and was eventually transferred to another institution. There were too many angry inmates wanting their money back for him to dare show his face on the compound ever again.
(I trust the Lord will forgive my less-than-pastoral pleasure at his predicament . . . )