Godman is a colloquial term used in India for a type of charismatic guru. They usually have a high-profile presence, and are capable of attracting attention and support from large sections of the society. Godmen also sometimes claim to possess paranormal powers, such as the ability to heal, the ability to see or influence future events, and the ability to read minds.
The origin of godmen and their popularity today can be traced back to the guru–shishya tradition of Hinduism. Godmen are revered as special human beings and often worshipped by their followers. Some godmen come from established schools of spirituality, but often they don't belong to any religious order. In Hinduism, there is no centrally established religious authority, so people tend to follow such charismatic personalities. These gurus tend to live in their own ashrams. Many of these godmen acknowledge having had a guru themselves, as per the guru-shishya tradition. In recent years, many godmen have gained followers outside of India, which has increased their fame and wealth.
Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011) was a notable godman with a very large following. He was known for alleged miracles like materialising sacred ash (vibhuti), and other objects like watches and jewels. He was also involved in charitable works, which include a hospital and a university.
There are also female gurus who are considered divine and are revered by their followers. Some of them are spouses and collaborators of notable male gurus. Female gurus who are considered to be divine or saintly by their followers include Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973), Anandamayi Ma (1896–1982), Mata Amritanandamayi (1953–), and Mother Meera (1960–).
Although few godmen have allowed their powers to be examined scientifically, Swami Rama became famous by participating in the biofeedback research conducted by Elmer Green at the Menninger Foundation around 1970.
Several godmen have found patronage among politicians and other high-ranking officials. Sathya Sai Baba had several devotees in the political field. They include BJP leader L. K. Advani. In 2001, an official letter was issued that defended Sai Baba against accusations, the signatories included then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Chief Justices P. N. Bhagwati and Ranganath Misra, and former Union Minister Shivraj Patil.
In 2006, Ravi Shankar was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by US Congressman Joseph Crowley. In June 2007, former President of India Pratibha Patil claimed to have had a visitation from Dada Lekhraj (1876–1969) giving her the premonition of her nomination as the President.
In September 2013, Shobhan Sarkar claimed to have dreamt of gold buried under the palace of Rao Ram Baksh Singh, a 19th-century chieftain. One of his disciples contacted Charan Das Mahant, then the Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, who in turn convinced various other officials. Later, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted surveys of the site on 12 October and announced an excavation on 15 October. On 18 November 2013, after finding no signs of gold ASI stopped the excavation and began filling up the trenches.
Skepticism and debunking
The Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations has organised seminars showing how the so-called miracles are actually performed by sleight of hand. Members of the Indian Rationalist Association travel to villages across India and perform shows to debunk the miracles, educating villagers to prevent them from giving money to godmen. Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti and We The Sapiens are also actively engaged in exposing false claims of spiritual gurus.
Common miracles and explanations
- Levitation of a person under a blanket: The trick is done by lying on the floor covered by a blanket and slowly raising oneself using two hockey sticks.
- Levitation of a person holding a stick: In this trick, the person appears to be floating above a mat supported only by bamboo stick held in his hand. The hollow bamboo stick and performer's robes contain a bracket which supports the person's weight and a rod runs through the bamboo and is anchored hidden under the mat.
- Making rocks explode by sprinkling holy water: The rocks have sodium crystals embedded in them, which reacts to ordinary water and expands rapidly.
- Creating fire by pouring ghee on wood: The wood pile contains potassium permanganate. It reacts to the glycerine, which is passed off as ghee and catches fire.
- Fire eating or carrying flames on palm: A cube of burning camphor can be held safely for a few seconds, by practice. It can also be held on the tongue. If the camphor becomes too hot, the performer exhales and closes the mouth, putting off the flame.
- Walking on burning coals: There is salt sprinkled on the coal which draws moisture; or the performer has wet his feet, forming a layer of dirt on them. If the performer walks quickly, he will not get burned.
Sanal Edamaruku performing a levitation trick.
Criticism of the term
François Gautier has opposed the usage of the term godman to describe Shankar and Sathya Sai Baba. He has pointed out that Shankar's organisation, the Art of Living, has done much social work.
- Charismatic authority
- Global Baba, a 2016 movie
- List of prizes for evidence of the paranormal
- One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge
- Superstition in India
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By far the most famous Godman of today is Sathya Sai Baba.
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I first came in contact with him shortly after my incarceration in the Bangalore Central Jail during the 1975-77 Emergency. After that I have been meeting him frequently.
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