Last month, when Shyam Manav heard that religious leader Dhirendra Krishna Shastri was in Nagpur to perform “miracles”, the rationalist from Maharashtra decided he had to step in. “If he had not come to Nagpur, I would not have gotten entangled with him,” said Manav.

Shastri, the 26-year-old head priest of Bageshwar Dham, a temple near Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh, had shot to fame through televised “divya durbars”, attended by large numbers of people, where he claimed to “exorcise” spirits, diagnose illnesses without any medical tests, heal the sick, read minds and perform other “miracles”.

Manav challenged him to prove his powers at a public event.

The test he proposed was simple. Shastri had to correctly guess the names, phone numbers and other personal details of 10 people – just as he had been doing at his performances. The only difference – they would be people chosen by Manav.

If he succeeded, Manav would pay him Rs 30 lakh.

Shastri did not take up the challenge. He cut short his eight-day programme and left Nagpur. “He fled,” said Manav.

This was a familiar victory for Manav, a rationalist who has been working in Maharashtra for four decades, and who was the co-founder, with Narendra Dabholkar, of the state’s first anti-superstition organisation. “To let him go unchallenged would have sent the wrong message.”

Dhirendra Shastri with a devotee. Credit: Bageshwar Dham Sarkar via YouTube

A superstitious upbringing

As a child growing up in a conservative family in Wardha, Manav recalls, he was “andh-vishwasi”, or a superstitious person, like many around him. “I had a lot of faith in chamatkari babas like Shastri and their miracles and I believed that a human being can achieve ‘siddhi’ or attain enlightenment,” he said. “I also wanted such spiritual powers and that is why I followed such religious leaders.”

His father, who was closely associated with Gandhian philosopher and activist Vinoba Bhave, too, was a deeply superstitious man. “Religious leaders would try to draw him into their fold, just to see an increase in their followers too,” he said.

But it was as a college student and, later, as a journalist in the late 1970s, working at the Kirloskar Press in Pune that Manav began questioning his beliefs.

He was introduced to rationalist ideas by his editor and publisher Mukundrao Kirloskar as well as the work of Kerala-born rationalist Abraham Kovoor. His path also intersected with another Pune-based rationalist, Narendra Dabholkar, who was shot dead in 2013 allegedly by members of the Hindu supremacist organisation, Sanatan Sanstha.

In December 1982, Manav, along with Kirloskar and Narendra Dabholkar, started Maharashtra’s first anti-superstition organisation.

According to German ethnologist Johannes Quack, who studiedthe rationalist movement in India, particularly Maharashtra, Dabholkar and Manav later went separate ways.

Citing the research of historian Neeraj Annasaheb Salunkhe, Quack wrote that Manav’s organisation and the group Dabholkar later founded in 1989, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, were similar, except in one respect: Manav’s Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti did not disavow religion or god. “We are not opposed to any god or religion,” Manav told Scroll. “But we are against fraud or exploitation in the name of god.”

Shyam Manav places burning camphor in his mouth for a few seconds to prove it causes no harm, in this photograph from July 2002. Credit: Reuters.

In its early days, the organisation would target and name self-styled “godmen” who would claim miraculous powers and dupe their devotees.

Faced with a challenge, many of the religious leaders would then either feel compelled to prove their “powers” in front of their devotees or make a quick exit, said Manav.

Spreading the message of science in largely rural areas is often a daunting task. Manav found an ally in the anti-superstition teachings and traditions of the saints and reformers of Maharashtra’s Bhakti movement, and would often weave in the abhangas, or verses, of Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Gadge and Tukdoji in his interactions with villagers.

Many rationalists have had to pay a price for their advocacy of reason.

Apart from Dabholkar, rationalist and communist leader Govind Pansare was shot dead in Kolhapur in February 2015 while Kannada author and rationalist MM Kalaburgi was killed similarly in August 2015 in Dharwad. Manav said he, too, has received threats from the Sanatan Sanstha, a fundamentalist organisation accused of the murders, since the early 2000s.

“When people like us put an end to the crores of rupees worth of business of godmen, we are bound to face threats,” he said.

Manav’s challenge to Shastri has also resulted in death threats.

Mixing politics with religion

The run-in with Manav has done little to dent Shastri’s following. He continues to get flattering coverage from mainstream Hindi news channels, which air his views on anything from “Hindu rashtra” to religious conversion.

“No matter what others think, he knows that he has none of the powers that he claims to possess,” said Manav.

Powers or not, Shastri’s ballooning clout has clear political patronage. While the Congress reportedly played a part in his rise to fame, the BJP is looking to capitalise on it in the Madhya Pradesh state elections later this year.

According to The Times of India, Shastri’s event in Nagpur had the backing of a city-based businessman and a former BJP corporator. The invite for the event included the names of BJP ministers and MPs, including Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari.

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

Devotees at an event in Raipur. Credit: Bageshwar Dham Sarkar (Official) @bageshwardham/Twitter.

Manav is part of a state government committee to spread awareness and implement the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013.

“We thought about all these things and took a calculated decision to challenge Shastri,” he said.

Days after the row erupted, the Nagpur Police on January 25 said that Shastri had not violated any laws and that no offence can be registered against him, according to The Times of India. Manav had filed a police complaint against Shastri following the Nagpur “divya darbar”.

Manav disagreed emphatically, pointing out that the Shastri’s acts at the “divya darbars” are in violation of the central law, Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, as well as Maharashtra’s anti-black magic and superstitions act.

Manav contended that videos of Shastri at the “divya darbar” – in Nagpur as well – claiming to diagnose illnesses and treat them, despite not being a doctor, are sufficient proof of his culpability. “Despite this the police did not act,” he said. “So it is clear that there is political pressure on the police.”

‘BJP advocating superstition’

Maharashtra’s history of progressive and social justice movements, Manav said, has led to a fall in the stock of religious leaders who make tall claims.

It is also difficult, he said, for political parties to endorse superstition or take a stance against the “Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar” tradition. “Phule” refers to social justice and anti-caste activist Jyotirao Phule, Shahu to Kolhapur royal Shahu Maharaj, noted for several progressive policies, and Ambedkar to anti-caste icon and writer of the Indian Constitution BR Ambedkar.

In this case, however, the Maharashtra government has disregarded its own law, according to Manav. “They will have to explain. Is Hindutva about promoting blind faith?”

The rationalist said he took solace from the fact that the controversy has helped start a debate on whether religious leaders can perform “miracles”. “This is our aim – people should start thinking and questioning,” he said.

Dhirendra Shastri. Credit: Bageshwar Dham Sarkar via YouTube