Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Gareth Harvey
It's a land steeped in superstition and for thousands of years Indians have revered the otherworldly and the fantastical.
But that's made them easy targets for self-proclaimed gurus eager to make a quick rupee.
Right now, a million or so of these spiritual shysters are peddling their trade across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. They spruik miracle cures and perform seemingly impossible feats of magic, charging extravagantly for their dubious services.
They've always done a brisk business that is, until the guru busters came along.
ALLISON LANGDON: A remote village in central India. A travelling guru is weaving his magic. A fire starts spontaneously, apparently sparked by the guru's awesome powers. The villagers are spellbound. Little do they know the only genuine thing about this guru is his wicked grin. This holy man is really an undercover agent. His mission – to prove to this crowd that the mystical powers of the gurus they worship are nothing but cheap, sideshow tricks. He's one of the Guru Busters – dedicated to exposing India's thousands of spiritual shonks and shysters.
NARENDRA: India is basically a country where the technology is that of the 21st century but the mindset of the people is in the 16th century.
ALLISON LANGDON: Spiritual enlightenment has always been a big earner in India, giving rise to the likes of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh and his fleet of Rolls Royces. Much-loved guru, Sai Baba made five billion dollars from his ability to conjure holy dust out of thin air. It was a basic magic trick but when he died, India mourned with a state funeral. How did you feel about the national reaction, that outpouring of grief when Sai Baba died?
NARENDRA: Sick. A person who has been exploiting people all his life – being honoured like a national hero, what a tragedy.
ALLISON LANGDON: Professor Narendra Nayak is a leading Guru Buster, exposing the frauds who make themselves rich off a population where nearly half live under the poverty line.
NARENDRA: They're swindling people, they're exploiting people, they're misleading people. That's all they're doing.
ALLISON LANGDON: Gurus use every trick in the book to convince their followers that they are more than mere mortals. From holy parrots that promise wealth and long life to gruesome feats of physical endurance. But they are nothing but tricks. The challenge for the Guru Busters is to prove that to a population raised to believe in miracles. Belief in the supernatural and the magical power of gurus – alive and dead –runs deep in India. So taking on 4,000 years of superstition is not for the faint-hearted.
Nevertheless, I've joined the Guru Busters on their campaign, tackling the fraudsters on two fronts. Sanal Edamaruku sends operatives like me undercover to expose gurus
charging exorbitant sums for miracle cures. While Professor Nayak, as head of the quaintly-titled Rationalists' Association of India, takes a travelling sideshow around the country proving the gurus' miracles and magic are really just simple science. As horrific as this looks, Professor Nayak assures me the pain and bleeding are no worse than getting your ears pierced. And when you know how, even the classics like walking on a bed of nails or standing on sharpened swords, look like child's play. Before you saw them do this, did you always think those tricks were real?
GIRL: Yeah. They really seemed real then when we get to know the real meaning it's very, very easy.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you were quite shocked when you saw that it's all just tricks?
GIRL: Yeah, very shocked.
ALLISON LANGDON: Isn't there a little element of you know, it's almost like me going up to a bunch of kids and saying, "guess what? Santa Claus isn’t real?"
NARENDRA: Yeah, it could be something like that. But you know, Santa Claus doesn't come and give you medical advice.
ALLISON LANGDON: The leaders of the Rationalists' Movement – the so-called Guru Busters – claim hundreds of thousands of followers right around the country, drawn by events just like this, that are part show and part educational campaign. It's not clear if the crowds have come to learn the truth or watch the tricks. But I soon find myself centre-stage of the Professor's myth-busting act. You've done this before, yeah?
NARENDRA: No, I'm doing it for the first time. Let's see if it works…
ALLISON LANGDON: It's high school science – as long as the flame doesn't settle against my skin, it can't burn me. But to this superstitious crowd, it's a revelation.
NARENDRA: That's enough.
ALLISON LANGDON: That's enough. And you think you're getting through to them?
NARENDRA: I think so. But the task is huge! And I need a big number of people to come along with me and that is what I'm trying now, full-time.
ALLISON LANGDON: To gather an army?
SANAL: So, if I can liberate some people who can further liberate other people, that's the way things change.
ALLISON LANGDON: Sanal Edamaruku is passionate about the cause. He's the guru-busting master of entrapment.
SANAL: The story is you are a rich Australian lady…
ALLISON LANGDON: Sanal targets gurus who tout miraculous medical cures for enormous fees – which is illegal in India. You are quite a wonderful person – if you can bring out two little drops of tears –
ALLISON LANGDON: Oh, now you want me to cry. Far out! Today's I'm his bait, posing as someone whose close relative is dying of cancer. With one of Sanal's team, I meet the guru with hidden cameras rolling. For charges to be laid, we must record his promise of a miracle recovery. Does he think he can cure my husband?
GURU: Ah, 99% but 1% is in hand, in God.
ALLISON LANGDON: If it doesn't work, do I get my money back?
ALLISON LANGDON: He wants $20,000 but Sanal's trap is about to be sprung. This is about to become a very bad day at the Office of Magical Remedies. The bust is on.
SANAL: What you're claiming is the wrong thing. This is swindling, this is cheating, this is fraud.
ALLISON LANGDON: You told me that there was a 99% chance you could cure him. Any reasonable person would believe that that meant a cure. And suddenly, the guru is calling on God to save his own sorry soul.
GURU: We believe in God, I believe in God, everything is possible.
ALLISON LANGDON: If you believe that it's God, why do you charge such an outrageous amount of money?
SANAL: This is a crime and he can be arrested for swindling…
ALLISON LANGDON: Sanal threatens the guru with criminal prosecution and says he'll be back. Can he go to jail for this?
SANAL: I think he can get two years rigorous imprisonment and I'll be the witness.
ALLISON LANGDON: But the Guru Busters have taken on a massive task. Some like Professor Sudhir Kakkar, whose written many books on Indian mysticism, believe they're all bark and no bite. You think they're fighting an uphill battle?
SUDHIR: I don't think they've even started at the bottom of the hill, so they can't be fighting an uphill battle.
ALLISON LANGDON: Professor Nayak says that unless India unshackles itself from superstition, the country can't progress.
KAKAR: I think it's a very black and white way of stating it. Look at the United States of America – if that is supposed to be a progressive country, do you know how many people believe there are angels in the sky in United States of America, how many believe that the devil is there?
ALLISON LANGDON: But the Guru Busters are undeterred. They hope to win over India, village by village – proving that gurus are almost always not what they seem. This crowd has watched our bearded imposter gradually be unmasked by Sanal, his magic stripped away, trick by trick. He's talked like a guru, walked like a guru but now he's exposed. In this village at least, another victory for the Rationalists – only another 999 million Indians left to convince. So your message to those so-called gurus?
NAYAK: Beware, we are on the way!