Producing vibhuti, or holy ash, from thin air, is a favourite trick of Sai Baba. To get ash one has to burn wood, paper or cowdung, the ash so made has no smell unless perfume is added to it. Sai Baba accomplishes this by mixing perfumed ash (cow dung) with a starch solution into small balls of dough and allows them to dry. These balls are hidden between the thumb and index finger and after circling the balls are brought to the finger tips, powdered and sprinkled on the devotees. To show it were possible to create something from nothing one need only hold one's palms uppermost and wait for something to appear, it is not necessary to wave one's hand around to distract and to conceal. It should be noted too, that the expensive objects manifested are only given to the rich and influential devotees, the deserving tourists get the ash.
As for would be devotee-tourists: through the processes of modernization today, everyday life often becomes detached from its traditional roots and transformed into cultural productions. In this context modern life is often perceived as having lost its ‘naturalness’ or authenticity leading many to visit such religious teachers today. Plus many tourgroups, like to take only one, example: the “Athma of India” and “The Chopra Center of California,” today (March 2008) invite prospective participants to a “magical land” where ancient traditions and modern life live side by side.
Such "religious teachers" (elsewehere also called "Fakirs" or "godmen") today are a common sight in most cities of India; pictured below, one in Hyderabad, where many can be seen in the old city.
The focal issue of the sufi cause as seen with modern „godmen“ in India, was the idea that Muslims did nor require a mediator in order to communicate with God. On the contrary, sufis believed this relationship could and should be personal and direct. Even aside from the orthodoxy of Islam, Muslim mystics possessed their own hierarchy. In their case, you were either the teacher (Shaikh), or the disciple (Murid) (Mujeeb).
However, the idea of mediation was not the only issue involved in deviating from more orthodox practices. These newfound mystics strongly disagreed with the various routines performed in the name of the religion. Such practices including the required length for fasting- as well as the recounting of prayers five times per day--were now perceived as insincere and therefore insulting in a way. If such religious practices were merely routine--then they could not have come from the heart, but instead the follower's habit.
For the purpose of distancing themselves from these conformities of habit and law—these mystic ‚godmen‘,began to convey forms of self expression in an attempt to solidify their individual identity.
This direct relationship transitions smoothly into Hinduism.
Thus while sufis aimed to deviate from orthodox Islam., they were at least somewhat bogged down by the religion's dogmas. However, Hinduism does not bind itself in dogmas, and thus Hindu mystics were more open to express themselves. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, the population of Muslims in India was much greater than it is today, this being attributed to the creation of Pakistan in the 1940s. It is only obvious then that the Muslim and Hindu mystical traditions would converge on at least some type of scale. From the outside, it appears that the sufi lifestyle seems more congruent with the Hindu faith.
Sufis would perform acts of healing, via delving into self induced trances; however, the Hindu mystics brought such types of performance into another realm. The Hindu mystics (godmen) added an extreme sense of danger to these performances, and it is no doubt that these public acts were a catalyst for the focus turning away from sufis and onto fakirs. Also, the practice of sufism reached an essential theoretical standstill. Many sufis rationalized that all occurences were manifestations of God's will, which greatly inhibited the motivation for creative self expression.
But also, where magic practitioners control magic, religious practitioners are instead dependent on powers that are outside of their control.
While distinctions have been made concerning the differences between magic and religion, there is the idea that magic is actually a branch of religion. This would certainly be the case in Indian mysticism, as the godmen make claims that their feats are the result of mediating the power of Hindu deities. What is unique in the case of the godmen, though, is that the godmen are aware that what they are doing is not truly supernatural; they know that the performances are, illusions.
One religious aspect that could be classified as magic in the case of godmen, is the act of praying for a miracle. The intent is to summon supernatural powers to achieve an otherwise unattainable goal. Another example can be viewed in religions in which sacrificial offerings are made. The sacrifices are often to promote fruitful agriculture, or prosperous hunting.
Annother example are the so called Draupadi cults who practice fire-walking as a purification ritual. And in fact their inspiration comes from the epic Indian poem the Mahabharata. Here , Hindu Gods such as Krishna, the believed incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu, are used as characters in conveying mora11essons for the readers. Thus Draupadi is the heroine of the Mahabharata, and it is her actions within the story which are translated into this ritual. Since Draupadi is viewed as a goddess, the fire-walking ritual is then seen not only as a symbol of purification, but also an action which connects an individual directly to the spiritual world. When an individual walks across the hot coals, it is believed that Draupadi transfonns the coals so that the tenacity of the heat is comparable to that of a flower. Also, it is believed that she places her long black hair over the coals so that the participants will not injure the bottoms of their feet during the scamper across.
In terms of Draupadi as a character in the Mahabharata, and the context for the modern fire-walking ritual, the references are somewhat scattered as to where in the poem it originated. In one version, Krishna administered a test for Draupadi in which he set fire to a forest, and it was her task to venture through the engulfed trees. She completed the task unharmed, and it is this bravery which is commemorated with these Rituals. However, this explanation is the only version which in no way mentions any type of purification significance. In a second rendition, Draupadi marries on five separate occasions, and before each marriage, she bathes in fire (unscathed) in order to restore her chastity. In another purification-themed explanation, Draupadi engages in an extra-marital affair with the character Kicaka, and must perform a fire-walk to cleanse her spirit from this sexual transgression. Kicaka is killed for his role in the offense, as are his one hundred and five brothers, for the purpose of preventing one of his siblings from throwing Draupadi onto the funeral pyre. Aside from the modern fire-walking ceremonies praising the heroine of the story, there is also another cause for the action which ties in to this version specifically. In some accounts in S.India, adulterous women in regions of Southern India must walk through fire in order to purify themselves, just as Draupadi was forced to do.
In another variation of the Draupadi-fire-walking connection, the character Bhima brings the heroine a saugandhika (an exotic flower); however, once she receives her flower, one of the petals wilts away. This was taken as a sign of impurity, and to rectify this, Draupadi performed the fire-walk.
With the Mahabharata in mind, the motivations to perform this feat are to pay homage to the heroine of the story while simultaneously cleansing oneself from past wrongdoings, and to convey the ability to communicate directly with the gods. In many cases, fire-walkers will traverse across the fiery bed with some type of representation of the female protagonist. While Draupadi walked through flames in her various rites of passage, these modern interpretivists instead walk across a bed of hot coals, the substitution for this being obvious. Also, while in many cases the ritual appears to be completed legitimately, there have been several instances in which the implementation of illusion appears to have taken place.
But while fire-walking is a practice performed that has been viewed outside of India at events such as motivational seminars and company retreats. In these instances, the burning gravel pits are quite small, and thus a quick scurry across causes no real aftliction. Such was not the case some places in India where some participants expressed that only those who truly believe in the powers of Draupadi will be able to perform the ritual without experiencing any physical pain. Aside ftom purification, the fire-walking ceremony was said to alleviate all worries ftom the participant, while simultaneously setting in motion actions which will soon grant the individual all of their worldly desires. Similar sentiments were also expressed in other regional rituals, such as the Holi festival in Northern India. In this scenario, the ritual creates a sense of social order. The members of the society must adhere to a certain set of rules, and if these rules are broken and not amended, the member of the group will feel the pain of the coals. In a way it is somewhat similar to the confession ceremony in Catholicism.
The practitioner is cleansing themselves from their misdeeds, and, in return, the process is only successful if the individual truly believes in the power of the spirit. And in case of the fire-walking part ssentially, it is a literal trial-by-fire confession.
Now, many have listened to accounts of individuals who have somehow cognitively prepared themselves for such actions, stirring their minds into a state in which this feat is plausible. Fire-walking ceremonies appear to be the result of this mental re-configuration. However, it seems most would view these fire pits as those similar to the ones used in western motivational and corporate seminars.
Individuals who are not able to complete the task are dubbed unfaithful, and are believed to be concentrating on their own issues as opposed to summoning the powers of Draupadi. With such events being witnessed, the question must be asked as to how so many are able to complete such an arduous ceremony.
In fact godmen apply a concoction made from the roots of the Aquilaria tree to their feet, thus alleviating themselves from the potential pain of the burning embers.
The Aquilaria tree is rather popular in South East Asia due to the agar wood it produces. This type of wood secretes an extremely rich resin which can be used for several different purposes including incense, perfume, and skincare.In regards to skincare specifically however, the resin is used to heal burns.
But even with possession of a non-mystical explanation, the action is still quite impressive. With that being said, two important factors of Indian mysticism thus arise. First, there is a possible methodology by which fakirs perform such potentially violent acts. Second, there is a catalyst explaining why such actions are performed. In this instance, fire-walking is accompanied by direct spiritual connection and purification.
Ofcourse participants may also feel the need to increase the theatricality of the ritual, and thus turn the rite of passage into more of a performance. If this is the case, then the ceremony is then less personal, and instead aimed to serve a more influential purpose. This purpose would be to convey to the Westemer, or any outsider of mysticism, the direct relationship that exists between the godmen and the spiritual world.
During the sometimes called "mango tree" illusion, godmen sometimes appear dressed only in a loin cloth, so as to non-verbally convey that he does not appear to be concealing anything. He holds a pot in each hand, the pots possessing the capacity of approximately one quart. The content of one pot is simply water, while the other is filled with sand. This particular illusion cannot be performed by a godman alon. The feat requires at least one assistant in order for the trick to work properly. After the fakir places down the pots, an assistant will hand him a four-foot-square cloth, which is then thoroughly shaken out for the crowd, so as to eliminate the audience's lingering thoughts of skepticism that anything is hidden in the sheet. Along with the sheet, the assistant will hand the fakir the illusion's crucial ingredient, the mango seed. Emptying the contents of the pots, godmen will construct a small mud pyramid and place the seed inside. The assistant then covers the pyramid with a makeshift tent using bamboo and the sheet that was previously shaken out for the audience. While the pyramid is covered, the central fakir will place his hands inside of the tent while simultaneously muttering indecipherable incantations. Once the tent is removed, the mud pyramid is revealed, and at the top, leaves have emerged from the seeds. If the crowd is overly hesitant to accept the achievement, the fakir will often remove the seed from the mud pyramid to reveal that roots have sprouted from the bottom. The process of covering the mud pyramid is repeated five to six times until the seed has sprouted a mango tree that can reach heights of approximately two feet. During some renditions of the feat, the fakir will even go as far as to permit the tree to bear fruit. The crowd is naturally stunned by this effect, and left with conclusive evidence that these godmen are in possession of a direct mediation with the spiritual world.
The crux of succeeding in this process however lies within the seed. The reason for this is based on the construct of its leaves. Unlike many others, the leaves and twigs of a mango tree have a leather-like texture, and will not crack or break when pressure is applied. Also, when these leaves are folded, compressed, and then unfolded, they will resume their original shape without illustrating signs of having been exposed to pressure. The mango seed is approximately two inches long and one inch in width, providing ample room for a compressed leaf. The seed which will be used in the performance is previously split open and re-filled with the mango tree shoot. To give the effect of the roots growing ftom the bottom of the seed, the same method of placing the content before hand is implemente. Initial inspections by audience members may be problematic, and godmen often combat this by displaying an un-tampered seed, and then merely switching it at the beginning of the performance. And while the tent-like structure is placed over the pyramid, the fakir is slowly working the mango shoot out of the seed. However, this does not explain how the finality of the feat results in the tree reaching heights of two feet.
Each time the sheet is handed to the fakir, though, the reassurance of the cloth's purity is no longer questioned. It is through this medium that objects are passed to the performer by his fellow godmen.
Also, larger sheets are interchanged as the illusion progresses, making it possible for the assistant(s) to transfer the tree to the performer. For the cases in which the tree bears fruit, the paralleled practice of passing the fruit through the sheet is used, and the mangos are simply hung on the limbs of the tree .
By displaying these supposed abilities, one could say that godmen in India today ignite or re-ignite a sense of empirical validation for their religion. Religion is, of course, a rather effective tool in maintaining social order, and thus the performance is an advertisement for this. More directly, the godmens' motivations are centered on displaying their supposed direct and established relationship with their deities. By doing so, they promote their way of life, specifically, their perspectives on a simplified religious structure, and a life free of worldlypossessions. From the audience member's perspective, the framework is again established in that these crowds are certainly unaware of all of the various meanings tied into the symbols in the Mango Tree Trick.
But if what the spectators witness during these performances including in the case of Sai Baba, in their eyes, is the result of the harnessing of higher powers, which ties into the ideologies of mysticism, then from the audience's perspective they are witnessing a tangible version of their religious persuasion.
Continue to P.2: