Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Among the roots

In the current edition of GQ, George Saunders is sent on assignment to write about Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the teenage "Buddha Boy" who until mid-March had been sitting for seven months almost motionless among the roots of a pipal tree without (according to his handlers) food or water. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to be in the presence of the miraculous holy child, and a thriving business built up around him.

Saunders knows there are two reactions to a story such as this. He writes:

"One type of American -- let's call them Realists -- will react by making a snack-related joke ("So he finally gets up, and turns out he's sitting on a big pile of Butterfinger wrappers!") and will then explain that it's physically impossible to survive even one week without food or water, much less seven months. A second type -- let's call them Believers -- will say, Wow, that's amazing," they wish they could go to Nepal tomorrow, and will then segue into a story about a transparent spiritual being who once appeared on a friend's pool deck with a message about world peace."

The two categories correspond almost exactly to my Skeptics and True Believers.

Saunders is a lively writer, if not sufficiently skeptical. GQ would have been better served to have sent the professional debunker James Randi to Nepal. Randi would have made short work of exposing the thing as a fraud.

Which is not to denigrate the value of meditation, which can surely have beneficial results for mind and body. But claims that the boy lived for seven months without food or liquid is patently fraudulent and cheapens religious experience, even as it fattened the pockets of the boy's sponsors and local tradespeople.

I have friends who would be properly skeptical about the Buddha Boy's scientifically implausible fast, but who believe with fervor -- and less evidence -- equally miraculous things, such as the appearance of the Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes, or, for that matter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But of course our miracles are different than their miracles. And thus it was always so.

Why go seeking miracles when there is sufficient wonder in a single cell of our own bodies to keep us rapt in prayerful attention for a lifetime?