Wise and Not—So—Wise Men of the East
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Wise and Not—So—Wise Men of the East

The people of India have always been a source of wonder to the western world, especially in earlier times when primitive communication and travel kept the country mysteriously remote. Possibly because, within much of the religious thought of India, people can do very little to improve their expectations for this life, many aspire to transcend their physical existence however they can. They search for a mystical experience and use the power of inward concentration to arrive at supreme understanding and supernatural physical power. They may try, for example, to defy gravity, to feel no pain, or to walk on water.

The Mystic

In Bombay, India, in the year 1966 one such mystic had so convinced faithful followers of his prodigious skill that he himself began to believe that he was all—powerful. This Hindu yogi, Rao by name, calmly announced his intention to walk on water. Although none of his followers had ever witnessed a demonstration of his skill, they had no doubt that he was capable.

Arrangements for a public display of this talent that had been bestowed on him by the Most Holy One were made quickly and on a grand scale. More than 600 prominent members of Bombay society were invited to witness the spectacle, for a fee of course. Tickets, in great demand, sold for as high as $100 each.

On the day of the holy event, the assembled crowd was hushed and tense. The yogi, bedecked with a snow—white beard and garbed in flowing robes that fluttered gently in the breeze, stood on a rock overlooking the side of a pond five feet in depth. He posed so piously and majestically that all awaited the miracle in eloquent silence: blinking eyes or dropping pins would have interrupted the tranquillity. Praying inaudibly, Rao the yogi stepped onto the water—and promptly sank to the bottom of the pond.

Following Rao's dismal performance, mystics of remarkable self—proclaimed powers were greeted with some skepticism for a number of years in Bombay. But eventually people forgot Rao's folly in their desire to believe the unbelievable, and he has been replaced many times since.

The Debtor

As anyone with a charge account can attest, a person who owes a specific amount of money is given a certain amount of time to pay off this debt. In 19th—century India, as now, occasionally debtors down on their luck were not in a financial position to fulfill their obligation. Whereas today's deadbeat receives an emphatic overdue statement, the creditor in India went a different route. He would have the debtor seated in a public square, inside a circle drawn on the ground. Guards were posted around the debtor with strict orders to keep him confined within the circle. If he made the slightest attempt to cross the circle line, he was clubbed back into his public prison. If he dared to attempt an escape, he was immediately put to death.

Relatives were permitted to bring the debtor food and drink, but all necessities of private life were carried on in the circle before anyone who wished to stand by and watch. Passersby were usually unsympathetic and would jeer and scoff at the debtor's misery. No record exists of anyone's having perished in this open—air prison, because either he or some relative would come forth with the money owed from some "forgotten" fund. Needless to say, freeloaders were almost unknown in India; anyone unable to pay off a debt would head for parts unknown long before the due date.

The Snake Charmer

Another Indian attraction with mystical implication is the ability of some Hindu musicians to exercise control over cobras. As the Hindu fakir plays on his flute, the snake will sway side to side in whatever direction the musician indicates, as if the snake is being charmed by the music. Actually the cobra's hearing is extremely limited, so it is unlikely to respond to the music coming from the charmer's pipe. The cobras used by Hindu snake charmers actually respond to vibrations and movement: the tap of the charmer's foot, the beat of his stick on their basket, mainly the swaying of the musician's body and pipe. The rhythmic movements appear to fascinate the snake, so it will sway in a similar way, quite possibly looking for a place to strike.

Some of the more cautious snake charmers will remove the poison—inflicting teeth from the cobra before a series of performances. For a week or so the snake will scarcely attempt to chew on anything, including the charmer, because its jaws are too sore. Eventually it will be able to strike, but with its injectors missing, its bite is harmless. Snake charmers know that missing fangs regenerate and the process must be repeated. These repeated trips to the dentist have a negative effect on the cobra's health, shortening its life span considerably.

Surely there must be a better way for both snake and charmer to make a living.