Loud and persistent knocks at the entrance of a small temple in Delhi sliced through the calm of deep night. The clatter stirred Radha Krishna Bharadwaj awake. A pious devotee was at the gate.
“Wake up, Panditji,” he said to Bharadwaj, the temple priest. “Lord Ganesh is drinking milk. Please open the gates.”
The men approached the sanctum sanctorum. The priest spooned out some milk from a bowl and raised it to the idol’s mouth at an angle. Within seconds, it was sucked clean.
As day broke, the news spread rapidly across the country. By night, it had circumnavigated the world. Bharadwaj’s experience was among the first reported cases of the story. But from Delhi to West Bengal and Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu, millions of people, in possession of varying amounts of milk, faith and curiosity swarmed the streets and queued up at temples and shrines to see if it was true: if god was really drinking milk.
“It felt like Holi or Diwali,” Bhardwaj later told the BBC. “It was even more festive. Everyone was happy and telling each other about it. For Hindus it was so significant, I can’t explain it.” Bharadwaj later told the BBC. Stores ran out of milk, and prices soared. In Punjab, a rumour spread that Vishnu’s final avatar had arrived, signalling the end of Kalyug or the age of strife. A priest at a Hanuman temple in Delhi said that the gods had come down to earth to solve our problems. Everybody seemed to have a story.
Newspaper headlines in the days that followed screamed: Milk Drinking Frenzy Spills Over the Globe, Shiv Shakti Dazzles India, Milk-Drinking Idol Creates Countrywide Frenzy. International publications latched on to one of the biggest stories to come out of South Asia that year. Reports emerged of Ganesh idols quaffing spoonfuls of milk in the USA, the UK, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina.
“The milk sipping mania has once again placed India back in its place as far as world opinion is concerned,” the journalist Dilip Cherian wrote in The Daily. “Once again, we are left with the long lingering image of a nation of Godmen, snake-charmers and miracles.” The French anthropologist Denis Vidal, who was working in India at the time, called it the first “globalised” miracle. Earlier miracles were sanctified in stories and folklore. This one was consecrated by television.
The Bombay police went to investigate matters at the city’s famous Siddhivinayak temple at the behest of Gopinath Munde, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister. They reported that a silver idol next to the main one had refused their overtures. Dagdusheth Maharaj in Pune also proved lactose-intolerant. Pre-empting chaos, the temple closed its doors and put up a board that read: Our Ganapati does not drink milk.
These cases of non-cooperation notwithstanding, the milk miracle was a key episode in modern India’s protracted tangling of faith and reason. Long before some of India’s best-known rationalists began to be murdered, it portended how religion and superstition would be instrumentalised in the new millennium.
Twenty-five years later, as virologists and scientists raced against time to decode Covid-19, quack remedies did the rounds on WhatsApp. Early in the pandemic, lamps were lit in balconies after Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that the “superpower of light” would aid the fight against the coronavirus. Over this monsoon, a dead actor’s girlfriend was repeatedly accused on national television of practising black magic. In the face of widespread panic and alienation, India’s constitutional ideal of developing “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” seemed to be forgotten.
“Maine pol khol di. I have unmasked it.”
n Delhi, Gauhar Raza threaded his way through an unusual hubbub at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, where he headed the department of science communication. The institute was founded in 1980 to promote a “scientific temper,” a term popularised by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to underscore the spirit of logical and rational thought in newly independent India. Within minutes of settling in to work, Raza was summoned by the director of the institute. Journalists had been calling all morning about a supposed miracle: could Raza handle them?
He was still coming to grips with what was going on when he heard that a cobbler outside the institute was demonstrating something interesting. Raza dashed out and saw him feeding water to the top arm of his three-pronged anvil with a spoon. When the water vanished, Dulichand Arya looked around at those who had gathered and said: Maine pol khol di. I have unmasked it.
Raza crossed the road to a temple and watched devotees streaming in. He returned to his office and gathered his thoughts on a blackboard. He was now ready to face journalists.
In Bombay, the rainy morning had melted the roads into monsoon slush. Smruti Koppikar, a reporter with India Today, left her home in Borivali and headed to the train station to ride the north-south needle of the city. At her Nariman Point office, a strange piece of news had just begun to flash on the wires. “We did a double take. Ganesh drinking milk? Where? How?” Koppikar, who was assigned to go temple-hopping in South Bombay, said.
Riding pillion on her photographer colleague’s motorbike, Koppikar noticed that the air quivered with the frisson of something rare, something larger than life. “It was like India had won the World Cup,” she remembered.
At the small Ganesh mandir in the Mahalakshmi temple complex, Koppikar asked the priest: why milk? Unlike the deity Krishna, Ganesh isn’t popularly believed to be fond of dairy. The priest had no answer, but they watched as one old woman hobbled towards the idol. This miracle was why she had been kept alive for so long, she declared, teary-eyed.
Back at the office, Koppikar and her colleagues phoned scientists for rational explanations. “That day showed us how important it was for journalists to have not two, but multiple versions of the same story,” said Koppikar.
he ebb and flow of religious faith is shaped by socio-economic environments. “When people grow up in conditions where their survival is not secure, they tend to be more religious,” Meera Nanda wrote in her 2009 book The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu.
India in the early 1990s was in the sort of churn it would not experience again for two decades. The Mandal Commission Report, which recommended caste-based reservations in public employment, provoked reactionary outrage from dominant caste groups. Economic liberalization meant that the income gap was widening. It seemed that, almost overnight, the world had been invited to India.
When the milk miracle occurred, memories of the Babri Masjid demolition and the ensuing communal riots were still fresh. When then-BJP president LK Advani embarked on his nationwide roadshow in 1990 to inflame the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, a kind of social and political mobilization was already underway, aided indirectly by a televised adaptation of the Ramayana which had captivated the nation in the late 1980s. When a mob finally brought down the mosque on 6 December 1992, many Indians started to believe that the right-wing project to remake India from a constitutionally pluralist state to a Hindu one had triumphed.
For most Indians, the fruits of internationalization appeared as if behind a glass-case—you could look but not touch. But now there were new ways to display pride in civilisational legacy. Religiosity, defined by dominant caste and class groups and often rooted in idol worship for Hindus, became key to that revivalism.
India’s tradition of spiritual teachers and guides found an offshoot in a new crop of miracle-working men and women in the 1980s and 1990s. They spoke the language of faith and devotion and enjoyed wide public appeal. Sathya Sai Baba, for instance, was revered as the reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi. Devotees flocked to watch the new Baba produce ash, sarees, and gold chains out of thin air: miracles, they insisted, and not sleight of hand. The tantric godman Chandraswami, favoured by a number of political leaders, built himself an ashram soon after PV Narasimha Rao of the Congress became prime minister in 1991.
California’s technology majors were making their way to still-idyllic Bangalore and a nascent Gurgaon to set up cost-efficient back offices. Meanwhile, India’s brightest started to work their way up to critical technical and management roles in Silicon Valley headquarters. In the early days of the World Wide Web, non-resident Indians became emissaries of Hindu identity and glory on discussion fora and mass e-mail chains.
“A key characteristic in their construction of Hinduism was to give the legitimacy of science to unrealistic, fantastic claims,” the academic Rohit Chopra explained. “So, on the one hand, Hinduism was praised as the source of all kinds of scientific and technological achievements, from satellite television to nuclear weapons, cures for diseases and the internet itself. On the other hand, events like Ganesh drinking milk, the claims of astrology, or some baba reincarnating himself at will were given a scientific veneer.” Many of the sites and email chains from which falsehoods emerged were maintained and populated by NRIs working in technology––“both in relatively privileged professional positions,” Chopra said, “as well as contract coders working for tech body shops or on deputation to IBM.”
anesh iconography has changed over centuries, the cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, former religion and philosophy editor at The Times of India, explained. He was not always elephant-headed. One origin story of the cult of Ganesh dates back to when speakers of Indo-European languages started clearing forests along the Ganga valley for agriculture. They met with resistance from the original inhabitants, worshippers of an intractable deity who prevented the advance of the cultivators. Naturally, this divinity became identified with obstacle-making.
“As the indigenous population became absorbed into the communities established by the incoming Indo-European language speakers, their gods and forms of worship became part of an emerging pantheon of convergence,” Hoskote told me. “By stages, the fierce forest deity became first a yaksha or unpredictable guardian spirit of nature. And later, through rituals of propitiation, the vighnakarta became the vighnaharta”: the maker of obstacles became their destroyer.
Pre-Vedic representations of Ganesh were aniconic, represented by vermillion smears or a pair of eyes fashioned with silver leaf on tree trunks. The tradition persists, even as the elephant-headed god acquired the iconography he is known for today. “It can be read as an allegory of how the memory of the first aboriginal inhabitants of South Asia has been absorbed and forgotten,” Hoskote said.
Over time, Ganesh, like other tertiary deities such as Hanuman and some local forms of the devi or mother goddess, found a place in the Hindu pantheon. These deities were easier to pray to and have an intimate and emotional connection with, not high and mighty like the abstract trinity and the great gods.
But one day, Ganesh, seemingly, had a demand.
n that September day in 1995, scientists and rationalists grew alarmed as the hours wore on. Public fervour was unprecedented, and the threat of some kind of mob reaction was on everyone’s mind.
In Satara, Narendra Dabholkar, founder of the rationalist group Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS), offered ₹5 lakh to anyone who could prove that the gods were actually drinking milk. Dabholkar and other well-known rationalists and scientists, appeared on television and radio to parry the wonder of the miracle with the rapier of reason. They reconstructed the ‘miracle’ with props like tea pots (the spout being similar to Ganesh’s trunk), breaking down abstruse concepts of physics to convince the layperson that there had been no miracle.
These were the facts, they said. Idols made of porous substances such as clay or mud could have absorbed some milk. What made it “vanish” in most cases, though, was a combination of capillary action and surface tension.
- Capillary action: The ability of a liquid to move up through the narrow spaces of porous substances, against gravity. Think of a blotting paper that sucks up ink, or a colour spreading across the paintbrush through its fine tip.
- Surface tension: The property of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force, due to the cohesive nature of its molecules.
When part of an object (in this case, an idol’s mouth, trunk or tusk) punctures the surface of a liquid, some fluid flows out. To the untrained eye, it appears that the liquid is vanishing from the spoon. What we don’t see is the thin film clinging to the object and flowing downwards. Think of the times you’ve lifted a cup of tea only to realise that some of it has flowed down and gathered in the saucer. Something similar happened, scientists explained, to the Ganesh idols.
he psychiatrist and MANS activist Pradip Patkar watched events unfold in disbelief. The TV coverage looked similar to what he was used to seeing in his clinic—patients blocking rational thinking in extraordinary emotional settings. The term that came to his mind was mass hysteria.
Patkar and his fellow activists fanned out across Panvel, just outside Bombay city, visiting schools and temples. He urged people to feed a small Ganesh idol he carried with him. Add turmeric, he said, proffering some, it’s good for his throat. The milk ‘disappeared,’ but within moments, yellow liquid flowed down the idol’s portly body.
In Delhi, the scientist Gauhar Raza went on news channels with Arya the cobbler. Together, they demystified the occurrence using Arya’s anvil, and other objects such as teacups and teapots.
As the day dragged to a close, something miraculous happened again. The tide went out just as unexpectedly as it had come in. When people tried to spoon-feed Ganesh the following day, he appeared to refuse to collaborate.
“They had been part of the crowd and were asking all kinds of questions.”
But scientists like Narendra Nayak, then an assistant chemistry professor at the Kasturba Medical College in Mangaluru, continued conducting demonstrations on the day after. In the evening, his lab lost electricity supply. All of a sudden, some members of his audience pelted him with stones, giving him scalp wounds. He spent the night in hospital. Later, he said, he discovered that his attackers were attached to a right-wing organization.
“They had been part of the crowd and were asking all kinds of questions. I was engrossed in my demonstration while they had been preparing the attack,” said Nayak, who is now president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.
It was not the first attack on a rationalist, and would not be the last. Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in August 2013. In subsequent years, other well-known critics of superstition such as Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were murdered.
This is not how it was supposed to be. Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar both felt that political freedom needed the protections of scientific modernity. Despite their differences, they were united in their adherence to reason and critical thinking. “Stories of Gods are cooked to make you into fools,” Ambedkar said, “and you all are trapped in all these kinds of false stories.”
Nehru, entranced by India’s ancient civilisations, had written influential books about Indian history, but warned that glorifying the “golden past” was a “foolish and dangerous pastime.” His government’s Scientific Policy Resolution, finalised in 1958, underscored the importance of “encouraging individual initiative for the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, and for the discovery of new knowledge.” A couple of decades later, a Scientific Temper Statement signed by scientists and intellectuals stressed, once again, the value of reason in a culture where faith seemed to dictate so much of social life. The signers hoped for this statement to bring about “a second Indian Renaissance.”
Some religious critics condemned idol worship itself as the carrier of superstition and Brahmanical hegemony. In 1953, the Tamil social activist and politician EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar, led an agitation to break statues of Ganesh, or Pillayar, as he is often known in Tamil Nadu. “We have to eradicate the gods who are responsible for the institution which portray us as sudras, people of low birth, and some others as Brahmins of high birth,” he told his followers. “We have to break the idols of these gods. I start with Ganesa because it is he who is worshipped before undertaking any task.” When Ambedkar’s Dalit followers began to convert to Buddhism, he asked them to take 22 vows, one of which was: ‘I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus nor shall I worship them.’
Yet republican ideals never really dented hyper-religiosity. By 1995, the convictions of two of India’s most influential anti-caste revolutionaries were largely forgotten. That September day, in homes and temples, pools of milk stagnated under idols; rivers flowed down the drains. Among believers, there was a febrile excitement. The miracle had evoked some sort of shared sensus divinitatis, one that people could see, and recreate for themselves, in real time. Regardless of rational explanations, how could eyes lie?
In the aftermath of the phenomenon, terms such as ‘mass hysteria’ and ‘religious frenzy’ cropped up frequently. Vasant Sathe, a former cabinet minister and an avowed rationalist, said “In the age of computers, it is an insult to human intelligence to say that the gods are drinking milk.”
A scientists’ petition urged educated people to take on the responsibility to prevent a “form of primitive obscurantism… at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” But such appeals had equal and opposite reactions. The former electoral commissioner TN Seshan denounced them as “pseudo scientists.” Kamala Ganesh, then reader in cultural anthropology at Bombay University, said in an interview to The Times of India: “During every election, paeans are sung to the rationalism of the electorate, and yet the word ‘superstitious’ is now being used to characterise the believers. A godman performing tricks, I believe, is quite different from the present phenomenon, which has much more to do with belief than with magic tricks.”
ust the indubitable laws of physics govern faith?
Much of our sense of self is tied to what we believe in, and an attack on people’s belief systems can feel like an attack on those very people. India’s rationalists thought they were belabouring the obvious, trying to broaden the country’s straitened horizons. Harmless as it appeared, the scientific community thought it was important to debunk the miracle. “Intellectual and physical stamina are not easily bred in the hothouses of superstition,” Vithal Nadkarni, former science editor at The Times of India, said.
Why, even so, do we believe stories which defy common sense, and are demonstrably false? For over a century now, hundreds of scientific investigations have been conducted into paranormal claims globally. Not a single replicable “paranormal” phenomenon has ever been identified, the American physicist Shawn Carlson, who investigates miracles, told me.
“It just appears there are no miracles. They have all failed to achieve standards for believing things,” Carlson explained. And what are those standards? “When something can be replicated by multiple observers under conditions that preclude cheating.”
The psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has written that as a people, Indians “are strongly moved by ceremony and ritual. They do not generally tend to interpose a detached critical intellect between themselves and the higher powers—something they are quite capable of doing in other areas of life.” The power of suggestion works effectively on large groups. In 2001, Delhi residents reported the alleged presence of a “monkey-man” who attacked people at night. In 2006, Mumbaikars said water from Mahim Creek had turned sweet due to Haji Maqdoom Baba’s divine intervention.
With new tools, in an atmosphere of social polarisation, the capacity to create belief from rumour has grown sharply. Now, Raza says, the reaction to his opinion on something like this “would be far worse. At least I could speak freely then. Now I am likely to be lynched, especially with a name like mine.”
rom a mass of confusion about the miracle’s origins, theories emerged. A survey conducted by Raza for the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti showed that in the wee hours of 21 September, phone calls about the miracle were allegedly made from Birla Mandir in Delhi to several places of worship.
Half a dozen journalists and commentators I spoke to linked the whole affair to Hindutva groups affiliated with the BJP, arguing that they were looking to capitalise on Hindu nationalism in the run-up to the 1996 general elections. This theory was supported by reports that some of the first North India-based shrines and temples that reported the miracle were controlled by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A VHP member said this divine intervention “heralded a new era in Hinduism.” An RSS activist was quoted in Hindustan Times saying that the organisation saw this as proof of their long-standing belief that god existed in idols.
Nayak, the rationalist assaulted in the Mangaluru laboratory, called the miracle part of a coordinated programme to thwart minority groups. “First, they demonstrated how to demolish an existing thing. Then they showed how to terrorise minorities by killing and burning them, then (it was) the capacity to spread rumours,” he said. “It was a test run to see how fast they could get a message from one end to another. Those are the people who have now come to power.”
In the absence of an official investigation, these claims are unlikely to be verified.
“As I feared, it is assuming a certain political importance...”
Soon after hearing of the miracle, Sanal Edamaruku of the Indian Rationalist Association pointed a finger at Chandraswami, the self-styled godman who had various criminal charges against his name. According to Edamaruku, a group of sadhus had gathered in Haridwar the previous day to announce that a miracle would occur soon. The acolytes hinted that should Chandraswami be interrogated, unpredictable things would happen.
Polls after the incident showed that an equal number of people believed and disbelieved the miracle.  Since 1996, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti has been celebrating 21 September as Chamatkar Satyashodhan Din, Miracle Truth-Seeking Day.
“It was not really a debate between faith and reason. It happened because it was the invention as much of the people who participated in it, as of the people who instigated it,” the anthropologist Vidal told me. “It was like Aristotle said: The cause can be a small point of departure. But for something to work, the cause becomes quite another thing.”
hen India gained independence, Partition-scarred political leaders agreed to separate religion from state in the new republic. The insertion of the word “secularism” was hotly debated in the Constituent Assembly. Nehru and Ambedkar approached it from a position of justice and equality, rather than that of atheism or irreligiosity. The country would not favour one religion over another. It was up to “the majority community …[to] show that they can behave to others in a generous, fair, and just way.”
On 2 March 1951, then-president Rajendra Prasad wrote to Nehru of his intention to preside over the reopening of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat. The prime minister was not pleased. “I am greatly worried about the Somnath affair,” Nehru wrote in reply. “As I feared, it is assuming a certain political importance… In criticism of our policy in regard to it, we are asked how a secular Government such as ours can associate itself with such a ceremony which is, in addition, revivalist in character.” Prasad went, nonetheless, to Gujarat.
Seventy years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the current prime minister of India stood among a mass of people to lead the bhoomi poojan, a land-breaking ceremony, for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Accompanying him was a priest who later tested positive for Covid-19. On their computer and television screens, millions of Indians watched Modi appear as a sage-king of yore, with long hair and a groomed beard. They heard a symphony of conches as Modi prostrated before a Ram idol at the spot where a howling mob had once pulled down a mosque.
Social media buzzed with celebrations. WhatsApp profile pictures and status messages bore the images of Ram often captioned, triumphantly: Jai Shri Ram. Victory to God. On 5 August 2020, an electoral promise, first made in 1996 and then before every Lok Sabha election since, had finally been delivered. The seventh avatar of Vishnu was ushered to his abode by the elected head of a secular nation.
Sukhada Tatke is a journalist from Mumbai, currently in Edinburgh.