Even if you don’t live in India it is possible you have seen my encounter with supreme tantrik “power” in March. Since it was broadcast it has been posted on YouTube and has had a good many views. “More than the candidates of the presidential election,” joked the reporter from US National Public Radio when I was interviewed the other day. Though that was certainly exaggerated, the fact is that reports and video clips of my “Great Tantra Challenge” have been snowballing through cyberspace. I’ve been contacted by an amazing number of people from all over the world. Though it is impossible to respond to all these letters, I do take time to read them carefully. They make me feel that I have done a good thing.

Sanal keeps an eye on the guru as the death challenge commences live on airI met Pandit Surinder Sharma on the set of a live show on India TV, one of the country’s major Hindi language news channels. He is a regular on certain shows and claims to be the guru-of-choice of top politicians and business magnates. Both of us were invited to comment on the claims of Uma Bharti, former chief minister of Indian state Madhya Pradesh, that her political opponents were using tantrik powers to damage her. It was a staged controversy. After screening a video clip about the troubles of the superstitious politician, my counterpart elaborated with the standard routine of a tantrik specialist; he demonstrated various techniques for causing harm to any person, such as burning their photo or torturing a little doll made from wheat flour that is named after the intended victim. Suddenly half of the 30-minute show was over without me having an opportunity to say a single word to counter these absurdities. While I was watching Sharma “strangling” his sticky clot of dough with a thin red thread, I suddenly knew what I had to do.

My casually expressed doubts provoked him to boast about his personal tantrik powers: he could, he claimed proudly, kill anyone with mantras in just three minutes. That was where I caught him. I challenged him to demonstrate his powers there and then, on me. At first, he tried to ignore my proposal, but I insisted, and after repeating “I challenge you!” five times it could not be ignored. Still, the anchor and I took the whole of the commercial break to pin Sharma down. Finally, the trap clicked.

Later many viewers wondered why a high-calibre charlatan would allow himself to be exposed in front of millions. He certainly could have resorted to some classical excuse like “tantrik power needs an intimate atmosphere to work”, or “professional ethics prevent me from exposing my techniques in front of the uninitiated”. But he didn’t try that. A somewhat sedate thinker, he obviously took some time to fully understand the implications of the upcoming test.

What then followed is still causing fits of laughter to those browsing YouTube. Somebody posted it at double speed on their website, amplifying the ludicrous effect. But in real time, live on India TV, even rationalists held their breath.

Sharma started by chanting mantras. When his squeaky-voiced “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikili...” failed to kill me even after eight long minutes, he prepared trick number two and sent for water and a knife from the studio kitchen. Would he now try to kill me the conventional way? Was he crazy? I could not really judge what this feisty middle-aged man in white robes, who carefully avoided eye-contact with me, was up to.

Sanal manages a smile as the guru struggles to bring about his demiseMeanwhile our programme time had long run out, but the exciting twist to the situation prompted the station managers to cancel the planned schedule and switch into “breaking news” mode. The former politician Uma Bharti – still smiling in the background – was long forgotten. Chanting more mantras, Sharma sprinkled water and brandished his knife in front of me. Though watching him carefully, always prepared to land a fast uppercut in case the knife erred, I also laughed heartily. Not that I really felt very amused, but I knew that millions of breathless viewers out there in rural India were in urgent need of a sign from me that everything was under control.

After the knife failed, Sharma got visibly desperate. He gripped my hair and forcefully moved my head around in circles, pressing his fist against my skull. This was no mantra or tantra, it was a serious physical attack! I protested and the anchor intervened. But Sharma did not stop resorting to unfair means. He tried to press my eyes, my temples, was warned, and tried again. The situation became quite stressful, but I managed to keep smiling. Finally, after 90 minutes, it was over. The anchor confirmed the tantrik’s total failure and the triumph of rationalism.

That would have been a great end, but Sharma tried to save his face by introducing an allegedly infallible “Ultimate Destruction Tantra” that he would be able to perform at night. Announcing the nocturnal continuation of the Great Tantra Challenge, India TV pushed its ratings up to an all-time high. The challenge got 55 per cent of the total prime time audience in India, hundreds of millions watched the unfolding drama.

I have to admit, I was worried during the next hours, and so were my friends. Not that we suddenly believed that the “Ultimate Destruction Tantra” (UDT) could harm me. But couldn’t Sharma, who had pressed my skull in the afternoon so passionately, have some dirty tricks up his sleeve? Blades? Contact poison? Or just some harmless chloroform that could knock me out till the programme was over? We decided to play safe and deployed some observers and my personal bodyguard in the studio courtyard where the UDT was performed. Their intervention was, thankfully, not necessary.

As the night challenge fails, the only thing dying is the guru’s tantrik careerThe UDT was a quite magnificent spectacle. I sat at the “tantrik altar”, fire blazing under the open night sky, with an increasingly hysterical mantra chorus of three voices. Sharma, supported by two young tantriks, sprinkled water and boiling butter oil, threw mustard seed and all kind of mysterious unguents into the flames, destroyed a piece of paper with my name on it and wafted a bunch of peacock feathers over my head. I was expected to get crazy within three minutes, then cry with pain and die. When he flopped again, he got angry, but did not give up. He gave me his sticky wheat piece, smeared with oils and spices, for a touch and then destroyed it – in a desperate finale furioso minutes before midnight – with nails, knives and fire. He had failed yet again. My second triumph was celebrated and the show ended. So, most likely, did Pandit Sharma’s career. I did not hear from him again. When the lights were off after the show, I saw him sitting silently and lonely on his chair and gazing into the darkness. Perhaps he really believed he would be able to kill me?

With his career in tatters, I thought I could make him a proposal for a carefree future. With a little professional re-training he could qualify for one of the 3,000 new exorcist jobs that the Vatican has recently announced.

Update November 2012: Sanal Edamaruku is currently facing charges for “deliberately hurting religious feelings" after he debunked a supposed miracle at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Sign our petition calling on the Catholic authorities to withdraw their complaints.