ON SEPTEMBER 21, 1995, Hindu communities all over the world were electrified by news of temple deities accepting offerings of milk. According to the stories, when deities of Ganesa, Lord Siva, and others were offered spoonfuls of milk, the milk would mysteriously disappear. It seemed that the deities were showing their divine power by mystically drinking the milk.
In India, "The gatekeeper of the Birla Temple reported that at least 55,000 have visited the temple and they spoonfed about 125 litres of milk." In America, "Thousands of awe-struck worshipers have swarmed into Hindu temples in Richmond Hill and Oakville to witness the remarkable phenomenon of milk-drinking statues that has baffled religious observers around the world." In one London temple, "a deity of Ganeshji was reported to have swallowed 3,000 pints."
Inevitably, there were skeptical rebuttals. Devotees in India discovered that if one touches a spoon filled with milk to the side of a smooth object, the milk will be drawn to the object by capillary attraction and will flow down from the point of contact in a thin stream. People who don't notice the stream of milk could imagine that the milk is literally disappearing before their eyes. The milk would not accumulate in a noticeable pool because it would be carried away bit by bit on the clothing and bodies of throngs of worshipers, or it would simply flow down a drain at the foot of the Deity. According to the debunkers, people were accepting a miracle simply on the basis of mass hysteria triggered by a simple misperception.
What is the truth? It is hard to say from few second-hand reports what really happened on September 21. But it is clear that as a social phenomenon the miracle of the milk is significant. Miracles and rumors of miracles clearly have a profound impact on human thinking. To make a few general observations about miracles, therefore, seems worthwhile.
Miracles and Nature
The word miracle comes from the Latin word mira, which means "to wonder at." Miracles are wondrous events that seem to surpass the laws of nature and are therefore ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause. Miracles have traditionally been seen as evidence for the reality of divine power, and they have served as an inspiration for religious faith. At the same time, miracles have also served as a focus for skepticism and doubt.
For most people the "laws of nature" are simply the regular patterns of events perceived through ordinary experience. For example, in ordinary experience a fluid such as milk always retains the same volume and appearance unless affected by heat, chemical action, or living organisms. One certainly doesn't expect to see milk disappear when brought into contact with a stone or metal statue. If it does disappear, this suggests that some higher power is involved. One could then invoke religious doctrines concerning God and demigods to explain the unexpected phenomenon: the event confirms the doctrines.
Unfortunately, other explanations for many alleged miracles are also possible. Human beings are subject to four defects: our senses are imperfect, we tend to make mistakes, we fall into delusion, and we have an inherent tendency to cheat.
If an unusual event occurs, the defects of our senses can easily give rise to many false reports of similar events. For example, let us suppose that milk really did disappear when offered in some temple on September 21. As word of this wonder spread, people elsewhere could easily be deluded by the capillary effect later pointed out by skeptics. This delusion would generate more stories, and the cheating propensity would induce some people to exaggerate or even outright lie.
The ultimate result is that genuine miracles, if they really do occur, will tend to be surrounded by a cloud of false reports. The false reports will vastly outnumber the genuine and create an atmosphere of skepticism. Since miracles are often taken as proof of religious doctrines, doubts about miracles give rise to doubts about the doctrines.
Yogis and Siddhis
Although miracles apparently violate natural law, they can nonetheless be seen as manifestations of higher natural laws. Thus the fourth-century Christian patriarch St. Augustine wrote, "Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known to us in nature." (1)
According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, powers known as siddhis include the ability to nullify gravity (laghima), change the size of one's body (anima and mahima), and acquire objects at a distance (prapti). (2) These siddhis are considered naturally existing, and a mystic yogi can acquire them.
Srila Prabhupada points out that with prapti-siddhi, "not only can the perfect mystic yogi touch the moon planet, but he can extend his hand anywhere and take whatever he likes. He may be sitting thousands of miles away from a certain place, and if he likes he can take fruit from a garden there." (3) When the yogi takes the fruit from a distance, a person sitting in the garden would see the fruit mysteriously disappear.
A yogi might also cause milk to disappear mysteriously without the direct intervention of a demigod such as Ganesa. I do not say that this is how the miracle of the milk got started. But as a general rule, many wonderful phenomena that might be attributed to a divine agency can also be caused in material ways involving ordinary living beings. This is important to understand, since miracles tend to confirm religious faith.
To perform mystical feats, a person does not have to be highly elevated in yoga. Srila Prabhupada discouraged his disciples from taking an interest in miracles, because many unscrupulous persons have attracted and cheated people by a display of mystic powers.
The typical pattern in India is that a person will begin to exhibit genuine mystic powers. When praised by naive followers, he then develops an inflated ego and presents himself as a divine incarnation. In many instances the person later loses his powers, and he then resorts to cheap tricks in an effort to live up to his followers' expectations. This, of course, provides a great opportunity for skeptics, who seize upon these cases to show the foolishness of religion.
The mysterious disappearance of objects is sometimes linked to quite ordinary people who may have never practiced yoga. In poltergeist cases, unusual events tend to occur in the presence of a so-called target person. These events include spontaneous fires, mysterious sounds, unexplained movement of objects, and things' mysteriously appearing and disappearing. Traditionally, these phenomena have been attributed to ghosts. (The word poltergeist is German for "noisy ghost.") But some parapsychologists have argued that these phenomena are actually caused by the subconscious mind of the target person.
The parapsychologist Ian Stevenson has given an example of a poltergeist case from India that involves disappearing food. (4) It seems that a woman named Radhika from the village of Degaon, south of Bombay, had the reputation in the village of being a sorceress. Food mysteriously disappearing in the village was turning up in Radhika's dwelling. The villagers thought she was stealing food by mystical means and offered to provide her with food if she would stop.
Stevenson's informant, one Swami Krishnanand, decided to put Radhika's abilities to the test. In one instance, "Swami Krishnanand … pointed to a lota which he held in his hand and to a man who was milking a cow some distance away, and asked to have some of the milk put into the lota. Instantly the lota became filled with milk and at the same time the milker noticed that his own vessel had less, rather than more, milk in it. He looked up astonished." (5) Radhika believed that these effects were due to a discarnate spirit that was allied with her, and Stevenson was inclined to favor this interpretation.
There are many accounts of this nature, and if any of them are true, it follows that many miracles may be real even though not due to the direct action of God or the highly placed servants of God known as demigods. But are any of these accounts true? This brings us to the modern scientific treatment of miracles.
Science and Miracles
The modern scientific approach can be traced back to the development of mathematical physics by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Newton introduced the strict mathematical formulation of the laws of nature known as the "laws of physics." Scientists highly value the laws of physics because by experimental measurements one can confirm the laws with great accuracy.
The laws of physics have undergone a number of revolutionary transformations since Newton's day, but they have always been completely incompatible with the kind of miraculous events I have been discussing. In particular, the law of conservation of energy does not allow for a macroscopic object to disappear without moving from point to point through three-dimensional space. (6) A miracle, in modern scientific terms, is something that is impossible because it violates the laws of physics.
The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume offered a criterion for evaluating miracles that is still widely accepted. He declared, "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish." (7)
This dictum shows that the validity of miracles ultimately must be decided by faith. Many scientists will conclude that large numbers of witnesses are lying rather than accept that a major violation of the laws of physics has taken place. For such scientists, miracles are ruled out. For others, the laws of physics are not sacrosanct, and the combined testimony of many responsible observers is enough to suggest that we still have much to learn about nature's laws.
Sri Caitanya's Miracles
The points I have made so far might suggest that miraculous events should not be granted a serious role in religion. But this is not correct, as we can see by considering the role of miracles in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition.
The pastimes of Lord Caitanya are filled with miraculous events. Lord Caitanya revived the dead son of Srivasa Thakura and healed sick persons such as the leper Vasudeva and the son-in-law of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, who was dying of cholera. Lord Caitanya revealed visions of His transcendental form to Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya and Ramananda Raya, and He influenced the Mayavadi sannyasis of Benares by manifesting a brilliant effulgence after entering their assembly. Lord Caitanya would sometimes mysteriously exit locked rooms, and He appeared in several kirtana (chanting) parties at once during the Rathayatra in Jagannatha Puri.
There are at least three instances in which Lord Caitanya made food disappear by eating from a distant place. While living in Jagannatha Puri, in the state of Orissa, He would sometimes mystically visit the home of His mother, Sacimata, in Bengal and eat the food she cooked for Him. He also mystically traveled from Jagannatha Puri to eat the offerings of Nrsimhananda Brahmacari, also living in Bengal. During the chipped-rice festival He invisibly visited Lord Nityananda, who fed Him morsels of chipped rice. Most of the assembled devotees could not understand what Lord Nityananda was doing, but some were able to see that Lord Caitanya was present.
The wonderful actions of Lord Caitanya clearly play an important role in the Caitanya-caritamrta, written by Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami shortly after Lord Caitanya's departure. After describing how Lord Caitanya ate the offerings of Nrsimhananda Brahmacari, Krsnadasa Kaviraja cites other examples of Lord Caitanya's mystically appearing in the presence of His devotees. Krsnadasa concludes by saying, "Thus I have described the appearance of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Anyone who hears about these pastimes can understand the transcendental opulence of the Lord." (8)
Miracles as Evidence
This sounds very much as though Lord Caitanya's miraculous activities are being presented as evidence proving His transcendental nature. In a sense this is true, but there are important distinctions to make between the miracles of Lord Caitanya and miracles described in popular accounts.
First of all, the miracles described in the Caitanya-caritamrta have been accepted by higher authorities in this case Krsnadasa Kaviraja and his gurus Raghunatha Dasa Gosvami and Svarupa Damodara. One of the drawbacks of miracle accounts is that they are typically transmitted by ordinary people, forced to evaluate them on the basis of imperfect information. This results in the acceptance of false accounts as genuine, and it may also result in the rejection of genuine miracles. But this problem is avoided if the miracle accounts are presented by higher authorities who are competent to evaluate them and who have reliable sources of information. In this case, Raghunatha Dasa Gosvami and Svarupa Damodara were highly qualified observers who directly witnessed many of Lord Caitanya's pastimes and were well acquainted with other witnesses.
For people in general, accepting miracle accounts from higher authorities reduces the problem of how to evaluate miracles to the deeper problem of how to decide who is a bona fide guru. Since the bona fide guru appears in disciplic succession, people are aided in solving this problem by established spiritual institutions and canonical texts. Although ascertaining who is a genuine spiritual authority may be difficult, it is easier than trying to sort out miracle stories one by one.
Another point is that Krsnadasa Kaviraja was not trying to demonstrate that because Lord Caitanya exhibited mystic powers He is transcendental. Mystic powers are common attributes of practically all beings above the level of modern humans (and of some who are subhuman), and such powers play a natural role in spiritual pastimes. Gurus such as Srila Prabhupada who discourage interest in miracles are simply trying to protect people from the depredations of mystical cheaters.
Lord Caitanya's activities are significant not because they involve mystic siddhis per se, but because they exhibit the transcendental loving reciprocation between the Lord and His devotees. Perhaps an intuitive longing for this reciprocation plays a part in attracting people so strongly to accounts of miracles.
1. Augustine, Against Faustus the Manichee, Book 29, Chapter 2.
2. Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 11, Chapter 15.
3. The Nectar of Devotion, pp. 11-12.
4. Stevenson, Ian, July, 1972, "Are Poltergeists Living or Are They Dead?" The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 66, No. 3.
5. Ibid., p. 243.
6. Subatomic particles can do this by a process known as quantum-mechanical tunneling. A macroscopic object is one that is much larger than an atom, and for such objects, quantum-mechanical tunneling is ruled out.
7. Hume, David, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," in Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, Second Edition, ed. L.A. Sleby-bigge (Oxford: 1902), pp. 115-116.
8. Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila, 2.83.
Sadaputa Dasa, (Richard L. Thompson) earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University. He is the author of several books, of which the most recent is Alien Identities: Ancient Insights into Modern UFO Phenomena.