Behind her, the girl's mother, Mahant Ma Shivajnana, readies a blindfold. To her right, a cardboard cutout of a guru smiles beatifically toward the audience of 50.
Shivajnana, a stern-faced Indian woman dressed in a yellow sari, picks up a red scarf from a nearby table.
"Another layer," says Alice Kramer into a microphone. Kramer sports a flowing white robe and the red dot called a bindi between her eyebrows. Shivajnana places the blindfold over her daughter's eyes, and then ties the red scarf over the blindfold, followed by a white scarf.
The scene is filmed by Joe Mason. He zooms the frame into the girl's face, capturing her movements as she reaches up with both hands to reposition the padding beneath the layers of fabric. As Shivajnana asks the audience members for a business card, the girl again reaches up and slides the blindfold even farther left.
She's going to read the business card, even though she's blindfolded. That's the whole pitch — and it's apparently sufficient enough to gather a crowd at 2 p.m. on a Friday. "Witness Super Human Power Through Simple Meditation," the invitation for the event trumpeted. "Share something extraordinary which many of us would not have seen before — a nine year old girl has the ability to see and read books BLINDFOLDED!"
The layered scarves, the blindfold, the ritualized spectacle — none of this shocks Mason. A long-time magician, he knows the placing of multiple blindfolds is mere misdirection, a veil of authenticity to distract the audience while the performer (in this case, the little girl) readjusts the fabric to create a space between her nose and cheek. From this opening, she can easily read the text of the business card being held six inches in front of her face.
"Nine, eight, one, four..." the girl reads. It's the address stamped on the card.
Mason doesn't join in the audience's applause. He's here with an ulterior motive: to expose this "demonstration" as a fraud. And he's brought along help in the form of two legendary magicians, Hari Monti and John Apperson. Collectively, they share more than two centuries of magic experience.
Not that it's needed. Even a rank amateur could identify this parlor trick.
However, Mason's plans won't end in a Houdini-like triumph over these charlatans. Instead, he will soon find himself kicked out of the library and talking to cops.
It was the invitation that caught Mason's eye. A former morning DJ for KSHE (94.7 FM) and reporter for KPLR-TV (Channel 11), he saw the promises of "Super Human Power" scheduled for the Thornhill branch of the St. Louis County Library on June 19 and couldn't shake the feeling that this was, at best, an intentional misrepresentation of a magic show. So he posted a comment on the Meetup event page.
"While I am a believer in meditation's many benefits, delivering the ability to read through a blindfold is not one of them," he wrote in a post dated May 26. "I'm all for a good trick, but I might suggest you frame it as exactly that, and not some supernatural event. If you have this event and don't change its claims, I'd be happy to post how the trick is performed."
He received a response from Ma Prabananda Swami, the event's organizer, the same day.
"Dear Joe, You are entitled for [sic] your opinion. As you claimed if you are a person of reason, you wouldn't have judged without witnessing for first hand. Everyone in this group are adults, let them judge after seeing the fact."
But Mason had witnessed the trick firsthand, or at least one very much like it. A basic Google search yields numerous examples of blindfolded performers who can read, trace abstract objects and even drive. One of the most famous purveyors of the illusion was Pakistani magician Kuda Bux, who in the 1950s parlayed his apparent "gift" for reading while blindfolded into his own TV show and career in show business.
"I found this off-putting, to promote a magic trick as a form of meditation," Mason says. "It's a false claim. It's a lie, and it's being used as a lure to eventually gain money."
It's an argument steeped in the history of skepticism, the same tradition that made Harry Houdini a legend in his time. In the 1920s, the final years of his life, Houdini headlined shows with marquees blaring "Fraud Mediums Exposed." It was Houdini, founder of the Society of American Magicians, who brazenly offered a cash prize for anyone who could successfully demonstrate psychic abilities. (No one ever collected.)
Mason isn't the only latter-day magician inspired by Houdini. James "The Amazing Randi" Randi broke Houdini's record by staying locked in a casket under water for 104 minutes, and he also established the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to root out untruths and expose the reprobates responsible.
"I admit that the reason I'm unable to accept the claims of psychic, occult, and/or supernatural wonders is because I'm locked into a worldview that demands evidence rather than blind faith," Randi said in 2003.
Apperson, the old-guard St. Louis magician, shares a similar view.
"When someone says they're a psychic, people just go nuts," he says. "They want that sort of thing. They want to believe."
For Mason, the library's supposed showcase of "Super Human Power" smelled of the heaviest hokum. The event's flyer directed him to the website of a controversial religious order that, while espousing various forms of meditation and Hindu tradition, is wholly organized to the whims of its leader, Paramahamsa Nithyananda, a "rare living avatar," or god incarnate, who seeks to offer humanity the secrets to obtaining "superconsciousness."
Clicking through the website, Mason found the guru's teachings led to webinars and workshops costing attendees hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars. Yes, for a price, devotees can travel to India to meet Nithyananda himself and study in his shadow. For the truly faithful, the website promises empowerment to "perceive beyond senses" and, indeed, read while blindfolded.
The other magicians joining Mason in his quest to debunk the trick at the library are both elder statesmen in St. Louis' magic scene. Harry Monti is considered St. Louis' godfather of magic, and Apperson is a former national president of the Society of American Magicians, the same organization Houdini founded in 1902. Although Monti is nearly 80 and Apperson's approaching 90, both are still active in the magic world. Both boast resumes stretching back through decades and thousands of shows.
"I've seen the trick more than 30 times," Monti says. A skilled magician can shift even thick layers of fabric and adhesive bandages by scrunching the eyebrows. The result is a peephole of sorts, an unobstructed cone of sight — not a miracle.
Mason, Monti, Apperson and two other magicians show up at the library on June 19, unsure of what they will find. But first, before the demonstration, they sit through a video about Nithyananda, whose teachings apparently granted the nine-year-old girl her incredible powers.
"It was almost humorous at first," Apperson later recalls. "They showed a film of this swami guy. He sang a song with his hands clasped together in prayer mode. It was a real show." The cardboard cutout of Nithyananda, turbaned and beaming atop a gold-fringed cloth, only adds to the comedic effect.
After the video, it's finally time for the main event. The young girl sits down in the chair. Shivajnana prepares the layers of scarves and, immediately afterward, her daughter begins tugging at the fabric covering her face, leaving the blindfold visibly shifted.
After having the girl read one business card, Prabananda asks the audience for another volunteer. Mason puts his hand up.
What happens next is a matter of some dispute. But what is agreed upon is that Mason attempts to expose the girl's charade.
His first tactic is to hold his own business card several inches above the girl's sightline, away from the gap she's created in the blindfold.
Shivajnana tries to grab Mason's hand to push it down. Mason insists she should be able to read it — but the older women insists it has to be lower: "They said she can't read it if it's not down," Apperson remembers.
Mason is prepared for this. He grabs an umbrella, which he's brought along for this very purpose. After opening it, the magician holds the umbrella in front of the girl's face. He places the business card behind the umbrella, at the girl's eye level.
Prabananda objects to this as well.
Mason protests. The card is in front of her eyes; it's in her range, he says. Isn't that enough?
Tension in the room is building. One audience member yells at Mason, demanding he sit down and stop causing trouble.
Prabananda then asks the audience if anyone wants to write a message on a whiteboard. That's when Apperson raises his hand.
At the top of the whiteboard, he writes: "I am a fake."
The women are irate. And that, Apperson says, is when a female audience member gets up and scratches out "fake," replacing it with "amazing" — but she writes it in the same place as Apperson. Which means it's still in the girl's blindspot.
The girl does her best. Apperson watches her trying to tip her head, but she still has a bad angle. The two women reposition her to no avail: "She's pushing the finger up there to push the blindfold up there so she can get a better shot at it."
The scene would be almost funny if not for what happens next. A librarian storms into the meeting room, accuses the magicians of causing a disturbance and demands they leave. When Mason and the others attempt to explain themselves, the librarian says she's calling the police.
"She says, 'I just want you out of the building, I want you out of the building right now,'" Apperson says. "We walked out, and sure enough here comes a county deputy."
St. Louis County Police spokesman Brian Schellman confirms that officers were dispatched to the library that day, responding to a report of a disturbance from an "elderly white male raising his voice, no weapons."
The officers write no citations and make no arrests.
Apperson and Monti — both elderly white males — are adamant that they never raised their voices. As for Mason, he questions whether the library violated its own policies regarding public meetings. Specifically, he points to the rules barring groups from using library space for financial gain, as well as the section that stipulates: "Meetings must be open to the public and attendees must be permitted to participate in the meetings."
St. Louis County Library's policies also include a clause barring disruptive behavior.
Reached for comment, St. Louis County Library spokeswoman Jennifer McBride says that although the group had reserved the meeting room, that doesn't necessarily mean the library endorsed the message or program.
"We have a wide variety of community groups and local businesses that can book our meeting rooms, and we have a policy that states that you cannot solicit products or services or ask for money," she says. "If they violate our policy, they will not be able to request the room. I have brought this to the attention of administration, so they are aware."
When asked about the June 19 incident, however, McBride places blame solely on the magicians.
"The reports that I heard was there was a disturbance in the meeting room created by two gentlemen who were attending the program, and the disturbance was loud enough to disrupt patrons in the larger library areas. So staff checked it out and asked the two gentlemen who were creating the disturbance to leave. That was when, subsequently, the police were called."
McBride declines to connect Riverfront Times with the librarian who called the cops.
The magicians are standing their ground.
"I was very proud to be thrown out with these magicians," Mason says. "We're just trying to expose fraudulent activity."
And the more deeply Mason researches into the group — and its mysterious smiling guru, Paramahamsa Nithyananda — the stranger the library's defense of it becomes.
"The surprising part is that this is a scam that simultaneously exists in many countries, although primarily India," he says. "It's hard to believe this stuff is going on here in the U.S., in St. Louis."
The legend of Paramahamsa Nithyananda, according to his website, begins in another realm. There, the still-unborn guru awakened to the consciousness of his being.
"It was neither dark nor light-filled; an indeterminate color covered planet Earth," Nithyananda writes. "Suddenly a bright light appeared from a region, which I now see as Southern India. I entered into that light in the form of a brilliant meteor. The very next sight that perceived with my inner eye was Arunachala, and I knew that I had assumed the body once more; I had entered the womb of my mother. It was conscious birth. I took a muhurta, which is a period of about 45 minutes in the Hindu system of measurement, to settle into the body."
The tale continues, winding through feats of mysticism and Nithyananda's merging with an incarnation of Lord Shiva, a powerful Hindu deity. Today the 37-year-old (or 38, according to other reports) is a widely traveled "godman" and spiritual leader.
He's also the defendant in multiple lawsuits alleging sexual abuse. Nithyananda made headlines in 2010 when a video, purporting to show the "living avatar" and a film actress having sex, was broadcast on the Sun News channel in India. The footage led to a lawsuit against the TV station, and Nithyananda later claimed that the video was faked — a childhood mutation, he said, left him physically incapable of sex. That same year, one of Nithyananda's former disciples claimed he had raped her repeatedly over a five-year period, launching another legal battle and more bad press.
The rap against the swami is more than just tabloid fodder. Lawsuits and reports in the India Times indicate Nithyananda heads a vast network of charities, shell companies and for-profit businesses. He's been accused of using the guise of charity to avoid paying taxes on some very lucrative profits.
Nithyananda's institutions are entrenched in this country as well. According tax records, the Nithyananda Yoga Foundation Inc. is a California-based nonprofit and registered as a religious organization that provides "meditation techniques from the Hindu and Vedic culture."
But the organization's latest tax filing should raise eyebrows.
In fiscal year 2013, Nithyananda's foundation reported $1.1 million in revenue, the vast majority of which is attributed to "program service revenue." The organization's only major expense, for $960,000, is linked to the meditation workshops in South Asia. The 21-day retreats are advertised on the Nithyananda website. They cost $10,000 for adults and $5,000 for children.
Groups associated with Nithyananda's teachings maintain chapters in seven states, tax records show. That includes a St. Louis chapter, which holds regular events and meditation classes in the region. A small temple 37 miles southwest of St. Louis, in House Springs, was dedicated in 2007. The 45-minute drive has seemingly pushed the St. Louis acolytes to hold their workshops and blindfold-reading demonstrations in libraries and hotel conference halls instead.
Meetup, the online platform for group activities, has been a boon for Nithyananda's U.S. agents. A calendar for a "Nithyananda St. Louis Yoga University" group lists five events a week in July, most of which take place at the Festus Public Library. The events appear to be the work of just two people: Alice Kramer and Ma Prabananda Swami.
On June 30, Kramer, a spry, elderly white woman is hosting a meditation class in a meeting room in the Festus library. Kramer was the woman emceeing the blindfold demonstration interrupted by Mason and his magician crew earlier that month. Today she's sitting on a padded mat, surrounded by five middle-aged women.
Kramer instructs guests to fill out a waiver. The fine print indicates that the goal is to protect "Nithyananda Yoga Foundation" from being sued, should anyone manage to somehow injure themselves while meditating. Another signature grants Nithyananda Yoga Foundation the right to use participants' likeness in future marketing endeavors.
Kramer passes out several printed worksheets, each featuring the ever-smiling face of Nithyananda. Kramer has also placed a framed photo of the swami next to a set of wireless speakers.
"Today we're going to talk about the Muladhara chakra," Kramer says. Chakra, she explains, are centers of spiritual energy located at various points on the body. Each chakra can be blocked by a kind of negative energy, and the Muladhara chakra is blocked by fantasy or lust.
"Try to watch the play of your mind with awareness," she says, reading off the worksheet. "Try to see how your mind plays in every scene that you see, distorting it with fantasy. Try to catch these scenes before the mind steps in and passes judgment on them. You will see what reality you are missing."
Kramer begins talking about the nature of awareness and relates a story of a pious woman whose care for living things was so intense that roses would shed their thorns at her touch.
"We just had a little girl here, a little girl who spent two years at the ashram," Kramer says giddily. "She goes to school at the ashram, and she's been initialized into third-eye awakening. We haven't gotten to that yet, but we will. This little girl can read blindfolded. Anyway, she was telling us how at the ashram they talk to their flowers before they pick them. It's not just having respect, but it is bringing some awareness into your relationship. What we're trying to do is slow everything down."
After her introductions, Kramer prepares the group for the meditation, something called "chaotic breathing." She reaches into a bag and pulls out a bundle of black fabric with straps hanging loosely.
"The reason we have the blindfold is that people get self-conscious doing things like chaotic breathing," she says. "This seems to make it easier."
The meditation itself feels interminably long. Guests are instructed to breathe strongly, but erratically, through the nose. Kramer tells everyone to clear their minds of stray thoughts.
But if you were to push your blindfold up and slightly to the side, leaving a tiny gap so you could see what's going on in the room just like that nine-year-old girl reading a business card, you'd see Kramer's nose flare as she breathes "chaotically." A few minutes later, you'd see her browsing on her phone.
After the 40-minute meditation, Kramer agrees to talk privately with a reporter.
She is the very definition of a true believer. She says that she's attended two "Inner Awakening" workshops, one at a cost of $6,000 and the other at $10,000. (These are the workshops advertised on the website prominently featured on meditation worksheets.)
Kramer, who also works as an attorney, says that she receives no money from Nithyananda's network of schools and nonprofits. Neither, for that matter, does Ma Prabananda Swami, even though she's listed as the American contact on the Nithyananda website. The money, it appears, only travels up — to the guru.
The numbers don't bother Kramer.
"It's transformative. It's absolutely transformative," Kramer says of the Inner Awakening workshops. Nithyananda, she says, cured her of Bell's palsy.
"I was skeptical when I started, but there's a whole different energy level that you exist on. And it's blissful," Kramer says. Of Nithyananda, she says, "I know he is an enlightened master because I have sat with him. When I watched him, I thought I was in front of Jesus."
She defends the library having the magicians kicked out of the event two weeks before.
Kramer says they tried to intimidate the girl. They were loud, obnoxious and disruptive, so it was completely reasonable for the librarian to call the police.
"The guys weren't respectful in their challenges. One guy got up and wrote 'I am a fake,' and wanted the little girl to read that. He could have..."
But aren't the words themselves irrelevant? Couldn't the girl have read the words regardless of the actual content of the message?
"Well, he wrote it up here," Kramer says, waving her hand above her head. She drops her hand to rest in front of her face. "And she's very clear that her third eye is here."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the Fenton Public Library as the location for the Meetup meditation class. The actual location was the Festus Public Library. We regret the error.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.