As these eternal questions have, and will, torment us forever, there is no getting out of the fear and the awe of the supernatural. whenever there is despair, or when the future is uncertain, or when terror stalks the soul, the godman gets a near open invitation. Scientific advance concedes empty knowledge spaces, but as faith fills the vacuum it readily serves up answers to the unanswerables. At this level, there is just no argument between science and faith but science has to concede.
No doubt, there were great ascetics and kind and generous faith leaders who, at tremendous personal cost, often gave faith to the masses in times of great distress. From Jesus to Muhammad, to Vivekananda and even Dayananda Saraswati, they have shored up our spirits and gave us strength. The truth, however, is that when these great souls depart, they leave behind followers. As they lack the charisma of their gurus, they reduce the substance of their teachings to miracles and magic.
To blame Indians, or Hindus, alone for being prone to mystics and godmen would be unfair and unjust. What remains true is that godmen do extraordinarily well in our country than in most others we know of, and that is where the puzzle lies. Is our society more vulnerable? Or, is Hinduism particularly susceptible? Or, does this show up so clearly among us because of the way we practice democracy and secularism?
India and its divisions
True, it is difficult to find another place where people are as divided as we are in India. Just imagine living with thousands of cases where each order has a different prescription of what is a “good life” and how to lead it! Worse, those at the top lord it over the rest in the name of an imagined myth. This, in turn, creates rivalries because nobody likes to be told that their rightful place is way down, perhaps even as outcasts. At each level then, origin tales and fables multiply contesting actual rankings with imagined and aspirational ones.
Second, notice the unique features of Hinduism. This is one major religion that does not need a communion — there is nothing that two Hindus can do which one Hindu cannot! As a result, instead of a priest, or a Mullah, leading a community prayer in a church or a mosque or a synagogue, we have designer gurus. Many of them are ready to be domesticated should their patrons be rich enough. In fact, Manu warned us against “wandering ascetics”, preferring instead the house-trained ones. Leave aside the lesser texts, gurus of this sort abound in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
It is hardly surprising then that Hindu godmen should behave like magicians and their followers like clients. Within the walls of any “dera”, hermitage, or guru’s lair, devotees are hugely outnumbered by pay-as-you-go clients. None of these Hindu godmen has ever led a religious war, for those who visit them are not believers, but miracle-seekers. They have not come to die for a cause, but to get something out of it.
Undeniably, Hindu scriptures soften the mind and make it more prone to magic. The Vedas, for example, go on and on about how the gods must be pleased with libations and lavish praise, to win wars, beget sons, and acquire immeasurable wealth. While other religions frighten devotees with religious wrath, Hindu texts instead take the route of pleasing their gods who are always open to persuasion. Neither Shiva nor Kali is nearly as vengeful as Athena, Aphrodite or Yahweh.
Playing the godman card
But most important of all, it is the way democracy and secularism are practiced in India. People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes. It never really quite works that way because the godmen’s followers are thinking cures, bank balance and success, not democracy. From Bhindranwale to Ramdev to Nithyananda to Asaram and now Rampal, not a single baba ever succeeded in converting their clients into vote banks.
Still, politicians persist in this tack and cover their backs by sloganeering democracy and secularism. Winning elections by playing the godman card seems perfectly acceptable to them because they see their voters as dumb, driven, religious cattle. Sadly for the babas, though, they just have a few good years at the top. Very soon, the godman has to be dispensed with: it is either because of the genie out of the bottle syndrome or because a new power center has emerged.
It eventually, therefore, distills down to politics. Babas catering to gullible folks would hardly be a social nuisance if politicians did not meddle in this magician-client relationship. Indira Gandhi’s choice of Bhindranwale is the best illustration of how a petty soothsayer can become a monster and cause enormous public damage. If Bhindranwale had been left alone in his “dera” he would probably be living today and so would thousands of innocent Sikhs who were caught in the crossfire.
Many of us do not quite appreciate why Nehru refused to pull in his horns when he opposed President Rajendra Prasad’s decision to inaugurate the Somnath temple after its post-Independence makeover. To read his objection as that of an atheist against a believer would be grossly misleading; in fact, it was a warning not to involve the state too intimately with religion. Yet, his daughter, Indira, rarely kicked off an election campaign without a temple visit. Nowhere does the book of democracy say that worship is out, it would be ridiculous to make such an assertion. At the same time to have the official airwaves swinging to chants and hymns undermines the sanctity of secularism.
Hindus may or may not be overly religious, but that should not excuse politicians when they include babas in their power calculations. Most societies are religious and yet, if they are democracies, it is important that they keep faith in its place. The French did this job remarkably well when in 1905 they banned the wearing of religious symbols, notably the cross, by government functionaries. This angered the Pope and he railed against this “ungodly” policy from St. Peter’s Square. The French President of the day stood firm and eventually, the Catholic Church retreated. Today, there are vibrant churches in France, but there is a vibrant democracy too. As Hegel famously said, by separating church from a state we are actually doing both a favor. A time comes in every democracy’s life to call a spade a spade and not draw and redraw lines in the sand.
Secularism truly means keeping religion out of politics. Likewise, democracy truly means keeping politics out of religion. Distort either one and you muck up the other.
Fear of the future makes people seek out spiritual gurus in search of reassurance. And that is why a thousand Radhe Maas flourish
India is famous for Basmati rice, yoga, Gandhi and, of course, spiritualism. Sadhus and Sants dot the country, ranging from the lone, bearded baba under the village tree to swamis who live luxurious lives with a battery of attendants and devotees doing their bidding.
Clairvoyant, spiritual guru, representative of god — godmen and women in India have been called these and much more. They are in the news again, thanks to Radhe Maa of Mumbai who has been accused by a woman of instigating her in-laws to harass her for dowry.
All of us have heard from friends, relatives, acquaintances, even strangers, of how they met a baba or Mataji and their lives changed forever. Their businesses picked up, the childless got a child, ‘problems’ sorted themselves out… in short, it was happiness all the way.
Most seek the help (guidance?) of godmen not for spiritual purposes but for improving their material lives. Will I get a promotion or will my colleague beat me to it; will I get the party ticket to contest elections, if yes, will I win; will my new venture make profits — these are some of the typical ‘problems’ for which people seek ‘guidance’ or answers.
These issues stem from fear – fear of the uncertain. Humans love to peep into the future and when they are assured by their baba or Mataji that all will be well (if not today, then tomorrow), they heave a sigh of relief. When some of their problems are resolved, thanks to some luck and the normal course of things, they attribute it to miracles (‘even the doctors had given up hope’) and the protective hand of the guru.
But what of the price people pay for such assurance of ‘happiness unlimited’? By seeking the help of godmen and clairvoyants, people turn away from reality. Even the educated and rational become vulnerable when a slew of problems strikes them. Indeed, in most instances, the devotee is assured that it is his good karma that brought him to the spiritual guide in the first place (‘not everyone can get the Swamiji’s darshan,’ he is assured). People start believing that all good things that happen to them are thanks to the blessings bestowed on them, and all the bad things will eventually pass if they follow their guruji’s advice (which may range from an appeal for a modest contribution to demands for huge sums of money to propitiate the gods). Before they realize it, they become dependent on these so-called gurus for their physical, emotional and financial well-being. The search for quick-fix solutions and the lack of courage renders them incapable of facing the day-to-day challenges of life.
Why are our godmen and women so successful? Most of them come from humble backgrounds, start in a small way and, within a few years, have a huge following with swanky ashrams, temples and loads of money. No business model can explain their exponential growth. Almost always, they claim they are an incarnation of God. A police officer, for instance, claimed that Lord Krishna appeared in his dreams and told him he was Radha. Soon, a halo is created around them by a few people, which is then publicised to attract more devotees to the fold. Stories of miracles are meticulously spread.
The Mataji’s and babas acquire a cult status once politicians and celebrities, ever ready to exploit anything that can remotely benefit them, enter the scene. Thanks to political patronage, adulation, and publicity, it is not long before dollars and foreign tours start flowing in. The heady mix of money, power, and religion without responsibility and the knowledge that even the state is scared of meddling with religious affairs make godmen and women acquire a larger-than-life image. Many invest in hospitals, ashrams, and educational institutions, which increases their popularity.
What sets them apart from politicians, celebrities and businessmen is the religious sanction of their influence, which they exploit to the fullest. They no longer seek or appeal for donations; they place orders. There are reports in the media of people who sell their property, even abandon their families at the command of their so-called gurus.
What is baffling is the continued following saints and gurujis command even after allegations of sex, sleaze and crime are leveled against them. Swami Premananda, once hailed as a spiritual leader, was sentenced to life for rape and murder. Other religious leaders have been accused of similar crimes and more. But their followers live in denial; those who make the allegations are sidelined, threatened, even silenced. Sadhu’s and Sadhvi’s, it would seem, can do no wrong. Any challenge to their authority is perceived as a challenge to religion itself. The fear of antagonizing the gods in whose name godmen and women thrive and the fear of reprisal prevents many from speaking out.
Ours is a country where religion is fed to people on a daily basis, and spiritual gurus are held in great awe and respect. It has produced many eminent spiritual leaders who have worked for the welfare of people, showing them the path to salvation. This is perhaps the reason people believe that those who preach in the name of God can do no wrong.
All religions preach spirituality. But it is necessary to remember that spiritualism is also about giving up materialism, not promoting it in the name of religion. A guru or guide should ideally help realize one’s spiritual dream, not promise the world to his or her devotees in exchange for money, land or patronage. Anyone who claims to speak on behalf of god and broker deals with god for a commission can hardly be trusted to elevate a person spiritually.
But then, till people realize that life has its ups and downs and no one except them can fight their everyday battles, Swamiji’s and Mataji’s will continue to prosper. They will continue to promise quick fixes in the name of the god they claim to represent and who has ordained them to provide salvation to humanity – that part of humanity which is willing to submit and asks no questions.
They are here to stay until social consciousness undergoes a qualitative change
The recent revelations about the ‘divine preoccupations’ of godmen in the sacred precincts of their ashrams have been appalling, not because they were bereft of such qualities in the past. From the time of the Maharaj libel case (1862) through the intrigues of Chandraswami and Dhirendra Brahmachari, to the contemporary saga of Dera Sacha Sauda and Asaram Bapu, the list is unending. But this time the incidents of sex, murder and mayhem, which were reportedly enacted in their ashrams, are lurid and startling. That the godmen were able to pursue their interests for years without attracting the attention of the state is perhaps not surprising, given the nexus between political power and religious establishments, but it is reprehensible.
The unflinching faith of the followers in the divinity of godmen is the latter’s main capital, which is assiduously constructed over time. Under coercion or consent, the devotees appear to submit to the extortion or exploitation of godmen. Contemporary India looks like a modern country with scientific establishments, and high-speed trains and expansive highways, but set in a social situation reeking of medievalism, caste discrimination, religious obscurantism, gender inequality, and superstitions.
Modernity and irrationality
The coexistence of modernity with irrationality and obscurantism, which has often been dismissed as a passing phase of a society in transition, has been a (the?) hallmark of independent India. The ruling elite pinned their hopes on economic development to overcome this impediment, but economic development has not been all-embracing. Facing the crisis thus generated by the apparently elite character of development, it was not surprising that a large segment of the population succumbed to the temptations of an unreal world which godmen proffered.
Yet another constituency of the godmen were the members of the burgeoning middle class of the post-Independence era. The hallmark of this class was the intense cultural and social crisis for which they sought a solution in other-worldliness advocated by the godmen. They were led to an island of liberation where all social inhibitions could be shed, and peace and salvation promised, through the medium of the godmen. The mindless support godmen thus elicit from their unsuspecting followers is used to garner social, political and economic power.
In recent times, the increasing number of godmen (and women) are spotted in State governments and corporate board meetings, educational institutions, and all other important places. They are not spiritual men but ambitious con artists who purvey deception, falsehood, and religiosity in the name of god.
Education not enough
Rationalists and liberals looked upon education which promoted scientific temper and rational thinking as the antidote to what they conceived as a result of cultural and social backwardness. But education has not adequately fulfilled this role. After all, the substantial following that godmen command is not from the illiterate masses, but from the well-educated middle class that tends to celebrate the irrational in the name of culture.
Popular media, either consciously or unconsciously, promotes and reinforces irrationality and superstition. The reading material available in almost all Indian languages is replete with accounts of the charismatic personae and spiritual qualities of godmen. Not only religious channels but some secular channels too telecast programmes eulogizing their qualities and achievements. From these popular representations, and patronage they seem to enjoy from the state, they derive considerable legitimacy.
The godmen are here to stay until social consciousness undergoes a qualitative change.
Controversies do not diminish the great role played by many spiritual gurus
The term ‘godmen’ is problematic, especially in cultures where men, women, animals, birds, rivers, mountains — really, every particle in the universe — is revered and respected. The cultures of India, China, Japan, and other parts of Asia have been inspired by Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism for more than two millennia. The Hindu philosophy celebrates the ideas of divinity in each particle. The Buddhist philosophy celebrates the Buddha nature of each particle of the universe. The Jain philosophy similarly celebrates non-violence towards each particle in the universe.
If we focus just on male figures, we will have to start with the first historical figures such as the Buddha and Mahavira. The Buddha still remains one of the most popular figures in the world. And one of the greatest legacies of the Buddha and Mahavira is that thousands of men and women chose spiritual careers in India and elsewhere.
Some of these spiritual gurus, such as Adi Shankaracharya, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Mirabai, achieved charismatic success. Almost all these figures would have been called ‘godmen’ (or ‘godwomen’). Almost all of them revived philosophical ideas that were losing their relevance in their contemporary societies. They also taught social equality and ecological sustainability.
Controversies and contributions
Unfortunately, many of them, their family members, and/or their followers were also involved in different kinds of controversies. The Buddha’s ascetic order was embroiled in immoral behavior-based controversies after a few centuries. Mahavira’s disciples remain divided into two sects. Adi Shankaracharya’s different maths have been dragged into controversies.
And yet, all of these controversies do not diminish the great roles played by these spiritual gurus. Meditation taught by the Buddha and non-violence taught by Mahavira will continue to inspire humanity to become more mindful and cut down their meat consumption for the health of our own bodies and for our fragile ecosystem.
Despite all the disparaging labels that are applied against few of our contemporary spiritual leaders, such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, we cannot ignore that yoga and Pranayam have been revived and popularised by these two gurus in India. Both of these practices are now being scientifically tested and validated in the West thanks to similar efforts by the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist monks at Emory University in Atlanta, for instance. As an American citizen, I should also count several more such spiritual leaders who have greatly enriched American culture despite the controversies that are associated with them. Vivekananda, Yogananda, Osho, Prabhupada, Mahesh Yogi, Muktananda, Neem Karoli Baba, Kripalu Maharaj, Amma, and many Buddhist monks and nuns have transformed thousands of Americans who are now practicing yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, breathing exercises, fasting, and vegetarianism.
Sociologist Max Weber had coined the term ‘Routinisation of Charisma’ to describe how the charisma of spiritual gurus is routinized into an ongoing authority structure. Almost all the spiritual gurus who either started out as charismatic or who later achieved their charismatic appeal globally were eventually routinized by their disciples to maintain this appeal. This process is not perfect and may involve controversies.
In our world, when anger, greed, false pride, selfishness, egoism, egotism, and all other materialistic ideas continue to separate us from other human beings, other species and other particles, let us remind ourselves what almost all the spiritual gurus have always tried to teach us. Let us not expect any of them to be 100% controversy-free.
Apathy in addressing the basic issues of the poor provides a fertile ground for godmen to thrive
Why do people remain so obsessed with godmen even when godmen fail them? What attracts people to them? Why are the abodes of these godmen — deras, maths, ashrams — treated as alternative socioreligious spaces for a large number of people, increasingly replacing temples, churches and gurdwaras? What makes these followers so blind in their faith that they not only accept these self-styled ‘godmen’ as messengers of god, but in some cases even as incarnations of god? Can these followers who willingly surrender themselves to the dictates of the godmen be simply dismissed as ignorant, or irrational, or gullible ? What about ‘knowledgeable’ politicians who appear equally eager to seek the blessings of godmen?
Explaining the bind
I threw these questions at my students and the article is the result of an exchange of ideas with them. The success of godmen can be explained in terms of the sheer physicality of social materialism that has got intrinsically embedded in a consumerist society. Eager for a quick-fix solution to their seemingly intractable problems of everyday life, which may arise due to economic and social marginality but may also be the by-product of a fast-paced, rapidly changing the materialistic life, people rush to godmen in the hope that the miracle men will heal them. Since the days of the Mahabharata, there has been a long tradition of following rishis or gurus who have shown the path of salvation to their followers. Thus one can view the godmen in the long line of spiritual tradition of our ancient land. As a majority of followers belong to the socially and economically marginal groups, the equality and dignity that they feel in the presence of their godmen go a long way in attracting them to ‘open’ spaces like deras as opposed to temples and gurdwaras where they face discrimination. Sometimes, exclusion compels them to build separate religious places and cremation grounds. In social terms, what binds the followers to the godmen, and also to each other, is not only the massive developmental work they take up, related to health, education, and eradication of social evil, but also a deeply embedded shared every day, associational life that extends much beyond the premises of deras and ashrams.
All this seems to have gone haywire now. Politicians continue to cultivate them in return for an electoral dividend as some of these godmen have a huge following. This phenomenon, especially in the context of the Punjab-Haryana region where these godmen flourish, can be attributed primarily to the fact that the social basis of political power has remained unaltered in favor of the upper castes or upper-class communities. Unwilling to share power, yet compelled to seek the crucial support of numerically strong and economically mobile Dalit and other backward castes voters, the dominant caste political leadership has often taken recourse to the ‘softer’ option of cultivating the deras to ‘deliver’ en bloc the marginal castes’ votes.
The emergent demographic profile of the country indicates that religiosity will gradually come down, and rational values as a by-product of modernity will percolate down to villages and small towns from where people flock to godmen in large numbers. Of late, a series of exposes on the nefarious activities of godmen, as well as judicial intervention, has dented the public image such men (seldom women) enjoy. Also, since the organizations run by these godmen are personality-centered and centralized in structure, the deras/ashrams are likely to fade away once these godmen depart from public life or are forced to depart from public life. While that could be viewed as a positive thing, the government’s apathy to address the basic issues of the poor coupled with the increasing alienation among the middle class in a market economy might provide a fertile ground for godmen to thrive.