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#India – Babas And Their Blind Believers #mustread

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Asaram Bapu‘s imprisonment on the charge of raping a minor has failed to shake the faith of thousands who still defend him. Why do followers of holy men become so blindly rapt in their devotion that their power of reasoning fails them?  finds out

September 29, 2013

Navigating the many roads in Delhi named after truth, justice and peace – Satya MargNyay MargShanti Path – several people are making their way to the famous landmark of . Once having sought these very virtues from a godman named , today they’re praying for the redemption of their guru. But this godman, who had once claimed to lead them to the path of redemption, is now incarcerated in Jodhpur on the charge of raping a minor.

A variety of prayers, chants, havans, fasts and  are being organised here. Many sadhus and saints can be seen sitting atop a huge makeshift stage. Announcements are being made at intervals, urging people to keep chanting ‘Om Hari Om’ for Bapu’s speedy release from jail. Incantations echo from every corner. People are carrying placards, some with slogans supporting Asaram – ‘Sadhu-santo ka apmaan, nahin sahega Hindustan’ (An insult to our sages will not be tolerated) – others slamming the media. One of them reads – ‘Sara media bikau hai, Bapu ji tikau hai’ (The media has sold out; only Bapu is here to stay). Posters have been pasted on walls, trees, tanks and poles nearby. Entry for all media channels is banned except for one – ‘’. The devotees present are convinced that the media has conspired against and thus, it is their arch enemy. Some days ago, these seekers of peace also smashed the cameras of a few media persons. Everybody is a volunteer here – they can stop you from taking pictures, inspect your camera, tell you to delete pictures they don’t like and even break your camera. They cannot be intimidated with threats of being handed over to the police because for them, going to jail is an honour. After all, they would be following in the footsteps of their guru. In fact, some of them have earned this ‘honour’ already by spending a day or two in jail.

If one wants to find out why these people refuse to hear anything against and how they came to be so devoted to him,  is not the right place. The atmosphere is just too tense here. One must meet a devotee in private. Dilip, a 40-year-old resident of Shahdara, Delhi, has just returned after having spent a night in jail. He has been an Asaram devotee for the past ten years. His family used to worship Asaram like God and his wife used to visit Asaram’s ashram every Sunday. Ever since Asaram was accused of raping a minor, Dilip’s neighbours have started taunting him. Last Sunday, one of his neighbours cheekily asked him, “Dileep bhai, has your wife gone to Asaram’s ashram?” This comment provoked Dilip and led him astray from the path of peace he had been following for the past ten years: the argument between the two turned so violent that the police had to lock them up.

Though a native of Bijnor, Dilip has been in Delhi for five years. Vikas, his close friend, tells TEHELKA how Dilip came to know Asaram. In 2001, as Dilip was looking for a job to support his family, he contracted an illness that people usually shy away from revealing – piles. The idea of a surgery scared him, so he did not visit a doctor. One day he saw a ’s (godman) advertisement which promised love, resolution of quarrels, revenge against enemies, remedies for ‘secret diseases’ and a cure for piles without even an injection. If we classify the types of godmen in the country, the babas who promise to solve all sorts of problems are the greatest in number. They are present in every city and village and are frequented mostly by uneducated people. They do not give spiritual guidance, but claim to solve problems using tantra-mantra. This was the first time Dilip came in contact with them. The baba handed him a fistful of ash from the havan kund in exchange for Rs 200. But Dilip did not recover.

Psychologist Nimesh Desai, says, “People always look for something to believe in. And these godmen take advantage of it with their tricks. When a person seeks solace in babas, he transfers his entire mental burden upon them. He is deluded into believing that a supernatural power is taking care of his responsibilities and helping him. If any good happens in his life, he takes it as a blessing from the baba and becomes devoted to him for life.”

Meanwhile, Dilip came to know of another holy man who was visiting a nearby village. He was told that the man cured illnesses by just a touch. When he reached there, he saw the holy man performing miracles. Dilip fell for it like the other villagers and accepted the baba’s greatness.

People are always intrigued by ‘miracles’. The craft of performing miracles has helped the baba business flourish across villages and metros. South India’s was also known for such miracles. Two years ago, when he passed away, Rs 11.5 crore, 98 kg of gold and 307 kg of silver was recovered from his room. This is a meagre amount in comparison to what he had accumulated. Some estimate that the  Trust’s assets amount to Rs 40,000 crore.

According to Mumbai-based psychologist , humans have an innate curiosity for magic. When a sleight of hand is presented in connection with religion or god, it sways people easily. Patkar is the Vice President of Maharashtra’s Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (CEBF). This committee has exposed many quack doctors and fake godmen in Maharashtra. Its members visit villages and demonstrate how sleights of hand, termed as miracles of godmen, are performed. But such minor godmen do not pose any threat to society as people visit them looking for solutions to their problems and once deceived by them, turn away. Patkar thinks that the most dangerous for society are those godmen who have managed to deceive thousands of people for years by captivating their minds.  is one of them.

In 2003 when Dilip got engaged, his fiancée, who was a devotee of Asaram, advised him to meet the saint. Upon reaching his ashram, Dilip witnessed his devotees engrossed in meditation. Thousands were chanting praises of their guru. Life-size images of him covered with garlands could be seen all around. Asaram’s aura enraptured Dilip.

Patkar says, “The first meeting with these godmen usually casts a pleasant impression. It is nothing but a psychological illusion. It is similar to a patriotic film rousing patriotic feelings in someone. This is what happens in the ashrams too. When thousands around you are singing someone’s praises, one is bound to get affected.”

Incidentally, Dilip recovered from his illness after visiting Asaram’s ashram, resulting in deep devotion. Some ‘billionaire babas’ are so well-established that their devotees do not leave them when their problems are ‘solved’. The number of their followers is an achievement of which they boast. They have followers from different backgrounds as opposed to the minor godmen whom mostly less educated people approach. But ironically, a section of our society which is the least educated, lives under the harshest conditions and barely manages their daily bread, is the furthest from these gurus.

A close scrutiny of the network of these ‘holy men’ who have come to personify the ideas of religion, yoga, meditation and sometimes even god, reveals that they work in a planned manner. First they attract people using their ‘godliness’ and eventually make them life-long followers. These followers then become dependent on the godmen who use them to further their own interests.

WHAT DRAWS PEOPLE TO GODMEN

Dilip’s story explains why some people follow saints. Psychologists believe that depressed and hopeless people are the easiest prey. Patkar says, “When you are in trouble or under stress, you are unable to think clearly. People start looking for instant solutions and they get drawn to the fake promises of these godmen.” Presenting saints as a panacea to all ills has become an industry – television does the job of ensuring that people get to know them. Channels are paid to telecast their sermons and assemblies. One can often find people sharing their personal experiences of how a baba’s blessings helped them prosper. These influence others in need.

Social and economic security also makes people susceptible to the influence of babas. People fear losing what they possess and the current cut-throat economy has increased this fear. Patkar says, “When people fear losing something, they become more impressionable, which the babas take advantage of. These days, people often have to compromise on certain important things to succeed. This leads to feelings of guilt, from which they seek refuge in godmen who, instead of dealing with the problem, give them false assurances. People forget their insecurities and feel good for some time. It is akin to closing your eyes when you see impending danger and thinking that the problem has disappeared.”

A former follower of claims that the holy man made crores of rupees just by giving advice as absurd as eating samosas with green chutney instead of red. Godmen utter these recommendations with such confidence that people believe them to be genuine. A crowd of a thousand people attending these samagams (meetings) influences the people watching them on TV. The Director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Nimesh Desai says, “These holy men know how to use the media for their benefit. They use TV channels to present their desired persona before the public which attracts them.”

They also extensively use the internet for propaganda. Almost all leading holy men have personal websites. On ’s website, one can read personal accounts of people. The website has a separate section for the ‘divine experiences’ of devotees. One female devotee wrote that her in-laws harassed her and forced her to have sex with her brother-in-law. Even her husband did not support her. One day, as she was meditating,  appeared and told her that he would set everything right. When she asked her husband to seek Bapu’s blessings, he refused, only to wake up the next morning with bruises and wounds all over his body. After this incident, her husband was convinced of Bapu’s powers. When TEHELKA tried to contact this woman using the email address cited at the end of the anecdote, it turned out to be a fake address. Other such accounts were also found to be submitted from fake email addresses. Publicising these presumably self-written ‘spiritual experiences’, Asaram managed to accumulate a large fan-following.

Just like they use television and other media, these godmen have also used people for their publicity. Among the devotees of , there are many whose friend’s aunt or neighbour’s uncle was cured of some disease. But no matter how much you try, you will never be able to trace that aunt or uncle who experienced the miracle.

Often, people are driven to these babas by those they admire or respect. Take Ashutosh, for instance, a resident of Uttarakhand’s Tehri district who works in a government bank. Although he is not a follower of any saint now, he had been a devotee of Asaram for many years. When he was in Class X, he revered his mathematics teacher who was a devotee of Asaram. “We used to obediently listen to him. So when he asked us to visit Asaram’s ashram, we happily did so. At that time, Asaram had come to Tehri. His posters were on display all around the city and the ashram was lavishly decorated. This influenced us even more.”

On being asked why he stopped following Asaram, he says, “After some time I realized that one is not permitted to ask questions at the ashram. You have to blindly follow everything. In a way, you are cut off from real world. When I realized that instead of broadening my mind, I was limiting it, I stopped going there.”

There are many who endorse these godmen for their own vested interests such as hotel owners and businessmen. Whenever a holy man goes somewhere, he does not have to pay for accommodation. Instead, hotels compete with each other in offering huge sums of money to host them. The highest bidder gets the baba. When  visited , many hotels offered him lakhs of rupees to stay with them. A popular holy man staying in a hotel gives visibility to the place and ensures its popularity, especially among his devotees who consider it blessed to stay where their baba earlier had. In this manner, many businessmen use their ‘devotion’ for babas to boost their business.

HOW THE BABA BUSINESS FLOURISHES

Since the arrest of Asaram, several other cases of corruption in his ashrams have come to light. Many complaints from local residents have surfaced. Charges have been laid against his ashrams for embezzling huge sums of government funds and annexing government land. There are also reports of illegal activities being carried out in the ashrams. But these scams were not exposed earlier because most godmen have political backing. Parijat, a youth worker with , explains, “These babas have millions of devotees. So if they vouch for any political leader or party, it ensures a huge vote bank for them. That is why all political parties patronise them. Moreover, since the devotees blindly follow their babas, they do not question the policies of the government nor do they ask what it has done for the people or how it is utilising funds. In return, the government also favours the babas.”

When BJP leader Umar Bharti was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, she had organised a pravachan (speech) of Asaram in the state legislature. The entire cabinet and the MLAs of the ruling party attended the meet. The government even prepared the press note for the event and published it in newspapers across the state. Such support from political leaders is responsible for the widespread influence of godmen.

Babas also spread their empire by selling merchandise – a multi-crore business. Their products include medicines, cosmetics and clothes and have a ready-made market among the godmen’s followers. They are also sold on the pretext of encouraging indigenous products instead of foreign brands.  and Sri Sri Ravishankar use this tactic to promote their products. They use the media and the internet to further their business interests as well.

WHY DEVOTEES NEVER DOUBT THEIR GURUS

“Believe in the guru wholeheartedly. Do not doubt or question,” is the first lesson people receive at ashrams. A true devotee, they declare, is one who follows everything the guru says. They are introduced to the baba’s ‘divine powers’, which are often explained through statistics and ‘scientific reasoning’. Everyday people sing bhajanscelebrating the godman. This creates an environment that deludes devotees into accepting each word of the saint as the final truth. They begin to see God in the godman.

A few years ago, Dr Heera Tapadia of Mumbai claimed that  was different from other human beings using a photograph of the godman clicked from a specialised camera which could apparently capture the electromagnetic region around a human being. He said that Asaram had a 3-metre-wide magnetic field around him which would extend to 35-40 feet whenever Asaram delivered speeches. Whoever came within the ambit of this magnetic field, he declared, was inevitably influenced by Asaram. Dr Tapadia’s statement can still be viewed in a video posted on Asaram’s website. Taking this as proof, some of his devotees claim that even science establishes the divinity of .

When TEHELKA contacted Tapadia regarding the photograph, he said, “I am ashamed that I clicked the picture of such a man. They distorted my words and misquoted me. Eight to ten years ago, when Asaram visited me, I clicked his photograph. But there are other people who have a larger magnetic field around them than Asaram does. Any person who is healthy and hearty has a large magnetic field. If someone delivers impressive speeches, people are bound to get influenced. This is what Asaram also does; there is nothing divine about it.”

Since Asaram’s imprisonment, his ashram has changed.  His associates are trying to keep his devotees from forsaking their guru.  Pravachans have given way to programmes on Sudarshan channel. From  to all his ashrams, there are appeals to not watch any television channels apart from Sudarshan News. They are told: “Listening to a guru being insulted is as sinful as eating cow meat.” A video from 2008 expounding on this sin has been pushed to the top of Asaram’s website.

At an ashram, Sudarashan channel’s Chief Editor and owner, Suresh Chavhanke explains to devotees with the help of statistics how Asaram is a victim of a conspiracy: “Crores of Bapu’s devotees abstain from alcohol and cigarettes, causing losses to large corporations to the tune of  Rs 1,46,000 crore rupees every year. To reverse this loss, they have conspired against him.” According to Patkar, these figures are quoted only to brainwash Asaram’s followers into believing that he is a victim: “If one were to conduct a survey, one would find that there are crores of other teetotalers in the country who are not Asaram bhakts (devotees). In fact there are far more such people than there are Asaram devotees. Besides, will Asaram’s imprisonment or even concrete evidence against him turn his devotees into drunkards?” Chavhanke also takes recourse to another explanation: since Bapu has been preaching Hinduism and stopping religious conversions, “anti-Hindu forces” have conspired against him.

After the programme on Sudarshan News ends, people begin praying to Asaram and sing bhajans. The devotees are again warned to not watch channels criticising their Bapu. Pamphlets are distributed explaining how to “lock” other television channels. The pamphlets also have the now familiar warning: “Listening to a guru being insulted is as sinful as eating cow meat – Shri Ramcharitmanas”. As people leave the ashram, they are stopped and urged to purchase CDs of Sudarshan News for the sake of religion. People are warned that if the conspiracy against  succeeds, foreign powers would take over the country and destroy its culture and traditions. As the session ends, there are fervent appeals to join the protest at .

By this time, the devotees are convinced that  is the victim of an extensive conspiracy. And since even listening to someone speak ill of a holy man will make them a sinner, they are ready to thrash anybody who dares question their guru.

(Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman)

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