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#India – Modernity and Godmen #Asarambapu

asharam bapu

The recent conviction of Asaram Bapu and his son Narayan Sai for alleged rape and sexual assault charges have once again brought to the forefront the culture of power and the way it is exercised over trusting followers. The catch, however, is not merely the breach of trust of the devotees but also the refusal of the followers to believe the mountain of evidence against their revered guru. This again is not the first time such a situation has emerged. Earlier we had incidents of young men found murdered in the ashram headed by Puttaparthi Sai Baba in Ananthpur and evidence against his claims to perform magic of presenting his devotees with gifts created out of thin air. Any amount of incriminating evidence does not seem to dither the followers and devotees of , and they continue to invest their faith, trust and affection in them. The sociology of faith in a deeply divided and hierarchy/status-conscious society like ours needs deeper probing and public reasoning, even if this phenomenon looks beyond reason. Divided societies would have divided reasons; specific to their own social location, though externally it would like a following that has blind faith beyond any sociological causation. To begin with, in modern societies the very idea and feeling of investing hundred percent faith and trust in anything is itself a unique and a rewarding emotion. Modern society based on critical rationality and self-doubt also makes human beings restless who become like nomads with a deep sense of homelessness. The compulsion of unrelentingly pursuing one`s own self-interest, in order to merely survive and get what is perceived to be one`s due could be an exhausting experience for most; in that to find a faith, a resting-place could be very soothing. For the bulk of the population groups and the common man to find someone whom you could trust without second thoughts could be a very uplifting experience. Since complete faith is in itself a necessity, it is not easily given up even when you offer incriminating evidence because this can be accepted only at one’s own peril: believing the evidence is as damaging to the followers as the guru himself.

Revolving Around the  Self

To the well-off sections of the society, where the followers come from higher echelons of caste and class, it is not so much about the need for faith but the dire need to protect their self-image of being distinguished and exceptional. The logic could be one where you follow a guru who is great and larger-than-life, and in following him, or realising that greatness one reassures one`s self that he or she is also unique and exceptional. As modernity propels a process of homogenisation of social roles, while all along demanding uniqueness and laying premium on individuality, one might realise this in following a sect that is different from the run-of-the-mill religiosity. Reflected glory becomes a compulsive mode for ego-gratification, and recognising that the guru could be fallible also raises doubts about ones own exceptionality. It is also these sections of  society that are looking for reasons and causation in ones life without locating them within a larger society; they need  explanations and solutions that begin and end with themselves.

Much of the discourse of the religious cults of babas and gurus place the follower exclusively at the centre of their explanations as to why things happen the way they do. This gives both a sense of control over one’s own life and also creates a justification for absolute trust in the guru. It is a reasoning that is pre-social, or for that matter post-social in nature, since society is looked as the cause or source of ordinariness, finding one’s own self hyper-separated from the social domain looks highly gratifying. While modernity and the discourse of individualism augment hyper-separation of the self from the social, discourses of religiosity and spirituality provide a similar avenue with a social justification rooted in the reality of “our modernity”. This also goes well with the new middle classes and their acquisitive nature that new market relations have shaped with their unrelenting encroachments into personal and cultural domains. Here too things begin and end with the self ‒ a neatly crafted and segregated entity that was otherwise lost in the crowd. This is precisely what Betrand Russel had advocated as the source of unhappiness and argued in his celebrated classic The Conquest of Happiness that the real source of happiness lies in impersonal interests and curiosity to learn. Urban classes, it seems steadily have lost the capacity for both. Neither they have a modern culture of hobbies, nor have they managed to retain traditional respect for knowledge. Instead, the cultural milieu is one against experimentation, which suspends into a mode of self-denial, wherein what one does not know either does not exist or is irrelevant. This creates a deep sense of vacuum in much of social life,  sucks meaning out of social and even personal interactions and opens up the everyday life to a deadly combination of insecurity and predictability. The sheer banality of everyday life has to but resort to a belief in magic and mantras; they serve the purpose of providing entertainment and quick-fix solutions (that goes well with the culture of making quick-money). Dancing and singing by the gurus provide the much sought relief from highly disciplined and regulated life.

Faith and the  Aam Aadmi

The scores of poor and marginalised who come to the gurus seem to find in them a mode of bridging the class and social exclusion that they experience as a routine. The performative meetings/spectacles held by the gurus emerge as new social spaces shared with the well-to-do, allowing them to reclaim a residual assertion of dignity and perceive a degree of social visibility and inclusion. Unlike the traditional religiosity of visiting a temple, the lively aspect of seeing a real-time godman in blood and flesh could be empowering and offer a dose of self-confidence that is in massive scarcity in societies like ours. Breaching this formidable social logic and undercurrent could well be of a different order from condemning and finding mountain of evidence against  godmen. The value of symbolism in the performative dimension for the common man, or in more recent parlance aam aadmi, is then not just restricted to the cultural domain but could transpire in the political domain as well. To get past or even negotiate with this symbolism in the political, one  has to comprehend its source in the psycho-cultural domain.

At one end as “aam admi” is susceptible to symbolism, at the other end of the spectrum, the dominant notions of power are reinforced in the extra-institutional domain. While leading spiritual gurus like Sri Sri Ravishankar reiterate the need to privatise education so that people realise its importance and thereby a meritocratic order is restored, sacred pilgrim sites such as Tirupathi work through given notions of social capital and connections. A visit to Tirupathi will allow one to realise how its daily operations are based on connections with ministers (VIP darshan is made possible through the recommendation of the minister of endowment or the chief minister’s office), and there is a self-evident display of social status and money. These everyday practices in the psycho-cultural domain reinforce the dominant notions of power in the political domain. It is therefore not surprising why Narendra Modi, with his aggressive posturing and masculine image looks powerful, and why the likes of Rahul Gandhi look uninitiated and lethargic. The dominant and the dominated, governed and those governing, the elite and the subaltern are inextricably linked through the same socio-cultural practices, disallowing not only claims to an “autonomous domain” but also making it difficult to unabashedly celebrate the cult of the subaltern. This then is an agenda as much for the political activists as cultural torch-bearers in India.

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