Godmen do extraordinarily well in our country than in most others, and that is where the puzzle lies. Is our society more vulnerable? Or, does this show up so blatantly among us because of the way we practise democracy and secularism?

In a family of godmen, a clean baba stands out like a white sheep. That, however, does not stop people from stooping to charlatans in robes and matted hair. And the reason is simple: these godmen happily stomp on grounds where scientists fear to tread.

What facts can help figure out the beginning of the beginning, or how something came out of nothing? Alternatively, which experiment can explain the end of the end, or what it is to be dead? It’s a mug’s game to press scientists to find solutions to these questions, because they are actually riddles. In one case, the answer lies before a fact was born and, in the other, after a fact has gone.

Riddles, however, are the staple of godmen, mystics and saints. It is not enough to know why wood floats, stones sink or how planes fly. Science can tell us about these and much more, but that does not stop us from speculating on the wonder of life or the darkness of death. When all is said and done, no matter the quantum leaps in knowledge, those niggling, nettlesome issues will still remain.

When science has to concede

It is not just the illiterate and the uncouth who ask questions which have no real answers. Some of the best scientists too have been assailed by similar doubts, especially after their lab hours are over. In short, this line of inquisitiveness is a universal failing — a quest that has no real solution. It is in this empty space that the godman strikes, with nothing more than a prayer and a song.

As these eternal questions have, and will, torment us forever, there is no getting out of the fear and the awe of the supernatural. Consequently, whenever there is despair, or when the future is uncertain, or when terror stalks the soul, the godman gets a near open invitation, all expenses paid. Scientific advance concedes empty knowledge spaces, but as faith abhors a vacuum it readily serves up answers to the unanswerables. At this level there is just no contest — science has to concede.

No doubt, there were great ascetics and kind and generous faith leaders who, at tremendous personal cost, often gave succour to the masses in times of great distress. From Jesus, to Muhammad, to Vivekananda and even Dayananda Saraswati, we have had such heroes who shored up our spirits and gave us strength. The truth, however, is that when these great souls depart, they leave behind followers who are human — all too human. 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 blatantly among us because of the way we practise democracy and secularism?

Or, is it a combination of the above?

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 castes 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 outcastes. 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 is practised 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 centre has emerged.

It eventually, therefore, distils 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 vibrant democracy too. As Hegel famously said, by separating church from state we are actually doing both a favour. 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.

(Dipankar Gupta is Director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.)

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