- Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times
The baba of the moment, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda might roar onto the scene on a cruiser, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar might exhort you to breathe deeply, and Baba Ramdev might insist, to a rapt audience seated before their televisions in a million living rooms across the country, that a combination of yoga and natural concoctions will help overcome that gnawing, all-pervasive sense of existential angst that corrodes contemporary life.
All of them, though, belong in the tradition of the Indian godman, the charismatic spiritual guru who continues, in an era of wi-fi-enabled pietism and extreme media saturation that’s seen a spurt in TV evangelism on channels like Aastha and Sanskar, to wield enormous power over the lives of followers.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the spiritual head of Dera Sacha Sauda, has sparked controversy with his role in MSG: the Messenger of God, a film that has been banned in Punjab
The figure of the guru, a man – for it is most often a man – who has achieved a higher state of being through extreme penance and mortification of the flesh, who has conquered his all-too-human cravings and transcended his desires so well that he has been intellectually and spiritually transformed by a flash of the divine, is a recurrent motif in Hindu myth.
Myth, meaning and race memory fuse in the form of the wildly popular contemporary guru. And like the figures of the sacrificing saviour and the prophet who shows the way in Islam and Christianity, the idea of the spiritual guide, who can transmogrify your wretched life with his aura and teachings is one that continues to fascinate.
“There are three kinds of Hindus: the ordinary believer, the godman-like person and the ascetic,” says author and sociologist Dipankar Gupta. While the ascetic eschews the political circuit and common folk seek him out solely for blessings, godmen have a “means-end relationship” with their followers: “I’m going to give you this, put you up in a house and give you a car so that you can give me some things”.
Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology at JNU, suggests that unlike an earlier generation of gurus who only wanted their followers to be spiritual, the contemporary godman says it’s possible, even desirable, to be both spiritually and materially rich. “This fits in well with contemporary ideas of well being,” he says suggesting that the sudden profusion of high-profile godmen is a manifestation of the rise of a self-improvement culture where the guru functions like a personal trainer or a yoga teacher.
The guru-as-a-trainer-figure provides the quick fixes that we all seek, the pat answers that a deep study of all the holy texts of the world and more conservative forms of worship do not yield. “Religion becomes a one-to-one relationship with a trainer figure who tells you what to do and what not to do,” says Srivastava who adds that this immediacy makes the guru extremely attractive in an unknowable world fraught with problems.
Unsurprisingly, rapid urbanisation that has seen people migrating over long distances, unmet aspirations and the insecurities that accompany them make people especially vulnerable to godmen. “People also get superstitious when they believe their good fortune is not because of what they deserve but is really a stroke of luck and that things could go wrong. That’s why speculators, contractors, builders, even cricketers have become very prone to this kind of stuff,” says Gupta.
The modern godman attempts to alleviate these fears through a clever amalgamation of consumerism and spirituality. Television, especially, has extended their reach, bringing once distant figures relegated to wooded ashrams right into the nation’s homes. “There’s a much greater breakdown than earlier between the secular and the religious in India. Earlier, under a kind of Nehruvian consensus, there was the notion that these institutions were supposed to be secular. So television began in India for the purposes of development – to show programmes like Krishi Darshan. Now you’ve got television with a huge amount of religious presence,” says Srivastava pointing out that, ironically, as we become more modern, we are also becoming more religious.
Part of the reason for this shift may be a fear that, while we are being seduced by the overweening consumerism identified with the West, we also believe that globalisation is threatening Indian traditions. The contemporary godman with his dextrous use of modern technology even as he harks back to the Gita allows his followers to feel simultaneously globalised and local; a citizen of the world and a shuddh desi.
In a rapidly changing world, this spiritual unease, this spurt in religiosity and the need to seek out older traditions that are percieved as more authentic is perhaps an international phenomenon. Santosh Singh of Ambedkar University, who specialises in the sociology of religion, points to the general consciousness of a yawning void in a world with too much mobility. “It’s not just the mobility of commodities but also a psychic mobility that’s happening at the same time. Godmen, who appear on TV channels, attempt to connect you to your supposed roots. So people sitting in Texas think they are talking to their ancestors by listening to them on TV,” he says conceding that babas do give their followers a sense of stability, however transient.
While godmen provide millions with tools to deal with their anxieties and a sense of community as part of a congregation, many are charlatans. While stories of the amassing of real estate and money laundering are legion, Asaram Bapu has been accused of rape and in the latest instance, the Messenger of God himself has been accused of the bizarre ritual castration of some followers. The armies of devotees – each guru appeals to a specific section – continue to grow regardless.
“There are different godmen and godwomen for different classes of people. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s following is largely upper middle class and upper caste, and Rampal, who was arrested, has a following that is largely Dalit,” says Srivastava. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, himself a Jatt Sikh, commands a congregation that mostly belongs to a less privileged background. “A large number of people who throng the deras are dalits and you see a link between what happened to them systematically over centuries,” says Santosh Singh, who points out that though Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s satsangs are “pretty pedestrian” often exhorting followers to “be masculine” they are complimented by the savvy marketing of things like potency tonics outside the venue. That combination of spiritualism and commerce is evident in Baba Ramdev’s flourishing endeavours too.
“All godmen promise you things. The Messenger of God has done it blatently by telling people he cures cancer. In Ramdev’s case, it’s a combination of mysticism and naturopathy. This combination will be given to you in different doses by all babas,” says Gupta who believes godmen are akin to faith healers and shamans. Their power and wealth ensures that they are heard, which can become dangerous when it’s used to mislead the gullible.”There is something called false advertisement and that’s what it is,” Gupta says of the MSG film.
Thankfully, popular Indian culture also incorporates a strong streak of scepticism. The success of PK that questions our obsession with godmen, cults, rituals and the whole shebang of organised religion shows that while overt religiosity flourishes, the urge to send it up – a practice once evident even in neighbourhood Ram Leelas – has not entirely disappeared.
“Any rational person can see through what’s going on in the name of religion. In every religion, there is a mushrooming of different power institutes and somebody sits on the top of it,” says actor Saurabh Shukla who played the manipulative baba Tapasviji in PK.
“We used to hear about these babas but because of television, it’s now in your face,” he says adding that religious ardour is now all about “glitter, power, more people following and a big show”. “You realise it’s not about philosophy but about worldly things,” he says. The great irony, though, is that even the false hope that many gurus encourage has its uses. “It’s true that blind belief has helped people go through hard times, which brings us back to Square One. So the question about God and religion will always be there,” he says.
While that particular question will resound through eternity, the godman phenomenon, apparently, has a much smaller shelf life, relatively speaking – about four generations, which Dipankar Gupta believes is the time it takes for a truly urban culture to take root. “In India most of us have a very shallow urban depth of maybe two generations. Once we have a deeper generational heritage, godmen will disappear along with caste. The reason why fewer people in Kolkata strongly believe in caste is not because Kolkata Bengalis are something fantastic but because Kolkata has quite an urban depth in terms of time. An urban generation itself played the role,” he says. “This is a phase we are going through.”
Well, stock up on a lifetime’s supply of popcorn because – on our televisions, in cinema halls, and, of course, in the darkened theatres of our minds where our deepest fears flicker – the show isn’t about to end any time soon.