Newspaper reports on the Jawahar Bagh killings in Mathura followed in quick succession accounts of the extravaganza hosted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the floodplain of the Yamuna in Delhi. Both reports reinforce convictions that our world is best described as topsy-turvy. There was a time when statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru believed that religion was dangerous because it convinced followers that hunger, filth and misery were their natural lot. Today god-men, accomplished practitioners of the art of politics, wield considerable power and political clout. But they wilfully overlook, and thereby sanction misery, hunger and filth.
Consider the paradoxes of this rapidly growing phenomenon. Men of god are expected to be renouncers. New-age gurus dress in flashy apparel, travel in luxurious private planes, host celebrations attended by pomp and splendour, and endeavour to arouse shock and awe among devotees. Ministers, Supreme Court judges, high-ranking bureaucrats, police officers, corporate honchos, and media personalities genuflect at the feet of self-styled gurus. Never have religious leaders fetched such unthinking obeisance, and untrammelled power as they do today. It is not surprising that they have neither time nor inclination to do something about the ills of our society.
Down the ages
This was not always so. In all religions, visionary spiritual leaders have challenged hierarchies and disparities, exploitation and discrimination of the community. From the sixth to the sixteenth century the Bhakti movement launched a powerful attack on caste-based discrimination in Hinduism. Till today the subversive poetry authored by Kabir is remembered, recited and sung. “Pandit,” he addressed the Brahmin, “look in your heart to know. Tell me how untouchability was born — untouchability is what you made so.”
Right up till the turn of the twentieth century, a number of religious leaders driven by the quest for a moral order, and fired by the belief that untouchability was a later appendage to Hinduism, tried to retrieve the spiritual essence of the religion. Over the millennia, others threw up their metaphorical hands in despair, broke away and established new religions — Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Hinduism, smudged deeply by social exclusion, became the object of struggle, the target of social reform movements, and often the butt of ridicule.
Do we see any of this questioning by cults today? Perhaps not. Self-styled gurus can hardly launch a critique of a system of which they are the beneficiaries. When the ‘spiritual’ leader of the infamous Swadheen Bharat Subhas Sena, Jai Gurudev, died in 2012, he reportedly left property and land worth Rs.12,000 crore, a school, a petrol pump, a temple that secured him immortality, ashrams, assets, and luxury cars. Hinduism is a religion that teaches detachment; ironically, leaders of cults are passionately attached to worldly possessions, power and pelf. Their power is on public display. Certainly, Indians have bowed their foreheads before gurus, renouncers, holy men, savants and peripatetic sadhus since time immemorial. But these transactions between believers and faith leaders were private, confidential and sacrosanct. These days transactions are public affairs; conspicuously orchestrated mega-events are televised and breathlessly consumed by a global constituency.
Soulless world and leaders
Why do then thousands of people flock to new-age gurus on show? Perhaps there is an answer. Within the tradition, the guru spent many years mastering philosophical knowledge because his role was that of a medium between individuals and the divine. He himself was never the divine. Yet access to the spiritual leader was restricted through elaborate rituals of exclusion of castes and often women.
The prime attraction of today’s guru is that he/she is accessible to all. The gates of spiritual wisdom have been thrown open, gatekeepers have been dispensed with, and religious philosophy has been democratised. Whether the leader himself is a democrat is questionable. But that does not matter for people who have been left rudderless in a world of vulgar consumerism and stark disparities. They have lost confidence in their ability to negotiate the demands of a market-driven society. In capitalist society the value of a person is judged by the value of her possessions. Individuals themselves become commodities at considerable cost to their self-esteem and assurance.
Social norms breed despair, and the guru becomes the healer, the confidant, and the protective patriarch or matriarch. In a commodity-driven world, where ordinary people lurch — like a fragile raft on stormy waters — from one crisis to another, religion becomes as Marx had said, “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless condition.” The problem is not with religion, it is with this soulless world that many seek to negotiate with the help of a religious leader.
The quest for reassurance and validation of the self through face-to-face interaction with a local deity, or saint or a god-man is not new. In Punjab, for years Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs worshipped together at roadside shrines, or at the tomb of a Sufi saint. In the town of Malerkotla, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs offer money, jewels, and cooked sweet rice at the mazaar of Sheikh Sadr-ud-Din, the founder of Malerkotla and a Sufi saint. Thousands of people visit a fair held on the first Thursday of every month. In 1904 the author of the Malerkotla Gazetteer wrote in a puzzled mien, “It is strange that these fairs are mostly attended by Hindus though Sadr-ud-Din was a Muslim saint.” This is a town of Sufi tombs, temple bells hang in front of mosques, and Om is tattooed on the hands of the keeper of the shrine. Notably Malerkotla has never witnessed a communal riot, simply because joint worship created a political community. It is debatable whether modern gurus teach followers to live in harmony with other fellow beings. At best, they teach instant moksha , at worst they exploit followers.
Hindutva versus god-men
Ironically personalised worship to a new-age guru has recreated multiple centres of belief that are characteristic of Hinduism. Historians tell us that the unified religion we call Hinduism is a colonial construct, because it were colonial administrators and missionaries who lumped various groups, philosophies, faiths, and ideologies under the umbrella term ‘Hinduism’. Neo-Hindu leaders, buffeted by criticism of practices sanctioned by Hinduism, responded to the colonial encounter by projecting a pan-Indian religion.
Over time this religion provided identity and inspiration to sections of the nationalist movement. V.D. Savarkar refused to accept that Hinduism is of relatively recent provenance, and suggested that the religion goes back into ancient time. He called it Hindutva, an ideology that forms the crux of the homogenising project of the religious Right. The irony is that Hindutva can only go so far, it contributes to identity formation through differentiation, but it cannot fill empty or half-filled pockets, give jobs, assure dignity, promise security, or allay insecurities and complexes. That only an urban-based guru or a cult, which has replaced the traditional roadside shrine, can give.
The contradiction is that even if gurudom feeds into the project of Hindutva, spiritual leaders exercise, for the state, dangerous autonomy. For example, Jawahar Bagh developed into an independent township within the precincts of a sovereign India. Its inhabitants established an economy, an educational system, a currency, and imparted training in violence to the children. They also created a rather wacky political and economic agenda, but one that posed a challenge to the government. That gurus influence considerably the electoral fortunes of the local candidate is the worst-kept secret in India. That is why politicians court them.
We know that Hindutva is fractured along the lines of caste and class. But it is also a brittle construct because it has to compete with personalised religious cults for the loyalties of citizens. Over time, the project is bound to come a cropper, because what we call Hinduism is nothing but a time-bound coalition of cults, religious groups, personalised modes of worship and localised gods. These relentlessly subvert the homogenising ideology of Hindutva. For the rational, god-men are irrational, for the votaries of Hindutva they provide a rather major headache