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The Love Triangle of Godmen, Indian Media and the Naive Public

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By Astitwa:

Seeking ‘sampurna nirvana’, ‘moksha’, ‘enlightenment’, spiritual solace or whatever name you give to spiritual wisdom, has always been an expensive affair. Thanks to the introduction of technology, social media, 24*7*365 news channels and some unique PR strategies, the new age God-fellas are able to reach out to a larger audience.

The multi-crore controversial ashrams, mega-donations, special high-tech discourses, mind boggling foreign funds, exclusive telecast copyrights and the jet-set lifestyle of the gurus, everything has an enigma that has turned out to be a fatal attraction for the Indian audience, especially the middle class audience. The economic boom in the last decade has further improved the prospects of Godmen and their followers.

Be it the old, famous and renowned spiritual leaders like the Sai Baba, Osho, Asha Ram Bapui ji, Morari Bapu, Maa Amritanandamayi or the relatively newer ones like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev, each of them have carved a unique path for themselves in the spiritual world.

The riches of today’s Godmen and the organizations they head are sufficient to give them the status of large organizations and corporations. The rise of several Godmen in the recent years has created a general belief that it is one of the shortest paths to create wealth. Or perhaps to evade the tax laws? Undoubtedly, cash speaks and cash rules in the Godmen market that exists today and is almost a parallel economy, in itself.

The Indian media has consistently maintained a love-hate relationship with the Godmen and has worked as per its needs and the TRPs. One of the most classic examples we witnessed recently was the explosive news coverage of Nirmal Baba, alias Nirmaljit Singh Narula. While it hasn’t been proved if the allegations against him are true, it was indeed ridiculous to watch the same news channels exposing the Baba, where his early morning discourses were being shown!

It is quite clear that in the TRP dominated era, even the TV channels look out for stuff that can boost their earnings. Why can’t they just skip programs in which they don’t have any faith or belief or if they are suspicious of the motive of the people involved in them. After all, if they are telecasting a program, it is the responsibility of the TV channel, to ensure that the program is rational and is not done by a controversial or suspicious person. But then, why do they need to care if the morning 5.30-6.30 slot, earns them decent money. It seems it all boils down to revenue generation and a purely business relationship.

It is not difficult to understand why the Indian middle class in the past decade has unknowingly helped several Godmen to transform into millionaires and billionaires from just being a saint looking out to make a living in the world. The new age God-fellas have chosen religion combined with lessons of self-help to dispel the proverbial ‘ignorance’ of life. In fact, all this is easy to do in India because we have majorly been a religious country, with an unparalleled diversity in all forms of faith. It is often said that we have more temples than schools in India. As numerous faiths collide in India, it has become far easier to give birth to new forms of religions and mixed faiths.

Moreover, India is at the cusp of great urban development and it is happening in all cities. The peace and union of joint families is transforming into just one family norm, giving way to atomism. The isolationism, the fierce competition, endless insecurities and especially the stark uncertainties that life throws in urban cities becomes a great recipe for the Godmen to lure people. A cheerful peppy talk in alignment with the psychological condition of the person by the divine Godman is surely a stress buster for many people these days. For some it is a relief that some larger-than-life image is there to protect them and for some, it is just an unknown, unexplainable journey of discovering a spiritual guru. That’s India- more than a billion people with millions of faith backed by trillions of reasons!

So, as we can see, the love triangle of Godmen, Indian media and the naïve public is really interesting. The same media that highlights the Godmen as the ultimate saviors, turns them down to expose their frauds. The same public and followers go mad when they discover that their saviors are just common human beings with same selfish ambitions like the rest.

The nexus between religious institutions and money has always been a reality of human civilizations, and it continues to be so even in the current era. While the public has often been duped of its modest donations by some aspiring God-fellas, it will indeed be interesting to watch how the relationship between Godmen, common man and the media changes over the years, as rational thinking and scientific organizations work religiously towards issues related to blind faith and superstitions. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure these days. The common man has endless options in the form of a spiritual guru, even with tempting discounts, perks and of course, special mental peace packages! So eventually the ‘nirvana economy’ is indeed exciting, interesting, mystic and of course, rich!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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