These days, gods seem to be in news for all the wrong reasons. From financial fraud to rape and even outright murder, their self-appointed leaders seem to be grabbing national attention on a fairly regular basis.
The script is super predictable. From time to time, one of these self-styled gurus, that we may have never heard of, but who has lakhs of crazy fans is charged with a crime. The guru maintains his innocence despite compelling evidence, his followers allege conspiracy and sometimes even take up arms against the state. The guru may eventually even go to prison, but his followers refuse to stop believing in him.
A saga of this sort unfolded in 2014 when the country witnessed a standoff between the police and an ‘army’ of devout followers outside Sant Rampal’s ashram in Haryana. Rampal was wanted in a murder case and was trying to evade appearance in the court and custody.
We witnessed a repetition of similar events on Friday when controversial Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was held guilty of raping and sexually exploiting two female disciples by a CBI special court in Panchkula. What followed was arson and violence by the guru’s supporters, a violence that has claimed at least 32 people and injured more than 350 people so far.
Those of us who don’t subscribe to this kind of blind, raging faith find the phenomenon baffling. We wonder – just who are these people? And what is forcing them to fanatically follow these godmen, when common sense and logic should command them to do the exact opposite? More importantly, why do so many people believe in these dubious men and women to the extent that they are even willing to die for them?
I think the more prudent question to ask is not why so many Indians believe in these men, but why lakhs of people of this country feel the need to believe in them.
Mankind’s propensity to believe in a God or higher power is well known. According to evolutionary psychologists, this propensity can be linked to the unique ability of human beings to attribute design or reason to things, even where there may be none. This capacity to reason and to create elaborate, compelling stories gave early humans a great edge over other creatures, allowing them to co-operate in large number with other strangers to fulfil causes larger than themselves – to win wars, build communities, and establish nations.
With society being in constant flux in the last two decades due to socio-economic factors, the need to rely on a higher power seems to have also increased. In a country of a million gods and thousand identities, the changing landscape has had huge cultural and psychological implications. Rootless individuals seeking to make sense of their world may drift to alcohol, drugs or psychiatrists to find answers. In India, most seem to have drifted to the godmen.
It’s not difficult to understand why. India has had a long history of gurus or spiritual guides – the learned master who helped people attain higher knowledge. In recent times, the tradition seems to have metamorphosed into an industry, with godmen exploiting weaknesses of existing institutions like family, religion and society to their advantage, and offering instantaneous miracles and quick fix solutions to cure the dissonance caused by modern life.
The changing socio-economic structure has only widened this chasm further, adding to people’s stresses and anxieties, making them more vulnerable to the antics of the dubious godmen. Today, the godman isn’t just the miracle maker, he is also the agony pundit, the family consultant, the psychologist and the spiritual guide. He offers answers, solutions, happiness, an easy path to follow in an otherwise cruel and difficult world. He is the anchor that roots the individual to a cause, to a community of fellow devotees. Over time, he becomes the devotee’s moral compass.
Accuse the godman, and you aren’t just accusing the baba, you are attacking the devotee’s blind and unshakeable faith in the man.
This cocktail of deep dissatisfaction and blind faith, however, turns truly noxious when you mix politics in it. Godmen wooing gullible individuals wouldn’t be much of a problem if politicians didn’t use them to catch or influence voters. And even though we are still to hear of a baba who managed to convert his followers into an influential vote bank, the truth is that politicians still persist in providing these self-styled prophets political patronage. Political patronage sometimes allows these godmen to literally run parallel states, replete with their own armies, at times! Many, in fact, start seeing themselves as being above law, operating in their own zones, where they command unparalleled devotion and in what can be argued, true power in the form of mass following.
This is a huge problem. India may be a religious country, but that should not give politicians reason to mix politics with religion. We are, after all, a secular democracy. The true definition of secularism is to keep religion out of politics. Similarly, democracy necessarily implies keeping politics out of religion.
When the two mix, things get messy. And that is why we need to constantly question this unholy nexus. Because faithless opportunists present as big a threat to a thriving democracy as fraudulent prophets.