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Understanding How Ram Rahim’s Version Of Spirituality Became A Religion

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The fiasco of Ram Rahim’s conviction where he was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment and the following mob violence that killed 36 people and injured hundreds, is an incidence that brings up many questions in its wake.

One of the biggest questions is – Why do women hold such a helpless place in the Indian society? Most women silently bear the brunt of eve teasing and molestation, sometimes even without the hope of finding a safe recluse in her parents as well.

Why does the media not push for the ‘Vishakha guidelines’ to be implemented under The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, in the ashrams and the religious institutions? Why there is an abominable complicity in the political sphere in such cases, that keep coming up and hints towards a larger exploitation that never meets the eye? Why there is such deafening silence from the community of spiritual or religious gurus?

Maybe this is too profane a matter to attract their consciousness. How is such a cult created, where even abhorrent and heinous crimes do not deter the belief of the followers, who in it, smell nothing more than conspiracy?

It is chilling and disgusting when such acts come out of spaces that are considered to be righteous. Sadly, it is not surprising at all. Many would see it in a social perspective where class-divide seems to be making a phenomenon of the sort of Ram Rahim. However, there is a common thread that runs through all the similar institutions cutting across the social and geographical divide.

The root of this is grounded in seeking a guru to spearhead the voyage of one’s life over the turbulent water of the world (saṃsāra) to the further shore (nirvāna). I do not mean to suggest that these words mean the same thing for everyone, but still, the process rotates around on this fulcrum, often also considered as the age-long tradition of India.

Ram Rahim in himself is not so difficult to understand. A man, who saw beauty in the ideals that spirituality weaves around itself, took the path and reached to a commanding position where his influence brought him money, respect and power. All he had to do was compromise his integrity by leading two lives simultaneously–one for the spectacle of the people and one that he actually was. An extremely profitable deal to make!

For me, the concern is not these gurus. They seem fairly clear in what they are doing. My concern is the flock that we see around them with folded hands.

Religion is nothing more than a liturgical, ethical and fundamental subversion of spirituality. When a group proclaims that ‘this is the path’, religion is born. In modern day we see a new phenomenon though. Spirituality that is based on the freedom of individual and varied paths is taking the colour of religion by institutionalising itself.

To my mind contemporary spirituality seems nothing different from religion, seeking the same unconditional surrender and unfettered devotion. It is better to call it neo-religion, since it does not mind your previous identities but overshadows them with a stronger and novel one. Just like religion its foundation is also laid on the fears and insecurities of individuals and is a coaxing of a different kind by promising liberation rather than heaven.

To a few less serious, even some material gratification is satisfying which comes as grace in place of this devotion. Just like religion, it gives morality, purpose, a sense of belonging in a community and the collectiveness of undertaking works of service with a missionary zeal. The most promising appeal though comes in the sense of superiority of being pious and righteous, ‘holier than thou’. Then how do they draw a distinction that they do?

The distinction lies in a mortal guru who has presumably attained what others are aspiring for and is a light to help one sail through. This has immense security, more than what can be understood, of being guarded in the guided light of a master, more so when one is being followed by so many, who follow for no other better reason themselves.

All that then boils down to – what is spirituality? Spirituality is the courage to stand alone as against a mass phenomenon, in the utter unknowingness, freeing oneself of all that one knows about oneself, to ultimately know ‘who one is’. This is a vulnerable journey with no safe harbours and no trodden paths.

But then the question is for us to answer individually to ourselves. Who has the courage, who is ready to stand alone and ultimately who is willing to know the unknown?

So can a guru be of no help? Certainly not.

It is said that whenever one is ready enough, the guru appears in various forms and from time to time. We might even shrug them away if we are not ready, but they have the power to eventually change the course of one’s life forever, without us even realising when and how. To tell it less mystically, everybody and everything is a master if we are receptive enough but essentially we are our gurus – the master of the vehicle, the one who is forgotten and demands to be known!

Thus this is not difficult to conclude that what the people on the roads of Haryana were fighting against was their will to let go of their self-created identities and subsequent beliefs that it garners. To pass this off as Andh Bhakti is also a misnomer as there is no innate blind devotion here for anybody else other than one’s misplaced idea of self.

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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.

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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.

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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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