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Politics, Economics, Superstitions: What Keeps Godmen Thriving In India

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Godmen and allegations of criminal misadventures have been historically prevalent in India. It can be traced back as early as 1862 – when social reformer and journalist Karsandas Mulji, while writing an article in the newspaper, “Satya Prakash”, alleged that Maharaj Jadunathji had sexual liaisons with women followers and that men were expected to show their devotion by offering their wives for sex with religious leaders.

Over the years, such incidents have become rampant. The popular ones include the alleged affair of Dhirendra Brahmachari with former Indian Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi, and Chandraswami (a tantrik and the spiritual guru of Narsimha Rao), who was accused repeatedly of financial irregularities. The list goes on.

After the infamous Baba Ram Rahim saga in August 2017, it seemed that the media’s sensationalist campaign would act as deterrent to other godmen and become an eye-opener for the masses in countering irrational discourses. After the sentence awarded to Baba Ram Rahim, at least four cases have emerged which possibly show that these people haven’t really changed their ways. These include the cases of Falahari Maharaj (Alwar), Ravishankar (Karnataka), Digambar Acharya Shantisagar (Surat) and Sailal Jedhiya (Guwahati).

To counter such paradigms and future happenings, it becomes imperative to first understand why the world’s third- largest economy (in terms of purchasing power parity) still grapples with the proliferation of self-styled godmen in the 21st century.

To begin with, one can partly blame Indian religious and philosophical teachings, where the guru-shishya tradition can be traced back to the Krishna-Arjun conversation depicting the importance of the ‘Guru’ in life and supremacy. The infallibility of a guru’s teachings may be related to Kabir when he says, “गुरू गोविन्द दोऊ खड़े, काके लागूं पांय | बलिहारी गुरु आपने गोबिन्द दियो बताय  (When choosing between God and Guru, choose the latter who gave knowledge of the former).”

India has undoubtedly seen great reformers in the form of gurus, but the unquestioned authority of the guru was always a recipe for the creation of disaster. This is witnessed even today when questioning godmen is often not permitted, and the followers are told of the blind beliefs which need to be followed in order to achieve the desired results in quick time.

This desire to get quick-fix solutions in almost no time is another factor leading to the rise in the number of godmen. Quick-fix solutions need guidance and these gurus always have advice, irrespective of the complexity of the problem. The ability of many godmen to simplify problems and suggest simpler solutions to harder narratives acts as a shot in the arm for the hungry person whose patience is already past its bounds.

Apart from the gradual loss of patience in people over the decades, rapid economic development has also led to a steep rise in materialistic necessities – which in turn, has opened an avenue where such necessities have the potential to be misconstrued. This has helped godmen who give lucrative, simple solutions to hungry people who are devoid of the newer necessities of life.

The rapid economic development has also led to greater inequality in the country (for instance, the Gini co-efficient has increased from 0.45 in 1990 to 0.51 in 2013). This has led to ‘relative poverty” and the ‘elite character of development’, which have forced people to feel empowered in a fictitious world powered by godmen where they can feel prosperous and equal.

These aspirations of equality and justice can obtained in Deras (for instance) – where all, irrespective of wealth, caste, religion, creed, gender, are equal sitting together, and are equal in eyes of the godman who supposedly treats them all equally. This sense of false pride has led to the creation of an ‘island of liberation’, where absolute equality is provisioned by the guru and not the State.

Deras and ashrams play an important role in a godman’s success, and Ram Rahim is only one of the many who have used these to their benefit.

This has prompted the political class to attain the dual purpose of:

1. Getting the popular support of people by becoming part of the Deras themselves.

2. Displaying themselves as down-to-earth and equal to commoners (who were already a part of the Deras) and gaining the support of godmen who campaigned in the favor of the political parties.

Thus, the political mileage and electoral dividend provided by such godmen have acted as incentives to promote such religious leaders even by the political classes. This has ultimately led to the creation of an industry.

This industry creation has led to stakeholders (for instance, shopkeepers, market distributors, hoteliers near ashrams) whose benefits have become synonymous with those of the godmen. Hence, the culture to promote godmen has widened with the beneficiaries multiplying over the years – and each promoting the Babas for their own personal and vested interests.

One such important beneficiary is also the visual media, whose power to impact the masses is phenomenal. The continuous morning telecasts of astrological predictions in almost every news channel and the separate slots for telecasting ‘godmen shows’ have knowingly or mistakenly helped in the growth of superstitions and have eventually allowed godmen to flourish.

Since media is the fourth pillar of democracy and is also an intellectual foundation, it can be understood when liberal scholars like FW Riggs (who considered India to be a prismatic society with the co-existence of modernity and tradition) prevailed. But media proved BR Ambedkar right when he said “History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics.”

All these reasons depict why godmen flourish in India – and the solution lies in addressing each reason specifically. Religious teachings can be interpreted in a better and more holistic manner. Issues of self-ability and self-worth in individuals also need to be addressed by reducing the habit of looking for shortcuts.

Reducing inequality is a long-drawn process, but state policies and the redistribution of wealth are the key ingredients in tackling inequality. Political maturity is a must, considering the fact that the Indian democracy is now 70 years old. More importantly, the world’s largest democracy needs to get over the tag that historian Ramachandra Guha gave – ‘an elections-only democracy’. The media needs to be sensitive, visionary, informative and should recognise its multiple roles including that of society development.

The recent increase in the number of cases (as mentioned before) reveals a growing consciousness and a belief in the rule of law which are welcome developments. However, India still needs a more holistic approach to truly build a ‘New India’.

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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.

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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.

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