In the same week the indefatigable activist Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down in Pune for his determined attacks on phony astrologers and sorcerers plaguing every corner of India,yet another godman,Sant Asaram Bapu,was accused of rape. One would imagine an accusation like this would drive Bapus millions of followers away,but instead,his devotees tried to beat up TV journalists who wanted Bapus sound bytes before he went incognito.
Since public memory is short,this is the same guru who wondered why the young girl who was gangraped on a bus in Delhi didnt address the rapists as bhaiya in order to stop them. Clearly,nuanced opinions are not a requirement to amass a following in India. What you say is of no consequence. As long as you have a flowing white beard,saffron or white garments and a commanding voice that can hold sway over a desperately vulnerable audience who need someone to worship.
Asaram Bapu is hardly the first spiritual guru to be accused of sexual misconduct. Almost every wildly successful sage in India right from Chandraswami to Sathya Sai Baba,Swami Sadachari and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi have faced similar allegations. Till recently,most escaped unscathed,their popularity undiminished,their charisma,the hallmark of every spiritual leader,making people blind to reason. Self-styled gurus and godmen are as much a tradition of India as the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. As a nation,were resistant to rationalism. Some of the smartest and most successful people in this country continue to be immersed in astrology,ancient rituals and wear shimmering stones in the hope that theyll be protected from disaster.
Were all responsible for propping up these self-professed saints. A consultant I know happened to be seated next to the head of a prominent ashram in a first-class cabin on a flight to Singapore. A religious man himself,he was appropriately deferential. They got chatting and the guru talked about the logistics of their biannual satsangs in Delhi,which over nine lakh people attend over a weekend. He mentioned their other investments in healthcare and education before discombobulating the consultant with a question on his firms EBITDA (earnings before interest,taxes,depreciation and amortization). Spirituality is big business and before the flight ended,my friend knew he had met a potential client in this mystical entrepreneur.
I guess theres nothing wrong with a cult making money while providing spiritual salvation as long as the promoters arent molesting the devotees. The commodification of the Eastern spirit world began when The Beatles discovered Mahesh Yogi. Since then,the ashram experience in India has been a must-do on the list of every Westerner seeking an alternate route to peace and fulfilment. As Indians living here we should be wiser,considering weve grown up seeing many a stoned sadhu or guru make a quick buck off us. Dodgy stories of unscrupulous saints from remote corners of india still routinely make headlines. But the allure of,maybe,stumbling on something magical thats going to happen in our lives,is too strong and takes many of us back to crystal-ball gazing.
A random check with five people around me revealed that they have all been to a soothsayer or faith healer at some point. I am loath to admit that I have been to a tarot card reader and two astrologers over the years,not one of whom got a single detail right about my future. Its been awhile since Ive given up on divine intervention or comforting prophecies to sort out my issues,but just yesterday,a friend convinced me to sign up for an Inner Engineering meditation course that he insists will change my life (for the better).
So far,reformists like Dabholkar may be outnumbered by traditionalists but one can sense that the power of these godmen is also not what it used to be. The recent crimes against women question the Enlightened India tag weve been burdened with. We may have a million great ways to chant,meditate and pray,but very few to weed out opportunistic gurus.