November 24, 2014 12:38:18 am
Yet another self-styled godman has been outed as a crazed megalomaniac but not before six people died and a hundred were hospitalised after his audacious standoff with the police. Baba Rampal Maharaj, 63, who claims to be a reincarnation of Kabir will most likely be spending the rest of his days in jail. The perplexing question remains how he managed to amass this mind-boggling following of worshippers, many of whom say they continue to have faith in him.
To understand how gurus like this come up and flourish, one has to look at the centuries-old guru shishya tradition of India when the teacher was revered by students. The best known example of spiritual mentoring is in the Mahabharata between Arjun and Krishna, when he’s distraught about fighting his cousins on the battlefield. In everyday life, we’re endlessly exhorted to move forward but in reality most of us are bogged down by old frustrations. We plod on in unhappy ignorance of what makes us tick. When you’re down and out it becomes easy to believe a charismatic personality, the defining trait of all mystical men. The godman has more or less been an ubiquitous figure in Indian public life. Indira Gandhi had Dhirendra Brahmachari. Sathya Sai Baba enjoyed the patronage of the rich and powerful. It turns out, no matter how together or successful you might be, everyone needs advice on the business of living.
There’s still a tendency to think that it’s only the poor and uneducated who are gullible enough to fall for religious trickery but actually India’s rich are bigger offenders. Astrologers, faith healers, vaastu experts and past-life therapists are de riguer at a fundamental level in Delhi, feverishly relied on before any life-altering decision like marriage. At a party recently, I met a psychic (yes, that is apparently a career) who made the sweeping generalisation that a new and very exclusive apartment complex in Gurgaon is bad for marriages. (She had recently acquired three clients who live there.) Considering this complex houses 600 families, the ratio of good to bad marriages will be no different from anywhere else. It seems a little unfair to blame the already beleaguered building company for relationship issues. In another example, Select Citywalk which is sandwiched between DLF Place and MGF Mall in Saket commands the highest commercial rentals in India. But the malls on either side have been disasters. On the advice of some soothsayer, the owner of one of them changed the entrance, fixed the vaastu and painted it a different colour: to no avail. Blame the stars all you like, the far more logical explanation for Select’s success is it opened first. It was the dynamic promoter Arjun Sharma’s only real estate venture and he put his heart and soul in it. Conversely, a mall is a small project for big companies like DLF and MGF and was probably neglected.
Caught though we may be between superstition and the supernatural, and the occasional fraud like Baba Rampal, India’s few genuinely wise men have contributed significantly to the enduring question of happiness, a current Western preoccupation. Autobiography of a Yogi, on the spiritual awakening of Paramahansa Yogananda and his encounters with holy figures, remains immensely readable. One of my favourite characters in literature, Larry Durrell in The Razor’s Edge experiences peace in an ashram in Tamil Nadu, based on author Somerset Maugham’s own time with the prominent sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi. The coolest godman to be following these days (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) is Sadhguru. Everyone I know seems to have switched from Art of Living and the namyo ho renge kyo Buddhist chanting to his inner engineering courses, designed on yogic principles. I follow him on Twitter. He dispels advice on everything, from parenting to how to avoid being a doormat. As long as your guru isn’t levitating or claiming to turn water into blood, attempting to figure out the aim of your life is a perfectly legitimate pastime.
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