When Ram Rahim was convicted, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tweeted: “It is utterly shocking to see someone commit such heinous crimes under the garb of spirituality.” Besides the usual abuses hurled, the response to Sri Sri was surprisingly scathing. One follower warned, “The tide is turning …” Rahim is hardly the first popular mystic to find himself on the wrong side of the law. But the extent of his perverted crimes and the deadly rampage by his supporters have enraged the country. Recently enough, there was the much publicised 70-something Asaram’s downfall, he of the cultivated white beard and sage look, who had the gall to preach chastity (and is now serving out a rape sentence). After Rahim’s fall from grace, the public, finally, is questioning whether these self proclaimed mystics are all simply third rate frauds. It is not an exaggeration to say that at this moment, support for the guru community is at an all time low and the future for aspiring godmen looks bleak.
Bleaker than before, that is. By no means is the cult of the godmen finished and nor is it likely to be. In a country of 1.2 billion people, many of whom have a hellish existence between grinding poverty and depressing prospects, they turn to gurus for the simplest of reasons: hope. The state has pretty much abandoned them and the Gods above don’t seem to be doing much to help. Enter a flamboyantly dressed figure who has perpetuated his own myth with a couple of movies and music albums. He’s built medical dispensaries and schools for the poor, a safe space where your background and caste doesn’t matter. He’s offering something to somebody who has nothing. Needing to believe, in situations of extraordinary desperation might just be an evolutionary tactic for survival. And like how we know instinctively when a romantic partner is bad news but we ignore the red flags anyway, devotees choose blind faith to foster that feeling of solace, which was so hard to come by in their ordinary lives. It may be easier to get swept away by a cult figure when you’re socially and economically vulnerable. However, the search for wisdom and the secrets of the universe are as much a preoccupation for the rich.
The devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, included politicians, movie stars and industrialists. Some of the most powerful people in India openly support the current, reigning godman, Baba Ramdev. Clearly, even the best life is hard and irrespective of a hefty bank balance, people feel the need to be shielded from whatever they think ails them, whether it’s loneliness, waning stardom or death. It explains why at the height of their popularity, even the Fab Four, the Beatles, were looking for answers with the globetrotting guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It didn’t end well. The Yogi’s most illustrious disciples became transcendental meditation’s most famous dropouts. There is some wisdom to be gleaned from other people’s experiences of crashing disappointment when they discover their gurus were outright thugs. It’s that if you really need somebody to hang on to as a buffer against some worst case scenario, the mystic should already be dead. Anyone alive is prone to the same failings of greed, or power, and whatever else it is that makes us all too human.
I happen to have the misfortune of living in an area where there are 350 temples and 20-something ashrams in a five kilometer radius, a fact I’m convinced has contributed to turning me into a rabid atheist. It’s the kind of neighborhood where you can have your future foretold by the stars and have your aura read. Short of summoning your dead relatives (if I looked hard enough I could find someone for that too), there is a guru for everything. Even more infuriatingly, almost everyone I know either chants, or goes for Gita classes. People who seemed virtually indistinguishable from you, all of a sudden, their idea of a holiday is a meditation retreat. One Monday a month, two friends, professionals, after a full day’s work travel 40 km at 10 at night, and stand in line for one hour to receive puri-halwa in an ashram. I ask them if inner peace isn’t more easily achieved with a Game of Thrones episode but there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. The sense of being part of something larger, and a fleeting chance of clarity to the question of what we’re really doing here, is a compelling one indeed.