Are India’s godmen leading us up the garden path?

These flaky, corrupt gurus and conmen are turning out to be a big nuisance to our society. They also mostly work hand in glove with politicians to evade the law

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Aditya Mukherjee
Aditya Mukherjee
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi

The recent arrest of a self-styled godman Siva Shankar Baba from Tamil Nadu for sexually abusing young girls has once again exposed the murky world of fake godmen who have become a law unto themselves. The baba, who is also the founder of a school, masqueraded as an educationist and preyed on vulnerable girls. The unsuspecting parents of these abused girls could have never imagined that the school was actually a hotbed of vices and human perversion. It was only after these girls opened up to their parents about the shenanigans of the baba that the police arrested him.

The case of Siva Shankar suggests that these soi-disant spiritual gurus have drifted off course and lost their moral compass so badly it was always going to come to a head. But despite all that, why these godmen become the magnetic draw in the spiritual marketplace among the rich, the middle classes and the illiterates? These wily and manipulative godmen know very well that, most of us, at times, find the going tough in life and experience mental stress and other quotidian problems. The listeners soak up the half-baked gyan that darts through their pravachan and lapse into a dreamy, addled state. The gurus assure them that their souls would swim in ineffable happiness and his blessings would guide them through the labyrinth of life like Ariadne’s thread. The devotees find it almost difficult to withdraw themselves from the fervour of these babas’ personalities.

They are great at playing the collective psyche and hand out miracles to influence us. One can see these babas milking their devotees for every last drop of applause. No wonder, the human brain is genetically programmed to believing in esoteric and religious mumbo-jumbo. In the process, we end up endowing them with an undeserved halo of godliness. As a result, many of these spiritual preachers really start seeing themselves as an agent and messenger of God, infallible and, above suspicion, like Caesar’s wife. These devious and dubious babas creep among the gullible masses like the plague. There are numerous instances of promiscuous babas turned conmen physically exploiting young girls and women in their ashrams on the pretext of curing them of some ailments. It has been seen that these illiterate devotees, including women, readily repose their faith in godmen by agreeing to do their bidding, at the expense of rationality and sound judgment.

Our self-styled and flaky spiritual gurus are filthy rich, not to speak of ashrams spread over different cities. They enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle and own properties valued in crores. Ensconced in the amniotic fluid of patronage by politicians and businessmen, one can see these high-profile spiritual babas and swamis hobnobbing with the high and mighty, attending marriages and other social functions of business tycoons, netas and abhinetas. Politicians of all stripes throw their weight behind these babas as the latter can tilt the political fortunes of a party by asking their devotees to vote for a certain political outfit. In return, these spiritual gurus are assured of protection from politicians so that they can build their illicit empires and carry out their nefarious activities without any fear of law.

The spiritual gurus purvey deception and religiosity in the name of god. Before their arrest, Baba Ram Rahim and Asaram Bapu managed to pull the wool over their devotees’ eyes for decades. Both these popular spiritual gurus not only enjoyed massive political patronage but also commanded a huge following from the well-educated middle classes. When police raided their ashrams, they stumbled upon pieces of evidence that pointed toward sex and murder, which were reportedly enacted there. These godmen lived a life of dissipation and got away with so much dishonesty for as long as they did. It can be attributed to the thriving nexus between political power and religious establishments. In 2004, the high-profile head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, was arrested as he was found to be a prime accused in connection with the murder of a temple manager. Then there is the curious case of Santhosh Madhavan alias Swami Amrita Chaitanya, who was charged with the rapes of three minor girls and a 22-year-old woman, financial fraud and possession of narcotics. In 2015, a reality show actress filed an FIR against the controversial godwoman Radhe Maa for sexual harassment. Many film personalities and politicians are believed to be her followers.

It takes courage to go against the grain and stand up for what one believes in. When Rajkumar Hirani in his movie, PK (2014) showed that not everything connected with the world of godmen and swamis is transparent and above board, all hell broke loose. There was a big kerfuffle as people took umbrage at the negative portrayal of religious godmen in the movie who came across as phony-baloney. The movie, starring Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma, showed how some self-styled spiritual gurus, exploit superstition and resort to fraud to run rings around people. In the movie, Aamir plays an alien who comes to visit the earth and falls victim to human rapacity. He discovers that most godmen use religions to do business and feather their own nests.

In Satyajit Ray’s Bengali movie Joi Baba Felunath (1979), a local godman in Benaras, who goes by the name of Machhli Baba, is depicted as a fraud who is in cahoots with a wealthy Marwari businessman, who has set his eyes on a rare and priceless Ganesh statue.

However, it’s a bit unfair to tar all spiritual gurus with the same brush. There are exceptions to this tribe of deceitful godmen as well. The late Bhaiyyu Ji Maharaj was one of them. A few years ago, the chief minister of a state dangled a carrot of party post in front of him for quite some time which he strictly turned down. Bhaiyyu Ji was happy with his philanthropic activities like adopting villages and reviving water bodies. His death even today remains steeped in mystery.

In his famous novel, Father Goirot, Honore de Balzac says, “What moralists call the murkiest depths of the human heart are merely the deceptive thoughts, the involuntary urges, of self-interest. These sudden reversals are calculated moves in the pursuit of pleasure.” The same applies to most of our self-proclaimed fake babas and swamis, who, in the name of religion, are deviating from the straight and narrow, and playing their devotees false for the sake of self-interest. They have slipped their moral moorings. It’s high time we saw through their knavery and hypocrisy and see them for what they are — rank opportunists, impostors, rapists and hedonists.

Aditya Mukherjee
Aditya Mukherjee
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi

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