“Way back in 1843 Karl Marx in an introduction to a book that criticized Hegel’s “Elements of the Philosophy of the Right” wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. Marx thus saw in religion a utility to the State by creating illusions to mitigate the immediate suffering of people. It made them dull to oppression and induced a sense of fatalism. Hegel of course saw in the State the presence of God upon the earth. Both would now be turning in their graves in London and Berlin seeing how their postulations shaped up in India. Far from becoming the opiate, religion has now metastasized into a pernicious thought process that threatens to destroy the State.
That’s because of the proliferation of cults within religions. Religiosity is being displaced by veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object. Ironically it is not the veneration of inanimate idols that is worrisome but increasingly the cults around living figures that tend to pose challenges to authority. All the major religions have seen the emergence of outsized cult figures or Godmen who themselves become objects of veneration superseding the divinities they represent. From being objects of veneration to claiming divinity is just a small leap. The late Satya Saibaba of Puttaparthi, a much venerated cult figure who counted prime ministers, distinguished soldiers, learned scientists and corporate lords as his loyal devotees was probably the most successful of the Godmen in terms of market size and revenues. He stated status by cryptically saying: “I am God. I am Sai.” He promoted by selling sleight of hand tricks to the credulous as powers of materialization, with holy ash or wristwatches or rings or whatever was on hand.
They might be interceding for many gods but one commonality is that Godmen have mesmerizing control over their devotees. What differentiates them is just size of their followings and the bizarreness of their demands to prove fealty. One Godman demanded Roll Royce’s and the recently convicted Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda demanded sex, which he quaintly sold to his followers as his “maafi” or forgiveness.
Because Godmen have mesmerizing powers, politicians flock to them to seek their beneficence in votes. The Godmen then seek favors for themselves or for others to prove their divine powers. The Puttaparthi Saibaba used to intercede with his political cronies and devotees to place persons in high positions. Such people also know how to manipulate the faith of powerful figures to advantage. There is the well-known incident of Prime Minister Vajpayee waiting for a few hours at the home of a prominent businessman waiting for Saibaba to give him darshan. When the darshan was denied that day he returned to 7 Race Course Road distraught and only when Saibaba relented did the political potentate find peace of mind. What he had to sign on or the number of times he had to order is still a matter of much speculation?
Finding togetherness in cults is a common human condition. The level of education and wealth of a society has little relationship with the incidence of credulousness. Otherwise America would not have a David Koresh of the Branch Davidians who led seventy seven followers to a fiery death after a confrontation with the FBI in Texas or Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple who persuaded nine hundred followers to drink poison laced Kool Aid in Guyana. The perceived power of televangelists like Billy Graham, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell politicians made politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan assiduously court them and espouse policies favored by the religious right. In Japan we saw Shoji Asahara’s mesmeric message to his Aum Shinrikyo cult into attacking Tokyo metro in rush hour with Sarin gas. So why should India be an exception? Credulity is inbuilt into the human condition.
What should however cause us concern is the proliferation of deras in Punjab and Haryana. By some counts there are as many as nine thousand now. A dera, as its name suggests is more a militant encampment rather than a benign monastery. The most notorious cult figure in recent times was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale whose temporal journey ended only by an army assault to free the Golden Temple. In 2014 the followers of a Hindu Godman, Rampal, dared the state to enter his dera in Hissar and pick him up for trial for murder, sedition and conspiracy. It took over five thousand Haryana policemen take him in.
Last year a cult centered around the return of Subhaschandra Bose that had taken control of the Jawahar Bagh in Mathura had to be stormed by the UP armed police and twenty nine followers of their leader Ram Vriksh Yadav had to be killed. The Dera Sacha Sauda of Ram Rahim Singh is the cult in the news now. In this case the CBI Court in Panchkula forced events by convicting the bizarrely dressed Godman on a seventeen-year-old rape charge, despite the open patronage of the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of India. August 25, 2017 is red-letter day for India’s judiciary, which asserted itself by ignoring political connections and the cupidity of the authorities. It is not surprising that the criticism of the entire political spectrum about the activities of this bizarre “guru of bling” is uniformly anodyne, very unlike the vitriol they routinely pour over each other. After all politics is not about rationality or good sense or decency, but just about votes.