In volume one of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, there is an exchange between BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi. It relates to the text of Ambedkar’s proposed speech that was later published in 1936 under the title Annihilation of Caste.

Writing in the Harijan, Gandhi had responded to the questions raised by Ambedkar on the scriptures and their perception of “untouchability, caste, equality of status, inter-dining and intermarriages”.

Gandhi writes: “Who is the best interpreter? Not learned men surely. Learning there must be. But religion does not live by it. It lives in the experiences of its saints and seers, in their lives and sayings. When all the most learned commentators of the scriptures are utterly forgotten, the accumulated experiences of the sages and saints will abide and be an inspiration for ages to come.”

Gandhi’s choice to vest authority in “sages and saints” to interpret the scriptures and provide guidance for the rest, holds relevance till date. Author Arundhati Roy has pointed out in her book The Doctor and the Saint that Gandhi transitioned into and succeeded in convincing others that he was a sage.

But India’s love for sages and spiritual leaders neither began nor ended with Gandhi.

Myths and tales

On June 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while inaugurating a temple at Dehu near Pune, said, “India is eternal because it is the land of saints.” This leads to the question: who are these sages?

In myths, puranas, or ancient Sanskrit literature, and epics, sages have played a crucial role in these stories. They are often called rishis or maharishis and are considered the head of the clans, particularly of the Brahmin caste.

Rishis are not gods but are believed to have achieved divinity through meditation and gaining exclusive knowledge, which allows them to emerge as supreme beings. Equipped with their knowledge-induced power, they could enter kingdoms and demand that the king fulfill their wishes.

In the Ramayana, the sage Vishwamitra took Ram and Laxman on a dangerous mission. King Dasharatha sent his teenage sons reluctantly to avoid facing the wrath of Vishwamitra. Then there is the myth of the sage Bhrigu disrespecting the deities Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

Going by the myths, maharishis are not to be taken lightly or angered. A curse on a person is often irreversible or acts as a plot twist in famous stories and mythologies.

A sage is not defined explicitly and neither is it clear how they attain their sainthood. They remain ambiguous figures. This ambiguity gives sages their edge, leading others to believe that they are all-powerful and almost equal to gods, or, in some instances, more powerful than the gods themselves.

In the Indian imagination

For many Indians, the meaning and usage of the term “sage” is difficult to explain specifically, just like the terms dharma, karma, and jati. But most people generally understand who a sage is because of their cultural upbringing.

According to the myths, there are short-tempered sages, easily angered if not given what they asked for. There is a sage who ordered his son to behead his mother, only to bring her back to life – Jamadagni. There are sages who created an alternate heaven. There have been lustful sages, sages who were deceived by the god Indra, and sages who cursed the gods themselves.

Sages have mentored and guided many avatars. There are also sages from other varnas who attained sainthood through pure determination. Sages, thus, are loosely defined, making them an obfuscatory concept understood through socialisation but difficult to define academically.

But it is widely agreed that sages are knowledgeable, though there is little understanding of what is meant by knowledge or how sages gained it. What is also known is that they are different – in character and appearance – and are hence elevated to the status of “mahapurush”, or superior beings.

Sages are often attributed with features such as long hair and beards and different attire. They say that they have renounced their families or worldly pleasures. They can perform miracles, converse with gods or are gods themselves, and are knowledgeable on worldly matters that cannot be questioned by a common person.

Sages as teachers

Sages most often assume the role of a guru or acharya. It is believed that with the knowledge they have attained, they are the right persons to educate children of worth.

Famous characters in Hindu epics were tutored by sages in the gurukul-ashram set-up. The sage Dronacharaya had demanded the right thumb of Ekalavya as guru dakshina – a payment to the teacher – for the skills that Ekalavya taught himself.

In the Indian context, the modern-day teacher derives a similar kind of authority. This often means that students are prevented from asking questions or critically engaging with education.

In modern times

Contrasted against India’s journey into modernity, the country’s obsession with looking up to individuals who claim to be godmen or godwomen has been baffling.

Social thinkers such as Vivekananda, Aurbindo Ghosh, and Rabindranath Tagore have been elevated to the position of sages. More recently, many have been obsessively drawn to individuals who claim to have the knowledge of guiding devotees to spirituality.

Spiritual teachers such as Ravi Shankar, Jaggi Vasudev, Amritanandamayi Devi and Ratnakaram Sathyanarayana Raju, popularly known as Sathya Sai Baba, have managed to establish vast empires. Some are figures who even seem to be able to influence governments.

There have also been numerous examples of such figures being arrested and found guilty of various crimes. Yet, they do not lose popularity. They are high-profile religious figures who work in the style of corporations.

Yoga practitioner Ramdev (right) with Patanjali Ayurved Managing Director Balkrishna in Ahmedabad in June 2017. Credit: Reuters

There are matts, headed by seers, that play a key role in social as well as government organisations. They say what they want, which is still considered divine knowledge. They maintain a low profile while yielding enormous power that matters locally.

Many television channels start their day with a line-up of saintly individuals advising the commoners on how to conduct themselves in their daily life. Astrologers make predictions and suggest countermeasures for averting the bad things headed one’s way.

Religious preachers giving pravachanas (or expository lectures) based on examples from epics and mythologies are also on the rise. In the rural areas, the advice of local godmen is solicited for starting a business, arranging marriages and constructing new homes, among other matters.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that sages and seers are among the essential elements of the Indian way of life.

The politician and the saint

The subconscious importance India accords to sages is extended to the realm of politics and politicians. Politicians constantly seek the blessings of godmen and invite them to address legislative assemblies. Some sages and monks have also entered Parliament or become state chief ministers in recent times.

Perhaps, the best example is how Prime Minister Narendra Modi is viewed as a saintly figure. It is believed that he is capable of miracles, does not sleep or accumulate wealth, works more than 20 hours a day, he sacrificed his family life for the sake of the nation, he does not take vacations, he is selfless and poor, he is a commoner yet not a commoner, and that he is highly religious.

The attributes of sages and seers are associated with the prime minister as well.

Any deviation, such as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attending a party, is considered not-so-saintly and does not fit in with India’s idea of appropriate politics.

An image of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru along with Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the last Viceroy of India Louis Mountbatten, is often circulated to purportedly draw attention to his unsaintly ways.

A manipulated photograph of Gandhi dancing with some women is also cited in an attempt to debunk the claim that he was a saint.

Why the appeal?

This widespread acceptance of sages leads us to some important questions. What does it mean that sages have knowledge and how did they achieve it? How did that knowledge contribute to human development? What are the positive and negative outcomes of this social trust in sages? What does it do to society?

Even with the rise of a scientific temper, why do so many youngsters find sages appealing?

A society influenced by modernity and science should be able to ask questions and critically engage with political and societal discourse. But the blind adoration of sages would seem to be the opposite of a healthy democracy.

It is evident that some seers/sages yield enormous influence over the psyche of Indians to the point where they are literally allowed to rule over us, effectively turning our democracy into a “saint”ocracy.

Sipoy Sarveswar teaches anthropology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. His Twitter handle is @SSarveswar.