The Thin Edge

The Sri Sri syndrome: What we should not forget about so-called gurus and godmen

The institution of spirituality in India is a high-tech commercial enterprise and gurus are self-appointed CEOs. Consumers of their products need to be aware.

Even as the high-decibel criticism of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University continues unabated, the riverside celebration of “Hindu-India” curated by the self-anointed Sri Sri has been forgotten. It has dissolved into the polluted air that hangs over the Yamuna. This so-called guru initially proclaimed that he would pay no fine or charge towards the environmental restoration. There was of course no question of his being accused of being anti-national or harming the flood-plains of a river. In fact, he was applauded. The certification came from none other than the prime minister himself.

We live in ridiculous times.

The defence of the event, violent in ecological terms, extravagant in financial and social terms and shockingly wasteful in terms of time, energy and sheer man-hours, has come not in terms of a reasoned explanation but in low and mean personal accusations levelled against environmental activists, finger-pointing towards the excesses by other religious groups and the reduction of every criticism into the pettiest forms of party politics. Serious discourse is, of course, lost.

Old phenomenon

But none of this is really new to us.

Religious showmen have had their way with politicians and governments for decades. Many have had numerous cases against them, with accusations ranging from sexual abuse to land grabbing and encroachment of reserve forests. But how many have resulted in convictions? Unmindful, these gurus continue their work.

In making such individuals stronger in recent times, I think two contrasting social movements have played a major role. One is better known as a model and the other as an ideology. The capitalist model has shown itself to be Machiavellian and the communist, oppressive. Navigating the in-between has not been an easy task, affecting everyone, the landless and daily wage earners being the worst hit. People need reassurance and voila, the guru grants their wish. “Things will get better for you, just do this, this and that,” he says.

At the same time, social power equations have considerably changed. The traditional misogynist, high-caste, high-class power groups are being challenged and all those who took their control for granted are now fragile. They seek refuge and security from such gurus. New socio-political tsars are aligning themselves with similar gurus in a new nexus that provides them the much-needed aura of a different order, of socio-cultural respectability. The only beneficiaries in all this are the godmen.

The good work argument

Nay-sayers like myself are many times asked one question, the obvious one. What about the social contributions, the self-help groups and institutions that these godmen have created or the schools they support, private hospitals they build, their focus on wholesome living, organic foods and the huge number of their volunteers who help during natural calamities? All this is undeniable, but how is this any different from the corporate social responsibility initiatives that even the most insensitive corporations spearhead? Even politicians and political outfits are involved in such activities.

Are we so innocent that we do not recognise the obvious brand-building, image-establishing part of the social activity agenda? Let us not treat their work any differently from that of a mega-corporate. Godmen are good ad-men. The “godly” makers of good hospitals and schools do not deserve an extra ring on the halo around their heads any more than makers of good medical equipment, cars or tractors.

The larger agenda pushes hazy spiritual institutions into the hard social sector – a huge gain for the religious orders. “Good” happens for society, of course, but then this is not due to institutional – or the godman’s – selflessness. It is because of the volunteers, who act selflessly, with hardly a hint of personal gain. The godman showers his blessings only to gather a harvest of great socio-political and financial power. There is also a deeper point: these “ships of good deeds” may not show it right now but when they appear from beyond the horizon, they may well be carrying undeclared toxic cargo inside.

Political targeting

Unfortunately in today’s times, real and honest social, political and environmental activists who have been walking the by-lanes and tortuous roads for years are branded and brushed aside as nuisance makers. Even worse, they are politically targeted, like in the case of the Green Peace campaigner Priya Pillai.

I find it very interesting that Christian schools, hospitals and colleges are all seen as conversion platforms, but none of the initiatives by the Hindu swamis are spoken of in a similar vein. These Hindu gurus are also converters – maybe not to a religion but certainly to a cult. Ashrams are recruiting grounds, indoctrination centres where a cult is created around a god-man/woman.

We have to ask ourselves a far more serious question. Why have we, as a people become vulnerable, so pliant, so completely subservient to these master-indoctrinators? Don’t get me wrong, the Sri Sris and Sathgurus may well be wonderful yoga teachers – and others religious scholars or ritualists. But when did these individuals become philosophers and mystics? It is this crossover that needs questioning. Somewhere during this shift, we have elevated them from the temporal to the celestial, the human to the super-human bordering on the divine and in the process subjugated our “god-given” gift of intellection to them. We have given up our “self” and its ability to seek, gifting it to someone else. It is time we reclaimed our minds.

Just be aware

Here, I could be asked: “But what is so wrong if I need their help and support?” Absolutely nothing, but can we all be aware and I mean truly aware of the maze that we are entering, the mirage of clarity that is presented and that in the end we are most likely to be as lost as we thought we were when we joined?

In the ashram we become one more character in the grand Broadway production. After hundreds of appearances we are inseparable from the character we act out. We may feel “full” and in-peace while inside, so much so that we are not self-critical. But once we leave the show, there is very little to hold on to and the question of who we are looms large over our heads. The moment we separate ourselves from these gurus, “realisation” vanishes and reality takes its place. Why? How does an ardent devotee then become an apostate or even a traitor?

Our unhappy land has seen thinkers who have urged that we free our minds of any baggage, to find pathways that we need to explore for ourselves. They have not asked us to emotionally sign up for a long-term assignment nor manipulated us into doing so. They have not tried to trap us in a spider’s web, where at the end of a three-day course we are asked to offer guru dakshina to the supreme leader. They have not asked us to take home a brain washing package.

There is no doubt that even today amidst these operators there are institutions and teachers who propagate various ways of religious living with integrity, sans any fluff or artificial flavours. But many are delusionists, who trap us in their net of charisma, mind play and clever one-liners. We forget our mind and consequently the questions that trouble us, and parrot those that the guru choreographs us into asking. There is of course great variety on offer: Some cater to the traditional Vedic crowd with their yagnas, pujas and tantric gesticulations. Then you have the ones who are most eloquent in Queen’s English, modern in the upper-middle class sense, ethnic to perfection, combining nuclear science, quantum mechanics and Vedanta with the greatest of ease. Apart from many shades of grey in-between.

It is time we recognised the institution of spirituality in India for what it is – a high-tech commercial enterprise – and these gurus for what they are – self-appointed chief executive officers who provide products to the consumer.

I will end with a practical tip as suited to our time-short times: If their products please you, even enable some change in you, go ahead and use them. But know them to be assembly line manufactures Made In India for Trade, not Transcendence. That is where the contact should start and that is where it should end.

Don’t let them hijack your mind and soul.

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