There are currently three dominant ways of thinking about the Indian devotion to contemporary gurus. The first suggests that has something to do with the nature of a society in transition. So, it is said that as large numbers are faced with economic and social uncertainty – lack of job prospects, changes in family structures – they turn to gurus who have quick answers to problems. The increasing attraction of religious leaders is also being seen as part of a larger context where Indian society is itself becoming more religious.

The second perspective is that it is the economically underprivileged who are the most susceptible to the seductions of gurus, and also the most prone to react in violent ways when their living icons are subjected to secular law and reduced to the status of mortals. They have, the argument goes, much more to lose since gurus provide both symbolic – overcoming caste-linked humiliation – as well material succor. We are told that at Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s dera, all followers were treated as equals (taking on the surname ‘Insaan’) and the organisation ran schools and hospitals that looked after needs that the state was unable to.

Third, the growth of gurus is attributed to the political patronage they enjoy, their leaders being able to influence disciples to vote for this or that political party. The political uses of special interest groups is not, however, a particularly Indian phenomenon. There are other aspects that are more interesting.

Photo credit: Facebook/Dera Sacha Sauda.

Perceived binary

It is not clear, however, that Indians have become more religious. What is more obvious that the solid bedrock of religious feeling has become more visible through the explosion of different forms of media and that religion has become mediatised and commoditised. The new guru is more visible than the older one and operates in different ways. An awareness of the long history of gurus and ashrams – the Swaminarayan sect, Ramakrishna Mission, Radha Soami Satsang, Divine Light Mission, among others – should alert us that contemporary religiosity might be different in quality, rather than intensity.

The idea that people turn to – and take comfort in – “tradition” in times of rapid change has become a kind of analytical common sense. It is usual to suggest that the most “natural” reaction to processes of intensive change is the search for meaning in older forms of associations such as the extended family and the religious community. The idea of “preserving” the self under conditions of modernity is itself part of a more general understanding of the nature of the “inner life” in India and occurs in a number of contexts of analysis. So, at the present moment, it is common to come across the argument that excessive consumerism is leading to a renewed turn towards religiosity as a reaction to excessive materialism.

The perceived binary between religion (via the guru) and materialism (via the market) is frequently invoked both by those on the Right, and others who wish to suggest that there is an “authentic” India that has been “spoilt” by the unchecked incursions of consumerist modernity. This way of thinking about our present wishes away a very significant aspect of our contemporary lives. To suggest that people make choice between the home and the world and that those who are caught in-between suffer unbearable tension and split personality is to miss the rise of the threshold personality. It is also to mistake the apparent for the actual: the apparently autonomous realms of religiosity and the market are really not as separable as that. We need to recognise that the market is the grounds for the making of a variety of social experiences and that it makes little sense to believe that people are torn between having to choose between spiritualism and its antithesis. Our lives are increasingly lived on thresholds, our everyday choices a mixture of seeming opposites.

Followers of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim gather at a park in Panchkula on August 24. Photo credit: PTI

Part of the change

It isn’t just that Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s followers choose to belong to Dera Sacha Sauda as a way of resisting the forces of change. Rather, they choose to belong because they want to be part of the change: Dera Sacha Sauda offers the choice of multiple worlds. It offers apparent equality, access to spiritual life, ministration of everyday needs, as well as being part of the world of goods. It is in this sense that Ram Rahim’s Dalit following cannot simply be reduced to a simplistic and undifferentiated Dalit identity. Dalits do not only have a political identity – in the sense of an oppressed identity politics – they are also aspirational subjects, seeking to move beyond that identity. They seek the right – like non-Dalits – to be taken seriously as complex human beings. The unfortunate thing is that this is a choice offered to them by self-serving and frequently criminal gurus.

What then about the point relating to the primarily non-elite nature of Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s following and their supposed propensity for irrational behavior and violence? It hardly needs saying that in India there is a differentiated market for Gurus: there are those who appeal to the middle classes, upper castes, lower caste etc. What is important to remember is that each following expresses mob frenzy – and its destructive force – in different ways. Mob frenzy is not just an aspect of the actions of the non-middle class disciples.

Sri Sri Ravishankar.

It is just as important a part of the followers of, say, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as that of Gurmeet Ram Rahim. The mobilisation of collective opinion by Art of Living followers against the findings of the National Green Tribunal regarding the damage caused by Art of Living’s “World Culture Festival” to the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi in March 2016 is, really, another form of mob action. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was to later suggest if the Tribunal was aware that the floodplains would suffer environmental damage then it – and not Art of Living – should be penalised for granting permission for the Festival. Perhaps the Art of Living founder should also have mentioned that the Tribunal was not able to withstand the collective pressure applied to it in favour of Art of Living. The streets occupied by the Art of Living followers – and the damage caused to public property – are different to that traversed by Dera Sacha Sauda’s disciples. However, this does not change the fact that it is mob frenzy by another name.

The truth of the matter is that irrespective of social context and class fraction, we are a society deeply wedded to collective action. There are complex reasons for this. What remains constant is the mobilisation of group identities in the name of individual salvation. And, the charisma of the guru (usually a male) lies in the fact that he is able to convince his followers that his own acts are not anti-social but a-social. That he is beyond the society he seeks to transform on their behalf. This also lies at the heart of why Ram Rahim’s female supporters continue to support a convicted rapist. This psycho-social relationship between the guru and the follower is the tragedy of love, devotion and admiration.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist and author of Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon.