Way back in 1843-’44, Karl Marx, in an introduction to a book that criticised Georg 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 for 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 respective graves in London and Berlin seeing how their postulations shaped up in India.

Far from becoming the opiate, religion has now metamorphosed into a pernicious thought process that threatens to destroy the State.

Claiming divinity

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 the cults around living figures that tend to pose challenges to authority.

All the major religions have seen the emergence of outsize cult figures claiming to be “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 so-called godmen in terms of market size and revenues. He established his status through the cryptic phrase: “I am god. I am Sai.” He sold sleight of hand tricks to the credulous as powers of materialisation, with holy ash or wristwatches or rings or whatever was on hand.

They might be interceding for many gods, but one commonality among godmen is that have mesmerising control over their devotees. What differentiates them is just size of their followings and the bizarreness of their demands to prove fealty. So, while one godman reportedly demanded Rolls-Royces, Ram Rahim of the Dera Sacha Sauda, who was on Monday sentenced to 10 years in prison in a rape case, is said to have demanded sex from his disciples, which he sold to them as “maafi” or pardon.

Political patronage

Because godmen have mesmerising 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, it is said, used to intercede with his political cronies and devotees to place people in high positions. Such people also know how to manipulate the faith of powerful figures to advantage.

It is well-known that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spent hours at the home of a prominent businessman waiting for Saibaba to give him darshan. When the darshan was denied that day, a distraught Vajpayee returned to his official residence, 7 Race Course Road, and only when Saibaba relented did the political potentate find peace of mind.

Finding togetherness in cults is also a common human condition. The level of education and wealth of a society has little to do with the incidence of credulousness. Otherwise, America would not have a
David Koresh of the Branch Davidians who led 77 followers to a fiery death after a confrontation with the FBI in Texas or Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple who persuaded 900 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 lead to them attacking a Tokyo metro in rush hour with Sarin gas, killing 12. Clearly, Credulity is inbuilt into the human condition. So why should India be an exception?

Rise of deras

An offshoot of the cult culture in India is the proliferation of deras in Punjab and Haryana. By some counts there are as many as 9,000 of them now. Though, in their current form, deras evolved as a space for people from backward classes to find acceptance and assert themselves, but many of them today function more as militant encampments than benign monasteries.

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 June 1984. 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 5,000 Haryana policemen take him in.

Last year, a cult centred around Subhaschandra Bose that had taken control of the Jawahar Bagh in Mathura had to be stormed by the Uttar Pradesh police. At least 22 followers of their leader, Ram Vriksh Yadav, were killed in the face-off with the police.

Ram Rahim’s Dera Sacha Sauda is in the news now after the CBI Court in Panchkula convicted the bizarrely dressed godman on a 17-year-old rape charge on August 25 despite the open patronage he received from top politicians, including the prime minister of India and the chief minister of Haryana. August 25 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.