How Devotees Are Brainwashed Into Fandom
If you for some reason decide to surrender in devotion to Swami Nithyananda, the following anecdote is likely to be part of your initial lessons. It’s one he keeps recounting to the multitudes at his ashram in Bidadi, near Bangalore, curious and eager to have his wisdom rub off on them: A professor happens to visit a Zen master. While the master quietly serves tea, the professor blabbers on about Zen. The master keeps filling the visitor’s cup till it started overflowing. The professor blurts out, “It’s full! No more will go in!” “This is you,” the master says. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Become empty first. This is one of Nithyananda’s first commandments. It’s also probably one of the most essential. As devotees drop their critical defences, he fills them with his worldview, his aura to transform them into loyal followers. This model of indoctrination is not unique to Nithyananda. Across India, for that matter elsewhere, one of the first sermons that godmen will drill into devotees is, outsource the thinking to the guru while devotees free their minds in pursuit of the blissful feeling of spirituality. As Bhargavi Hemmige, a research scholar at Mysore University who spent some time at Nithyananda’s ashram out of academic curiosity, recollects, “He kept telling us not to use our minds. It’s a monkey that misleads, he told us.”
Others who have gone through the cycle of recrimination and defence include Satya Sai Baba, the late Osho, and Baba Ramdev
What else but complete control over the mind can explain the ineluctable hold India’s godmen have over their devotees? So much so, grievous accusations of colossal financial transgressions, rape and child abuse, even murder do not seem to diminish their faith. On the contrary, in the case of Asaram Bapu, a godman mired in controversy and recently arrested by Rajasthan police on charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, they seem to shore up their belief in defiance.
Godmen and controversies have been bedfellows for long in India but this poses no threat to their cult appeal (see box for some of our flourishing gurus and the controversies associated with them). At the Jantar Mantar demonstration, an Asaram devotee from Himachal Pradesh began to tell Outlook of his indebtedness. “Even if Lord Shiva himself appears and tells me not to believe in Bapu, I will tell him I cannot give up. I know what I have gained from him. He has saved me from committing suicide. So, even if he kills off the entire world, Bapu will still be god for me. It’s another matter that he will not do something like this,” he says, before he’s whisked away by other followers angry with the media. Asked what was so special about Asaram, Akanksha Bhatnagar, a 20-year-old mca student from Delhi, gushes with a twinkle in her eyes, “You will realise when you come to one of his sermons. I have no words to express.” For his devotees, Bapu is akin a body of water—you can thrash him as much as you want, there will be a few splashes, but nothing that will affect him. “I am sure he will come out shining even brighter after this episode,” Bhatnagar adds. Ask devotees of other godmen, like Sai Baba, Ramdev, Jayendra Saraswati or Nirankari Baba, and you are likely to get the same mix of uncritical reverence that borders on irrationality.
Bad press Women protesting against Asaram Bapu. (Photograph by PTI)
Another cog in the brainwashing machinery is a pseudonym that goes on to become the ‘real’ identity of the person. The change is subtle but its long-term impact is drastic when it comes to erasing a devotee’s past. This is demonstrated effectively in the case of 35-year-old hotel management guru Santosh, now known as Shantimayananda after “great healing and transformation”. His parents unsuccessfully petitioned the Karnataka High Court to have him come back from Nithyananda’s ashram in Bidadi, where he has been living for six years now. “He has no concern for his mother and father, he simply thinks Nithyananda is god,” says Munnur Krishnamurthy, his distraught father.
Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 16 September 2013
Many followers come from a religious background, exposed to a reverential following of gurus. Then there are some hapless souls who submit to faith afresh. But the well-oiled machinery at ashrams is powerful enough to work on the minds of those with advanced degrees in science (who often possess a fine streak of credulity) or even without any of the circumstantial or emotional baggage that makes some people prone to unquestioning submission to a strong guru figure. “To the more sceptical devotees, the guru would say don’t believe what he says. When we realised he was not trying to sell us his ideas, we became more receptive,” says Gopal, who studied at top engineering institutions in India and the US. “All this while, I had no idea I was being subjected to psychological slavery. It’s a kind of mind trickery,” she adds. It took her six months to realise her guru could be wrong. The revelation of the sex tapes was what finally led her to walk out of the ashram.
Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, a Goa-based scholar who has studied godmen in India, says devotees often attribute exaggerated positive qualities to their guru—unlike adults in a mature love relationship, who are in touch with their partner’s realistic qualities and failings. “They deny unwanted characteristics that cause a ‘split’ in the mind. The disciple longs to merge into a good and powerful, wise and perfect self-object—which is the guru. In other words, the guru is great, and thus, participating in his power, I am great too,” she elaborates. “The violent outbreaks by stern believers in support of their guru, as we have seen in Asaram’s case, are linked to this: accepting that the idealised self-object has failed means also accepting one’s own failure, which might lead to a disintegration of the self, which needs to be fought off by denying any (countering) facts and better knowledge.”
It’s not difficult to imagine that perhaps it is this systematic domination of the mind of the devotee that lay behind a poster at a Jantar Mantar that read, “Nigorey bhi kah rahey yeh baat, bapuji hai paak saaf (Even the most stubborn proclaim that Bapu (Asaram) is squeaky clean).”
The Super Charged Gallery
You have systematically demystified so-called godmen in your cover story (The Hold, Sept 16), which shows how a combination of religious feeling and mystical allure works as the opium of the masses. But it seems you cannot survive without ad money from your subjects: the same issue features an advertorial extolling Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. You could have avoided this.
Nitin Suresh, Kottayam
The writer of the cover story quotes Swami Nityananda as describing the mind as a monkey. But Nityananda also says you must use your mind in such a way that you can keep it completely in control and not be in its control.
If the writer had any idea of true psychology, he would not have written what he has. The mind truly is a monkey and several gurus across the ages have described it so. The likes of the writer, being neither distressed nor seekers, blabber whatever comes to mind, gather like-minded crowds to applaud their writings and amuse themselves. You have no idea what damage you are causing to your culture.
Srinithya Sripriyan, Bangalore
There’s a difference between a real guru and the commercial sort. If a shishya is looking for instant remedies, the false guru will dole out promises of all the things the seeker wants. In such cases, both guru and shishya are happy and others needn’t bother.
P.N. Razdan, Gurgaon
We Indians create heroes who we believe can cure all our ills, physical, psychological or sociological. Instead of rationally arriving at solutions, we expect miracle workers to do the job. The media does its bit to project them and hype them.
Dr Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal, Rae Bareli
The techniques of guruhood, or the art of maintaining a hold on disciples, has evolved and been perfected over the ages. The hold is such that followers often resort to violence when sceptics raise questions about gurus who stand exposed in wrongdoing. As your commentator says, “The violent outbreaks by stern believers in support of their guru, as we have seen in Asaram’s case, are linked to this: accepting that the idealised self-object has failed means also accepting one’s own failure, which might lead to disintegration of the self, which needs to be fought off by denying any (countering) facts and better knowledge.”
Kishore Dasmunshi, Calcutta
Here are some examples of the sort of advice godmen give their followers, as seen on so-called spiritual TV channels. A disciple says he has backache. The guru asks if he goes to the temple. The disciple says yes, he does. Which day? Tuesday. Okay, says the guru, make sure you go on Friday too and you’ll be cured. Another tells the guru of some other ailment, and the guru asks if he performs puja. Yes. Do you offer flowers? Yes, yellow ones. Well, says the guru, start offering red flowers and all will be well. The disciples go away feeling happy and satisfied. Don’t you think such unthinking sorts deserve to be cheated?
R.V. Subramanian, Gurgaon
How gullible can we get when religion and gurus come into the picture! We need to teach science more, a tough task in a country of full rituals and an unthinking submission to anything remotely religious.
V.N.K. Murti, Pattambi
Godmen are cheats and their disciples are gullible. It’s a combination that’s truly made for each other. Think of poor D.G. Vanzara, the ‘encounter cop’ from Gujarat: Asaram Bapu was one of his gods and Narendra Modi was another; both have failed him.
Anwaar, Dallas, US
Anything can happen when hapless believers surrender their brains and conscience to their gurus. Believers will even marry off their young daughters to an ageing godman if he so demands.
We must work on ridding our nation of superstition and blind faith and instead build a scientific temper. If that happens, politicians won’t be able to stop using godmen’s influence to gather votes. There’s a god in each one of us and it’s easy to serve him: love your family, do your work sincerely, be kind.
R.D. Singh, Ambala Cantt
In distress, people often turn to godmen. Their minds are a blank and anything a godman says is received without question. Consider Asaram’s latest victim: her father was distressed by her apparent mental problems and instead of going to a good doctor, chose to let her be treated by a godman who molested her.
Sudarsana Jyothi, on e-mail
The shortage of hospitals to treat the mentally ill and the lack of awareness about mental disease (even among the educated) gives scope for godmen and exorcists to offer cures. Quite a few people end up believing these godmen, with no medical or scientific background whatever, can in fact cure such patients miraculously.
Venkatesh Iyer, Chennai
Once the rape case was filed against Asaram, administrations have woken up to act against the illegal encroachments that are his ashrams. (One is on the Delhi Ridge!) What were they doing till now?
R.J. Khurana, Bhopal
Apropos your cover on godmen (The Hold, Sep 16), a joke doing the rounds sums it up best: when the baba agitatedly starts chanting Hari Om, it’s time for his women followers to ‘hurry home’.
Dear Debarshi Dasgupta, I can clearly see the same scheming technique in your very presentation of what you want to press on people.If you have true knowledge of Psychology and have basic ideas about Mind , I am sure you will not be writing what you wrote at length to prove and press your words. Mind is truly a monkey ,it is obvious through your writing itself.From the time of Shiva Sutras ,Patanjali Sutras through Buddha's Dhamma ,modern days Ramana Maharishi -Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Osho- Paramahamsa Nithyananda all stressed Mind has to be emptied as a first step to Bliss.It has become a passion and fassion for pseudo intellectuals in India with little knowledge and comprehension go on at length criticizing the way of life of our age old ancient Vedic Culture which has been strategically bulldozed by the colonial empire in their rigorous attempt to Christianize in Bharath in the name of Ignorance and poverty after looting India. Debarshi Dasgupta , you have no idea what is religion , what is spirituality and what is the value of Spiritual Masters and Enlightened Souls and Incarnations and their Social Responsibilities. Pre Colonial India , every family had a Family Guru, Every King had an Enlightened Master guiding his Governance. Now in the name of Democracy we have self looting politicians concerned filling their coffers and Swiss bank accounts and some political groups promoting some religions in the name of secularism and pulling down Vedic Culture and Tradition in the name of Ignorance and Superstition. First we Hindu Indians must learn to use the term GODMEN in right context. Right now Press has the audacity to use it like CONMEN. Man who is a seeker seeks spirituality and God's help for his personal spiritual progress such person is guided by the Godmen -the souls who have experienced the path to bliss guide them to the right path and the man who is distressed seek their help for solace and recovery to peace and bliss. People like you who is in between neither a seeker nor in distress in Middleclass Bliss act like an Atheist and blabber whatever comes to your MIND (monkey mind) to attract similar like minded crowd , clap and support your writings and amuse you. You have no idea what damage you are causing to your culture and how ungrateful to the age old tradition which withstood all invasions and attacks and your ancestors who have remained Hindus still after all those invasions and attacks and still preserve and trying hard to preserve against all odds. Use your pen and knowledge for the right purpose. India and Indian Vedic Tradition never lacked any thing be it science, engineering, medicine or technology, it will not be long before you will learn this truth through western sources. Stop criticizing Spiritual Gurus. Crimes are taken care by Justice and Judiciary, without knowing the truths don't jump into self conclusions and spoil already restless and unsettled minds.Change now before it is too late for you.
Also, when the Hon'ble High Court of Karnataka has ruled clearly in the Shantimaya aka Santosh case, how is it that it is being quoted in a misleading context here? The Haebus Corpus petition filed by Shantimaya's parents was clearly dismissed as he is an adult and has a right to make a decision about his life, future, vocation, just like any other adult has to make decision about his job or life partner!
Bhargavi whoever, i think first you should learn to listen instead of saying whatever is there in your head and attributing it to Swami Nithyananda. I was also there in the same class where he said 'Use your mid so that it is completely under your control so you can use it at your will and not be under its control as we now are.' If you didn't learn how to do it, you call it sour grapess eh by saying, 'He kept telling us not to use our minds. It’s a monkey that misleads!'
We, the people of India, create our Heroes-- who, as the popular perception goes, can get rid of all the ills of the society, be it religious, political, philosophical and even physical. In place of rationally arriving at a conclusion and analysing a particular issue, we incarnate our own Gods. These demigods penetrate so deeply within the subconscious/ unconscious layers of the commoners from all sections of the society (middle class, upper middle class and also the lower class), that any discourse condeming them is designated as blasphemous. These Babas and Heroes are having the protected layer of "the great love the general gender" (Hamlet) bears for them. Media and specially the tv channels also creates a lot of hype around these fetishes and the overcredulous community of believers starts seeing them as real Gods. It is through these virtual/ unreal images of the holy figures that we construct the idea of the ultimate truth. The result is --we can not know the real; we just flow in the universe of copies. Hypereality or the pseudo world of images conquers and the ultimate truth remains elsuve.
Will swaraj now demand death penalty for asaram
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