New Age godmen are of three kinds, and Indian devotees are known to seek a mix of them
It was the last miracle by the man who flew in the face of reason and defied the sceptics for seven decades. As 85-year-old Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s emaciated body was lowered into his grave in a spectacle worthy of a rock star on Wednesday, April 27, hundreds of thousands of his devotees—including politicians, judges, bureaucrats, military officials, sports stars, scientists,
professionals—stood patiently in line for a last glimpse of the man they believed was God. Their faith in his divinity had withstood everything—from charges of homosexuality, a cover-up of murders in the ashram, exposes of his magic tricks, not to speak of the fabulous wealth controlled by his trust.
He was, as Katharina Kakar puts it, “India’s Godman of the Twentieth Century.” An anthropologist who taught comparative religion in Germany before she married Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar and settled down in Goa, Katharina is one of a long series of scholars who were so fascinated with the godman’s charisma that she visited his ashram in Puttaparthi for a closer look. This was in 1995, when, according to her, Sai Baba was already “past his peak”, but his aura was unmistakable. And indescribable: “He knew how to play with the psychology of the devotees—the way he made the crowd wait in suspense, and then made a grand entrance, collecting from the frantic devotees the letters of prayers addressed to him.” Then suddenly he would stop and talk to someone, looking deep into their eyes, creating a certain mesmerising moment. “You can’t train or learn this—either you have it or you don’t,” she explains. And Sai Baba certainly had it: the quality of a rock star.
Mata Amritanandamayi Known as the ‘Hugging Saint’ for embracing her devotees, the Keralite, who hails from the fishing community, is one of the few women on the godman circuit
By the 1990s, according to Katharina, he had so assiduously cultivated high-profile devotees as well as tapped into a rising middle class’s yearning for a short-cut to spirituality that his organisation had grown into a vast spiritual empire, with centres in over 130 countries. He had turned from a mere miracle-performing godman into a carefully managed spectacle. His birthdays, for example, were celebrated in a large stadium built in the ashram which could accommodate over 50,000 devotees, and became big shows designed to strike awe and reverence: “big miracles, music, spectacle.”
Khushwant Singh, a well-known godman-buster throughout his long journalistic career, knows only too well how adept the godman was at cultivating high-profile devotees. There was his friend, the late jurist famed for his sharp mind and scepticism, Nani Palkhivala. In the last two years of his life, Palkhivala kept a portrait of Sai Baba on his desk. When Khushwant grilled him about it, the jurist who struck fear in the court refused to respond. It was a pattern Khushwant began noticing among the dozens of his friends and acquaintances who eventually succumbed to Sai Baba’s spell. “It was like a crutch. If you tried to talk to them about it, they got angry.”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar While his Art of Living Foundation aims to relieve individual stress and solve societal problems, the Bangalorean thrusts himself into raging issues like Naxalism, ltte and Kashmir. (Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook, May 09, 2011)
Khushwant was baffled: why did otherwise sensible and modern men and women turn into devotees of godmen like Sai Baba? He eventually got a chance to find out. He received a letter from Sai Baba’s manager, asking him if he would like a private meeting with the godman. “Yes,” he replied promptly. But when it came closer to the appointed day, another letter arrived, saying brusquely: “Sai Baba feels you are not yet ready to receive him.”
Like Dr Prabhakar Korada, a psychiatrist and professor in Mediciti Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. Dr Korada, who started off like the bulk of Sai Baba’s professional and modern-day devotees as a sceptic, dismisses the various charges against Sai Baba as “organised anti-propaganda”. The journey of the psychiatrist from sceptic to believer is typical of the miracle that Sai Baba performed on countless souls over the coming decades: the doctor was going through a severe emotional and professional crisis in his life, when Sai Baba appeared in his dreams. “Even in my dream, I questioned him about his magic,” recounts the doctor. Sai Baba responded by placing a foot on his chest, “as if to feel my heartbeat”.
After a couple of years of these recurrent dreams, Dr Korada landed up in Puttaparthi. He became impressed with the godman and the social work he was doing in and around the village. There was a mysterious transformation and Korada’s life suddenly improved for the better. Now his family keeps a picture of Sai Baba in the puja room and worships the godman.
This is why Sai Baba was so successful, believes Katharina—he was not only the pioneer of the godman-as-social worker prototype—the first one to build schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, even a public water works. But, better, he was able to persuade hundreds of thousands of people that he was close to their hearts even when he was miles away—that he could manifest himself in their dreams. “A sort of God at the end of a telephone line, who can solve all your problems, worldly and emotional.”
By the 1990s, as philosophy and religion scholar Meera Nanda writes in her seminal work, The God Market, a rising and affluent middle class’s craving for an alternative spirituality more in sync with their new lifestyle had resulted in a highly competitive godman market, each fishing for followers in the same pool: upwardly mobile Indians, nris and “Western seekers”—“the Indian middle classes who have acquired the lifestyle of their Western counterparts and who share their taste in new age-ish spirituality”.
Having arrived on the scene before the deluge of godmen, Sai Baba naturally had an edge over his competitors. But Nanda lists three kinds of godmen who came in his trail: the “miracle-makers” who follow Sai Baba’s style of producing objects from thin air; the Veda-expounding type; and the meditation/yoga/alternative medicine variety. To Nanda, Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma, as her millions of devotees call her, is a good example of the reason-defying miracle-worker type of guru. Devotees may flock to her for her trademark kiss and embrace, but it’s the miracles that cement their faith—the appearances in dreams, the belief that they owe all their breaks, big and small, to her. Like Sai Baba’s flock, Amma’s devotees too begin by being sceptical non-believers who are nevertheless in search of someone who will fill their spiritual void. Like Sai Baba’s organisation, Amma’s is a vast, multinational corporation, managed with an impressive hierarchy of volunteers—including “mantra monitors” and “post-mantra instructors”—and spectacular ritual ceremonies conducted on a raised stage, complete with TV cameras on cranes.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev The nattily turned out, BMW-driving, golf-playing Coimbatore-based yogi set up the Isha Foundation after he experienced a ‘spiritual calling’ when he was 25.
The second type of godman, appealing mostly to the business and professional class who want more philosophy and less magic, is usually a pious and learned man, “well-versed in the scriptures, yet at ease in the modern boardroom,” says Nanda. The sort who turns the Bhagvad Gita into a modern plan for living and equates this-worldly success with spirituality.
But it is the meditation/yoga type of godman that has really taken the country by storm. Like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose Art of Living—a mish-mash of breathing exercises and “rock satsangs” where hundreds congregate after work to sing and dance to devotional songs—is fused with a fuzzy are-you-happy type of spirituality. “This type of godman is meeting a need in modern-day society,” concedes Jyotirmoy Sharma, another scholar who’s looked closely at the rising trend in godmen, pointing out that the majority of Ravi Shankar’s devotees work in the IT industry. “When you have to sit 12 hours in front of a machine, you need something to anchor you. It’s a form of therapy.” Earlier, Sharma says, you had gurus who showed you the path to enlightenment. “Now you have godmen who say don’t bother your head about the larger questions, just trust in me, and everything will be okay.”
Nanda’s argument seems more convincing. Godmen are proliferating because there has been no strong counter-movement against it. Leaders like Nehru, Ambedkar and M.N. Roy did try to infuse what they called “a scientific temperament”, but there was really no strong movement to support their well-intentioned move, according to Nanda. Even the rationalists never moved beyond exposing the godmen’s “miracles”.
Then there’s our educational system: their plan for secularising Indians was to ignore the spiritual needs of the new generation. In contrast, the mainstream Christian churches in the West shed most of their dogmas and rituals in order to meet the religious needs of a modernised, industrialised community. Nanda, who studied in India, getting a doctorate from IIT before settling in the US, should know what she’s talking about: “We were dealing with mind-boggling ideas like molecular biology, but with no relation to our own culture and consciousness.” No wonder, she says, you now have a generation of the scientifically trained who speak in a strange language of “pseudo-scientism”—seeking to validate the avatars of Vishnu as a precursor of Darwin, or astrophysicists who do pujas during an eclipse.
Nanda comes up with another reason why the affluent middle classes worship their godmen: they rid us of our guilt complex! Indians have always been schizophrenic about wealth—while they love to make money, they admire men or women who have renounced wealth. “Godmen,” Nanda says, “take away the edge of guilt about being rich by teaching the newly affluent how to balance material prosperity with spiritual pursuits.”
But the deluge of godmen these days could be a dangerous trend. Despite their claims of being eclectic, most godmen and women lean dangerously towards the Hindu right, dropping their secular credentials at crucial times like during the Ayodhya dispute. Sai Baba, incidentally, was the only leading godman who refused to buckle under pressure from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to issue a statement favouring the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. But if the Hindu rituals and chants at his funeral are a foreboding of the future, it won’t be long before he too is roped in as the Great Hindu Hope of the New Century.
By Sheela Reddy with Madhavi Tata in Hyderabad
A well-written article, but still not objective or scathing enough in its opinion on godmen (God on a Phone Line, May 9). It astonishes me how people of the ilk of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam not only just endorse and embrace them but actually follow them. The media has been no better, highlighting, promoting and even popularising this particular godman. Especially since the media should ideally be a critique of society, politics or administration, and has in the past asked questions about the acts of many other godmen or women, and done many stings and exposes.
Kashif Hussain, Calcutta
A brave cover story. Just like Hindu gurus, pir babas too are doing brisk business by duping innumerable gullible Muslims. Even politicians are cashing in on the ignorance of the people. Mamata Banerjee has proposed a rail line connecting Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district to Dankuni, a Calcutta suburb. When magician P.C. Sorcar obtained audience with the Sai Baba under an assumed identity and matched the baba’s ‘materialisation’ of a sandesh by producing a rosogulla, the baba started shouting and had Sorcar thrown out. Sunday magazine wrote about the incident. However, since then, the baba’s influential friends seem to have ensured that such incidents neither occur nor are written about.
Niamul Hossain Mallick, Baramuria, Burdwan
Sai Baba, whatever said and done, was an enigma; regardless of whether he was divine or human, one can’t ignore his innumerable acts of philanthropy. The world will definitely be poorer with his death.
Dr George Jacob, Kochi
It is absurd to compare Sai Baba’s charisma to that of a rock star. The latter is just an entertainer, while Sai Baba has been a philanthropist of the highest order. It set him apart from the hordes of other godmen involved in nothing but self-promotion.
Krishan Vij, on e-mail
The 70-year-long spiritual and philanthropic career of Sai Baba reminds me of the following couplet by Tamil poet-saint Thiruvalluvar, “Do that which is good without delay, for you must do it before the tongue fails and the last hiccup seizes you." That’s exactly what Sai Baba did for society.
S. Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur
Sai Baba was probably the greatest conman our country has produced. He was nothing but a cheap trickster, paedophile and an accomplice to the murders that took place in his ashram. There is no doubt that the Sai trust has undertaken numerous charity works, but it is only due to the goodness of his devotees. The multi-speciality hospital was built thanks to the million-dollar donation of his devotee, Isaac Tigrett of Hard Rock Cafe. What he spent for charity is peanuts compared to his own Rs 50,000 crore-plus empire. With powerful politicians, judges, cops and businessmen as his devotees, he was truly ‘powerful’ and no charges against him were ever investigated. We conveniently ignore his nefarious activities and often cite the charity work to defend him but a wrong cannot be defended by a right. The true spiritual gurus of our country were enlightened souls like Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa etc. These frauds cannot even come anywhere close.
And how can one be sure that Khushwant Singh was not the victim of a prank by someone claiming to be Sai baba’s manager? At the last minute perhaps, the poor prankster chickened out. It would have been fun if the grand old man of Indian journalism had travelled all the way to Puttaparthi, only to learn that Sai Baba did not have any managers or that he doesn’t send journalists mail asking them to interview him!
Sokradhar Sharma, on e-mail
Has Khushwant Singh filed the letters he supposedly received from Sai Baba to show as proof? Or is he lying, as usual?
D. Anjaneyulu, Chennai
Some of us have such hardened egos that we are not prepared to believe even when God, let alone godmen, presents himself before us. As a matter of fact, we do not believe in ourselves.
P.V. Rao, on e-mail
Was there a purpose to this article? How can Outlook allow someone who has no scriptural or spiritual understanding denounce someone who is so universally regarded? A disgruntled devotee spreads a canard in the western media and our pundits latch on to it as the “profound” truth. Notwithstanding all the controversies created (mostly by the media), does any sane person seriously believe that Sai Baba did not change the lives of millions through his teachings?
Dilip Mahanty, Sydney
It is not in good taste to publish articles that hurt people’s sentiments. To each his own—live and let live.
S. Dasgupta, Calcutta
I liked your cover story. However, it won’t hurt rational, intelligent people to entertain a possibility that there may be a realm of knowledge and experience beyond the one that is amenable to the senses, and the habit-numbed mind.
V.B. Lal, New Delhi
I presume the sceptical, mocking tone in your article was necessary to get readers among us folk, the precise demographic you paint as being godmen-seekers. If you yourself can’t shrug off the disease of playing to the gallery, think how difficult it must be for godmen to make their mark. This is really about the human soul and its search for answers. Why denigrate that? Spit out the bile from your pen, and take a long, deep breath. It’s good for the soul.
Bindu Tandon, Mumbai
While I don’t have any personal “godman” or intend to have one, I’d be the last to condemn someone who seeks solace in one perceived as ‘irrational’. Some get sustenance in going to a temple, some in prayer at home. I don’t feel relaxed after a gruelling day at work till I have spent an hour or so on the computer. It’s something that makes no sense to my wife, but would I give it up?
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
True, there have been many pretenders and charlatans hiding behind the robes of Hindu faith and taking the gullible public for a ride. But it’s equally true that down the centuries till the present day, India has produced significant Hindu saints and reformers blessed with the profoundest wisdom. One is therefore disgusted at the petty spectacle of Outlook maligning highly revered souls like Sadhu Vaswani, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Baba Ramdev.
Jyoti Rani, New Delhi
Sai Baba was no different from unscrupulous politicians who loot public money in all possible ways and then start living an ‘honourable’ life by spending a part of the ill-gotten gains on philanthropic activities like running hospitals and educational institutes. When his hoodwinking gullible masses with cheap magic like producing vibhuti and tiny articles from “air” came to be increasingly challenged by scientists like H. Narasimaiah, he became a philanthropist thanks to thousands of crores of money pouring in from devotees. His inner feeling of insecurity was evident from his unsolicited visit to M. Karunanidhi, a self-proclaimed atheist, and donating Rs 200 crore to a government project. Sai Baba was an embodiment of irrationality in this nation. The state funeral given to him was a national shame.
S.P. Asokan, Chennai
You mix up diamonds with rubble and say all is rubble. Sai Baba’s spiritual journey began as a child. His secularism was not the secularism of the fashionable, but an awareness that went much beyond, which is why it was so appealing. He was great not because of his miracles but in spite of them.
India is a land of superstitions. And will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is even possible that, given our economic rise, it may make the entire world superstitious. Articles like these are a speck of sanity amidst the deluge of irrationality.
People are insecure. To counter this insecurity, they blindly follow godmen such as these. They will rule us unless we realise our own inner strength.
Santosh Kumar, Delhi
The worshipped few are not worshipped for nothing.
Dr Surendranath Pokle, Goa
When taking on fraudulent godmen in God on a Phone Line (May 9), shouldn’t the likes of evangelist Benny Hinn also be included?
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
I glanced thro' this article and found a couple of bloopers.
"He wasn’t like the meditative, reclusive godmen before him, like Ramana Maharishi, who withdrew from people"
THe writer has no clue how many people went to see him each day. Once he settled and established his Ashram, he did not withdraw from people. He was there for anyone to go and see.
"he was not only the pioneer of the godman-as-social worker prototype—the first one to build schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, even a public water works."
Except for public water works, the first to build schools, colleges, orphanages in modern India happens to be RK Mission and they did those things even before Sai Baba was born.
Sri Satya Sai Baba laid His mortal coils on 24th April 2011 and this column is written posthumously, not as an obituary but just for the sake of writting something. This is another example of Indians being the worthy Macaulay's Children, they became what their unholy masters wanted them to be. It includes all brown coloured slaves in Indian peninsula under the colonial rule. It is shameful crap. In fact the Vatican has a lot more spicy material to publish if they will dare do it. I know but they can't because of their venal corporatisation.
It is shameful article merely criticising for the sake of a poor yellow journalism. Will you be equally vociferous to highlight the misdeeds of the various Popes and the clandestine operations conducted by the so called rogue Vatican Bank, which caters to the drug cartels, mafias, corrupt politicians, sexual scandals proved that led to the historical resignation of a pope in the history of Vatican. Indian journalism paders to their foreigner masters, unfortunate venal corporate houses. Be unbiased and objective in your reporting. A shameful piece of junt reporting.
Sheela Reddy has reproduced what is already in public knowledge about these 'spiritual leaders, 'godmen', 'miraclemen', or 'faith healers'. It may be noted that the most virulent criticism of these personages has come from foreigners and some of their ignorant friends here. These 'foreigners' were directed and commissioned to indulge in such vilification by some obvious organizations who wanted their herds back.
I may caution our Indian friends to be careful in denouncing personages mentioned in Sheela Reddy's article. You mock them at your great personal peril besides incurring heavy karmic debt.
The God-men are the need of the present times to substitute the functions of spiritual safety valves. It goes without saying that the Indian are more vulnerable on their mundane matters due to various pressures. Adding woes to this are the increasing mental and physical and ailments. We are also suffering from serious persecution complexes and insecurity for obvious reasons. The soothsayers are filling the vacuum present in the Indian society. The primary reason for mushrooming Godmen is nowhere else to be sought other than our need to rest our unending problems on a dependable reassuring shoulder. Bhagwan Sathya Sai Baba was one such charming spiritual Guru who held his followers in a mesmeric spell. The high and the mighty queued up before him for his darshan. If he was not able to satisfy them spiritually and metaphysical experience in proximity and reality, lakhs of followers would not have faithfully worshipped as a living God when he was alive and even in his death. But, this cannot be said true of all the God-men, who commercialise spirituality unlike Sathya Sai Baba who converted spirituality into charity and philanthropy in an unprecedented scale and size.
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