August 07, 2020
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God On A Phone Line

That is what our godmen are to most Indians: present on call

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God On A Phone Line
Nilotpal Baruah
God On A Phone Line

One Two Ka Three

New Age godmen are of three kinds, and Indian devotees are known to seek a mix of them

  • Reason-Defying Miracle Men Eye-popping visual tricks and sleights of hand are the name of their game. They materialise objects out of thin air and claim other superhuman feats, like rain-inducing prayers, to advertise their “supernatural” powers.
  • Veda-Expounding Wordsmiths Their forte is discourses that explain arcane holy texts in simple words and help join the dots.
  • Yoga And Wellness Gurus Life coaches who help disciples to worldly success through a step-by-step guide to physical fitness and mental peace, with a dash of music, meditation and alternative medicine tips


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.”

Not only was Sai Baba the pioneer godman-as-social worker, he had the power to ‘appear’ in people’s dreams.

It’s this ingenious blend of active pursuit and playing hard to get that probably won Sai Baba his impressively long list of high-profile devotees, ranging from presidents, prime ministers and central ministers to top bureaucrats, scientists and other professionals. They undoubtedly came in useful when Sai Baba was battling the charges against him by several former bhakts, feels Katharina. “These were serious charges, some of them probably with a grain of truth. But he had good contacts and there was possibly a cover-up,” she explains. “And the charges never stuck, because the devotees didn’t want to believe them and glossed over them.”

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”.

Guru Cool

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Popularised transcendental meditation in the West. His fans included the Beatles. Blessed the 1969 Woodstock rock festival. Osho Rajneesh Known as a sex guru since he advocated a more open attitude towards sexuality. Seen in better light after his death in 1990.

Sadhu Vaswani Head of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission. Followed in his saintly uncle’s footsteps. The mission runs colleges, schools and hospitals. Anandamoyi Ma Spiritual teacher and guru from Bengal. Hailed as a saint. She was named Ma Anandamoyi (blissful mother) by disciples in the 1920s.

Asaram Bapu Now facing hard times in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, his 350 ashrams organise spiritual discourses. Has a presence on the worldwide web. Baba Ramdev Has popularised yoga through TV shows and camps. Was part of the recent Anna Hazare-led stir against corruption. Close to RSS.

Kalki Bhagavan His spiritual movement is called Kalki Dharma. The mission: to enlighten 64,000 people by 2012 and help usher in a ‘golden age’. Chandraswami He was close to late PM P.V. Narasimha Rao. Controversial and connected, his name has come up in various scams and scandals.

Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji Heads the Avadhoota Datta Peetham, Mysore. Has popularised ‘Raagaragini Vidya’, a musical tradition which heals. Swami Nityananda Propagates ‘spiritual healing’. Was arrested after he was involved in a sex scandal. His followers include Gujarat CM Narendra Modi.

Dhirendra Brahmachari The original TV godman taught the nation yoga on Doordarshan. Was Indira Gandhi’s personal guru. Died in a 1994 plane crash. Mataji Nirmala Devi Founded the religious movement called Sahaja Yoga. She claimed she was the incarnation of the
Adi Shakti.

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.”

Godmen proliferated as the rationalists did nothing beyond exposing their miracles.

He wasn’t like the meditative, reclusive godmen before him, like Ramana Maharishi, who withdrew from people. “Sai Baba needed the crowds to believe he was god, just as much as the crowds needed him to be god, so that they could convince themselves that anything was possible.” The only other godman who came close to him in popularity was perhaps Osho Rajneesh. “But Rajneesh was someone who loved to shock. He was too provocative, too sexual to appeal to the Indian middle class,” feels Katharina. Like Rajneesh, the godmen who came before Sai Baba were mostly the export-quality type—catering to the spiritual needs of an increasingly alienated, rebellious post-war generation looking for alternative routes to spirituality. Sai Baba, on the other hand, was an indigenous creation who had somehow touched the nerve of a new India and continued to keep his finger on the religious pulse.

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.”

Godmen perhaps help the middle class reconcile materialism with spirituality.

Is it an Indian thing then, this infantile craving for a godman or woman to shoulder our cosmic burden, to whom we so readily surrender our modern, scientific selves like hapless children, touchingly dependent on his or her approval for every move we make in our life? There’s, of course, the long Hindu tradition we have imbibed, where the line between gods and men has always been blurred, which one could argue gives us an inherited susceptibility to godmen. Or there are scholars like Peter Brent, who argues in his Godmen of India: “In the West, we are free to work for the approval of those we love and respect. But for Indians, particularly those of the middle classes, there are only two directions they can go to prove that they can love and be loved. One is towards homosexuality, the other towards the godmen—the two not being mutually exclusive.” Really!

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

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