Have a guru by all means, but remember that their spirituality is an assembly-line product

Love guru?
Love guru?
Image: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
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Even as the high-decibel criticism of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University continues unabated, the riverside celebration of “Hindu-India” curated by the self-anointed Sri Sri has been forgotten. It has dissolved into the polluted air that hangs over the Yamuna. This so-called guru initially proclaimed that he would pay no fine or charge towards the environmental restoration. There was of course no question of his being accused of being anti-national for harming the flood-plains of a river. In fact, he was applauded. The certification came from none other than the prime minister himself.

We live in ridiculous times.

The defence of the event, violent in ecological terms, extravagant in financial and social terms, and shockingly wasteful in terms of time, energy and sheer man-hours, has come not in terms of a reasoned explanation. It has come as low and mean personal accusations levelled against environmental activists and finger-pointing at the excesses of other religious groups. Every criticism has been reduced to the pettiest forms of party politics.

Serious discourse is lost.

Old phenomenon

But none of this is really new to us.

Religious showmen have had their way with politicians and governments for decades. Many have had numerous cases against them, with accusations ranging from sexual abuse to land grab. But how many have led to convictions? Unmindful, these gurus continue their work.

In making such individuals stronger in recent times, I think two contrasting social movements have played a major role. One is better known as a model and the other as an ideology. The capitalist model has shown itself to be Machiavellian and the communist, oppressive; navigating the in-between has not been an easy task. This has affected everyone—the landless and daily wage earners being the worst hit.

People need reassurance, and voila, the guru grants their wish. “Things will get better for you, just do this, this and that,” he says.

At the same time, social power equations have considerably changed. The traditional misogynist, high-caste, high-class power groups are being challenged and all those who took their control for granted are now fragile. They seek refuge and security in godmen. New socio-political tsars are aligning themselves with such gurus in a new nexus that provides them the much-needed aura of a different order, of socio-cultural respectability. The only beneficiaries in all this are the godmen.

The good work argument

Nay-sayers like myself are many times asked one question, the obvious one. What about the social contributions, the self-help groups and institutions that these godmen have created, or the schools they support, private hospitals they build, their focus on wholesome living, organic foods, and their volunteers who help during natural calamities? All this is undeniable. But how is this any different from the corporate social responsibility initiatives that even the most insensitive corporations spearhead? Even politicians and political outfits are involved in such activities.

Are we so innocent that we do not recognise the obvious brand-building, image-establishing part of the social activity agenda? Let us not treat their work any differently from that of a mega corporate. Godmen are good ad-men. The “godly” makers of good hospitals and schools do not deserve an extra ring on the halo around their heads any more than makers of good medical equipment, cars or tractors.

The larger agenda pushes hazy spiritual institutions into the hard social sector—a huge gain for the religious orders. “Good” happens for society, of course, but then this is not due to institutional—or the godman’s—selflessness. It is because of the volunteers, who act selflessly, with hardly a hint of personal gain. The godman showers his blessings only to gather a harvest of great socio-political and financial power. There is also a deeper point: these “ships of good deeds” may not show it right now but when they appear from beyond the horizon, they may well be carrying undeclared toxic cargo inside.

Political targeting

Unfortunately, in today’s times, real and honest social, political, and environmental activists who have been walking the by-lanes and tortuous roads for years are branded and brushed aside as nuisance makers. Even worse, they are politically targeted, like in the case of the Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai.

I find it very interesting that Christian schools, hospitals, and colleges are all seen as conversion platforms, but none of the initiatives by the Hindu swamis are spoken of in a similar vein. These gurus are also converters—maybe not to a religion but certainly to a cult. Ashrams are recruiting grounds and indoctrination centres where a cult is created around a godman/woman.

We have to ask ourselves a far more serious question. Why have we, as a people, become vulnerable, so pliant, so completely subservient to these master-indoctrinators? Don’t get me wrong, the Sri Sris and Satgurus may well be wonderful yoga teachers—and others maybe religious scholars. But when did they become philosophers and mystics? It is this crossover that needs questioning. Somewhere during this shift, we have elevated them from the temporal to the celestial, the human to the super-human, bordering on the divine. In the process we have subjugated our “god-given” gift of intellect to them. We have given up our “self” and its ability to seek. It is time we reclaimed our minds.

Just be aware

Here, I could be asked: “But what is so wrong if I need their help and support?” Absolutely nothing. But can we all be aware—and I mean truly aware—of the maze we are entering?

Our unhappy land has seen thinkers who have urged that we free our mind of any baggage, to find pathways that we need to explore for ourselves. They have not asked us to emotionally sign up for a long-term assignment. Nor have they manipulated us into doing so. They have not tried to trap us in a spider’s web, where at the end of a three-day course we are asked to offer guru dakshina (the guru’s fees) to the supreme leader. They have not asked us to take home a brainwashing package.

There is no doubt that even today, amidst these operators, there are institutions and teachers who propagate various ways of religious living with integrity, sans fluff or artificial flavours. But many are “delusionists,” who trap us in their net of charisma, mind-play and clever one-liners. We forget our mind and consequently the questions that trouble us, and parrot those that the guru choreographs us into asking.

There is of course great variety on offer: Some cater to the traditional vedic crowd with their yagnas, pujas, and tantric gesticulations. Then you have the ones who are most eloquent in the Queen’s English, modern in the upper-middle class sense, ethnic to perfection, combining nuclear science, quantum mechanics and Vedanta with the greatest of ease. Apart from the many shades of grey in-between.

It is time we recognised the institution of spirituality in India for what it is—a high-tech commercial enterprise—and these gurus for what they are: self-appointed chief executive officers who provide products to the consumer.

I will end with a practical tip suited to our time-short times: If their products please you, even enable some change in you, go ahead and use them. But know them to be assembly line products Made In India for Trade, not Transcendence. That is where the contact should start and that is where it should end.

Don’t let them hijack your mind and soul.

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