India’s Globalised “Godmen”
Placebos for the Rich and Famous
“Our vote is not for sufferance,
Denial, drudgery, pain;
We pack pleasure for the body,
And delusion for the brain.”
( Badri Raina, “Moon, Maharishi, Maharaji,” Modest Proposal & Other Rhymes for the Times, Sahmat Pub., New Delhi, 2000, p.110.)
Long before the Washington Consensus, and long before the empire began to write back, Indian globalization was first and truly effected by India’s “godmen.”
The writing back, indeed, was preceded by the preaching back. Where, however, Swami Vivekananda was a freak one-timer in the Chicago conference of world religions in 1892, the efflorescence has been a recent phenomenon, coterminous, significantly, with the leaps made by a “liberated” world economy.
Quite rightly has Arundhati Roy said that two locks were opened by the Indian ruling elites at one and the same time—the lock to the market, and the lock to the Babri mosque, yielding together that deadly mix of religious and developmental totalitarianism which has since informed the life of the nation as a dominant theme.
And mutually reinforcing in a fatal sort of way.
The subject came up on a TV talk show debate just the other night, and what follows may be read as a gloss occasioned by the coordinates that emerged. Indeed as regurgitations of cogitations that this scribe has experienced for a good many year (the epigraph, which comes from a nasty written more than two decades ago, being testimony).
Broadly, two sharply articulated positions defined that debate, with the sedate and subtle historian, Ramchandra Guha on one side, and the feisty advocate, Rani Jethmalani on the other.
Guha made the point that since most of India’s frontline “godmen” seemed always to be chasing money and the media, they could hardly be regarded exemplars of the spiritual life. This in stark contrast to a Gandhi who “democratized” spirituality, first by questioning his own fallibilities and then by sharing the totality of experiences with vox populi. Or, a Raman Maharishi who never stirred from his abode in south India. And, indeed, fed his mongrels even as he ate himself, he might have added.
Jethmalani, a highly successful scion of the legal fraternity, countered robustly to say that there was nothing wrong with so doing. It was her grateful view that these gurus of India were infact bringing succour and release for a whole lot of people who are otherwise too caught up in the deracinated rough and tumble of activity. Yoga and meditation were the way to bring fraught individuals in touch with their inner lives.
Now in recent years, “godman” after canny “godman” has been found to be complicit in some shenanigan or the other—land grab, hawala transactions (i.e. the illicit and clandestine transfer of unaccounted wealth from place to place), rape, sex orgies, and murder—all exposed by the very media, sections of which never tire of lauding their contributions to the “national image” as a haven of spirituality.
But there are a few currently who remain as yet clean to the visible public eye, although questions have been raised about dubious medical and labour practices of one, and shots heard recently at a conclave addressed by the other. Both hugely endowed with all that money may do, including exclusive TV channels for propagation.
So why then do the high and mighty continue to patronize these sorts of “godmen” whose so-called spiritual splutterings never seem to amount to anything more than platitudinous common sense (Guha), often readily available at the street corner paan shop?
I would like to suggest that the answer lies in the epigraph to this piece.
A whole new class of Indians spawned by the berserk possibilities of market fundamentalism know two things: one, that their ancestors never had it “so good,” and, two, that come what may, the last thing they wish to happen is to lose what they have accumulated, and may continue to accumulate.
Any spirituality, therefore, that enjoins turning away from money-making and consumerism is passé and infra dig. So that the time-honoured pieties of renunciation (tyag) and the simple life centred around the common good and search for truth beyond possessions are decrepitly medieval. Utterly unsuited to a class whose burden now is to see India at the top of the comity of puissant nations.
More heinously, such a course seems a sinister device to reject capitalism and a dirty trick to bring back socialist ideas.
The agenda of this class, thus, is to see that capitalism goes hand-in-hand with painless placebos, that not only bring momentary relief but recharge entrepreneurial energies for further leaps in profit-making.
And the first of the “godmen” to understand this agenda to perfection was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who fathered Transcendental Meditation world-wide. It was his explicit boast that fifteen minutes of TM at work place could not only steady the nerve and stem the blood pressure, but, in so doing, make enhanced leaps in productivity possible. Maximum result at minimum inconvenience--never a better corporate commercial than that.
So, there you had it—you could eat the cake and have it too.
Just as any clever movie-maker fashions his cinema to articulate the desired underside of things, the classy Yogi sets out to become a “spiritual” collaborator in the compulsive drive to the “good life.”
None of this can happen if the “godman” is seen to be a “beggarly” derelict himself.
In the new world that he seeks to skim, it is imperative that all the accoutrement appropriate to the zeitgeist are his in the first place, ranging from palatial ashrams, to limousines, to fabulous and famous hangers-on, to in-favour politicians, to private jets.
For him these are tools that substitute the old relic, hairshirt, and frankincense.
And his unique selling point has to be, as the epigraph claims, that he brings spirituality not as painful questioning of what is, or of frustrating skepticism towards the preferred social and economic environment of his clientale, but, indeed, as an enhancement of the pleasure principle.
And inorder that he sell, he must primarily be seen to be master of that principle himself. Hey, you can’t give what you do not have.
No wonder then that you do not see such “godmen” trudging among the riff raff of the nation, or taking on injustices, or lining up on the side of equity, or bringing hope and ministry to the wretched of the earth.
Thus a spirituality that is adorned with diamonds and plaited with gold can ill afford to be bogged down in ethical concerns, except as vacuous and abstract gurgitations, uttered with tact and a sense of timing. Or upon catching an isolated raised eyebrow in the audience on any given day.
The whole point and purpose of this variety of “spiritual” intervention is to bolster and justify the “good life”, and, all-importantly, to neutralize and hush the least stirring of the conscience and of guilt.
Inorder to keep its hold on the Elect, it needs always to appear resplendent in a canny mix of the flowing beard, the loosely worn robe, the ever-smiling visage, the arty enunciation of clichés, and always always next to visuals that betoken wealth and intimations of hidden pleasures.
Truly, the art not just of living, but of living to the hilt.
It is thus that a deadly mix of the Freudian and the Lockean inform this “spiritual” enterprise, inviting the subject in mystifying suggestiveness to look inward to the navel but seated in surroundings that ravish the physical eye, item after opulent item.
What more could the rich and famous ask for?
As for all the rest, their fate it is to labour to keep the opulence in place. Lucky rabble they.
For a contrast now, consider this other saffron –clad Arya Samaji mendicant, name of Swani Agnivesh.
On a state television channel he comperes a weekly interactive programme, titled Vichaar Manthan (literally, “Churning Thoughts”).
Invariably his audiences are drawn from people readily available on any street, government school, slum NGO, relegated women, minorities, low-castes and suchlike, with a noted authority or two sitting among their midst.
And here is his route to the spiritual life:
--what can we do collectively to redress horrendous social and systemic wrongs, be it sanitation, slum schooling, local health and nutritive care, honour killings and other caste oppressions, inter-communal mayhems, corruption in offices, in politics, among teachers, contractors, shopkeepers, police personnel, godmen, and so on?
--what mechanisms of redressal does the present system make available to the ordinary citizen, be it RTI or any other? How can we educate ourselves and others to use them?
--what new laws, legislations should we ask for?
--what pernicious influences does a money-driven and complicit media perpetrate? What kinds of advertisements bring shame to the ordinary Indian?
Who makes the money?
--what can be done about children in labour, anaemic lactating mothers, goons on the street whose lack of employment encourages crime against others?
--can injustices cohabit with a religious life? Can any religion be true if it contravenes our fundamental humanity?
And so on. These but some that I readily recall from his programmings.
Therefore, do not be surprised that the Rani Jethmalanis of India would not see Swami Agnivesh as a “godman” one bit, but indeed something of an irritating, corrupted and radical rabble rouser—mendicant in himself and inviting to a mendicant life. And suspiciously partial to the Left. Could it get worse?
What is a “godman” who dwells perpetually on the externals, and miserable ones at that, and never rolls his eye upward to the “transcendant” truths?
Nothing more, indeed, than a proletarian Jesus or a troublesome Gandhi.
Would you marry into a family that has no BMW? No. And if you did, it would be your problem if you lost your club membership.
Would you enter a corporate house that offered you less than X plus plus plus? Forget it; what would your peers think?
Would you be seen next to a “godman” who rode a bicycle? For god’s sake, you must have lost your so-spiritual beans.