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How the spiritual bazaar works

Many things to many people. That seems an appropriate view of a ‘spiritual’ leader’s job description, wouldn’t you say? It’s perfectly understandable that the fairground patter of telegurus annoys that section of the sensitive, intelligent public that prefers a good book to a b&w discourse on epic villainies.

art and culture Updated: Jun 11, 2011 22:58 IST

Many things to many people. That seems an appropriate view of a ‘spiritual’ leader’s job description, wouldn’t you say? It’s perfectly understandable that the fairground patter of telegurus annoys that section of the sensitive, intelligent public that prefers a good book to a b&w discourse on epic villainies. But being cerebral seems unconnected with having faith and tradition upholds the need for a guide. As Voltaire said, “To believe in God is impossible, to not believe in Him is absurd” (we’ll let that ‘Him’ be for the moment). And the great spiritual bazaar is of this world, too. To operate in this world, which is provenly transactional, it needs to follow the rules of the transactional handbook. So the public demands to see a show of professional credentials before it can attach itself, its hopes, dreams and affection to somebody who claims to know the way out, the way through or the way beyond. Even Jesus had to raise the dead and turn water into wine, say the gospel-writers. Some of the telegurus today did not hatch overnight. They retreated into solitude first, meditated, did yoga, listened to the earth hum in B Flat, looked around them at flailing humanity and said, “Back to work.” It’s the pattern set by the Great Ones and those who came after them that they follow, with varying degrees of success and sincerity.

The fact is, every brand needs a USP to be heard above the clamour of the marketplace. It’s naïve to think otherwise. It could be yoga, fiery sermons by mesmeric speakers, healing music, blessings and boons, whatever works as a magnet for whichever likely target audience. How will the public come otherwise, to help achieve many a guru’s real agenda?

For weighed against the gurus tainted by talk of inappropriate private or public conduct is the serious ‘let’s make it better’ gameplan that drives many of them underneath. No prizes for guessing, it’s social and development work. Same-old same-old water, health, education, livelihood. In sum, the way it works is this. First you get noticed. Then the crowds come: and you need everybody, for cheques, permissions, admin and field work. As even HH the Shankaracharya of Kanchi discovered despite the eye hospitals and his NGO, Jan Kalyan, it’s a risky venture. But nobody can wash their hands of water, health, education and livelihood. The projects remain to be done, in private-public partnership.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture