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Last of the godmen?

With the passing away of Sathya Sai Baba, the age of ‘godmen’ — seen to be incarnations of god who perform miracles — may be over. But does this mean an end to the marketplace of messiahs? That’s another matter altogether... Lalita Panicker writes. Of Godmen & Gurus | Babas | Swamijis

india Updated: May 01, 2011 01:18 IST
Lalita Panicker

The Presence of Puttaparthi has shrugged off the mortal coil, albeit a few years earlier than he himself had predicted. The fearful faithful now await a new avatar to come to replace the Afro-avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba. But the question hovering over the red velveteen-covered samadhi is whether such a man, or God as he styled himself, will walk among us again.

“Too many gods cannot come in quick succession, the era of god is gone. Or, at least, there is a temporary lull in this phenomenon,” says eminent sociologist Dipankar Gupta. This, though, does not have to mean that a scientific temper, economic growth and modernity will negate our need for spiritual solace — given the popularity of spiritual gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Ramdev, Ma Amritanandamayi, only to mention a few, in the messiah marketplace. But it may be true that the marketspace for the godman has diminished if not vanished altogether.

The Sai cult began when he was a child. He was born, according to his father, when a divine blue shaft of light entered his wife. At the age of 14, Sai Baba was bitten by a scorpion unleashing his divinity. He considered himself the Truth, the Reality, the port of last call. If you made a telephone call to God, Sai Baba would answer.

Today’s salvation seeker, on the other hand, does not want to be told what to do, just to partake of chicken soup for the soul. It is the difference between walking to your destination and racing there in your sports car.

Historian Ramachandra Guha, an astute observer of the spirituality phenomenon, puts it down to the fact that India has never been a fertile ground for atheism. “With old certitudes breaking down, families fragmenting, children rebelling against parents, people need an anchor. Gurus provide that,” he says. What we have today is a spectrum of gurus, some of whom emphasis corporeal healthy living and some temporal well-being. In this spa of spirituality, you can pick your mystic massage.

Surendra Jodhka, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, feels that the spiritual guru is able to provide a sense of identity for those who feel lost. “The traditionally powerful upper classes feel a sense of loss today, their authority has gone, no one listens to them. The guru gives them an identity, maybe as proud Hindus or whatever.” However Jodhka feels that this spiritual tsunami is not to be taken lightly. It must be studied and this has not been done enough by sociologists.

The gurus of today are attractive in that they have quick-fix solutions to the problems we face. The Louboutin ladies and the Sancerre swish set don’t have time for deep doctrinal answers to the problems of life. Says Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of political philosophy at Hyderabad University, “Gurus provide fast food for the soul. Their answers to a troubled existence are quite simple, it may be smile, laugh or love. Human effort is minimised. God demands things of you, God doesn’t forgive easily, God will bring retribution for your deeds. The guru does none of these things. Which do you think will survive?”

Dipankar Gupta has another explanation for why the growth of gurudom is here to stay, even grow exponentially. “Most people today are unsure of their capabilities, they tend not to achieve things on their own but by using connections or crookery. So you know that whatever you have got by way of jobs or material possessions is in effect not the result of your effort and you are afraid it will be taken away. So you turn to someone who you feel will protect you, give you the illusion that all will be well.”

The godman, on the other hand, operated through a sense of fear, of your sins catching up with you. You could not negotiate with God, once he had pronounced, you had no court of higher appeal. Not an appealing prospect to those who believe that salvation lies through the art of negotiation. Dr Anuradha Chenoy, professor of international studies at JNU feels that, not just in India, but across the world, as aspirations go up, people need crutches to try and fulfil them. “In India, it is too complex and difficult to try and change the social system, to make it more equitable. People have no faith in the system, they have no faith in themselves or their friends. So a Baba or Ma fills that void,” she says.

God himself cannot be seen or heard. God will not get back to you. So you can remove yourself one step away. A new age guru is an intermediary, one who will try and get you a deal on your terms, albeit through hard bargaining. He will then take your demands to the Highest Authority who may then concede some of them. Like Icarus, you don’t need to get too close to the sun.

Few gurus of today will tell the faithful to do something they may not want to. In a way, they are shrinks to the soul. The guru is the Gordon Gekko for the upwardly mobile. He or she will tell you that greed is good, sex is better, ambition is desirable as long as you don’t hurt anyone. It is what you want to hear, something to soothe your troubled soul, nothing which challenges your intellect, a karma cocoon. Who needs the avatar who will enunciate the concept of sin or renunciation?

Those who were projected — by themselves or by their disciples — as godmen, not gurus, bit the dust all too soon. Osho, Swami Nityananda and passively Amritanandamayi have all tried, but with limited success. The only one hovering above the fray is the now deceased divinity, Sai Baba.

Gurus let you have your cake and eat it too. Is it any wonder that their tribe is growing? Or that the next Godly avatar will be a very long time coming?