Rampal Dass, an engineer-turned-religious leader, who was arrested on Wednesday from his 12-acre ashram in Barwala, Haryana, after days of stubborn resistance, is part of India’s flourishing tribe of new-age religious gurus. However, cult leaders like Dass, also known as Sarguru Rampal Ji Maharaj, is not a new phenomenon and Indians across different segments of society have looked up to them. Given the claustrophobic structure of India’s caste system, it is hardly surprising that these leaders have found a niche for themselves in different states, especially in the North.
Even though these new-age gurus have similarities, they target different markets. “Ramdev’s market share is different from that of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s,” Sanjay Srivastava, Professor and Head of Sociology, Institute of. Economic Growth, Delhi University, told HT. Speaking on the reasons behind the rise and consolidation of these leaders, Srivastava added: “The growth of this type of leaders is linked to the media explosion of the 1990s. TV gave them a reach which the older gurus did not have, leading to their huge popularity”. For example, Baba Ramdev and Nirmal Baba appear on several TV shows.
However, this does not discount the fact that people flock to such leaders because they also want social mobility. In fact, some of them ----- Sri Mata Anandamayi and Baba Ramdev ----- come from the lower end of the caste structure and people that strata can relate to them better. “This ‘club’ provides them with an alternative network from which they can draw social and economic sustenance”.
Srivastava feels that the rise of entrepreneurship has also played an important part in the rise of these cult leaders. “People want instant solutions to everything and there is change in the type of religiosity they want to follow. These leaders provide that and also a one-to-one interaction which the older set of gurus did not always allow”. Interestingly, he added, unlike the older lines of gurus, these new leaders don’t see material ambition as a taboo, in fact they combine religiosity with material aspirations. Many of them (Ramdev, for example) have their own multi-crore businesses that is linked to their core competence. “They allow both worlds and that’s an attractive proposition for many. In fact, this could be also the reason why these gurus flourish more in the northern part of India where there is a certain level of entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Srivastava. “The new age gurus are open figures while the older ones could be called delimited figures”.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, feels that the claustrophobic social structure is responsible for this rise of new-age gurus. “Take for example, the case of Dalits. They are allowed inside gurdwaras but are treated badly. So these cult leaders and their organisations provide a different idiom altogether. They also fill a vacuum. I know several villages in Greater Noida which are indebted to Dera Saccha Sauda because they helped them with drug de-addiction in their villages”.
Saying that there are bigger Rampals out there who need to be brought to book for their illegal activities and there needs to be clarity on their political links and funding patterns, Krishnan added that these new set-ups also suffer from the problems of older religious structures: centralized authority, a hierarchical system and corruption. “In that sense, these groups are not different from the older ones”.