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The Baba and the babe

March proved to be the cruellest month for Babas, as one after another house of cards — built by the self-styled keepers of religious faith tumbled. And from beneath the debris emerged stories of exploitation — monetary and sexual, writes KV Lakshmana.

india Updated: Apr 01, 2010 01:45 IST
K.V. Lakshmana

March proved to be the cruellest month for Babas, as one after another house of cards — built by the self-styled keepers of religious faith tumbled. And from beneath the debris emerged stories of exploitation — monetary and sexual.

First surfaced a sex tape, involving Swami Paramhansa Nithyananda, a saint of global fame. On March 2, a prominent south Indian television channel showed the swami with an actress.

Hundreds of devotees protested — some against the Nithyananda’s transgression and some, surprisingly, against the channel.

On Tuesday, three weeks after the scandal surfaced, the 32-year-old godman announced that he had decided to quit everything and go for “spiritual seclusion”.

In north India, two other Babas — Anup Kumar Swamy, a faith healer, and Shiv Murut Dwivedi alias Icchadari Sant Swami Bhimanandji Maharaj Chitrakootwale — were uncovered.

Swamy, based in Ghaziabad bordering east Delhi, was arrested on March 6 for kidnapping a girl because she had spurned his marriage proposal. A married man, Swamy allegedly offered Rs 1 crore to the girl’s parents for their daughter’s hand.

Dwivedi, a godman, famous for his pravachans (religious teachings), was held by the police on February 26 for running a prostitution racket.

The list is endless. Rationalists say conmen can easily turn themselves into godmen since there is no definitive and monolithic structure in Hinduism that administers matters of religion and faith.

What’s more, celebrity devotees too add to the godmen’s appeal and help build their brand. But that is only the demand side of the story.

Sociologist Asish Nandy of the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies has another solution: Be extremely careful in choosing your gurus, as obviously some are misusing the trust and faith of the people.

But why do hordes of people — even educated Indians among them — fall prey to these godmen, who claim to possess supernatural powers?

“There are only 6,000 trained and qualified mental healthcare professionals in the country of a billion-plus. The need is 50 times more,” says Jitendra Nagpal, psychiatrist at VINHAMS and Moolchand Hospital, New Delhi.

Psychologists say the short supply of mental healthcare professionals can be blamed for the rise of godmen. People suffering from depression need to go to a healer. But with hardly any expert around to take care of them, they flock to faith healers.

“Some avoid seeking professional help for fear of social stigma,” says Nimesh G. Desai of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences.

But going to a healer may not always be a good idea. Desai warns that medication techniques followed by healers can be harmful to people who suffer from severe depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

They also manipulate the faith of the people. “And in some cases, they think nothing of sexually exploiting women through rituals,” Nagpal said.

But the government, especially the political class, has done little to solve the problem. Sometimes, politicians even work in connivance with Babas, making it difficult for the police to act against them.

The reason for the Baba-politician nexus seems to be simple. For the Baba, the politician is a shield against state power. And for the politician, the Baba is a custodian of votes.

“Since fraudsters are often patronised by politicians, the administration and the police develop cold feet when it comes take action against them,” said Sanal Endamaruku, president of Indian Rationalists Association.

K.V. Ramanachary, former CEO of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams that manages the shrine of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, said people should be wary of self-styled godmen, who have a fondness for material gains.

But there is still a constituency for genuine holy men. “Most fake saints live on the goodwill created by genuine sadhus,” said Swami Shailendra Saraswati, a meditation guru.

Saraswati, a former marketing and finance specialist from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has a simple solution: “Create and launch a better product and the wrong ones will be forced out of the market.”

For now, wolves are trusted with tending the flock.