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Cult of godmen: Rising faith in the unreasonable

Across most of the world, religion is becoming more powerful than ever. But people want more and are thus being drawn to all sorts of cults, writes Manu Joseph.

columns Updated: Nov 24, 2014 09:06 IST

Godmen are misunderstood, especially successful godmen. They are often called frauds by people who are charmed by their own selective rationality, but frauds cannot draw thousands, including scientists and Supreme Court judges, into their fold; nor make hundreds of women stand in queue for a sacred massage. Indian godmen have achieved all this and more precisely because they do not believe they are cons. They are, in fact, proof of an extraordinary but underrated piece of wisdom, which is often imparted by the old to the young — ‘believe in yourself’. What that means when stripped of the inanity of language is, ‘to fool others you have to first fool yourself’.

That one Rampal Singh Jatin was once a junior engineer in the irrigation department of the Haryana government might be a banal fact, but in his personal reality, and the most powerful form of reality is often private, he is the Chosen One whose arrival in the material world was prophesised by many, including Nostradamus and ‘Lady Florence of New Jersey’.

Journalists often describe him as ‘self-styled godman’ assuming that others are not, as though the others were naturally ordained. His devotees responded to his beliefs in himself, and they worshipped him. According to some accounts, his devotees bathed him in milk. One devout said that there was a pipe on the ceiling in his ashram from which milk was poured on Rampal — so, in effect, he was bathing himself in milk. Whatever be the truth of the source of the milk, his devotees made ‘kheer’ from the consecrated fluid and allowed the dessert to perform miracles on them.

There was a reason why he believed he was the reincarnation of Kabir, the secular non-god. Rampal considered all gods his rivals. He dissuaded his devotees from worshiping anyone but him. He asked them not to visit temples. “God is not an animal whom the priest has tied in the temple.” And discouraged charity, “…the beggar might misuse that money.”

A few years ago, in line with his divine jealousy, he offended the followers of the Arya Samaj. In violent clashes that followed, one person was killed, and Rampal was charged with murder and attempt to murder. He spent some time in jail but was granted bail. This month, after he failed to appear before the court on many occasions, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered his arrest. But in his ashram in Hisar, in Haryana, thousands of his devotees became voluntary and involuntary human shields. Among his supporters, the police said, were ‘commandos’ who even wore black bandanas. They had guns and crude bombs. They held out for days. In another place, in another culture, would these people have joined ISIS?

The breathing instructor, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who heals wounds on human bodies, said that he tried to contact Rampal “to talk some sense” into him. Well, well.

It may not have occurred to most of us, godmen talk to each other. What would one godman tell another?

After over a week of unrest, the police managed to get hold of Rampal. As he left with the police, his hand was in the gyan mudra — the tip of his index finger touching the tip of his thumb. It was as though he was congratulating the world.

It appears that millions of Indians are outraged by Rampal or have an amused contempt for him. Among them are those who believe in god, whatever that means; those who believe in other godmen; those who rub the finger nails in one hand with the finger nails of the other hand because a yogic told them it is a cure for arthritis. As the writer Richard Dawkins wrote, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Across most of the world, religion is becoming more powerful than ever. But people want more. So, even as they maintain their subscriptions to the ancient conventional religions, they are drawn to cults. Godmen are rising among Hindus, Muslims, Jains, and Catholics, too, even though Catholicism is unambiguous in its spiritual power structure. An increasing number of Catholics across India are getting intoxicated by the more intense and aerobic forms of Christianity.

In the middle of all this atheists stand offended. They never create traffic jams, they don’t start riots, they don’t pour millions into trusts that freeze that money in fixed deposits, the worst thing that anyone can do to money, they do not ask the deep hollow of eternity for favours. What is the incentive for godless people to be good? There is none at first glance, yet the godless are under a perpetual self-made pressure, more than the godly, to do good. Could it be that there is a quota of spirituality an average person has to fulfil — the godly spend most of it on appeasing the gods, the godless have no other recourse but to spend most of it on trying to be good.

Over the decades, the physical health of the human race has transformed. Most humans who are alive today would not have made it so far if it were not for advancements in medicine. What would have happened if mankind’s physical well-being were in the hands of quacks? We must send a shudder for the mental health of the human race because it is still in sacred hands.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 23, 2014 21:30 IST