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India's enduring fascination with godmen

Caught in a shadowy time between tradition and globalisation, post liberalised India's fascination for godmen continues. Namita Bhandare writes.

columns Updated: Oct 26, 2013 09:07 IST
Namita Bhandare

My first instinct was to laugh. Only in India would a seer dream of a long dead king telling him about buried gold.

Only in India would this be taken seriously enough to send the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) scurrying off to unearth hidden treasure in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. Only in India would this set off a frenzy of treasure seekers who reportedly hold two priests at gunpoint while they dig a temple and a fort in an adjoining village looking for the yellow metal.

One week and a whole lot of mud later, culture minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch has now said the ASI is not looking for gold at all but weapons used by Indians in 1857. Indeed.

The story has already begun to die down and in another week will, in all likelihood, be relegated to yet another amusing footnote in India's enduring fascination with godmen and their 'miracles'.

It's a fascination that is not limited to villages in Uttar Pradesh. The seer, Shobhan Sarkar is said to have a fairly large following including the BJP's national president Rajnath Singh.

The BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi first lambasted the UPA government saying, "The whole world is making fun of us" and then, after being snubbed by the swami, clarified that he saluted his sacrifices.

Elsewhere, Asaram Bapu, currently in jail on sexual assault charges, has found such vocal defenders as BJP leader Uma Bharti who has declared that he is being 'punished' for being anti-Congress.

What is faith for one person is superstition or blind faith for another. Followers of the late Sathya Sai Baba believe he was not a godman but a living God. His funeral in 2011 had nearly half a million people in attendance including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

When a supposedly secular State confers any degree of importance to one self-styled godman, it confers legitimacy to those who are charlatans. India's politicians have every right to follow the faith or godman or superstitious belief of their choosing.

But that devotion must remain private. Middlemen like Chandraswami or Dhirendra Brahmachari have no place in the public realm. When a minister can order an ASI excavation on the basis of a swami's dream, what results is not only a misuse of public funds but it also sends the wrong signal in a country awash in the sort of gullibility that has turned the swami business into a lucrative empire.

Modern, globalised India seems to have lost none of its obsession with godmen. When chief ministers look for 'auspicious' swearing-in dates, Bollywood producers seek 'good' dates for muhurats and well-off Indians speed dial astrologers with fingers sprouting 'lucky' stones before constructing vaastu-compliant homes, you could laugh these off as individual eccentricities.

Unfortunately and tragically, they find resonance in a vast swathe of India where parents flock to mercenary gurus for cures for ailments from cancer to epilepsy, women and the elderly are denied proper healthcare and taken to quacks instead and vulnerable children are abused by predatory godmen.

It is when the poorest and most vulnerable become prey to exploitation that we need to worry. In the past decade, dozens of women have been tortured and killed for being witches in states like Jharkhand. This is why Narendra Dabholkar campaigned against superstition for 18 years before being assassinated on August 20.

Caught in a shadowy time between tradition and globalisation, post liberalised India's fascination for godmen continues. Partly this has been made easier with made-for-TV swamis that have made it possible for a Baba Ramdev to build a reportedly Rs 1,500 crore empire.

Partly it's because it brings an easily digestible religion straight into living rooms. And partly it helps assuage any residual guilt at becoming increasingly acquisitive in a material world.

At a time when aspirational India wants desperately to be cosmopolitan and yet retain a sense of pride in its culture, the appeal of godmen to the elite and unlettered alike shows no sign of waning. And unlike the goings-on in Unnao, there's nothing funny about this.

Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal