Blind faith: bizarre babas and their followers
If you’ve been watching television lately, chances are you’d have caught the ‘Third Eye of Nirmal Baba’ peering at you from any one of the 30 channels on which the self-styled godman’s programme appears. The baba, who frequently dispenses absurdities in the name of ‘kripa’, is perhaps one of the best examples of the new generation of Indian godmen and his enormous popularity has helped him rake in a ‘turnover’ of over Rs. 200 crore in less than three years.
Powerful godmen with a large following are not a new phenomenon and Indians across economic and social strata have always been in thrall to these figures. From Indira Gandhi’s Dhirendra Brahmachari to Narasimha Rao’s Chandraswami and Sathya Sai Baba, who counted a number of politicians among his followers, the godman has been a ubiquitous figure in Indian public life. For a while, especially after the death of Sathya Sai Baba, a deeply controversial figure who was venerated and pilloried in equal measure, it had seemed like the era of the godman had passed. However, the spotlight is now on a number of ‘charismatic’ new babas some of whom openly play on the gullibility of a generation of Indians searching for an anchor, any anchor, at a time of great flux. “These godmen have come to look at themselves as ‘modern day gurus’,” says writer-sociologist Susan Visvanathan.
Some like Baba Ramdev, whose popular yoga shows on television have helped him build a huge following, seemed innocuous enough until he claimed to have a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. But this too can be seen as the absurd response of a deeply conservative section of society to the great changes ushered in by the reading down of Section 377 and the Delhi High Court’s decriminalisation of gay sex in 2009.
“Changes are taking place in class status, gender roles, material wealth and structure of society,” says writer-psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar who adds that an individual who feels unable to control the uncertainty of his life is more likely to believe in those who promise to help him gain some measure of control.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association thinks the slow weakening of organised religion has left a vacuum that wily god-men with their ‘magic potions’ and bizarre ‘solutions’ are rushing in to fill.
Kakar believes the media gives its viewership what it wants. This perhaps explains the alacrity with which channels of every sort gave over large chunks of their programming to paid shows from godmen who promise miraculous solutions for everything from romantic failure to ridding a home of ghosts. Cue the charlatans who tell followers they’ll get the much-longed-for child if they changed the chutney that accompanied their samosa or that crafting a magical stick will help them locate a thief!
Most disconcertingly, even educated followers seem to be willing to accept such claptrap. The sight of these supposed godmen amassing wealth, travelling in luxury SUVs, displaying an inordinate fondness for expensive watches and developing ashrams that look like spiritual Disneylands, strangely, does not seem to disgust them or make them aware that this brand of spirituality is a business worth over Rs. 1,000 crores annually.
If the media is a mirror to society then perhaps the slow withdrawal of mainstream television channels from this space is a sign of things to come. NK Singh, secretary of the Broadcast Editors Association admits television’s flirtation with bizarre godmen has “exacerbated irrationality in society”. He adds: “Two years ago, channels had five to seven such shows. In the last six months, all the national channels including Aaj Tak, Star TV, IBN-7 and Zee have removed babas from their prime-time slots and are refraining from featuring them on religious occasions.” Even India TV seems to have seen the error of its ways. “From half a dozen such shows, we’re down to a single astrology one in the morning slot,” says Vinod Kapri, the channel’s managing editor. The measure is not enough to please Press Council Chairman Justice Katju who said last Thursday that the Indian media promotes superstition.
Edamaruku is certain people will soon stop being naïve. “People are gullible when they are vulnerable. Once they are shown the other side, they are willing to see,” he says optimistically. Visvanathan, however, stresses that godmen will continue to exist as long as people seek god. Reformist-writer Asghar Ali Engineer sees superstition as a complex phenomenon with political patronage being a strong factor. “Sai Babas and Nirmal Babas will come and go. The unique reason why superstition thrives in India is because of the absence of a communion. People view these god-men as their ‘personal agents of god’, who intercede on their behalf. The godman becomes a magician. A magician has clients. Indians look at them as ‘elevated magicians’. Television has only catered to this, not been the sole reason,” adds sociologist Dipankar Gupta.
For the many babas who have grown rich on the strength of their bizarre claims that can only be good news.
Baba in the news
The man and his rise: Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, better known as Nirmal Baba, has been appearing on nearly every television channel in recent months on his programme, the ‘Third Eye of Nirmal Baba’. This Jharkhand-raised self-styled godman shot to fame in the last few years through the controversy surrounding the donations and the charging of admission fees (Rs. 2,000 per person) to his ‘darbar’ sessions. He is estimated to be worth Rs. 250 crore and has a huge following despite dispensing advice bordering on the absurd. He even has an app on Facebook called ‘Live Darshan 24/7’. A polarising figure, Nirmal Baba has ardent devotees and vocal doubters. Indeed, Facebook has both a group called ‘India Against Nirmal Baba’ (450+ members) and ‘Nirmal Baba I Support You’ (350+ members).
States of superstition
Aniruddha 'Bapu', 56
Head of Shree Aniruddha Upasana Foundation
Rise to fame
Aniruddha Dhairyadhar Joshi studied medicine at Mumbai University and practised as a rheumatologist. His rise is related to the Dabholkar family. In the early 1900s, the family patriarch Hemadpant Dabholkar was a disciple of Shirdi's Sai Baba who, before his death, is believed to have given him three articles. Legend has it that Sai Baba claimed he'd 'return' for them. The Dabholkars secretly preserved the articles. In 1996, Joshi turned up for them and was hailed as an incarnation of Sai Baba. 'Bapu' has since been giving weekly sermons in Mumbai and other cities in Maharashtra, advocating the path of Bhakti. His weekly sermons, that attract over 5,000 devotees, explain mantras and prescribe chanting them to solve problems.
Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, 45
Head, Dera Sacha Sauda, Sirsa, Haryana
Rise to fame
His 2007 act of purportedly trying to imitate the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh (considered blasphemous in Sikhism) by wearing a similar dress at a function in Bhatinda triggered clashes between premis (Dera followers) and Sikhs across Punjab and Haryana. The third head of Dera Sacha Sauda after Shah Mastana and Shah Satnam Singh, he took control of Dera at 23 and has increased its landholdings from 70 to 700 acres.
Asharam Bapu, 73
Founder of the Sant Shri Ashramji Ashram in Ahmedabad
Rise to fame
Bapu started his first ashram in Ahmedabad in 1971. There are now over 300 ashrams. The live webcast of his discourses is facilitated for more than 3 crore followers worldwide through his website. In 2008, when two children studying at the Ahmedabad ashram were found dead in the Sabarmati river, their parents accused Asharam, who allegedly performs black magic, of killing the boys. The Gujarat government appointed a commission to inquire into the incident.
Kalki Bhagwan, 61
An LIC clerk who became an international swami with vast real estate holdings
Rise to fame
In 1989, after a business disaster, he went underground and later emerged in Chittoor district as Kalki, Lord Vishnu's last avatar. His promise of delivering instant nirvana went down well and today, Kalki Bhagwan has sprawling ashrams in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and counts rich Indians and NRIs among his followers.
Mahant Mohandas, 48
Runs the Panchayati Naya Udasin Akhara at Sanyasi Marg
Rise to fame
His 'modern' ashram has apartments. Frequent visitors can stay after paying a fee between Rs 15-20 lakh. Das was earlier a student of fine art in Mumbai before becoming a guru in Haridwar - the 'godmen hub' of India.
Part of the Shri Panchayati Naya Udasin Akhara
Rise to fame
The godman loves his Bolero and Rado watches. Among his cures is one for childlessness that asks women to serve at cow shelters.
Sachindra Nath, 90 & Prabin Saikia, 65
Independent magic healers, two of some 130 in the 'magic' village Mayong, 40km east of Guwahati
Rise to fame
Given the reputation of their village as a black magic/tantrik hub since medieval times, the two decided to carry on the tradition. They've been into healing and warding off curses since their teens. Their popularity has grown with the expansion of the media.