India’s ad glib line, in more innocent times, was that it was a land of holy men. It seemed at odds with popular Hindu mythologies and fables that narrated stories of rishis and saints who indulged in plenty of connivance, intrigue and sex. The saints either had a dodgy past or their sainthood was often tainted by unholy acts.
In more confused and modern times came the real-life swamis and cult gurus of India. They were faith healers of timid and troubled hearts, renegade gurus who made their monies with hippy dollars and set up ashrams for sexual nirvana; or refugees turned vulgar swamis guilty of rape and murder, wily charlatans who hobnobbed with political heavyweights and saints whose Manuvadi diktats only widened the chasm between the upper-castes and marginalised classes.
The public found a placebo in these talking gurus and venerated them, ignoring or chaffing at the agnostics, rationalists, Christian apologists who constantly warned that these were men whose spiritual services demanded a heavy price, sometimes even human life. The public received comfort that even top-rung politicians sought the blessings of their gurus.
Jayendra Saraswati’s arrest on November 11 is now muddled by allegations of political motivation and vendetta. This is nothing surprising, considering how politics and religion combine to poison and dictate public wisdom in India and politicians and priests make for opportune bedfellows.
A flashback would show that most post-Independent gurus enjoyed political patronage from the highest offices of India and many of their arrests and public shame have come from the same political and legal authorities swooping on their misconducts at their convenience. A report in November 1994 of a police complaint by two minor girls was enough to throw the spotlight on the ugly side of Trichy guru Premananda. He had, until then, enjoyed patronage from some senior members of the then ruling party in Tamil Nadu. Thankfully, this did not absolve him and, in a landmark judgment in 1997, he was convicted of multiple rapes and murder.
But there are divine interventions that behove benevolent judgments too. Just this October, a Delhi court acquitted godman Chandraswami in the St. Kitts forgery case and he made most of the moment to say how he had been made a political pawn by the V.P. Singh government for his proximity to Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi.
So it is for the most powerful godman of India, Satya Sai Baba, who has been venerated by prime ministers from Vajpayee to Narasimha Rao and received patronage of corporate giants like Isaac Tigrett of Hard Rock Café. Despite pending complaints with the CBI, negative campaign and murders of youths inside his quarters in 1993, he continues to be the guru with the most: over 20 million devotees and an estimated worth of $ 6 million.
Jayendra Saraswati also had former presidents like R. Venkataraman and Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao and Indira Gandhi call on him. (Saraswati publicly stated that widows should remain away from public spaces, but ‘the Gandhi widow’ was a political heavyweight after all). Obviously, he has missed something that Chandraswami and Sai Baba know better.
This unholy nexus will continue until India’s spiritual electorate awaken to the shifty deeds of politicians and the dented halos of its saints.