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Like, pray, follow: A quick path to the top in Madhya Pradesh

How do you become a religious leader in MP? There are many ways.

more lifestyle Updated: Jun 16, 2018 20:57 IST
Dipanjan Sinha
Dipanjan Sinha
Hindustan Times
Ujjain,Indore,Simhasta
Archana Sarmandal describes herself as a ‘housewife, mother, astrologer and religious leader’. ‘I meet with followers after my husband has left for work and my children have gone to school,’ she says. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

For Archana Sarmandal, all it took to declare herself a religious leader, in her words, was a moment when “her eyes were opened to her own potential”, while she was sitting outside a temple. That was nine years ago.

Today, she adds, she is known for ‘saving lives’. “People call me when they are ill, I tell them to go to a hospital, and I promise to pray to ensure the treatment is effective,” she says.

Sarmandal, 36, is a homemaker, mother of two, astrologer and self-styled spiritual leader. “I advise people on what kind of puja to perform,” she adds, “as they seek medical help.”

Sarmandal meets with people daily, in a special room in her two-storey Ujjain house where there is a sofa (for the guest) and a bed where she sits cross-legged in a saffron robe. Her visitors range from ward officers and MLAs to grocery store owners. “Some come to me with health problems, other for help with their careers,” she adds. “What do people give me in return? That is out of their own happiness.”

How does she know what advice to give? I advise them based on what has worked for me, she says.

Ujjain is one of the ‘religious centres’ of Madhya Pradesh; others include Maheshwar, Khandwa and Amarkantak. “You cannot count the number of godmen in Ujjain. There’s one in every area,” says Vijay Sharma, who works at a travel agency in Indore, 40 km away.

During the Ujjain Simhastha, a Kumbha Mela that occurs once in 12 years on the banks of the Shipra river, ascetics from across India converge on this town. The fair lasts a month, but the culture of faith, holy men and elaborate ritual is permanent.

Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati, 93, head of the Dwarka-Sharda Peeth. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

Almost every person one meets has some godman or spiritual leader they turn to in distress. “According to our faith, every person must have a guru. One cannot follow the path of dharma without a guru,” says Hari Agarwal, 60, a dealer in plastic furniture in Indore.

He has been a follower of Anna Maharaj, a spiritual guru based in Indore, for 25 years. In choosing your guru, he adds, simply listens to your heart, but be wary too. “Mushkil hai. Aaj kal to politics mein bhi aane lage hai. (It’s difficult. These days, they’ve started entering politics too),” he says.

Religion and ritual, or politics, power and property… how you pick your guru can reflect what you’re seeking.

“A man does not become a sage because he announces that he is one, just as a doctor doesn’t learn to heal by adding initials to his name,” says Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati, 93, head of the Dwarka Sharda Peeth and an authority on Hindu religious practice. “A true sage doesn’t need to be photographed with ministers; doesn’t go out looking for support. He becomes a sage by studying under a sage, and he can claim that title because he helps others towards enlightenment.”

One cannot become an ascetic because one has lost in one kind of life and wants to try another, adds Baba Laxman Das Maharaj, who heads an ashram in Indore. “One must be drawn purely by the call of God and the words of the shastras.”

It’s not about ascetics entering politics, he adds. “Vinoba Bhave, known for his contributions to land reforms, was a sage. We call Mahatma Gandhi a saint.”

Swaraswati believes there is no sphere of life that should be closed to dharma. “A fair election is one that follows dharma; when parties follow their manifesto and keep their word, they follow dharma. Every party that comes to power has to be faithful to the Constitution, if one party breaks away from that or treats the different communities that form this country unfairly, that is not dharma.”

But if someone who calls himself a saint enters politics for personal gain, says Laxman Das Maharaj, he is a danger to everyone, including himself.

First Published: Jun 16, 2018 20:03 IST