Why religious cults such as Dera Sacha Sauda are so popular
Religiosity is being displaced by veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object. Ironically it is not the veneration of inanimate idols that is worrisome but increasingly the cults around living figures that tend to pose challenges to authority.
Way back in 1843 Karl Marx in an introduction to a book that criticised GWF Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Right wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. Marx thus saw in religion a utility to the State by creating illusions to mitigate the immediate suffering of people. It made them dull to oppression and induced a sense of fatalism. Hegel saw in the State the presence of God upon the earth. Both would now be turning in their graves, seeing how their postulations shaped up in India. Far from becoming the opiate, religion has now metastasised into a pernicious thought process that threatens to destroy the State.
That’s because of the proliferation of cults within religions. Religiosity is being displaced by veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object. Ironically it is not the veneration of inanimate idols that is worrisome but increasingly the cults around living figures that tend to pose challenges to authority.
All the major religions have seen the emergence of outsized cult figures who themselves become objects of veneration superseding the divinities they represent. From being objects of veneration to claiming divinity is just a small leap. The late Satya Saibaba of Puttaparthi, a much venerated cult figure, was probably the most successful of the godmen in terms of market size and revenues.
They might be interceding for many gods but one commonality is that godmen have mesmerising control over their devotees. Finding togetherness in cults is a common human condition. The level of education and wealth of a society has little relationship with the incidence of credulousness.
Otherwise America would not have a David Koresh of the Branch Davidians who led 77 followers to a death after a confrontation with the FBI in Texas or Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple who persuaded 900 followers to drink poison-laced Kool Aid in Guyana. The perceived power of televangelists like Billy Graham, Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell made politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan assiduously court them and espouse policies favored by the religious right. In Japan, Shoji Asahara’s mesmeric message to his Aum Shinrikyo cult into attacking Tokyo metro in rush hour with Sarin gas. So why should India be an exception? Credulity is inbuilt into the human condition.
What should, however, cause us concern is the proliferation of deras in Punjab and Haryana. By some counts there are as many as 9,000 now. A dera, as its name suggests is more a militant encampment rather than a benign monastery. The most notorious cult figure in recent times was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale whose temporal journey ended only by an army assault to free the Golden Temple. In 2014 the followers of a Hindu Godman, Rampal, dared the state to enter his dera in Hissar and pick him up for trial for murder, sedition and conspiracy. It took over five thousand Haryana policemen take him in.
Last year a cult centred on the return of Subhaschandra Bose that had taken control of the Jawahar Bagh in Mathura had to be stormed by the UP armed police and 29 followers of their leader Ram Vriksh Yadav had to be killed.
The Dera Sacha Sauda of Ram Rahim Singh is the cult in the news now.
August 25, 2017 is red-letter day for India’s judiciary, which asserted itself by ignoring political connections and the cupidity of the authorities. It is not surprising that the criticism of the entire political spectrum about the activities of this bizarre “guru of bling” is uniformly anodyne, very unlike the vitriol they routinely pour over each other.
After all politics is not about rationality or good sense or decency, but just about votes.
Mohan Guruswamy is an economics and policy analyst. The views expressed are personal