Our society has seen severe turmoil’s in the name of religion during last three decades in particular. While on one side we see that issues related to religion’s identity are trying to occupy the center stage, we also are witnessing the emergence of thousands of self proclaimed ‘Godmen’, supposed to be having divine powers. They do also claim and sometimes the state, society does informally accord them some sort of a special status. This came to the light once again in the case of Asaram bapu, against whom the allegation of rape of a minor girl was lodged. In this case the arrest of the accused was warranted immediately, but the police force took its sweet time and with great difficulty and drama; could arrest the Bapu. Bapu did try to evade the arrest on various grounds, so many programs are lined up, am unwell, my relative has died, but finally some pressures did work and Baba was arrested from his Indore Ashram (31st August 2013).
Asaram bapu is amongst the leading Godmen, as far as the wealth, number of Ashrams and the number of followers is concerned. While he has many influential people amongst his followers, there is no dearth of political people blatantly supporting the likes of him or delaying their arrest under the pressure of ‘electoral calculations’. This is not the first time that criminal cases have been talked about against him, many a cases of land grab came to surface, but law of the land seems to be sleeping on that. The death of two boys in his Ahmadabad Ashram, and two in Chindwara Ashram got suppressed through the mechanisms which are a back up of these God men.
To be fair to Asaram Bapu, he is not alone in the game. There are hordes of Godmen who have acquired infinite wealth. Many of them have been linked to cases of murders in their Ashrams (Shankaracharay Jayendra Sarswati, Late Bhagwan Staya Sai), the listing of those involved in sex scandals of various types is a long one and the lead in this area goes to Nityanand Mahraj, who claimed that he is reincarnation of Lord Krishna. The life style of these Saints is the one of luxury and affluence, proving that while preaching renunciation etc.; one gets the best of what the World has to offer in the arena of material wealth.
Using the word ‘Saint’ for these breed of Babas is also a bit problematic. We do recall the medieval saints of the genre of Kabir, Tukaram, Namdeo, Paltu, Raidas, who came from low caste, were working for their living, and rubbing shoulders with the poor and deprived. They criticized the evil practices in the society, questioning the social inequality in particular. They expressed the anguish of the deprived sections of society, the way Chokhmela, a saint from Maharashtra, talked of injustice in this world where ‘one that grows the grains is hungry, one that weaves the clothes does not have clothes and one who builds the houses has to sleep under the open sky’. These saints were away from the power centers and many of them had to face atrocities from those in power. Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi saint, refused to entertain the king to his hospice. Kabir talked against caste system, against the divisions in the name of religion and the social power structure. They had followers mainly amongst the poor and deprived.
The current genre of the Saints, have big following amongst affluent, receive huge donations from those who are drenched in wealth and the powers that be are on their side. These saints have built up their empires of wealth, affluence and power over a period of time. It is interesting that in India there has been a long tradition of people associated with religion. The dominant category is that of the clergy, like the Shankaracharya tradition. There are Mutts, there are ashrams and there are centers where theology and philosophy of religion is discussed at length. Incidentally the current series of Godmen have not much to do with the theology or philosophical debates around religion. In contrast the medieval saints were rooted in the society and talked of social issues, struggle against social evils, like Kabir comparing Chakki (grinding mill) with the idol of lord or reprimanding Mullah for loud bang (Azan).
Such social issues are not the concern of present Godmen. There is a vast variety of them and it is not easy to generalize them and their methods. Still some major features of the present ones can be outlined. Their rooting in philosophy or social issues is skin deep. They have picked up some formulae which are elaborated with song and music or they deliver discourses which probably soothe the tense nerves of the section of society, a section facing social dilemmas and anxieties. Some of these Godmen are outright frauds like Nirmal Baba, advising the solution to the problems e.g. through change of color of Chatni (Sauce), which is eaten with the popular Indian snack, Samosa. Meditation and yoga is a major method apart from discourses. Some of them like Morari Bapu have the luxury of preaching Bhagwat (Sacred Narration) while taking devotees on the Sea cruise around the world.
So the prefix saint has a totally different meaning with these two divergent set of people, the genre of Kabi-Nazamuddin Auliya on one side and Asaram Bapu-Nirmal Baba on the other. There is a fundamental difference in their grouping. In his famous sentence, Karl Marx says "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". And this sentence seems to answer this difficult question in categorizing the complex variety of saints. On one hand we have Clergy (the official –unofficial upholders of the rituals and institution of religion), in the form of Pundit, Maulana, Granthi, and Padri. On other hand is the vast array of medieval saints, coming from different religions, Bhakti saints, Sufi saints who while talking in idiom of religion, were not associated with the power structure or performance of rituals. And then we have this vast array of present saints, proliferating dime a dozen from the most well known like Asaram Bapu, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar to the small time operators in different cities.
The clergy was definitely part of the power structure, accompaniment of the feudal lord and the Kings. In Maharashtra the phrase ‘Shetji-Bhatji’ (Landlord-Brahmin) sums it up very well. There is Raja-Rajguru, while the ‘Nawab and Shahi Imam’ is another association and the most structured one in this category comes in the form of ‘King and Pope’. They stood for status quo in a society, where the poor peasants were being exploited to their bones. They acted a sort of opiate for the masses to keep them tied to their hard labor. One can say that in contrast the medieval saints were the sigh of oppressed in this heartless exploitative World.
Coming to the Asaram Bapu-Nirmal baba series they are again like the opiate for the masses. Unquestioning the system, blind to injustices, quiet on social evils in the name of religion and at the same time cultivate strong bonds with social powers and have political patronage. While BJP currently may be coming forward in a bit more forthright manner to defend the Babas in the name of Hindu religion, even the others political tendencies also do not have enough courage to criticize the babas. These babas do fulfill the need of the opium to calm the tense nerves, and assume the larger than life image for themselves under the garb of religion. They become ‘more equal’ in the eyes of powers that be so it becomes difficult to get them arrested for criminal charges in the routine course and they can defy the law to some extent or the great extent. So unless the charge is very blatant, like as in case of Asaram, most of them get support from the political class and their blind supporters. One recalls Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Asaram Bapu sitting on a Dhrana in Delhi to oppose the arrest of Shankracharya Jayendra Sarswati in Shankar Raman murder case. One also recalls the soft peddling of murder of children in Asaram Bapus ashrams or other times when influential politician speak out of turn to protect these Babas.
The irony is that the rise of these babas is in parallel with the rise of politics in the name of religion. Many a times there is a subtle and overt association between these babas with the religious nationalist discourse, which they defend and propagate. Many of them also talk about the values of Manusmriti, the hierarchy of caste and gender in a more sophisticated ways. At social levels the current babas are for status quo of social relationships, like talking about caste harmony (Sri Sri Ravishanker) in contrast to Ambedkar’s ‘caste annihilation’.
One knows that a section of population treats them like God; a section does need them to allay their mental pressures. One also knows that they have emerged due to the rising insecurities in the society due to the economic and political factors. They all operate under the garb of religion and faith so it becomes difficult to question their methods. Such a garb of faith lifts them above the ordinary and gives them some immunity from the laws of the land. The need for respecting people’s faith and knowing its limits without denigrating reason and law of the land was never felt more desperately!