I don’t want to talk about the unseemly controversy involving Asharam Bapu, the criminal charges leveled against this god man, the far-fetched conspiracy theories propounded, or about the militant responses from his supporters. I don’t want to speculate about guilt or innocence because I do believe that is the job of the judiciary and also because I think a trial by media or the internet is unnecessarily voyeuristic and incendiary; and not in the interests of justice.
I merely want to explore what it is that makes god men so popular. What is it that makes devotees out of not only the poor and uneducated, but also the wealthy, the educated and the successful? Though we think of them as a typically Indian phenomenon, the western concept of Evangelism (and its particularly bizarre but hugely popular offshoot; TV evangelism) is not much different. There as well, we have a leader who offers spiritual solace and guidance, perhaps performs a miracle or two and becomes the repository of tremendous faith to say nothing of remarkable amounts of wealth in the form of donations in cash and kind.
Personal charisma of God-Men
There is no doubt that god men and also by implication evangelists, are typically charismatic personalities. They are magnetic individuals who are able to draw people to them. They are perhaps possessed of certain wisdom; the ability to offer succor to people who are troubled, in doubt or who feel spiritually adrift. They offer not only solace but also a sense of purpose and direction to the thousands and lacs of people who throng to them in search of some divine guidance.
It is human nature to want to believe
When an individual is in pain – physical, emotion or spiritual – he or she wants to be comforted, to be told that it will be alright, that there is a way out. When someone perceived as a wise and munificent being offering comfort and guidance, lays their metaphorical hand on the head and tells that individual that all will be well, it can bring a huge a sense of relief to that troubled individual. It is not difficult to understand that a deep attachment to that spiritual guru will ensue; faith, trust, devotion even adoration towards that guru or god man is bound to follow.
Indians are particularly prone
In this land of ours where blind faith and superstition are still a way of life, this is fertile ground for god men and women of all hues. We wear or religion on our sleeve and proclaim our spiritual affiliations without reserve. This is not disapproved of; in fact it is viewed as evidence of good character. In India, where psychiatric treatment is still frowned upon as being for the ‘mad or deranged’ only, people who are troubled or stressed find it easier to turn to God men with their own brand of spiritual comfort.
Then when a troubled individual receives that much needed spiritual guidance they want to show their gratitude or display the extent of their faith by offering generous donations. While these donations may be voluntary in many cases, the unscrupulous skillfully manipulate such situations to their advantage and manage to become extremely wealthy in the bargain.
Extreme faith and extreme disillusionment
So when so many repose such deep and implicit faith in these spiritual gurus, why is it that so many of them are in the eye of a storm – accused of financial misconduct, sexual misdemeanors and so on? Well one reason could be that these charismatic individuals acquire great power and influence over time. It is certainly true that some god men and women some misuse this power knowingly, indulging their baser instincts perhaps assuming a sense of entitlement; one possibly fueled by so many fawning followers and adoring adherents.
But it is possibly also true that god men and women are held up to a higher standard by their followers and by the general public. Whereas earlier the follower viewed their guru as someone who could do no wrong, now he or she is viewed as flawed, corrupt and egregious. Perceived misdemeanors are perhaps magnified and viewed with less tolerance for that very reason. That is why, when followers turn against their gurus, they appear to become thoroughly disillusioned and then feel that they had perhaps been led on by a complete charlatan. Witness the earlier devotion of the Beatles to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and their subsequent disillusionment as stated in their song Sexy Sadie.
Perfect opportunity for the media
The media (and especially the Internet and the blog-community) comes down heavily on god men accused of any misconduct – the minute there is a whisper or any transgression, particularly if it is of a sexual nature, it becomes a virtual feeding frenzy, with TV reporters of a particular ilk positively licking their chops in anticipation of a juicy story which they can showcase in its most scurrilous and scandalous manner. Currently for example Asaram rules the internet not just in India , but also in the world – who can ignore him.
In the cut throat world of TV and internet news reportage, a scandal involving a spiritual guru is just too delicious to pass up – it is just the sort of thing that ups TRP ratings and keeps viewers hooked. It is just the sort of news that goes viral on the internet via various forms of social media All sorts of details are dug up and presented to the viewer – it is alleged that Asharam Bapu supposedly started out as a small time bootlegger in Gujarat, that he has a penchant for fancy cars, choppers and business class travel and that he offers magic cures for everything from porn addiction to cancer. He now is thought to have an empire worth about 10,000 crores, with 20 million followers and 425 ashrams in 12 countries.
But are these sufficient reasons to become judge and jury and declare the man guilt of whatever crimes he may or may not have committed? I personally have no time for god men of any type, but I think the question is a valid one.
By Reena Daruwala