Mohan Guruswamy | The challenge of the cults: Can we overcome them?

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

Religiosity is being displaced by veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object

The Dera Sacha Sauda of Ram Rahim Singh has been a cult that was much in the news. (Representatioanl Image)

Way back in 1843 Karl Marx in an introduction to a book that criticised 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.” Karl Marx thus saw in religion a utility to the State by creating illusions to mitigate the immediate suffering of the people. It made them dull to oppression and induced a sense of fatalism. Hegel, of course, saw in the existence of the State the presence of God upon the earth. Both would now be turning in their graves in London and Berlin seeing how their postulations have shaped up in India. Far from becoming the opiate, religion has now metastasized into a pernicious thought process that threatens to destroy the State itself.

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 or “godmen” who themselves become objects of veneration, superseding the divinities that they represent. From being objects of veneration to claiming divinity is just a small leap.

The late Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, a much-venerated cult figure who counted Prime Ministers, distinguished soldiers, learned scientists and corporate overlords as his loyal devotees, was probably the most successful of the godmen in terms of market size and revenues. He stated status by cryptically saying: “I am God. I am Sai.” He promoted by selling sleight of hand tricks to the credulous as powers of materialisation, with holy ash or wristwatches or rings or whatever else was on hand. After he died, almost 100 kg of gold and many packets of diamonds and gemstones were recovered from his bedroom. Where this might have materialised from is anybody’s guess.

They might be interceding for many gods but one commonality is that godmen have mesmerising control over their devotees. What differentiates them is just the size of their following and the bizarreness of their demands to prove fealty. One godman demanded Roll Royce cars and the recently convicted Ram Rahim of Dera Sacha Sauda demanded sex, which he quaintly sold to his followers as his “maafi”, or forgiveness. The sexual peccadilloes of cult leaders seems to their common currency. The Prime Minister’s preferred one-time guruji, Asaram, now languishes in prison awaiting trial for rape.

Because godmen have mesmerising powers, politicians flock to them to seek their beneficence in votes. The godmen then seek favours for themselves or for others to prove their divine powers. The Puttaparthi Sai Baba used to intercede with his political cronies and devotees to place persons in high positions. Such people also know how to manipulate the faith of powerful figures to their advantage. There is the well-known case of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee waiting for a few hours at the home of a prominent businessman waiting for Sai Baba to give him darshan. When the darshan was denied that day, he returned to his 7 Race Course Road residence distraught, and only when Sai Baba relented did the political potentate find peace of mind. What he had to sign on or the number of times he had to order is still a matter of much speculation?

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. Other-wise, America would not have had a David Koresh of the Branch Davidians who led 77 followers to a fiery death after a confrontation with the FBI in Texas, or Jim Jones of the People’s Temple who persuaded his 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 court them and espouse policies favou-red by the religious right.  In Japan, we saw Shoji Asahara’s mesmeric message to his Aum Shinrikyo cult into attacking the Tokyo Metro with sarin gas. So why should India be an exception? Credulity is inbuilt into the human condition.

What should cause us concern, however, is the proliferation of “deras” in Punjab and Haryana. By some counts, there are 900 now. A “dera” is more a militant encampment rather than a benign monastery. The most notorious cult figure in recent times was Jarnail Singh Bhindran-wale, whose temporal journey was ended only by an Army assault to free the Golden Temple back in 1984. 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 5,000 Haryana policemen to take him in.

In 2016, a cult centred around the return of Subhas Chandra Bose that had taken control of Jawahar Bagh in Mathura had to be stormed by the UP armed police and 29 followers of their leader Ram Vriksh Yadav were killed in the clash that followed.

The Dera Sacha Sauda of Ram Rahim Singh has been a cult that was much in the news. In its case, the CBI court in Panchkula forced events by convicting the bizarrely-dressed godman on a 17-year-old rape charge, despite the open patronage of the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Haryana.

Thus, August 25, 2017, is red-letter day for India’s judiciary, that asserted itself by ignoring political connections and the cupidity of the authorities. It is not surprising that the criticism of the political spectrum about the activities of this bizarre “guru of bling” was 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, when it is not about money.