That Irrational High

An Article by Ajith Pillai.

When we have a pantheon of gods and goddesses, do we really need godmen? At a very early age, I was exposed to the spiritual guru class. As kids, whenever I and my brother went to Kerala on our summer vacations, we had to call on a great-aunt who had given up all material pursuits to be one with her god—a former lawyer who, one fine day, realised his spiritual calling. My great-aunt, I was told, was a very bright and promising student in school and had therefore been sent for higher studies to Thiruvanathapuram. This was at a time when, even in Kerala, very few women studied beyond matriculation. In fact, had she pursued a career, she would have been a success. But after finding her guru, she chose otherwise.

She lived most of her life like a recluse, remained single, demanded her share of the family property, sold it and donated a chunk of it to her guru’s ashram. I have vivid memories of the modest cottage she lived in. Her prized belongings were an enlarged picture of her swami and a pair of his clogs (wooden footwear worn by sadhus) gifted to her. These occupied pride of place in her puja room. And when she had visitors, she would give them prasadam (raisins, puffed rice and the like) rendered holy because it was kept before her guru’s photograph. And we kids were encouraged to learn and sing bhajans written in his praise. I once asked her about her guru. “He was a man,” she explained, “but he is also god because he was such a great soul.” She never quite stopped worshipping him.

Years later, as a journalist, I did the rounds of a few ashrams. One conclusion I arrived at was that godmen, more than politicians (at least they have to win elections every five years to stay relevant), are the most privileged class. Many have humble beginnings, but later build empires worth hundreds or even thousands of crores. But very rarely are questions asked about the sources of their wealth and what exactly happens to all the black money that the netas are rumoured to park in their ashrams. At any rate, should queries be raised, powerful devotees are often on hand to save and protect them. This is because the elite—from netas to the rich and famous—are drawn to the godmen. Call it this class’s need to fill an inner void or a compulsion to seek divine intervention to ensure their own success and the ruin of their rivals, the godmen, many believe, serve as the via media (a cruder expression would be middlemen) between humans and God.

Clearly, mystery shrouds the goings-on in some of the ashrams. Which is why when a Chandraswami (Narasimha Rao’s favourite godman, who was arrested for swindling) or a Swami Amritachaitanya from Kerala (who is wanted for raping two minor girls, among other charges) are arrested, then the nomenclature ‘fake godmen’ is invoked to point out the differences between the ‘tricksters’ and the ‘genuine’ swamis. The only trouble is that devotees who have reposed trust for years together in those who claim to have a hotline to the divine are angered and disappointed when the bubble bursts. Which is precisely what happened when the Bangalore-based Swami Nityananda was caught on video in a comprising position with a Tamil actress. The footage was telecast by a news channel, leading to much violence. The swami’s shocked devotees attacked his ashram and the godman had to flee Karnataka and head for Himachal Pradesh.

While one is not tarring with the same brush spiritual leaders who have brought about development—such as setting up educational institutions, hospitals and orphanages, one has to ask whether a human can actually transform himself into a god. And what exactly brings about this metamorphosis? Also, would these agents of social change have got the same level of financial support and goodwill without their spiritual halos? I believe they wouldn’t, because the majority of those who go to godmen have very self-rooted spiritual needs. In fact, there is also competition to become the most favoured among the devotees. These factors entice them to loosen their purse strings and, more often than not, monetary donations do the trick.

For a rationalist like me, there is no logic to the godman concept (most, incidentally, describe themselves as spiritual leaders). But it is the illogical that often works. Some years ago, I happened to visit an ashram near Pune where the presiding godman, surrounded by foreign devotees, launched into a rambling speech about him being a computer and Lord Krishna his programmer. The audience, comprising educated professionals—engineers, doctors and airline pilots—listened to the sermon in silence. When I later asked one of them how he could tolerate it, he said he was there to escape from western materialism and reasoned that a bit of nonsense makes sense. Does it ?

Courtesy: Outlook, 9th May,2011 Issue.

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