A long-standing perspective on modernity — that a march toward it would lead progressively to lessening of religious and related affiliations – has been discredited over a period of time. Modern technologies — such as television — feed growing religious appetites.
For example, even a product of the information revolution, the Internet, is used to hunt for marriage partners of a given caste. Modern electoral politics is all about utilising identities that predate this modernity for political gain. We have too easily assumed a linear narrative for modernity, even more so if we clearly observe that it consists of bits and pieces from different historical periods, and that it unfolds in a circular rather than linear manner. It frequently goes back to the past and incorporates elements from long-forgotten eras into its unfolding present.
We have assumed erroneously that we know what modernity is, thereby confusing its present character with what we wish it to be. Confusing a wish with the reality on the ground might well be called the Great Nehruvian Conceit — we are all part of this.
Fake, or a mirror? There are several religious events unfolding currently in front of us. It is important to understand these because they provide clues about the kind of circular modernity we have and about the meaning of Indian life itself. One of these is the apparent scandal over >Radhe Maa , the Mumbai-based so called ‘god-woman’.
According to media reports — and various photos and video clips currently in circulation — Radhe Maa dances to film songs, dresses like a Bollywood starlet, and considers her gestures toward her devotees as similar to that of a mother sharing her love with her children. There have been protests that she is not genuine in her ‘saintliness’ and has brought disrepute to spirituality. Lawyers, politicians, actors, self-defined celebrities, and various religious figures have weighed in, describing her as a religious fake and someone out to exploit a gullible public; “Fooled by faith” was one of the headlines carried by a TV channel. All through this, Radhe Maa smiled beatifically, moved into luxury vehicles with a model-like aplomb and wandered through our media landscape with a mini- trishul , raised like a wand.
Radhe Maa’s public appearances are not dissimilar to those of Barbie dolls with star wands that have been part of the Indian children’s lives since the late 1990s. However, is the cult of Radhe Maa very different from the various strands of religiosity that have taken root in the past few decades? Isn’t it merely the culmination of a series of developments in public religious life and practice over the years, when display of religion has merged with spectacles of leisure, aspirations and consumerism? The results tell us a great deal both about our modern ideas of spirituality and about the seamless incorporation of spiritual beliefs into the functions of trans-national markets and commerce.
While small temples and shrines continue to draw adherents, it is the transformation of religion into a large scale, hi-tech enterprise that explains the common man’s attraction toward Radhe Maa. Over the past few decades, new religious sites around the country have taken the form of theme parks; statues and statuettes of gods and goddesses occupy shelf-space in up-market fashion jewellery stores; fast food restaurants offer ready-made meals for different religious occasions; and birthday cakes are offered as prasad at Janmasthami celebrations. The past is still with us, furiously and vigorously intruding into our present world. One reason for this is that it has been modulated to fit into our present and has become an integral part of our world of aspirations and desires.
We are happy participants in the process — one where spirituality and market come together. We love religious theme parks and religious soap operas but feel offended at the sight of someone who has merely taken the developing relationship between religiosity and the market to its logical conclusion.
Ongoing tale of modernity What does Radhe Maa actually do that is not already part of our culture of public religious life? Not much, really. What is disconcerting about her is not the ostentatious display of wealth or >Bollywood -like behaviour — we are well used to these attributes in our ‘god-men’ and ‘god-women’, and, indeed, find it attractive in them because they match our expectations.
Rather, what is disconcerting about Radhe Maa is linked to the story of Indian modernity itself, an ongoing one, one that has strong links to the past and is a point of great tension in the present: what are the limits for the conduct of women public figures, particularly those who profess to be mother figures? We are always confused when mothers do not conform to our perceptions — hence our lack of sympathy for Vandana, the mother of the murdered teen Aarushi. We are particularly hostile when women in public exhibit the kind of mannerisms we assume only men are entitled to. Radhe Maa, we think, should be a Bollywood starlet because she comes across as one. However, we hardly mind that a very great deal of our religious culture has got Bollywood-ised. We object to Radhe Maa, perhaps because a woman religious figure holds up a disconcerting mirror to our state of being in the present and our peculiar relationship with the past.
( Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi )