Will India get over its obsession with godmen?

October 13, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST


They are here to stay, until social consciousness undergoes a qualitative change


K.N. Panikkar

The recent revelations about the ‘divine preoccupations’ of godmen in the sacred precincts of their ashrams have been appalling, not because they were bereft of such qualities in the past. From the time of the Maharaj libel case (1862) through the intrigues of Chandraswami and Dhirendra Brahmachari, to the contemporary saga of Dera Sacha Sauda and Asaram Bapu, the list is unending. But this time the incidents of sex, murder and mayhem, which were reportedly enacted in their ashrams, are lurid and startling. That the godmen were able to pursue their interests for years without attracting the attention of the state is perhaps not surprising, given the nexus between political power and religious establishments, but it is reprehensible.

The unflinching faith of the followers in the divinity of godmen is the latter’s main capital, which is assiduously constructed over time. Under coercion or consent, the devotees appear to submit to the extortion or exploitation of godmen. Contemporary India looks like a modern country with scientific establishments, and high-speed trains and expansive highways, but set in a social situation reeking of medievalism, caste discrimination, religious obscurantism, gender inequality and superstitions.

Modernity and irrationality

The coexistence of modernity with irrationality and obscurantism, which has often been dismissed as a passing phase of a society in transition, has been a (the?) hallmark of independent India. The ruling elite pinned their hopes on economic development to overcome this impediment, but economic development has not been all-embracing. Facing the crisis thus generated by the apparently elite character of development, it was not surprising that a large segment of the population succumbed to the temptations of an unreal world which godmen proffered.

Yet another constituency of the godmen were the members of the burgeoning middle class of the post-Independence era. The hallmark of this class was the intense cultural and social crisis for which they sought a solution in other-worldliness advocated by the godmen. They were led to an island of liberation where all social inhibitions could be shed, and peace and salvation promised, through the medium of the godmen. The mindless support godmen thus elicit from their unsuspecting followers is used to garner social, political and economic power.

In recent times, the increasing number of godmen (and women) are spotted in State governments and corporate board meetings, educational institutions, and all other important places. They are not spiritual men but ambitious con artists who purvey deception, falsehood and religiosity in the name of god.

Education not enough

Rationalists and liberals looked upon education which promoted scientific temper and rational thinking as the antidote to what they conceived as a result of cultural and social backwardness. But education has not adequately fulfilled this role. After all, the substantial following that godmen command is not from the illiterate masses, but from the well-educated middle class that tends to celebrate the irrational in the name of culture.

Popular media, either consciously or unconsciously, promotes and reinforces irrationality and superstition. The reading material available in almost all Indian languages is replete with accounts of the charismatic personae and spiritual qualities of godmen. Not only religious channels, but some secular channels too telecast programmes eulogising their qualities and achievements. From these popular representations, and patronage they seem to enjoy from the state, they derive considerable legitimacy.

The godmen are here to stay, until social consciousness undergoes a qualitative change.

K.N. Panikkar is a professor of modern history and taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University



Controversies do not diminish the great role played by many spiritual gurus


Pankaj Jain


The term ‘godmen’ is problematic, especially in cultures where men, women, animals, birds, rivers, mountains — really, every particle in the universe — is revered and respected. The cultures of India, China, Japan, and other parts of Asia have been inspired by Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism for more than two millennia. The Hindu philosophy celebrates the ideas of divinity in each particle. The Buddhist philosophy celebrates the Buddha nature of each particle of the universe. The Jain philosophy similarly celebrates non-violence towards each particle in the universe.

If we focus just on male figures, we will have to start with the first historic figures such as the Buddha and Mahavira. The Buddha still remains one of the most popular figures in the world. And one of the greatest legacies of the Buddha and Mahavira is that thousands of men and women chose spiritual careers in India and elsewhere.

Some of these spiritual gurus, such as Adi Shankaracharya, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Mirabai, achieved charismatic success. Almost all these figures would have been called ‘godmen’ (or ‘godwomen’). Almost all of them revived philosophical ideas that were losing their relevance in their contemporary societies. They also taught social equality and ecological sustainability.

Controversies and contributions

Unfortunately, many of them, their family members, and/or their followers were also involved in different kinds of controversies. The Buddha’s ascetic order was embroiled in immoral behaviour-based controversies after a few centuries. Mahavira’s disciples remain divided into two sects. Adi Shankaracharya’s different maths have been dragged into controversies.

And yet, all of these controversies do not diminish the great roles played by these spiritual gurus. Meditation taught by the Buddha and non-violence taught by Mahavira will continue to inspire humanity to become more mindful and cut down their meat consumption for the health of our own bodies and for our fragile ecosystem.

Enriching culture

Despite all the disparaging labels that are applied against few of our contemporary spiritual leaders, such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, we cannot ignore that yoga and pranayam have been revived and popularised by these two gurus in India. Both of these practices are now being scientifically tested and validated in the West thanks to similar efforts by the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist monks at Emory University in Atlanta, for instance. As an American citizen, I should also count several more such spiritual leaders who have greatly enriched American culture despite the controversies that are associated with them. Vivekananda, Yogananda, Osho, Prabhupada, Mahesh Yogi, Muktananda, Neem Karoli Baba, Kripalu Maharaj, Amma, and many Buddhist monks and nuns have transformed thousands of Americans who are now practising yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, breathing exercises, fasting, and vegetarianism.

Sociologist Max Weber had coined the term ‘Routinisation of Charisma’ to describe how the charisma of spiritual gurus is routinised into an ongoing authority structure. Almost all the spiritual gurus who either started out as charismatic, or who later achieved their charismatic appeal globally, were eventually routinised by their disciples to maintain this appeal. This process is not perfect and may involve controversies.

In our world, when anger, greed, false pride, selfishness, egoism, egotism, and all other materialistic ideas continue to separate us from other human beings, other species and other particles, let us remind ourselves what almost all the spiritual gurus have always tried to teach us. Let us not expect any of them to be 100% controversy-free.

Pankaj Jain is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas



Apathy in addressing the basic issues of the poor provides a fertile ground for godmen to thrive


Ashutosh Kumar


Why do people remain so obsessed with godmen even when godmen fail them? What attracts people to them? Why are the abodes of these godmen — deras, maths, ashrams — treated as alternative socioreligious spaces for a large number of people, increasingly replacing temples, churches and gurdwaras? What makes these followers so blind in their faith that they not only accept these self-styled ‘godmen’ as messengers of god, but in some cases even as incarnations of god? Can these followers who willingly surrender themselves to the dictates of the godmen be simply dismissed as ignorant, or irrational, or gullible ? What about ‘knowledgeable’ politicians who appear equally eager to seek the blessings of godmen?

Explaining the bind

I threw these questions at my students and the article is the result of an exchange of ideas with them. The success of godmen can be explained in terms of the sheer physicality of social materialism that has got intrinsically embedded in a consumerist society. Eager for a quick-fix solution to their seemingly intractable problems of everyday life, which may arise due to economic and social marginality but may also be the by-product of a fast-paced, rapidly changing materialistic life, people rush to godmen in the hope that the miracle men will heal them. Since the days of the Mahabharata, there has been a long tradition of following rishis or gurus who have shown the path of salvation to their followers. Thus one can view the godmen in the long line of spiritual tradition of our ancient land. As a majority of followers belong to the socially and economically marginal groups, the equality and dignity that they feel in the presence of their godmen go a long way in attracting them to ‘open’ spaces like deras as opposed to temples and gurdwaras where they face discrimination. Sometimes, exclusion compels them to build separate religious places and cremation grounds. In social terms, what binds the followers to the godmen, and also to each other, is not only the massive developmental work they take up, related to health, education, and eradication of social evil, but also a deeply embedded shared everyday, associational life that extends much beyond the premises of deras and ashrams.

Electoral dividend

All this seems to have gone haywire now. Politicians continue to cultivate them in return for an electoral dividend as some of these godmen have a huge following. This phenomenon, especially in the context of the Punjab-Haryana region where these godmen flourish, can be attributed primarily to the fact that the social basis of political power has remained unaltered in favour of the upper castes or upper-class communities. Unwilling to share power, yet compelled to seek the crucial support of numerically strong and economically mobile Dalit and other backward castes voters, the dominant caste political leadership has often taken recourse to the ‘softer’ option of cultivating the deras to ‘deliver’ en bloc the marginal castes’ votes.

The emergent demographic profile of the country indicates that religiosity will gradually come down, and rational values as a by-product of modernity will percolate down to villages and small towns from where people flock to godmen in large numbers. Of late, a series of exposes on the nefarious activities of godmen, as well as judicial intervention, has dented the public image such men (seldom women) enjoy. Also, since the organisations run by these godmen are personality-centred and centralised in structure, the deras/ashrams are likely to fade away once these godmen depart from public life or are forced to depart from public life. While that could be viewed as a positive thing, the government’s apathy to address the basic issues of the poor coupled with the increasing alienation among the middle class in a market economy might provide a fertile ground for godmen to thrive.

Ashutosh Kumar is professor in the Department of Political Science, Panjab University

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