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Profane Goals in a Sacred Garb: Religion Godmen and Contemporary Society
01/19/2006
By Ram Puniyani

Shankarcharys's arrest in Shankarraman case created few ripples in the civil society and some commotion in the political outfits. While BJP went on hammer and tongs to criticize the Government for arresting a divine authority in a shabby manner, which according to it tatamounted to insult of Hindu religion, the Prime minister had to state that the person of such a high religious position should be treated with the respect.  With the courts granting him bail the BJP has declared it as its victory as if the decision of the courts has been on the political grounds and not on the grounds of law! It is noteworthy that while the Hindu right wing outfits were beating their breasts at the incident, the average Hindus preferred to ignore the issue and they did not join in the protests organized by these outfits. It raised a question whether there can be two sets of laws in dealing with the people, one for those with divine authority and the other for the laity, the ordinary people, not privileged, not having 'divine' authority.

Just as an aside, few hapennings during and around the arrest are quite significant. It is reported that the Holy seer cooks for himself, and at one occasion he refused being injected medicine by a non Brahman  doctor. The happenings in the Shringeri Mutt of the pontiff were probably as mundane as at many other places not blessed with divinity. Sex, pornography, links with the high and mighty, money and what have you were the core ingredients of the things which appered to be going on in the Mutt. How does one acquire divinity? Is it bestowed by some superpower unknown to the lay people or is it by the internal succession of these 'Holy' mutts that the divine power passes on to next generation? In places where the Godmen are having 'normal' families and children the problem is like the one witnessed in Muktanand Ashram, the struggle between brother and sister for the high throne, not much unlike the inheritance of the business enterprises, as one being currently witnessed in the wealthy, mighty Ambani family. But in places where the pontiffs are unmarried, which is the case most of the time, the succession of divinity and the accompanying moolah is through the nomination or manipulation of sorts.

The world of Godmen is fascinating and mysterious at the same time. There are types and types of Godmen.  They abound in most of the traditional religious institutions, some of them have come up through their own efforts and have formed institutions.  Unfortunately they are the most visible symbol of that religion or the sect of a religion or those who come  up on their own form a new sect or following. Many a times they are regarded as the representative of that religious community as well. Various facets of religion do exist, various religious values do exist but the impression is that religion is synonymous with the Godmen and rituals. It is not easy to classify them and categorise or characterize them with ease. But surely some broad genralizations and their role in society can be discerned.

Most of the prophet based religions, Jainism;Buddhism; Christianity; Islam and Sikhism, began as a response and to oppose  the existing injustices and to address some of the isues prevailng in the society. Soon with  co option of religions by the social powers their character started changing and what started becoming dominant was the authority of Clergy and symbolism of rituals. The moral values of the religon were put aside, as a marginal phenomenon. The powers that be of society associated with the religious authority to ensure that the weaker sections of society are deprived of their dues and are made to work as slaves and serfs, as dalits. The women were deprived of their equality and treated as property of men, and all this in the name of religion. The set of Godmen, Mullahs, Priests, Achryas, Gurus became part of the established social hierarchy and gave the 'religious sanction' to the suppression of the oppressed. This section of clergy, was all through with the political authority of Kings, Feudal lords. Many a religions did not accept the role of clergy in the basic sense. But this was sidetracked and the social groups did come up with this role of a mediator irrespective of its non existence in the canons of those religions.

Interpretations were conveniently changed and feudal authority derived its legitimacy from the lord almighty through the agency of clergy. The King rules on the authority of the lord almighty and so the possibility of opposition to his power by the people does not exist as it is the divine sanction due to which he is ruling. When kings, if they are from the same religion, fight with each other, the 'other' is labeled as the one from the deviant sect, a heretic and so needs to be decimated. If the fight is between the Kings of different religions the convenient labels of Jihad, Crusade or Dharmayyudh are marshaled to enthuse the soldiers to lay down their lives for the power of their king. As this type of laying down of life is a religious sacrifce entitling one for the much longed for Jannat, Heaven or Swarg as the case may be.

While this clergy, the Godmen are merrily dishing out the dictates for all and sundry, as to how people have to live (or die) they claim to be sole repository of the knowledge and this knowledge, it is claimed to be divine and any opposition to the prevalent divine knowledge was  dealt with firmly by excommunicating, burning or condemning the dissenting voice, to Hell, Jahannum or Nark as the case may be. While one can easily understand the needs of power to make the issues of World opaque to make the rule of vested interests easy, what remains more impressive and encaptivating is the role of Sants, sufis and liberation theology type of holy people.

It is through them that the downtrodden express themselves, their pain anguish and exploitation. It is through the literature of these Sufi's and sants and mystiques that one sees the germs of humanism thriving, the values of oneness of humanity finds its language through them. No wonder these saints are paupers, and identify with the paupers. The divide between these two groups of people one with power and one with the exploited is as clear as it is distinct. Most of the time the Saints are not tolerated by the clergy.

Secularization in various countries changed the scenario and the powerful duo of Landlord-Clergy lost their prime position. In semi secularized societies the situation is much different. The clergy changed its character from the one of medieval times. Somewhere from early seventies we do see the emergence of a new category of Godmen, affluent, with connections with the power centers of the society, patronized by  upper class and the affluent section of middle class and having a mesmersing sway over broad sections of society. Major part of their wealth and  property also comes from elite sections of society. Today in India we do not see many a saints in the medieval mould who can express the anguish of the people in the language of religion or the like.

While the traditional priestly class have managed to retain their place in a slightly modifed form, the new cults and Godmen have an overarching presence. To begin with the traditional mutts have a following which is increasing by the day. One observed the increase in the number of visits to Vaishno Devi, Tirupati Balaji, Sidhhi Vinayak and the like. At many of these places one observes a shameless phenomenon of different queues depending on the capacity of the person to pay to have a darshan of the Lord. These  temple trusts are controlling millions of rupees. The mutts have the dynamics and logic of their own and the politics and vested interests in these places are quite akin to one's prevalent in the business houses.

To add to the variety, one has witnessed the mushrooming of new godmen and sects a la Mahesh Yogi, Rajneesh, Muktanand, ISCON, Ma Amrtitnand Mayi, Prajapita Brahmkumari, Anirruddha Bapu, Aasaram Bapu, Pandurang Shshtri Athawale and Sri Sri Ravishanker. They specialize in different areas of spirituality and have ever increasing clientèle. Their divinity is also of different variety. Most of these are very hot favorites of Hindu Right. In Gujarat where the Laboratory of Hindu Rashtra is making a transition towards Hindu Rashtra in one state, their number has been very significant. Many of them like Asaram Baapu and Pandurang Shashtri are talking sanitized version of Manu Smiriti in the garb of sprituality. The social phenomenon as to why these are coming up and thriving during last few decades has a lot to do with the type of socio economic processes which are unfolding in the society. Many of them are acting as the hypnotherapists for the tension ridden society. These tensions are peculiar to the World today, as it is witnessing the polarization of countries and people into rich and poor in most blatant fashion. The two Indias, the One Shining and the other Whining is the reality of today's society. The Rich nations, Like US and the withering nations like those of Africa are again a reality.

The role of Godmen seems to be very complex. On one hand they act as the soothing balm for some, at the other they ensure the perpetuation of status quo, status quo of social relations and intra society-social equations. No doubt most of them are affluent to the core amassing millions in their life  time, and at the same time talking subtle language of status quo laced in the syrup of spirituality. The medieval times saw the divide between divine and human, the concept of Human agency in the matters of society has been the biggest gain of the modern times. The Godmen essentially are trying to undo the same. Their divinity is not meant for eradicating the poverty and social ills, their divinity helps the vested interests to fix their problems in the worldly affairs. Their divinity is a mask to create-promote opaqueness, to take them away from the gaze of critical questioning. It is an attempt to get the sanction for whatever they want to achieve and help their cohorts in the business and politics of the world.

One is puzzled as to where are the saints in  todays's society, does this category exist today? Saints, the one's close to the deprived people, the one's destitute themselves and genuinely articulating the pains of the deprived. Not much can be said on this score. The service missions at places are filling some gaps in this direction. The language of anguish seems to have been mainly been used only by human rights groups and many of those who work closely with different deprived sections of society.

The veneer of religiosity is the best guarantee for getting away with whatever one does. The question is, can the mutts and Godmen's empires be subjected to  social audit? The profane business done by the Godmen is cloaked  under the veil of divinity, acquired through the rituals and many worldly circumstances.  Interestingly the saints of medieval times, mostlyfrom low caste kept away from the rituals and concentrated more on listening, sharing the pain of the people.