Legend has it that Adi Shankara was taught by the low caste Chandala that all beings in the world are one and the same. However, in that caste-dominated age, he polarised reality into parmarthik satta (the ultimate state) and vyavharik satta (wordly state), thus reconciling dogma and society. Millennia have passed, but polarisation remains an integral part of Indian reality.
Caste and faith define the contours of life in politics, religion, business and entertainment. Of late, more pronounced alignments are shaking up kingdoms of gurus and babas like hurricanes on a theological coastline. Late last week, supporters of Dera chief Baba Ram Rahim went on the rampage in Haryana, Punjab and parts of Delhi after he was convicted in a rape case. Over 30 followers died in police action that followed large-scale violence by over two lakh followers, who destroyed and damaged private and public property worth over `500 crore.
A convoluted legacy from the Advaita age was reaching out to touch the fabric of rural and small town India. Those died did not belong to elite families, nor had educated backgrounds. They hailed from the backward and the lower middle class; small farmers, lower castes, Dalits, landless labourers, petty shopkeepers and middle-level government employees who found in Ram Rahim an aspirational guru promising a healthy and wealthy life.
Most importantly, he liberated them from caste oppression. The wide acceptability of this holy genus represents the growing frustration of a substantial part of the Indian population against humiliating and discriminatory practices across caste, community and religion. A class gap is yawning wide in Indian Guruland. Over the past five decades, divine representatives such as Mahesh Yogi, Rajneesh, Sai Baba, Maa Amritanandamayi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, Sadhguru, Asaram Bapu, Ram Rahim et al emerged as solace givers for millions of Indians.
The Ram Rahims captured the vacuum created by rigid and upper caste-driven religious institutions. For every Amritanandamayi who ensures social reform and a better life for her followers, there are others who dupe audiences by demanding indiscriminate hero worship and donations. There is subliminal affinity between the guru and the shishya here—both are from small towns and rural backgrounds. Gaining credibility and acceptability, their marketing pitch is to preach an alternative social existence and offer esoteric healing techniques.
Applying Shankaracharya’s vyavharik satta principle to the Guru Factor, it is found that class culling is an vital aspect of this phenomenon. For example, Osho and Mahesh Yogi’s main base was derived from the Indian upper class elite and jet set soul-searchers. Both had customised Hindu philosophy and practices to sell yoga and Kama Sutra to a gullible, experience-hungry West. Indian followers, invariably rich, were the icing on the cake.
Their followers never adopted violent methods of protest whenever a controversy rose. In the process of their unique spiritual marketing life, they acquired huge wealth, property and financial assets. But these pioneers of the guru paradigm were not institution builders until Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi established his ashram. He expanded an impressive support base of the rich and mighty from all walks of life, as well as ordinary people.
The combined net worth of all three gurus was over `50,000 crore. They had amassed over 20 million followers worldwide. Their institutional success owes much to the skills of the top hierarchy and middle-level management comprising well-educated persons from the upper and upper-middle classes. The secret of their exalted cult status lay in their projection as gurus of the world and not of any caste or community.
As India changed with liberalisation, so did Indian gurus. The flashy breed of religion, sex and rock ‘n’ roll spiritual salesmen made news with their escapades and sexapades. Some gurus found both funds and followers in yoga and alternate healing. In the high visibility age, they understood that a high-profile status and elite gatekeepers worked miracles with admirers and followers, who found ecstasy in a mere touch or word.
For example, Sri Sri is the spiritual leader of the elite and the rich. He advocates simple living and is the only guru clothed in trademark white. His audience is a melting pot of desi and videshi as his operations span over 150 countries. In addition to yoga, he has projected himself as a preeminent spiritual leader with the capability to resolve ethnic and religious rows.
The socially and globally aware Jaggi Vasudev, who hails from a modest background, is tapping into the mythological reverence for nature with his ecology drive to revive Indian rivers. The commercially successful and politically powerful Baba Ramdev was born in a lower-middle class family in Haryana. Their USP is that yoga unites all three as gurus with both Indian and global appeal. Ramdev, whose yog asanas attracted politicians and Bollywood stars, has over 20 million adherents across rural and semi-urban India. With money, fame and influential supporters come great success.
The victors in India’s modern spiritual market also have shrewd business sense. Ramdev’s competitors are not fellow gurus, but FMCG corporates who are in the race to capture the largest share of consumer goods market. The turnover of the Patanjali empire has risen from a modest `500 crore a decade ago to over `10,000 crore now. Sri Sri’s entrepreneurial ambitions are giving Ramdev a run for his money with numerous upscale Ayurveda products.
Despite variations in style and substance they have another thing in common—all are great admirers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who reciprocates their admiration by gracing their public events with his presence. The NDA government bestowed a Padma Vibhushan on Jaggi, making him the first spiritual guru to get the honour.
But there are other gurus who haven’t been so lucky in getting the establishment’s blessings, except when they are needed at election time. Political patronage for Ram Rahim, Asaram Bapu, Swami Nithyananda, Sant Rampal Nagpal of Haryana and Ram Rahim was symbiotic with the size of their gullible followings.
The hospitals, schools and sales outlets are more profit centres to finance their extravagance and ostentatious lifestyles than genuine social institutions serving the needs of their followers who have donated liberally to their cause. Instead of being examples of piety, criminal cases have been filed against gurus such as Sant Rampal, Nithyananda and Asaram Bapu for heinous crimes such as rape and murder. Raids on their premises have yielded caches of unlicenced arms and explosives. Their reckless libido supersedes their spiritual prowess.
The miracle is that in spite of all such transgressions, many of them are able to raise the emotional feelings of thousands who are ready to lay down their lives for them. India is renowned worldwide as a land of saints and social reformers. Great visionaries such as Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo abjured ugly personality cults by denouncing caste division and violence.
Modern India is a fertile ground for mystically charismatic demagogues with self-aggrandisement agendas to amass a huge fan following from the lower strata of society. These self-styled hawkers of salvation have become a social scourge that threatens to undermine the true legacy of the great masters of Indian culture.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla