An unholy joint venture

This is not the last time a ‘godman’ is going to rise

What does it take to become a “godman” or “godwoman”? Why is it that we periodically witness emergence of peddlers of religion who develop huge followings and become states within the state? Why is it that most of them eventually breach laws and fall foul of the state? How is it that despite violating laws of the land and amassing wealth and influence by using questionable means, political leaders still hanker after them and seek their support during elections? These questions are central to any discourse on the latest “self-styled godman” Rampal Das, now known as Jagatguru Rampal Ji Maharaj.

Tracing his evolution is useful for finding answers to some of these questions. As a young man in the late 1960s and 1970s, Rampal Das would not have been a particularly bright student because he did not gain admission in a proper engineering college that offered a regular bachelors’ degree. Instead, he became a diploma holder, a qualification that normally does not get a job of anything better than a junior engineer’s position if one is looking for the security of a government job. Rampal worked in Haryana government’s irrigation department that has the reputation of being among those where corruption is institutionalised. While personally Rampal may not have been corrupt, he comfortably remained there for almost two-and-a-half decades.

At some point he is said to have been drawn towards a Kabir Panthi religious leader and subsequently branched to set up his own ashram. Kabir Panthis, a religious sect that propagates teachings of Kabir, the medieval Bhakt poet, run their sects like institutions that ironically the poet debunked. It is a bit like the paradoxical basis of contemporary Sikhism that is often practised and preached in a manner which is disconnected from Guru Nanak’s teachings. Several scholars argue that Sikhism today has a more visible imprint of Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa philosophy that is distinctly different from Bhakti articulated by Guru Nanak. Yet, Kabir Panthis have a following and so did Rampal Das who took on the title of Jagatguru Rampal Ji Maharaj.

Not much empirical study has been conducted on either these gurus or their followers. Experience shows that there are two distinct trends — one where the “godmen” or “godwomen” steer clear of controversies and others who have brushes with law. Whatever be the nature of operations, both categories become enterprises, big or small. Gurus have a following and the size of their ashrams is reflective of this.

There is one category of “godmen” or “godwomen” who have a following because of the belief that they have miraculous powers and their presence or touch is curative. Others have a following because they deliver philosophical lectures and sermons that make sense to people. According to information, Baba Rampal belonged to the latter variety though reports mention that the sect adhered to rituals like making kheer with the milk in which the former junior engineer was bathed.

Like most modern babas or gurus, Baba Rampal has an official website. The dos and don’ts make for an interesting reading. Besides demanding complete allegiance to the guru, wannabe followers are warned not to undertake pilgrimages, not to worship any god or goddess (including the Holy Trinity of Hinduism), not to do perform any type of pitra puja or shraadhs, not to simplify cremation rituals and allow any family member to conduct it, not to practise untouchability, not to “remember” God without the permission of the guru, not to give anything in charity and there should be no ritualistic celebration of birth or any other rituals like tonsuring etc.

On the face of it, no religious reformer would have problems with his rules. Babas and gurus get the support of people because of an unjust social and religious order and often they are in search of equality within the community. The problem with Baba Rampal and many others who came before him is that they begin using their teaching as a tool to further interests of their enterprise. More land is acquired by dubious means and businesses are expanded — like Baba Ramdev’s ayurveda industry. Since it is an enterprise, taxes must be paid but evasion is the norm so figures are fudged and benami holdings becomes a practice. To keep enterprises secure, private armies are recruited and illicit arms acquired.

3Initially, politicians do not intervene and when they finally engage, their motive is to secure votes of the supporters. “Godmen” are also strengthened occasionally to either destabilise regimes or weaken adversaries as witnessed in Punjab when Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was propped by Congress leaders. Mostly this alliance between politician and “godman” exists because India is among the few countries where politics is also an enterprise and reaching out to a “godman” or “godwoman” is akin to a joint venture with the political leadership holding majority rights.

At different points, various “godmen” developed ambitions that threatened the system. Since the political class is a past collaborator, it has to wait for a self-generated corrective step from the system. In Baba Rampal’s case, it was known that arms were stockpiled in the ashram yet no steps were taken to seize them and flush the site of weapons. A court order eventually came handy but not before several avoidable incidents occurred. This is not the last time a “godman” or a cult figure is going to rise and cock a snook at our laws. The practice will continue till political leaders decide that religious leaders will be allowed to operate only till the time they serve a social purpose. Action must be taken if there is any violation of law, big or small, either criminal, civil or economic. Or else Rampals of the world will continue to leverage society and politics.

The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times

( Source : dc )
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