It was the drawing room of a middle class family in arid Rae Bareli in eastern UP in the early 1990s. I was 12. The room was filled with sandalwood smoke and loban (incense).
There were bundles of cash in a tray, cartons of fruits, dry nuts, clothes. A bearded man, in his late 70s, was sitting in the centre. He was telling stories: how the world was created, what this birth means, how people can find divinity and wisdom.
My mother and I were intrinsically hostile to the ideas and methods adopted by this “baba” who seemed to have hypnotised the whole gathering. We were not atheist; we were daily worshippers and followers of the traditional rituals and festivals of a Hindu Brahmin family. My mother suddenly raised a query; she expressed her disagreement with the baba’s ideas.
There was silence. A senior lawyer and a lady teacher lost their cool: “How can you question Gurudevji. This is bad behavior. How can you question his wisdom?”
I still remember that old man, his body covered in whitedhoti and angvastram, a cryptic smile and anger etched on his face. Then something happened — it makes me squirm in disgust till this day. Gurudevji spat on the floor. One of his devout followers collected the spit in her hand. She raised her hands with that filth to her forehead and then tasted it. She seemed hypnotised. It seemed as if she had found salvation. Within seconds, we left the room. We never went to that house again.
In our ancestral village, my 90-year-old grandmother used to wash the feet of“mahatmas” in a big utensil and then drink that dirty water as charanamrita(nectar of the feet). We always opposed it, but she refused to change. My grandmother, surely, was blind in her beliefs; but what about these babas? Aren’t they brazenly inhuman, irrational, insane? How can they allow this filthy ritual? As a kid I used to think: why don’t they themselves drink the foul water?
As a teenager, I read many religious books, essays and epics. Shrimadbhagwat Gita, Ramcharit Manas, Durga Saptsati, the Upanishads, books on theVedas and Aryasamaj by Dayananda Saraswati, Gita Rahasyam by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, life histories of Tulsidas, Kabir, Ramkrishna Paramhans, Vivekananda, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, some portions of the Puraans, Mahabharata, Guru Granth Saheb… it was a rare “achievement”, really, among the friends I grew up with.
All they knew were some repetitive lines of Hanuman Chalisa and Om Jai Jagdish Hare. This was later replaced by cheap bhajans widely marketed by T-Series. I never heard chants from Vishnu Sahasrnaam and Kashi Vishwanath Suprabhatam or the Gita in their homes. Even the premanjali-pushpanjali bhajans were forgotten.
All that existed was vulgar music in the name of godliness. Indeed, we have a terrible history of obsessively pandering to various forms of religious fundamentalism, pseudo miracles and social hypocrisy. This history is loaded with dubious texts and practices. In the past decade, depth of profundity and true comprehension have been vanishing.
The business of most babas has nothing to do with religion or “holy books”. Its adrenaline is driven by the crass laws of a profit-driven market. A so-called open, free market. This is the business of hypocrisy, hypnotism run by a cold-blooded methodology. The dubious art of making fools of the masses, trapped by life’s cruelties, social inequalities, organised injustices, personal tragedies.
Indeed, the essence of spirituality has nothing to do with the cult of millionaire babas floating in a consumer market.
It acquires dangerous overtones when the religious mafia mixes it with nationalism and patriotism. Hence, suddenly, the map of a country becomes “Bharat Mata” and an aggressive, shallow, war-mongering/bad-mouthing flogger becomes a TV messiah for the masses.
Babas are everywhere; from poverty-stricken rural villages to the posh localities of metros, they are like queen bees. Their followers can run into millions, including cash-rich, nostalgic, culturally uprooted, conservative NRIs in the affluent, post-modern West. Some of the most ardent supporters of Narendra Modi and the “Friends of VHP” in the US are super rich Gujaratis of a certain prosperous sect who run the Akshardham empires.
Many of these babas are major land owners/grabbers, they use chartered planes and helicopters, have sprawling air-conditioned ashrams with miscellaneous “service providers”, unaccounted money and assets beyond imagination.
When the artist reached his house to collect his bag, the man said he exchanged the bags because Nirmal Baba asked him to do so — ‘exchange your bag with a bag of a similar colour at the airport’!
Many of them have shares in real estate and media production houses, they own TV channels, they pay huge sums for airtime on our private channels (like Nirmal Baba), and proffer utter hogwash as spiritual remedies. Many of them are investing in commercial hospitals, nature therapy resorts for fat cats, and profit-driven business schools; they own mysterious trusts, get funds from all over the world, and live a lavish lifestyle.
Imagine the gigantic quantum of money and gold recovered from an old temple in Kerala recently. An entire state can turn around its poverty paradigm with this kind of wealth. So why was it kept as private temple assets when it could have changed the landscape of millions of people’s lives if used in a socially productive manner?
Remember the unimaginable recoveries from the “private room” of Satya Sai Baba after his death — --even while the who’s who of India visited Puttapurthi to pay unreserved homage? Silver and gold articles worth over Rs 76 lakh were discovered during a joint inspection by government officials and the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust in a room adjoining his personal chamber — the “Yajur Mandir”.
The inspection followed the discovery of massive assest: Rs 11.56 crore in cash, 98 kg of gold and 307 kg of silver were found in the chamber, and this seemed the tip of the iceberg. Officials also discovered 116 kg of silverware worth Rs 57.96 lakh, 905 gms of gold jewellery worth Rs 15.83 lakh and a diamond ring worth Rs 3 lakh, apart from other diamond treasures. The Puttaparthi empire is reported to be a 5.5 billion pound empire.
A Hyderabad-based paper reported an abundance of imported shaving kits, hair sprays, perfumes, shampoos, soaps and napkins in Sai Baba’s personal chamber. Another report said that rows of high-end sports shoes were found. There were also expensive watches of various international brands. “Sai Baba loved expensive perfumes when he was alive. When he used to come out for darshan and give discourses, he was always sporting perfumes of top international brands,” a close associate in Yajur Mandir recalled.
So, is this saintliness, wisdom, spiritual renunciation, severing of worldly desires, and final nirvana?
Apart from the treasure, there were imported shaving kits, hair sprays, perfumes, shampoos, soaps, napkins in Sai Baba’s personal chamber. Rows of high-end sports shoes were found. There were expensive watches of international brands
Such treasure troves on various scales, are found in most holy sanctum sanctorums: from the opulent Swaminaryan sect’s Akshardham temple in Ahmedabad and Delhi, to Vishalakshi Mantapa of Shri Shri Ravishankar in Bengaluru to Baba Ramdev’s cash-rich business empire, Pathanjali Yoga Peetha, in Haridwar. Many of them have global networks from Sydney to Scotland to San Francisco.
Mahesh Yogi, ISKCON, Dera Sacha Sauda, Sach Khand, Asaram Bapu, Morari Bapu, Sudhanshu Maharaj, Mata Anandmayi, Jai Gurudev, Satpal Maharaj, Brahmakumaris, Adityanath of Gorakhpur… they have all secured minds, money and the masses, often with the help of political heavyweights, rich clients and celebrity patrons. They have different colours, flags, practices, appearances, accounts and followers but, yes, the big business empire is common.
The best part of this business is zero investment. All you need is to develop the professional skill of hypnotic reciting of epics and the melodrama of being a channel to god. Start puking golden balls and miracle laddoos, ask questions about chocolates and pastries, scare people with the spectre of inevitable death, misfortune and accidents and feed them daily dope on how to feel good, await miracles and be happy, and the road to babadom is already paved with gold.
Bored and insecure elderly people and women who don’t get respect and attention in their own households find their final refuge in the cult of these babas, deriving an artificial sense of peace and “time pass”. Babas are sharp and scheming enough to understand this social phenomenon of alienation, frustration and general unhappiness. Even as a new, backward form of corrupt and crony capitalism has altered the sense and sensibilities of our society, babas have unleashed themselves in the public domain to exploit this inner uncertainty.
Switch on any news channel, on an average day, and you can witness this ritualistic gorakhdhandha of daily salvation for eight hours or so daily. People are being led to believe the most unreasonable things.
It’s a deadly cocktail: this triangular co-incidence of fake babas, neo-liberalisation and religious fundamentalism (a time for VHP, RSS and other fundamentalist forces) simultaneously capturing micro socio-cultural space The business of most babas has nothing to do with religion or ‘holy books’. Its adrenaline is driven by the crass laws of a profit-driven market Look at the people marketing for them. From poor, ghettoised, ostracised Dalits in Punjab village to the prime minister, the UPA chairperson, the leader of the opposition, chief ministers, generals, sundry politicians, judges, Bollywood stars, tycoons, academicians, scientists… many of them legitimise these cults by paying open obeisance. This has helped the cults grow like the parasitic Congress grass of old.
Look at the gigantic business Baba Ramdev is running. His declared property is around Rs 1,177 crore. This doesn’t include 30 companies reportedly owned by him. No one questions how, from a faceless, ordinary yoga teacher, he became such a big ticket guru. His puerile (and very damaging in some cases) “TV yoga” is not the only basis of his sudden riches. It’s the success in fooling people and selling the products as a miraculous method of redemption from all ills.
Their practices are illogical, baseless, even criminal. Look at Nirmaljit Singh Narula, alias Nirmal Baba — now a millionaire and fake faith healer who arrives on 30 channels in India and the US. He was a failed small-time businessman in Jharkhand between 1970 and the 1980s. He ran a brick kiln, a cloth shop, and also tried his hand at the lucrative mining business. Then, he mysteriously disappeared only to emerge as a miracle man offering fabled solutions lapped up by his followers. Even his brother-in-law, a politician from Jharkhand, has declared him as a fraud.
His annual income is reportedly about Rs 238 crore. Using TV channel shows, he organises “samagams” in various cities. One has to book in advance, online, paying a fee of Rs 2,000 per session. He also asks his followers to donate a tenth of their income to him. His bizarre solutions to complex problems include urging his followers to eat samosas and golguppas; or, asking, When did you last eat pastry, how many times do you drink coffee, why do you like the colour blue? His advice goes; Change the direction of your car in the parking area, stock your fridge with cold drinks, and so on. Rationalists find it a clear case of public cheating and fraud. They are categorical: that this man should be booked under law.
Recently, a well-known Indian painter was unable to find his red bag on arrival at Delhi airport. Finally, the bag was traced. A well-off man had “intentionally” taken it and left his similar-looking bag in its place. When the artist reached his house to collect his bag and return the other one, the man said he exchanged the bags because Nirmal Baba had asked him to do so — ‘exchange your bag with a bag of a similar colour at the airport’!
In this whole absurd business what is the reward for the followers? Hope. Amidst crisis, artificial, anticipated or real. The hope of healing, miracles and well-being. Nirmal Baba is just one gaping hole in this sordid saga. There are innumerable reported and unconfirmed stories about scandals involving babas in India and abroad: sex tapes, murder, child abuse, land deals, death of children in ashrams, exploitation of women and paedophilia.
Many of these babas are big land owners/grabbers, they have chartered planes, sprawling five-star ashrams with ‘service providers’, unaccounted money and assets beyond imagination It is like a C-grade horror movie. And, in this movie, there is neither an interval nor an ending. In crisis-ridden contemporary India, this box-office show is relentless. Like a simmering wound refusing to heal.
(The article was first published in the Hardnews)