Who Are Behind India’s Asarams?

Anand Teltumbde

The way godmen and godwomen are thriving, with an influential section of their followers in the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and even in premier scientific and technological establishments, the Constitution’s hope of the inculcation of “scientific temper” lies shattered. The assassination of Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist devoted to the eradication of superstition, on the one hand, and the roaring “success”, until very recently, of the self-proclaimed godman Asaram “Bapu” in spreading unfounded beliefs, on the other, are pointers in this regard.

It is over a month since Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down in Pune. Despite the nationwide outrage over this shocking incident, there is absolutely no progress made by the Maharashtra police in apprehending the culprits. In my immediate reaction, in an article entitled “Dabholkar Is Done a Gandhi”, I concluded with a cynical prophesy that we would never get hold of Nathuram this time. It did not require clairvoyance or divine prowess to predict that Dabholkar’s murderers will not be caught. The police claim to have completed enquiries of over 2,000 persons, at an incredible rate of some 80 persons a day, and have almost concluded that the culprits have not left any clues.

As those who are familiar with his work on the eradication of superstition know, Dabholkar was killed because of his stubborn opposition to the fraudsters, claiming to possess divine and mystic power, who exploited the gullible masses. Moreover, he was openly opposed by the sanatani Hindus who sided with these fraudsters as part of their religion and condemned him as their dharma shatru. In their temerity, they justified his murder as the karmaphal (fruit of his karma) and continue spewing venom against him even to this day.

The continuing winking of the state at this assassination, as also its procrastination in the Asaram episode (alleged sexual assault of a schoolgirl) until this so-called spiritual guru’s (he calls himself Asaram Bapu) inevitable arrest, amply exposes the forces and dynamics underlying the increasing menace of Buwas and Babas. Self-proclaimed godmen like Asaram Bapu are taking the country into an abyss of darkness, a predicament that rationalists like Dabholkar have been trying to check.

Asaram Episode

By no means is Asaram’s an isolated case of a conman allegedly committing crimes under the cover of godmanship with a following of millions of people. There are hundreds of thousands of them operating at various levels and “market” segments in this country, quite a number with religious-business empires extended across many countries. It is only once in a couple of years that the tip of the iceberg shows up and they become subject of public discourse as in the case of Asaram in a relatively minor incident of alleged sexual molestation of a 15-year-old student of his gurukul. The devotees, under the total hypnotic spell of these tricksters, instead of seeing such acts as crime, consider them as part of the dispensation of divine bliss and crave for it. A stray case of coming out of this mind-enslavement is ruthlessly suppressed by the goons of godmen. From such a multilayered fortification, it is extremely rare that someone musters the courage to tell the world the gory tales of the goings on in the ashrams of the so-called godmen. Sex appears to be a penchant of all godmen. The rationale lies in the Hindu notion of mortal body and immortal soul and the devotee is brainwashed into a complete surrender to the guru in order to be one with god.

 Asaram is said to have begun his career as a bootlegger in the eastern part of Ahmedabad. Many remember him as selling country liquor on the banks of the Sabarmati, a very lucrative business in a dry state. He set up a small ashram in Ahmedabad in 1971 and tried to ape Rajneesh who had a roaring business in the global spiritual market. He could not however make a mark as an orator, but made up for this deficiency with dance. His meteoric rise began with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in the state. Today, his empire comprises over 400 ashrams and numerous institutions in the country, most of them built on huge tracts of land valued at hundreds of crores of rupees.

With Asaram now in jail, the public authorities in various states have suddenly woken up to find them illegal. Sexual assaults or financial irregularities are not the only alleged crimes; the charges include murders too. It is alleged that this conman indulged in black magic involving human sacrifice. On 3 July 2008 two students of his Motera Ashram in Ahmedabad, Dipesh Vaghela and Abhishek Vaghela mysteriously disappeared and their bodies were found after two days in a riverbed near the ashram. The Gujarat police hushed up the case, attributing the killings to a 14-year-old boy. Even after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) booked seven followers of Asaram for the culpable homicide in 2009, the real culprits are still at large. There have been similar instances of deaths and disappearances even in the past but nothing ever happened. The 11-day high drama before he was arrested by the Jodhpur police from his Indore ashram exposed the reluctance of the state to act, for Asaram has the active support of the Hindutva forces. It is anybody’s guess that he would come out of jail on bail, and when this happens, it will be almost impossible for the girl’s family to stand its stead.

Magnitude of the Menace

Asaram is just one godman. There are an estimated five million of them, godmen and godwomen, exploiting people’s gullibility to amass wealth. Just a glance at the wealth of some of the infamous ones reveals the magnitude of this menace. The wealth that Satya Sai Baba and Mahesh Yogi controlled, or the affluence of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is mind-boggling. The turnover of the organisations that some of these so-called spiritual gurus – for example, Mata Amritanandamayi of Kerala, Baba Ramdev, Sudhanshu Maharaj, and Murari Bapu – control might shame many mid-sized companies. Many of them offer mind-training methods, which are nothing but sophisticated trickery. But besides these biggies, there are numerous spiritual entrepreneurs, petty babas and buwas, who operate unsophisticatedly at the lower end of the market, which caters to ordinary people. They do all kinds of black magic and are known for their objectionable ways.

Add to this the temples and forms of festivities like Ganeshotsavas or Durga Pujas, which make a thriving business playing on peoples’ insecurities. Leave apart the multi-billionaire Tirupati Balaji, there are many Tirupatis in the making all over the country. They may not be indulging in apparent unlawful activities but insofar as they reinforce the occult and thwart scientific temper (which the Constitution of India calls upon all citizens to promote as part of our fundamental duties), they are retrograde. Persons like Dabholkar made a distinction between faith and blind faith as also religiosity and superstition. These are pedantic arguments; for instance, one might say that believing in god is faith but believing in spirits is blind faith, or, one might argue that untouchability is bad but the caste system that is its source is not. Blind faith is, after all, just a fluid extension of faith; and, faith itself should be confined to one’s private self.

Brand Ambassadors

Frankly, such fraudulent money-making enterprises of the godmen cannot run without the tacit consent of the state. Most politicians follow godmen, at the personal level, to overcome the sense of guilt that stems from their ommissions and commissions. Right-wing parties like the BJP openly use godmen, eyeing their followers as their constituency. The other parties also have to countenance for the fear of alienating the Hindu majority. Many of them are partners in the sinister enterprises of the so-called godmen. Keeping people mired in superstition deflects their attention from the reality of their lives. It impels them to attribute their plight to divine forces and thereby their exploitation goes unchallenged.

Besides the political class, many in the bureaucracy and the judiciary are also followers of godmen. Thus, the state, comprising the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, has itself become the prime supporter of this menace. It has blatantly ignored the constitutional mandate of promoting “scientific temper” as per Article 51A(h) using the fig leaf of Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 295A that makes an excuse of not hurting the religious feelings of others.

The elite, who could have otherwise been a role model for the ignorant masses, have themselves followed these godmen. As an extreme example, our Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which are supposed to evangelise scientific temper, are found to promote spiritual discourses by Hindu seers, run mini-temples for Hindu gods inside academic complexes, and present themes of jingoistic cultural nationalism. While it is a fact that during the term of the BJP-led National Democrtaic Alliance government, the IITs and other premier scientific establishments were Hinduised by installing chosen people in key positions, it is revealing that the years of Congress rule that followed, the situation has not changed. It is commonplace to see many scientists, engineers and doctors unashamedly wearing ugly vermilion or ash marks on their foreheads, armbands with talismans, and lately, ubiquitous multiple strands of threads on their wrist, publicly displaying their belief in the supernatural.

These people have become the virtual brand ambassadors of the so-called godmen. The insecurity and uncertainty created by neo-liberalism in recent years has greatly accentuated this god-ward trend in all sections of society. The common masses seek divine help for their survival; the elite, to preserve their lifestyle. Increasing instances of fundamentalism, casteism and deviant social behaviour are just the manifestations of this trend. While this is a global phenomenon, in India, the religion of the majority, Hinduism, not being an institution-based religion, provides vast space for individual godmen to thrive. Thwarting their menace warrants scrapping the IPC Section 295A, curbing the blatant display of faith in public, cleansing the state of every sign of god/religion, discarding neo-liberalism, adopting people-empowering policies and actively promoting scientific temper.

Courtesy: The Economic And Political Weekly, Vol – XLVIII No. 41, October 12, 2013

(Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.)

P.S.The above article from Economic and Political Weekly is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use.