What Will It Take for India to Stop Believing in Rapist Godmen?

Social Commentary

What Will It Take for India to Stop Believing in Rapist Godmen?

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

We’re in a bit of a metaphysical crisis in India today, and it has nothing to do with our personal spiritual health. The trouble arises from our prescriptive ancient texts that clash with what we observe around us – especially when it comes to India’s godmen.   

Ancient texts tell us that babas have been seeking elevated planes of consciousness through prayer and meditation since time immemorial. On the other hand, newspapers and TV news informs us that sexual assault and assorted criminal activities are the preferred path to enlightenment for the godmen of today. The latest addition to the convict-cum-baba brigade is Asaram, who was found guilty, along with seven others, of raping a minor girl in 2013.

Of course, the full list of Asaram’s kaali kartoots is long and ugly. But Asaram is hardly the first so-called religious leader to have perpetrated heinous crimes while masquerading as a saviour of the masses. He’s joining the already crowded club that boasts high-profile members like Gurmeet Singh (rape), Rampal (conspiracy to murder), and Nithyananda (sexual assault).

But even as the list of tarnished Indian godmen continues to grow, their hold over the public doesn’t seem to be weakening. By exploiting religion and faith, the country’s – maybe humanity’s – biggest blind spots, convicted rapists, murderers, fraudsters, and criminals have gathered fan clubs for whom they can do no wrong. Fan clubs that are, however, willing to do wrong and go to any lengths to defend their gurus.

This is probably why Jodhpur police was forced to impose Section 144 in the city ahead of the Asaram verdict. The section forbids the assembly of persons and bearing arms. They have good reason to be cautious: Last year’s rampage across Haryana by Dera Sacha Sauda supporters protesting Gurmeet Singh’s conviction that left 30 dead is still fresh in public memory. Should Asaram’s followers take inspiration from last year’s incident, at least no one will be able to pin the blame on law enforcement, like BJP minister Ram Bilas Sharma did when the Dera members rioted.

It’s mind-boggling that despite proving to be a threat to law and order, being found guilty of rape, and making idiotic comments about how Nirbhaya wouldn’t have been raped if she had only referred to her attackers as “bhaiyya”, a pervert like Asaram can enjoy continued support – the cult of his personality refuses to lose its sheen.

For a person facing injustice and poverty every day, a godman – someone to call their own – is not just an article of faith; he is like a lifeboat. It appeals to a fundamental human need for community.

Why, though? Why are these “spiritual” leaders so loved in India? And more importantly, what will it take for Indians to blindly stop following godmen-conmen?

The answer, perhaps, is more complex than it seems at first. As noted by modern history professor KN Panikkar in a piece for The Hindu, Asaram, like other godmen, draw their followers from two main demographics: the disenfranchised and poor, and India’s middle-class. And as evidenced by the 2017 riots and the currently trending hashtag #AsaramNirdosh, these followers believe that their leaders’ authority supersedes even the Constitution.  

For a person facing injustice and poverty every day, a godman – someone to call their own – is not just an article of faith; he is like a lifeboat. It appeals to a fundamental human need for community.   

Despite their shady personal reputations, the organisations headed by these leaders often do positive social work and impact the lives of thousands of people perennially left out of the country’s “Vikas” or India Shining or “Garibi hatao, desh bachao” narrative, no matter which party has been in power. Working with these “leftovers” – through charitable programmes, building infrastructure they have access to, by generating livelihood – is responsible for the massive goodwill enjoyed by Asaram, Gurmeet Ram Rahim and co. This strength in numbers empowers them, and hands them the keys to vote banks, which in turn makes them important to politicians.

Somewhere in this life cycle, the rules of logic fly out of the window.

Even after being found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, Asaram can rest easy that his followers will not desert him. Gurmeet Singh’s disciples continue to sing his praises even as he serves out a 20-year jail term. Not even death can shake the faith of brainwashed followers: For instance, Ashutosh Maharaj’s body has been kept in a freezer since his death in 2014 by his acolytes who insist that the guru is only in a deep meditation.

What hope then, does a simple guilty verdict have?

It’s a problem that only time and gradual social change might provide solutions to. One hopes that when education finally trumps superstition and obscurantism in this country, babas won’t be able to peddle their wares to those who don’t know any better. Illusory ideas, considering even the more developed west is not impervious to the lure of cults.

Or maybe, godmen can do us all a favour and follow Adityanath and Computer Baba into politics. That way, at least we have the option of voting them out.