What Will It Take for India to Stop Believing in Criminal Godmen Like Nithyananda?

Social Commentary

What Will It Take for India to Stop Believing in Criminal Godmen Like Nithyananda?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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 criminal activities are the preferred path to enlightenment for the godmen of today. The latest addition to the convict-cum-baba brigade is Nithyananda, who has been previously accused of rape and sexual assault.

Of course, the full list of Nithyananda’s kaali kartoots is long and ugly. On Wednesday, an FIR has been registered against the self-styled godman on charges of kidnapping and wrongful confinement of children at an ashram in Ahmedabad. The children were allegedly made to collect donations from the followers to run the ashram.

Days after the controversy erupted, Nithyananda has fled the country, the Gujarat police said. They are in touch with the Ministry of External Affairs, even as the police work to gather evidence against him.

But Nithyananda 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 Asaram (rape).

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, sexual assaulters, 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.

On Thursday, the police arrested a principal of Delhi Public School in Ahmedabad near Ahmedabad for violating while leasing out land to the controversial guru. We’d expect academics to not fall in the trap of godmen, but school authorities ignored the collector’s notification and rented out the property to Nithyananda’s ashram.

In April last year, ahead of the Asaram verdict – he was held guilty of rape and imprisoned for life – the Jodhpur police was forced to impose Section 144. The section forbids the assembly of persons and bearing arms. They have good reason to be cautious: The rampage across Haryana by Dera Sacha Sauda supporters protesting Gurmeet Singh’s conviction in August 2017 that left 30 dead is still fresh in public memory.

It’s mind-boggling that despite proving to be a threat to law and order, being charged with rape, criminal such as Nithyananda and Asaram enjoy continued support.

It’s mind-boggling that despite proving to be a threat to law and order, being charged with rape, criminal such as Nithyananda and Asaram enjoy continued support – the cult of their personality refuses to lose its sheen.

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, India’s godmen, draw their followers from two main demographics: the disenfranchised and poor, and India’s middle-class. And as evidenced by the riots after Gurmeet Singh’s arrest and the hashtags that continue to trend every few days – #RamRahimInsaan, #SantAsaram – 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 India’s self-styled gurus. 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 if Nithyananda is arrested and found guilty, his followers are unlikely to desert him. Asaram and Gurmeet Singh’s disciples are proof. They continue to sing their praises even after their sentencing.  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 an arrest or 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 Computer Baba into politics. That way, at least we have the option of voting them out.