Satsangs: The Showmanship that Fuels India’s Religious Obsession

Social Commentary

Satsangs: The Showmanship that Fuels India’s Religious Obsession

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

“Religion is the opium of the masses,” said Karl Marx. You may have had a glimpse of this addiction in action if you ever happened to surf channels in the pre-Netflix era and accidentally landed on one of the dozens of religious/spiritual channels, which have dedicated their existence to making sure Grandpa never runs out of things to watch when Arnab is not screaming on-air. But television, like other such simulations, is a poor substitute to the real thing – a pale imitation of an insanity that is beyond all rational explanation and description.

I got a taste of this addiction when I was dragged, kicking, and screaming, to a seven-day-long satsang — the kind where a random but charismatic preacher narrates the stories already iconised by Ramanand Sagar, embellished with an extra helping of patronising moral lectures, misogyny, and toxic patriarchal bullshit masquerading as Indian values. This is the kind of satsang where the preacher derives his legitimacy not from his personal status as a Godman (unlike a Sadhguru or Sri Sri), but the holy book (Ramcharitmanas or Bhagwad Purana) he claims to be a master of. It is like a performing art, or as my brother puts it, a live gig where the preacher is the rockstar. And because the target audience doesn’t usually Google his credentials, the one with the bigger hoardings and better penchant for grand theatrics is the one who draws the largest audience.

The whole satsang would have at most been mildly annoying for me, if it were just storytelling and garden-variety moralising. But what was scary about all the pandemonium was the amount of power a single man could exercise over an excessively large group of people, for no other reason except that he can recite a few Sanskrit shlokas, knows how to sing, has a large team of people playing borrowed Bollywood tunes as bhajan interludes, wears designer kurtas that cost more than half my wardrobe, wears enough make-up to make me consider giving it up completely, and gives lessons in good life and morality.  Of course, he compensates for any good it might do by heaping the whole diatribe with sexism, casteism, and classism.

Such was the power of this man over the crowd he was holding in rapt attention, despite sweltering heat, that when he asked the women to wear yellow the next day, the whole sweaty pandal turned into a sea of yellow like an eerie game of Simon Says. And when he demanded there ought to be a celebration of Krishna’s birthday, the whole event turned into an impromptu fancy dress with otherwise sane adult men and women happily playing dress-up, pretending to be Krishna’s parents. The toddlers in the house were co-opted to play the Lord himself, heaped on with costumes and enough make-up to generate legitimate concern about their health and wellness. If the Guruji had asked them to come and give their children up to him, I’m not sure that crowd would have resisted.

The whole thing was ridiculous. Until it wasn’t.

Between the drama, dancing, loud music, and toddlers screaming their lungs out, there were people around me who had tears streaming down their faces as they witnessed the make-believe birth of their God. It was a stupefying scene straight from every BBC documentary on India ever and it clued me into the charged atmosphere of the pandal; the energy was so infectious that I felt goosebumps on my arms in spite of myself .

The same religion that imprisoned her, became an excuse to temporarily let go and, for once, just dance.

As a life-long spiritualist, I am no stranger to the emotion that was resonating through the pandal. What I didn’t understand was how something so obviously make-believe and problematic, which resembled Rambo Circus, could invoke a feeling so pure and momentous among so many people. What is it about these satsangs that makes people tick? Is it the promise of enlightenment? Bliss? Nirvana? Or were they just tripping on being at a rocking music concert? I’ve watched throngs of people weep at a One Direction concert after all, but surely the emotion invoked by One Direction, and by extension any version of Godmen, may still have a rational explanation rooted in deep faith and loyalty, but masses of people sobbing at a circus helmed by some guy they have never seen before? That is a tribute to the terrifying power of religious theatrics in this country, as well as a commentary on the state of mind of our masses.

As I looked around the pandal, I realised the answer for this madness is perhaps much less mysterious than we urban millennial elites make it out to be. For the woman in the back who had taken to dancing every time Guruji as much as hummed a tune, this katha was perhaps an excuse to launch a tiny rebellion against the oppressive patriarchy that required her to hide behind a veil and never let her dance. The same religion that imprisoned her, became an excuse to temporarily let go and, for once, just dance. For the large groups of women who always outnumbered the men in the pandal, this satsang was perhaps the only available excuse to step out of the house, get a respite from the daily chores and socialise while reaping the added benefits of enlightenment and whatever else Guruji was selling. For the elderly who flocked to the pandal like clockwork, these satsangs offer a semblance of meaning to their existence, give them an excuse to feel like they still have something to look forward to, and derive comfort that may not be otherwise available.

While it is easy to blame this fascination with religion on mass idiocy, the truth is rarely that simple. We are a country of terrible social support systems. We don’t have mechanisms to assist our old and our mental health awareness is, to put it mildly, terrifyingly inadequate. The fact is that religion in this country often fills in gaps that our social structures are unable to provide for. It is inadequate and problematic, but it is often the only one doing the job. You might find yourself thinking that the world would have been a better place if religion didn’t exist, but then you ought to find substitutes for the needs of the people who find their fulfillment and peace in religion and its myriad by-products.

George Carlin said, “Religion has the greatest bullshit story ever told.” Given the current atmosphere in the country, it is also one of the most dangerous bullshit stories ever told. Unfortunately, that bullshit serves purposes that are beyond our reach as systems and individuals. And unless, we as a society can find viable, pragmatic, well-branded alternatives to it, that bullshit is all we are stuck with and is perhaps all we deserve.