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The Making of Babas

There are as many Babas as there are ways in which they have created themselves, but their increasing popularity becomes salient in India’s social fractures in the post-liberalisation age


Bhavdeep Kang

Baba-turned black sheep Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan has done his best to erode public faith in spiritual leaders: he is convicted of rape, charged with murder and is under investigation for castrating his followers and hoarding illegal arms. As investigations proceed, more unsavoury facts are coming to light. And yet, none of the established gurus, swamis, sants, acharyas, sadhus, jytoshis, etc., are likely to suffer a diminution of their constituencies. If anything, the ranks of their followers may swell, as Ram Rahim's befuddled or disillusioned devotees seek consolation elsewhere.

How do Babas emerge and why do people follow them blindly, to the point where they are willing to sacrifice their lives, friends, family, health and wealth for their guru?

Babas assume their role as spiritual preceptors through social consensus. Indeed, before professional degrees became the norm, training, skill and talent or inheritance determined the social and economic functions of the individual. Thus, the Baba took his place in society on the basis of his spiritual prowess.

That has not changed. Anybody, regardless of age, education, gender, class or caste, can become a spiritual preceptor, provided society sees him/her in that light. He does not need a degree in Vedic studies, nor does he have to stand for elections. He need not even be literate. He need not perform a miracle or be canonized by a Pope. The unstructured nature of the Hindu faith, as different from organised religions as chalk from cheese, legitimizes spiritual leanings in all shapes and forms.

Varied Processes

A wide variety of Baba's embellish our spiritual landscape: the hermits, the social reformers, the philosophers and scholars, the political players and the wellness gurus. Today's Babas are blessed with the opportunity for immense transnational outreach and enjoy the support of wealthy entities or individuals. At the same time, they face the challenge of navigating the digital world and dealing with the secular state.

Some may be Babas by inheritance and/or nomination, others may be self-made gurus. Baba Ramdev, for example, took diksha from Shankar Dev and inherited the Kankhal ashram in Haridwar from him. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi took diksha from Swami Brahmananda, the Shankaracharya of Jyotir Peeth, but did not become his heir. Bhagwan Rajneesh 'Osho' was a self-realized master, as are Mata Amritanandmayee and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. They built their 'empires' from the ground up.

Some show early promise and take to the spiritual path from childhood, others do so at a later stage in their lives. Chandraswami is said to have displayed an interest in tantrik studies in boyhood, while Mata Amritanandmayee was addicted to devotional songs as a child. Mahesh Yogi was a college student when he first felt the imperative tug of a spiritual calling. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was a graduate. Jaggi Vasudev was a businessman in his 20s. Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the founder of the Ananda Marg, was an accountant in the Indian railways. 'Babaji', head of the Radhasoami Satsang, was a Europe-based executive in a multi-national when he was nominated by his predecessor, 'Maharaj-Ji'.

For some gurus, enlightenment is akin to being struck by lightning. Others arrive at it by stages. Jaggi Vasudev was sitting on the Chamundi Hill outside Bangalore when he suddenly felt an ecstatic oneness with the universe. Sri Sri received the 'gift' of Sudarshan Kriya after meditating for ten days. For 'Osho', the process must have been one of evolution. In Gadarwara in Madhya Pradesh, the place where he grew up, is a small municipal library which bears testimony to his precocious brilliance and thirst for knowledge. He donated many treasured books to it when he left to attend college, some of them inscribed in his copperplate handwriting.

Not all Babas claim to be enlightened masters. Morari Bapu, for example, refuses to take disciples or give Diksha. He sees himself, quite simply, as a devotee of Lord Rama. He is a kathakar and more specifically, an exponent of Ramkatha. His calling is to narrate and interpret the Ramayana.

Spiritual Businessmen

The best-known modern Babas are spiritual entrepreneurs. They come up from scratch, without the support of an ashram, mutt, peeth or dera. Ram Rahim is a bit of both. He inherited, through nomination, the Dera Sacha Sauda which was then one of many in Haryana. It had been set up in 1948 by a devotee of Sawan Singh Maharaj, second head of the Radhasoami Satsang Beas, shortly after the latter's death, but later acquired an identity of its own. Ram Rahim gave it lavish visibility after taking over in 1990, expanding its reach and assets exponentially.

Babas may or may not be concerned with temporal matters. Some may retire to a hut on the banks of the Narmada, or to their cave in the hills/mountains, to meditate on the mysteries of the divine. They may be known and revered only in their immediate locality or their fame may spread far afield by word of mouth. The fact that a Baba may not interact with the community is irrelevant; his solitary accumulation of spiritual merit is seen as benefiting the whole world. Deoraha Baba, for instance, lived in a tree on the banks of the Yamuna. He blessed devotees by placing his foot on their heads. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was one of those fortunate enough to receive this benediction.

Some of these Babas may feel their mission is to minister to the spiritual needs of humanity and show us the way to self-realization and thus, be accessible to people. Others may see their earthly role in even broader terms and thus, may undertake social service, by setting up schools, colleges, hostels, hospices, Dharamshala, research institutes, dispensaries or hospitals. They may even enable social entrepreneurship, or run commercial organisations. Some may campaign for social and economic reforms.

Many Roles

All of them ostensibly work towards a healthy society, in harmony with itself and with nature, peopled by individuals who are at peace with themselves and perform their roles and duties with integrity while seeking self-realization.

Many Babas run schools or gurukuls, such as Jaggi Vasudev's 'World School' which offers alternative education in aesthetic surroundings. Mata Amritanandmayee's medical college is regarded as one of the best in the country and her cutting-edge research institutions and the world-class hospital is staffed by some of the finest scientific minds.

Baba Ramdev is the face of a corporate empire. His stated motivation is to give multi-national corporations a run for their money, so as to strengthen the Indian economy. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, on a smaller scale, offers FMCG products through a number of dedicated outlets across the country. Jaggi Vasudev, on the other hand, is known for his environmentalism. He has spearheaded a massive afforestation drive in Tamil Nadu and is currently engaged in a campaign for river conservation – an indirect tribute to his dear friend, the late environment minister, Anil Madhav Dave, who is best known for his work on the Narmada.

History is replete with instances of political Babas abusing their influence. Such 'dhongi' Babas have become the subject of many Bollywood movies. Some of them may even abuse the trust of their devotees to satisfy personal urges, such as Asaram Bapu and Ram Rahim. Several of those who have not been formally charged with sexual misconduct has nonetheless faced allegations from devotees. Sathya Sai Baba was accused of being a paedophile. Nithyananda Swami was jailed on rape charges. Even Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was accused of misbehaving with Hollywood star Mia Farrow.

These Babas may well have started with innate siddhis and spiritual knowledge, but were subverted by the power that came with these very talents. Dhirendra Brahmachari's expertise in yoga was widely acknowledged. Chandraswami was an accomplished mind-reader. Both abused their positions as spiritual advisors for material gain and lost their following as a result.

Social Fractures

The big question is how Babas manage to attract a large and devoted following, every bit as fanatical as the filmstar fan clubs in Tamil Nadu. Some authors explain the rise of modern Babas through the increasing quest for inner peace in Indian society. They trace it to the effects of liberalisation and Hindu assertion. There is little doubt that sweeping socioeconomic changes have contributed to the rise of Babas. Displacement of populations results in weakening of community bonds, thereby rendering the individual rootless and in search of an identity. He finds both in becoming a member of the Baba's community. He may identify himself as a 'Radhasoami' or a follower of Gurudev, as Sri Sri is known.

The dissonance of modern living is another factor. Discovering that wealth and comfort do not necessarily bring happiness, many turns to gurus for an answer. Unlike the idol in a temple, the Baba is a living, breathing charismatic entity who answers your questions. It is often said that 'you don't choose the guru, the guru chooses you'. So, being admitted into the ranks of the guru's devotees makes you feel special and with a new shared social identity.

Social status is yet another causative factor. The disadvantaged sections of society, such as the Mazhabi (Dalit) Sikhs who follow Ram Rahim, are immediately attracted to a Baba who offers them equal rights and standing in society. At the same time, they benefit from the Dera's social outreach, in terms of education, medical aid, employment, nutrition, etc.

Western authors may perceive the Babas and their following as 'cults'. This is not quite the case. The cult-like aspects have to do with personality-worship, initiation and the secrecy that surrounds the Baba and his entourage. But there is no substantive difference between the philosophy propounded by various Babas, which has its roots in the Upanishads. Rituals and methodology may be different but the process is the same. Those who follow a Baba will also visit other temples or gurudwaras.  Conversely, even those who are not followers will visit a temple set up by the Baba. Nor is any penalty exacted for leaving the Baba's community.

Some Genuine

Bhaiyuji Maharaj of Indore, who claims to support himself through agriculture, is contemptuous of jet-set Babas who traverse the world, setting up trans-national 'wellness' empires. He points out that they preach austerity while practising hedonism. Morari Bapu is also a notable exception, as are most Jain munis.

Trouble arises when the Baba begins to buy into his own mythology. He sees himself as infallible and invulnerable. Ram Rahim is a shining example of the 'hero complex'. Living out his macho fantasies in music videos and action films, attired in a variety of tasteless costumes and mounted on high-end automobiles, he appears to have identified himself with his real-life character: the superhero crusader who can save the world. Endowed with supernatural powers, he is above social norms.

Even social psychologists have a hard time explaining the hold that Babas have on Indian society. All humans have the capacity for symbolism, ie, making the abstract real (eg, the nation is an abstract concept, but it exists because people believe in it). Perhaps Indians are culturally more attuned to the abstract, which is integral to Hindu philosophy and way of life. For example, an object or creature can be invested with divinity – a tree, rock, water body or animal. As Jaggi Vasudev says, “We have the technology of god-making.”

Devotees become deeply invested in the Baba, whom they perceive as the epitome of purity. His divinity justifies their faith in him and by extension, in themselves. He gives meaning and purpose to their lives, whereas the secular state or society can only offer material sustenance. Without him, they are bereft in every sense of the word. He is their counsellor, therapist and advisor and must sign off on every major decision, be it marriage, education or business deals. The devotee thus shifts the burden of decision-making and responsibility for his moral welfare to the Baba. This is a liberation in itself.

So, regardless of how many Babas are revealed as charlatans and criminals, there will always be room for more.

The unstructured nature of the Hindu faith, as different from organised religions as chalk from cheese, legitimises spiritual leanings in all shapes and forms Baba Ramdev is the face of a corporate empire. His stated motivation is to give multi-national corporations a run for their money Social equality as promised by Baba Ram Rahim became a big draw for the mazhabi, or Dalit Sikhs Western authors may perceive the Babas and their following as 'cults'. This is not quite the case