Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sleazy sadhus

In Patiala and Delhi, I had a TV in my room and so I checked out what was going on in the 24-hour news cycle world. There were two major scandals in the last couple of weeks involving Indian sadhus, gurus and what-have-you, whom they call by the generic name "babas". At least they seem to have given up the term "God-men" which was a longstanding favorite of theirs I particularly hate. (I seem to be wrong about that.)

There was even a little juicy video to play over and over again, what to speak of other clips of the babas dancing ecstatically. One TV station even played that up by juxtaposing the dancing guru with a belly dancer to make him look even more idiotic. The anchor man very sincerely said, "We are doing this as a public service as so many people put their faith in babas and they need to know who is genuine and who is not."

Then Baba Ramdeva went on record in calling for the death penalty (!) for bogus babas, saying they are giving genuine sadhus a bad name. This was followed by TV footage of some other sadhus in Haridwar saying, "Well, that might be going a little far. Life imprisonment is a better option."

This is part of Ramdeva Baba's nationalistic theme, which a great many of the sannyasis support. He calls his movement Bharata Svabhimana, or Indian national pride. Here is one of his posters in Hardwar, saying, "Corrupt and treacherous people engage in depraved activities, in the name of doing business foreign companies loot our national wealth and make us poor. We have to stop this looting and make our country great." Now apparently he also wants to get involved in the political process.

The two scandals appear to be somewhat different. The first, Nithyananda, is a handsome young fellow, a lifelong brahmachari, with a lot of charisma. He has a beautiful movie star disciple. It looks like this one was just waiting to happen.

The second, involving this sleazy character Bhimananda, looks like it is just waiting for Arvind Adiga to write a novel about it. You can read about him in the first link above. What I find interesting about him is that he made his name as a votary of Shirdi Sai Baba, whose rise and domination of the Hindu religious scene in north India is nothing short of phenomenal. This seems to coincide with the new middle-class prosperity and is no doubt the subject of much academic research.

Though Shirdi Sai Baba is worshiped by Hindus, I believe he more clearly falls into the category of Sufi saints or pirs. There is a whole North Indian tradition of worship at the tombs (dargah) of dead Sufi saints, which is syncretic in nature and even dominated by Hindus. The practice has been periodically criticized and condemned by orthodox Islam. It is popular for the same reason saint worship has been in the Christian world: people go seeking intercession in cases of material need. They pray, perform some small ritual (in Bengal, people leave clay figurines on the tombs) and then leave without really challenging their identity as Hindus.

In the conference at JNU, we heard from one good research scholar who talked about the resurgence of such dargahs in Punjab. He showed pictures of several of these newly refurbished places, saying that it was in fact a return to the kind of syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture that existed in the pre-Partition period.

The point I would really like to make here is this. The scandals surrounding fallen saints really comes from the ancient association in the minds of many Hindus of celibacy with magical power. The fact is that a great many people approach gurus and sants with the hope of getting material blessings, and it is their requirement that he be siddha. The siddhi is the ability to grant them their wishes. If he can perform miracles, like those of a Satya Sai Baba, then that gives him a free pass. But if not, the minimum requirement is that he (or she) must at least be celibate.

As soon as such a sadhu ceases to be celibate, they feel the contract has been broken. The contract is very simple: "We adore you, give you money and prestige. You get big temples and ashrams. All you have to do, basically, is be celibate. Of course, you do all the religious stuff, too, but everything hinges on you keeping your kaupin tight. In return, we get some satisfaction from doing good and pious deeds and also, hopefully, our material wishes fulfilled." If the sadhu gets involved in sex, then that means this hope is dashed; the desires cannot be fulfilled because it is impossible that he should have any mystic power.

The element of hypocrisy enters the picture, too. But that is secondary. No one will say, "You should have told us, we would have understood." They would not have understood. There would have been no Nithyananda without him wearing saffron.

But I think that Ramdev and the rest are missing the point. The point is, as Prabhupada used to say, that we live in a society of the cheaters and the cheated. A sucker is born every minute, and the basis of suckerhood is wanting and needing something and hoping for miracles to give them an easy route to fulfilment.

That is clear from the Bhimananda case. The man appears to clearly have entered the sadhu game as a money-making scheme and did quite well from the look of it. How he managed to run a prostitution ring with a highly placed clientele at the same time as he played the game of a sadhu is a bit of a mystery. Clearly he is a talented conman. But if he did not have a host of gullible people willing to part with their cash, he would not have gotten anywhere.

Moreover, the problem is as much with the system as with the people. Nithyananda, I would say, is a bit of an innocent victim of the system, but well on the road to cynical exploitation of it--as his response to the video clearly indicates, and as that lazy posture in front of the TV in the video indicates. Bhimananda is a guy who played the system. You can hang all the fake sadhus you want, but there is an endless assembly line turning out fallen sadhus, vairagis and (aptly named) fakirs. Making threatening gestures like calling for the death penalty is not going to stem the tide.

And this is precisely where the problem lies. Making people's hearts harder is not going to change anything, because everything is hinging on a false premise: no one else can do your brahmacharya for you.

Most of India is still in the grips of a magical concept of religion. And too many of the people in positions of religious leadership cater to that mindset.


Subrata said...

Jay Nitai,

Very well written.


Steve Bohlert said...

It's unfortunate that this sort of ignorance has been exported to the West and accepted by a good number of people.

Consort said...

This is nothing new. Take the "devi dasi" system of families "donating" child-daughters as "wives of God" in the temples. My hunch is that this was an authentic and sincere tradition at one time wherein the position of the Devi Dasi was honored, but the temple pandas discovered soon enough that they could make money by pimping these girls and women out, and hence the tradition fell into ruin and now is completely wiped out. The good thing is that temple dance went "mainstream" and now you and I can sit down and enjoy a good "Bharatnatyam" performance practically anywhere in the world.

Nithyananda still could have been "Nithyananda" even if he hadn't donned saffron. There's now a world famous Indian couple, I think they go by the names "Bhagawan and Bhagwati" who have started this "deeksha" movement that is sweeping the globe. They have a multi-million dollar center in India and are worshipped by thousands of sheeple.

Indians do not require their sadhus to be single or celibate, just to be transparant with regards to their "status".

Of course, the only other acceptable "status" in the eyes of the Indian public is a legal and religious marriage.

No girlfriend shmirlfriend bizniz!

Consort said...

PS: In addition to the above I feel that alot of the "rage" against Nithyananda stems from a repressed sexual frustration and envy within the angry mobs themselves. So the guy is getting some and you're not - is that a reason to storm his ashrams and start beating INNOCENT RESIDENTS therein?

Seems so, in India at least.

Consort said...

PSS: I clicked on one of the links you provided and I see that nothing short of the common misconceptions about human sexuality fuels Swami Ram Dev's view:

Shimla, March 10: "Patanjali Yogpeeth founder Baba Ramdev today demanded capital punishment for fraud religious leaders who who indulge in outraging the modesty of women"

This term, "outragin the modesty of women" is an Indian euphemism for "rape", much in the same way "eve teasing" is their euphemism for "sexual harrassement".

So, what women have Nithyananda raped? He was having a mutually consensual sexual relationship with at least one woman we know of, Ranjitha the buxom South Indian actress, but how is that "outraging her modesty"???

This confusion between CONSENSUAL relationships and non-consensual attacks such as rape or street sexual harrassement is something to this day, a large number of Indians have a difficult time distinguishing between.

Case in point: I remember reading several times in Indian newspapers about how Indian police forces, in an attempt at cracking down on "eve teasers" actually ended up slapping and beating COUPLES in parks who were holding hands and "sitting too close". They even slapped around a brother and sister pair!

When these couples proceded to tell them, "um, he's not harrassing me, he's my BOYFRIEND", the police didn't "get it" and still thought something "wrong" or "illegal" was going on.

Similarly, I've seen a lot of comments referring to Nithyananda's relationship with Ranjitha as being "illegal".

While it may very well be "immoral" in the eyes of many, a grown adult man and a grown adult woman having a consensual relationship certainly is NOT illegal.

So until it becomes clear in the minds of the "aam admi" of India the difference between CONSENSUAL and NON-CONSENSUAL and "legal" and "illegal" in the same token, I don't see much progress being made there in terms of male/female relations or even just a basic understanding of human sexuality.

Jagat said...

I agree that the status should be clear. The Gayatri parivar, for instance, always shows both the guru and his wife in their posters.

This is just the dominant mood, that is all.

Jagat said...

Lots of good points, Consort.

Consort said...

Moreover, in the Indian socio-religious scene, 2 relationship statuses are accepted and honored:

1. single and celibate or,
2. married

There is no room for any gray area.

But does every individual fit neatly into either one of these for their entire life? Hardly.

Could there be room for men and women who do in fact want to make spiritual pursuits their life's work and at the same time do not wish to be either completely celibate on one end, or married and tied to family samsar for eternity on the other?

Setting an entire nation up with only these 2 limited choices is what causes people like Nithyananda to take his relationships on the downlow.

Sneaking around and hiding, living a double life, these are symptoms of a shame-based culture.

Now, if India recognized that someone can be both spiritual AND also inclined to pair-bonding with the opposite sex without entering the deep, dark, entrenching well that IS the Indian marriage and family system, then he would not have had to be "sleazy" about having a girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how this is dissimlar to many examples generously provided to us by Iskcon?
Mockery, lie, personality cult, trash swept regularly under the carpet, lust for money and power, endless need for more disciples and worshippers (or in short -- money and status), scandals all over the place, bigger than life projects, temple building, children and women abused, treated as trash, explosion of vanity over real substance ...
I think it's about time such kind of religious farce goes off the stage, once and for all. I believe many people in good conscience will choose pure atheism than a charade like this. Even in atheism there is 6 out of 7 letters that contain a word and idea about God, but in this ... none.

Hesitant Iconoclast said...

I don't think the question is about the sexuality. Despite what people say/think, Nithyananda is by all accounts a popular guru and has vast ashram properties to his name. As well as claiming two million devotees including high-flying politicians, I understand he claims to be an avatar of Shiva and is revered as such by his devotees.

The outrage is really about disciples finding out that their revered divine guru is after all a common man with feet of clay.

Anonymous said...

@ Hesitant: I think its about both, sexuality and humanness. Because both are intrinsically connected. But perhaps its more about humanness in general than the sexuality aspect in particular. Indeed, people project in to another human being those things that they are not willing to do themselves, i.e., become pure, austere, overcoming - in short, transcend a sense of self which they are not very happy with. The failure they so readily condemn in a busted guru is actually the disgust they feel about their own failure in becoming a better individual. 'Better' a representative word for happier, more complete, capable of reaching an ideal which is a combination of such large number of perfect characteristics that it becomes nearly an irrational state of being. No human being can be such, and yet the guru is supposed to be so, and make others like him too. It really isn't a reasonable proposition.

I think the very concept of guru tattva has to be greatly revised by a class of sensible people in the world today.

Anonymous said...


WIth all this sleaze about gurus running amok, I was wondering how Swami Veda dealt with the sexual controversies surrounding his guru, Swami Rama of the Himalayas.

Anonymous said...

Your article is right to the point and done with great sobriety.

Your writing has reached a great maturity and a power of expression that I have rarely seen amongst Vaishnavas.

This is truly powerful writing and with great power comes great responsibility.