India is decidedly the largest free-market economy when it comes to the business of religion and spirituality. A business model built around religion has existed since time immemorial. It operated mostly as self-proprietorships and was sometimes institutionalised. Temples and mutts, usually formed as trusts, often were the corporate versions of it. But this is the age of spiritual entrepreneurs.
Arguably, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Acharya Rajneesh, popularly known as Osho, may be called the pioneers of modern spiritual start-ups. They were probably the first to recognise the market potential of ‘packaged' and 'branded’ spirituality. Since then came many mavericks and mavens who used every trick in marketing books to build their own business empires. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the 'Lovecharger Baba', is one such example.
There are deep societal and cultural roots that have made us vulnerable to charlatans and blind faith. Being fatalistic by nature, we are suckers for miracles and divine intervention to redeem our woes. The other Indian religious trait is we seek god with a selfish motive (job, money, children, marriage, health, etc) rather than spiritual salvation. That makes us psychologically vulnerable, which Swami Vivekananda had characteristically chided as “beggar mentality”.
The spiritual entrepreneurs were smart to recognise the commercial potential of our genetic flaw. But, the real genius lay in differentiating their positioning in what could otherwise be a commodity bazar. They also turned out to be masters of market segmentation.
A few have successfully diversified into brand extensions selling consumer products under their private labels. From maintaining their own army of bodyguards, some are reported to be entering the business of divine security agencies.
Ram Rahim Singh found a market in a particular stratum (now being fashionably referred to as the 'subaltern class') of a region where he successfully built his business empire through clever cult marketing. Notwithstanding the halo we associate with religious gurus, politicians flocking to him are not very different from leaders hobnobbing with large industrialists for sponsorship.
Our ‘netas’ routinely cut ribbons at factory openings, grace family functions and are chief guests at hospital and CSR project inaugurations of big businessmen. That these favours will be returned at the time of elections is taken as par for the course. It can be argued with a stretch that Ram Rahim Khan was cut in the same mould except that he brought votes to the table more than money (one presumes).
Media routinely accuses Government of turning a blind eye to questionable activities of their favourite moneybags. Many errant businessmen escape the legal noose by virtue of their political connections. Did Ram Rahim Singh receive similar patronage?
Where there is the heady combination of money and power, can sex and scandal be out of the holy mix? But, while Ram Rahim Singh’s alleged excesses arouse shock and revulsion, the same set drools over pool parties and calendar shoots of playboy business tycoons. Many a case of sexual exploitation under various pretexts is shoved under the bed sheet by either explaining it as consensual or hushing it up with material gratification.
The point here is not to justify the sleaze and scandals but question the shock and surprise of the chattering classes at the obvious. Also one needs to understand what makes these self-styled gurus tick.
While some of them may be outright thugs and charlatans, often using hypnotism or other ploys, some may indeed possess a degree of spiritual powers to begin with. However, many lose their way due to the lure of power and lucre.
The eminent psychologist, Sudhir Kakar, describes this phenomenon of “incorrect Guru” in his book “Mad and Divine”:
“...the spirit when it soars pulls up the psyche in its wake. But… the spirit never completely escapes the gravitational pull exerted by the forces of narcissism, aggression and desire in the psyche...”
The Hindu scriptures accept the need for a 'guru'. But, at the same time, they prescribe very strict injunctions for the process of selecting the right preceptor. Unfortunately, not everyone is gifted by such power of discrimination and seekers often fall in the trap of false messiahs who prey upon their gullibility.
Kakar suggests “what may be essential for our gaze, however, is to attend to the vision of the spirit’s soaring, not the oft-repeated tragedy of its fall.”
Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was of the view that, having embraced a guru, the devotee is absolved. He joked about naïve followers with a quip: "Jadio amar guru shuri-bari jaye, tabuo amar guru Nityananda Ray”. Loosely translated, it means though "my guru frequents bars and brothels, he still remains my guru." Unfortunately, this is the attitude of many a blind devotee.
Like stranded employees of businesses going bust, followers are often left holding the can for the misdeeds of their gurus. Thankfully, due to social media activism, the public has begun to demand action – be it by extradition of truant corporate criminals leading a life of luxury on foreign shores or prosecution of murderer and rapist spiritual leaders of all faiths.
However, Ram Rahim Singh is neither the first nor is he going to be the last of fraudulent spiritual entrepreneurs. Many more skeletons are hidden at spiritual factories across the country and across faiths, sects and cults. Panchkula should be a loud warning for the government and politicians against keeping a blind eye and flirting with spiritual scamsters for securing votes.
(Author is a writer and popular blogger on current affairs. His Twitter handle is @SandipGhose)
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