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There's a reason Indians love Radhe Maa. And it's not superstition

Ashis Nandy | Updated on: 15 August 2015, 19:24 IST

The gurus

  • Numerous godmen and women are accused of committing various crimes
  • Asaram Bapu is alleged to have raped young women
  • His associates and followers are accused of murdering witnesses
  • Dera Sacha Sauda\'s Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is alleged to have castrated followers
  • Radhe Maa is said to have incited dowry demands among her followers

The faith

  • Despite these accusations, these men and women have millions of followers
  • The faithful even ignore their cheapness, gaudiness and blatant hypocrisy

The reasons

  • India is going through a massive transition
  • Social mobility has put a deep gash in the Indian psyche
  • Indians search for people who will give them some certitude in a very uncertain world
  • These \'spiritualists\' have an ability to connect with the anxieties and fears of a person
  • They have replaced the traditional isht devta as one\'s personal gods
  • Even their blatant displays of wealth are what the upwardly mobile Indian aspires to

Recently, the gods have been the frequent subject of news.

Their self-anointed lieutenants - sundry godmen and women - have been making headlines for dancing on lawns in short red dresses, castrating their followers, raping young women, murdering inconvenient witnesses, making films on themselves, owning vast empires and suggesting dowry.

They are cheap, gaudy, and often, transparently hypocritical. Yet they have millions of rapt followers.

For observers outside the circle of faith, the phenomenon is jaw-dropping. I am often asked the question: why do Indians believe in such claptrap?

It is the wrong question.

The question to ask is not why Indians believe in godmen and women but why they need to believe.

The gash in the Indian psyche

Indian society is going through a massive transition. We know this, but don't recognise the consequences - both psychological and cultural. The anxiety people feel is deep and bewildering: the old is dead; and the new has not yet been born.

This makes them feel they are drifting aimlessly, disoriented, floating - left to negotiate a world they can't make head or tail of. The rupture has entered within.

Modernity is not something that exists in small enclaves. There is no domain-specific behaviour you can negotiate - like wearing a tie and suit for a job interview, then going back to your real day-to-day self. Now the disjunction has come right within; it has entered into one's psyche.

In other societies, this would have pushed people to psychiatrists, agony aunts, alcoholism, counsellors, or drugs.

In India, they search for people who will give them some certitude in a very uncertain world.

The intimacy of the gods

In television discussions, there is a lot of noise about whether these godmen and women are legally culpable. This is a particularly stupid way to look at it.

The problem is no one in India wants to understand root causes.

The outsider's eye has no meaning in the universe of the faithful. To the follower, Radhe Maa is not a gaudy character. She is pitched at the level they need. She hugs and dances and provides solace. They forgive her the pink mini-skirt in Dubai, because they need to cling to someone who understands them, who reflects the world they live in. And, most crucially, is accessible to them.

It's the same with gurus like Dera Sacha Sauda's Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and Asaram Bapu.

There's a gash in the Indian psyche which, in other countries, would've pushed people to alcoholism or drugs

There is a reason why Indian 'spiritualists' today look like they have come off a comic book or a mythological television screen. The reason is: they have. They are not drawing from ancient spiritual traditions; they have no access to those traditions. They are imitating spirituality as it is reconstructed in popular culture. That can be wildly varied.

Still, a few qualities bind most contemporary godmen and women: they all act as some kind of direct, psychotherapeutic agent. They are reasonably good counsellors. They know some spiritual text well - could be a few Kabir dohas or Meera bhajans. And they have an ability to connect with the anxieties and fears of a person.

That is the crucial thing.

This is a phenomenon Sudhir Kakar explains well in his book Mystics, Shamans & Doctors. Everyone who derides the followers of godmen for their superstition is getting the diagnosis wrong. It's not superstition that drives people to believe. They are looking for a solution to the rupture inside them.

The god next door

India once had a robust tradition of isht devtas: personal gods. This spiralled outward in concentric circles of access: the kul devta, the family god; then, gods for every village, caste, community.

These gods were celestial bodyguards: they looked out for your special needs and concerns. They were batting for you. They were not distant and formal. They didn't just grant boons and leave. They cared for you; did things for you. You did not have to queue up in giant temples for half a day to get a darshan of them, and still be left feeling inconsequential.

In fact, until recently, religion in India was not an organised, monolithic construct. It was a confederation of local Hindusims and Islams.

But with modernity, Indians have experienced massive displacement. Millions of people have either migrated or been forcibly uprooted from their ancestral lands. With that, the intimacy of these personal gods has been destroyed; the comforts they provided have thinned out.

This is very anxiety provoking.

Hence, the blind fascination for godmen and women: they have replaced the function of the isht devta.

They are intimate, accessible, and pitched at the emotional scale of the believer. They are reassuringly familiar.

The face of the follower

It is interesting. The elite and working class also make for believers, but the bulk followers of godmen and women come primarily from an urban lower middle-and-middle class.

In a sense, this explains the over-the-top aesthetic.

In the past, India has had a refined aesthetic, even among its poor. This aesthetic was organic and grew out of its own context. But as social mobility forces people to enter the metropolis, they feel unmoored. They experience a kind of upward displacement. They want to break into the new social order they see; they are aspirational. But they do not know the rules.

The gaudiness one sees is a result of this tension. It is a borrowed aesthetic: you are trying to break into some of the glamour you see around, but you can't get the pitch right.

The homes of the new middle-class or new-rich are strewn with examples of this. I have seen many wealthy homes in Gujarat where the drawing room will have framed BA (Hons) and MA certificates. Some will write "double MA" in their visiting cards.

People look for gurus who combine the popular & the spiritual; who are an image of their own hybrid experience

In other homes, in states like Punjab and Haryana, you will see big marble plinths have been made on which a new refrigerator is proudly placed like an art work.

These details explain a lot about people's psyche.

They look for gurus who combine a mix of popular and the shastras; the material and the spiritual; who are a living image of their own hybrid experience.

They are not revolted by the blatant wealth of these godmen and women: it is the dream they seek.

The sexual-spiritual combine

There is another question that often bewilders the observer: why is the rampant sexuality of these godmen and women tolerated? Why do their followers fall for it? Why does it not alienate them?

In some ways, this is easier to understand.

Eroticised faith has always been a big strand in Hindu traditions. Tantric practices; the cult of the Shakti; these are well known. It was also acceptable in some sects and parts of India that if a man and woman were not able to conceive, the woman could spend some time with a priest and become pregnant.

It is a commonly held belief that some people have the "Krishna spirit" in them; or more accurately, his spirit has descended into them and taken possession.

This sets them outside the zone of judgement.

There is another phenomenon that reaffirms this easy acceptance of the sexuality of godmen and women: Bollywood.

People love going to watch Hindi cinema. They draw their role models, moral lessons and social clues from these films. But the films also simultaneously cater to their need for entertainment. People go back repeatedly to watch the item numbers. The sexuality is attractive. Since Bollywood stars are their icons, this sexuality merges with the idea of role models.

This makes for a complex and ambivalent psychoscape. Contemporary godmen and women inhabit that space. One might say they capitalise on it.

The expanding empires of faith

None of this is going to thin out soon.

Successive governments are pushing for higher levels of urbanisation. Former finance minister P Chidambaran envisaged that 70 to 85% of Indians should - and would - move to cities. The new government is pushing a similar agenda.

This means many millions more will go through this experience of acute physical and emotional displacement, coupled with a deadly combination of aspiration and anxiety.

The need to believe will far exceed the need to expose. People like Radhe Maa and Ram Rahim will only sprout with ever higher frequency.

India will see a spiritual pandemic.

(As told to Shoma Chaudhury)

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 13 August 2015, 12:13 IST
Ashis Nandy

Ashis Nandy is a sociologist and clinical psychologist, Over the years he's strayed into areas outside formal social sciences and normal academic concerns. His research interests centre on the political psychology of violence, cultures of knowledge, utopias and visions, human potentialities, and futures.