The Nirvanic Swami is trending. Baba Rampal is the latest Guru to prove that 'Swami-dom' is among the most in-demand professions of India, tied to a cash cow.

Admittedly, Baba Rampal, the so-called successor to Sant Kabir, seems to have done things quite differently from his illustrious “predecessor”. He may not have compiled a single doha, but his list of sins, which includes alleged murder and treason, is longer than that. His stock of followers, too, was more diverse and stranger than that of Sant Kabir. Most of the hordes came from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and even Nepal, among whom some remained at the ashram.

Baba Rampal of Haryana. A still from India TV. Courtesy: YouTube

In the recent fiasco, when his ashram was laid on siege by the Haryana police after he ignored as many as 40 orders from the court to appear before them, a majority of his supporters were found to be evidently devoted. He almost had a small army in place and nearly 865 people from Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan were arrested as they tried to resist his arrest.

The list of items found in his ashram was entertaining as well as alarming: a pregnancy-test kit from his “personal room,” three .32 bore revolvers, 19 air guns, two .12 and .315 bore rifles, grenades and cartridges, a cache of arms and ammunition from almirahs, as well as a tunnel-type room under his seat. Even the ashram stores stocked some arms.

The Swami syndrome

Baba Rampal is not a unique phenomenon. The list of his peers and competitors is illustrious and long – as long as the history of India, in fact. However, while pre-Independence Gurus advocated “simplicity, austerity and spirituality,” many Swamis on this side of that historic year seem to have played by different rules and evolved value systems completely at odds with their predecessors’, though they claim to be leaders of these virtues.

Modern gurus or ‘godmen’ have often been found to harbour a fondness for money, sex, or fame. A few love to wield the political axe, while yet more Gurus have a firm corporate connection. 

It is clear that the socio-political and economic milieu of the country has laid a fertile foundation for a Swami start-up. Given the problems faced by people, the national quest and huge consumer market for spirituality, Babas across religions and with diverse goals and aspirations find it easy to start and expand their organisations.  

Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalists’ Association, says that his efforts to expose godmen for more than three decades have helped several thousands of people to break free from their clutches. Yet, some never leave their godmen, even if they are presented good, concrete evidence against them.

“The more time and devotion they invest in a godman, the more adamant they become to defend him,” he says. He points out that this is textbook example of the ‘cognitive dissonance’ theory, which offers the key to a social and psychological mechanism behind the irrational behaviour patterns of people.

Edumuru points out that godmen in India ask for total submission or surrender, from which devotees find it tough to come out. They will not stop at anything to defend him. Moreover, they will go to any extent of irrationality to do so.  Even as facts or ground realities counter their deep conviction, the dissonance between conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotions cause stark discomfort. “They will start a strong drive to reduce their dissonance by altering and adjusting cognitions or adding new ones,” he says.

The guru list

That such willing suspension of disbelief among followers is all too pervasive becomes evident from the huge and often star-studded followings of gurus, whose antics and fraudulence have been exposed. On March 10, 2010, Swami Nithyananda’s name was tainted and exposed by Sun TV. Queries about his sexual escapades in an interview made him confess that he was in a “state of Samadhi”, while medical authorities rejected his claim that he was too impotent to indulge in sexual activity.

Asaram Bapu was caught perpetrating sexual abuse, especially on children. Even his son, Narayan Sai, confessed that he was involved with various “sevikas” who were all part of his escapades without fear or favour.

In a book titled“Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus: How I Was Conned by a Dangerous Cult And Why I Will Not Keep Their Secrets,” author Karen Johnson exposed Kripalu Maharaj, who posed as an avatar of Lord Krishna, and gave the “intimate touches” that were supposed to be all about divine love or “prema daan.” For 15 years, Karen Johnson had been incarcerated in his ashram, and was a member of the ‘Jagadguru Kripalu Council’ in Austin city. Even in 2002, he allegedly raped and molested a 22-year-old Guyanese woman in a prayer-room. He died in 2013.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had been the original “spiritual advisor” to the Beatles, but when they later found out that he had some strange links with Mia Farrow, they moved away. ‘Maharishi what have you done, you made a fool…’ they sang. After many years, John Lennon said: “There is no guru. You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you, mate.”

Tales of fake gurus abound, some other examples being Ichchadari Baba Bheemanand, who ran a “prostitute racket”, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, implicated in rape and sexual exploitation, murder of a journalist in 2002 and castration of male followers on his orders.

The philosophical kind

The other kind of Baba is the “spiritual” one for the “thinking types”, who flock to get answers to metaphysical questions. Currently, one of the most popular among such spiritual gurus is Sri Sri Ravishankar, who seems to be a great communicator. He understands the language and political bent of the chattering classes and has captured their imagination through his teachings, much of which appears closer to management mantras rather than religious dispensation.

Another guru of similar bent is Jaggi Vasudev, or Sadhguru, who has developed the Isha philosophy that appeals to all tech-savvy Indians. Branded as 'Inner Engineering', his DVDs and self-help books generate profits that help to fund charitable projects in rural India.

It is difficult to assess something that is not material, anyway. Ramachandra Guha, leading historian, offers one viewpoint: "It's rather difficult for someone like me to think of such a guru who's interested in brand strategy and brand marketing and expanding his empire. But that's how many Indian gurus are today."

Political symbiosis

A distinct feature of Indian spiritual gurus over the ages is that they wield immense political clout through the decades. While the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was known for his agnostic leanings, many of his successors from Lal Bahadur Shastri to PV Narasimha Rao showed leanings towards some priest or preacher.

Many prominent religious leaders -- including Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala of the Sikh Dam Dami Taksal, Dhirendra Brahmachari, Chandraswami, Baba Ramdev and Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Delhi – had political connections. Entering the corridors of power helped them to get a voice and wrest some control for themselves as well as their loyalists in politics, business, industry, bureaucracy and even the judiciary.

Dhirendra Brahmachari’s many ashrams across India became the face of yoga and politics in the 80s. He started a media journey with his highly popular weekly yoga programme over Doordarshan in 1982-83, and was said to be a behind-the-scene controller of events.

The nature of his relationship with Indira Gandhi, to whom he had been appointed a yoga teacher, has been the subject of much speculation and even if one discounts the charges of sexual attraction between the two as a rumour originating in political malice, his proximity to the family and his influence in political corridors was undeniable.

Chandraswami, Narasimha Rao’s spiritual adviser went one step ahead, and became involved in dealings that got him charged with the pursuit of financial irregularities and payments to arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. He was also accused of involvement with the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi but remains to this day, a powerful and influential guru in Delhi.

Why politicians flock to a guru is not only because of his role as the soothsayer of their fortunes and fame, but also because he seems to have the potential to be the power centre of changing events and incidents. For instance, the anti-corruption movement drew in Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who played influential roles mainly because of people’s overwhelming faith in them.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai in his book 2014: The Election that Changed India writes about Sri Sri Ravishankar: “He may have been offering spiritual solace, but he was surely looking for a greater role for himself in public life. Be it Ayodhya, Kashmir or the Naxal issue, Sri Sri often tried to have his say. The anti-corruption movement offered him another chance.... 'He was very close to the Sangh Parivar and wanted us to negotiate with the BJP leaders. Once, when we refused, he flew into a rage,' recalls a Team Anna member.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar himself put it succinctly when he said, "Spiritual leaders cannot sit back and say this is not my area. They have to take action. They have the role of reformers, not rulers, but they will have to have a say."

Sri Sri Ravishankar. Pic: Wikimedia

As a result of their influencing capabilities, the guru often builds up a huge corporate empire. For instance, while Baba Ramdev is currently among the most politically savvy guru of all, along with his yoga, magic pills and potions and “social service”, he has also built up a Rs 1000-plus crore empire of yoga centres, hospitals and spas across the world in just 15 years, and a plan for a Rs 100-crore project called Patanjali Yog Peeth at Bahadrabad, a Yoga University of sorts, just 20 kms from Haridwar. Baba Ramdev’s ayurvedic medicines have been sold for Rs 300 crore annually, while his books and CDs fetch Rs 25 to 30 crore.

The question is still...why?

Even as media and rationalist activists in society continue to charge and try to defuse their power, people still flock to Swamis, often even after they have been proved to be frauds and charlatans.

Swamidom is clearly a massive emotional and spiritual lever. The demand here is for feelings of safety, security and confidence. The supply chain within the Swami circle includes a large, general public—the more gullible the better. Strangely, even individuals who are sharp, suspicious and highly aware are still vulnerable to their lies and exploitation.

Mahesh Yogi offered a simple key called “Transcendental Meditation.” Four decades ago he started the big business of Swamidom with the help of mantras, tantras and pills and potions. Some of them nudged the American sub-consciousness to ensure that they could deliver health, and the ways to achieve that.

For the more metaphysically inclined, the Swamis gave the best kinds of mantras for a life that they promised would help them to get what they want. Most of the philosophies they follow is generated from warmed up copies of the scriptures. The philosophies that click the most are those that are already familiar to everyone.

Godmen offer justification for everything. People are ready to pass the burden of their sins to the spiritual agent, so that they can feel free and shirk personal responsibility. Sinners flock to an ashram so that their misdeeds can be traded off with a proportionate amount of charity, or “service”.

According to Rajshekhar, ex-member of The Indian Rationalists’ Association, it happens mainly because everyone has problems,  The Guru connects them to a ‘hotline’ that they believe will take them to God. People believe that Babas have miraculous powers and can cure anything, beginning with physical ailments, mental traumas and spiritual worries.

Hence, the Barwala brouhaha, too, was set up and nurtured by the drawbacks in the lives of believers---a desire to rise, succeed, get happiness, or money or sex or fame---or just spiritual knowledge. The larger-than-law “dera” became a centre of affluence and influence, almost a state within the state, in Punjab and Haryana.

It is doubtful whether the ubiquitous Guru will scale down his influence and step off from the elevator to heaven that everyone is scrambling to get on to. But with increasing exposure, it could be expected that what will emerge is not only how bad the guru is, but also how bad the choice of the seeker is.