The tactic of the siege used to be once applied by invading armies against enemy kingdoms. In independent India, there has been a little bit of reinterpretation to the idea by caste groups agitating for reservations. One of them at the forefront of this have been Gujjars in Rajasthan who frequently take to the streets and railway tracks, effectively cutting off the land connection between Delhi and Mumbai. Mid-2008 saw a particularly violent agitation which brought the state government to its knees. It included an interesting side note: one of the mediators then was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The Art of Living website has a report on this from that year: ‘To provide solace to the protesting Gujjars, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar met 50,000 members of the Gujjar community on the rail tracks of Pilukapura, Rajasthan, on June 10th, 2008. Significantly, it was the first time since the agitation began 19 days ago that the Gujjars were willing to listen to a mediator… Sri Sri urged them to lay down their arms and hold dialogue in a peaceful manner: ‘Do not take to arms for that doesn’t hold the answer. Instead, we can talk and I feel there will be a solution to your problem soon…’’
Did he have divine vision because the state government soon brought a law granting Gujjars special reservation status? Perhaps not. Because come February 2019, a decade later, Gujjars were still coming out in the streets with the same demand. As a Hindustan Times report said, ‘Following a community mahapanchayat [mass gathering] at Maksudanpura village, [Gujjar Arakshan Sangarsh Samiti chief Colonel Kirodi Singh] Bainsla along with hundreds of supporters walked to the railway track and laid siege to it around 5.30pm.’ The state government’s 2008 law had been predictably struck down by the judiciary, something that the government probably knew would happen.
Ravi Shankar meanwhile moved on to mediating in Ayodhya, Kashmir and even went international in Colombia as an envoy between the government and armed militias. Just a few days ago, there was news that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had appointed him to mediate for peace with the opposition that had brought the country to the brink of civil war.
He went and tweeted: ‘Visited Venezuela after a gap of eight years. President Nicolás Maduro received me warmly and listened to my ideas. We discussed the principles of non-violence and peace through dialogue.’ That Maduro’s record on human rights is abysmal and he himself is responsible in large part for Venezuela’s misery is beside the point. Even Mother Teresa was not beyond hobnobbing with murderous dictators like Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier.
Ravi Shankar is emblematic of much of what has transformed in the recent landscape of the spiritual market in India. He was Godman Number 1 among the English-speaking middle class a decade ago but is now being challenged and overtaken by others like Jaggi Vasudev, and, hence, has to stay relevant by indulging in ‘mediation’ antics. In the commercial dimension, an integral part of the enterprise, another upstart, Baba Ramdev, has easily eclipsed everyone else. Competition has always been furious in the godmen sector and that explains how their relationships with politics has changed.
IN THE 1970S, Dhirendra Brahmachari, it is said, had pride of place in Indira Gandhi’s inner circle and made a neat profit out of it. But that was in line with the spiritual operator in the backroom. Chandraswami, who for a time during the Narasimha Rao prime-ministership had many top politicians in Delhi in his pocket, was ideology- agnostic. But the present triumvirate—Vasudev, Ravi Shankar and Ramdev—has been identified with Hindu nationalistic politics in different degrees and they compete in making it public. Vasudev and Ravi Shankar were both darlings of liberals in the beginning and their political leanings were exhibited in the knowledge of alienating this constituency. It was a risk easily taken because they read the political winds sweeping India—godmen might not have divine vision but they have enough foresight to be on the winning side.
Competition has always been furious in the godmen sector and that explains how their relationships with politics has changed. Godmen might not have divine vision but they have enough foresight to be on the winning side
The change in direction of India’s politics also didn’t leave gods untouched. It is chicken and egg whether Hindu gods fuelled the Hindutva rise or it was the other way round, both however marched in step. The 1990s were the decade of Krishna and Ram, gods whose innate popularity was further amplified by the age of television, their presence once mute in photographs in the houses of Hindus but who now came alive from the screen. Two television serials of the 1980s—Mahabharat and Ramayan—whose end objective was ordinary profit might have done more politically for the Hindu right revival than all its leaders put together. It is not a coincidence that actors of the serials—Sita played by Deepika Chikhalia, Krishna played by Nitish Bharadwaj—later easily won parliamentary elections from a party that once had only two seats in the Lok Sabha. But even gods have an expiry date on delivering on the ballot.
And so in recent times, you see the increasing politicisation of deities one step further below in the pantheon. Ayyappa was a God of the south Indians quietly bestowing his blessings from a remote mountain on the tip of Kerala but an agitation to protect his right against the temptations of young women has been cleverly used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to reaffirm their commitment to Hinduism, and in the process, made him an all-India God. Hanuman, a follower of Ram, became an offline political meme when an illustration of him in a red angry dispensation made by an artist in Kerala became ubiquitous in stickers pasted on vehicles across the country. Angry Hanuman spontaneously became a totem of the Hindu right without any formal engineering. And Bengal, where the festival pandals have all been traditionally for Durga Puja, is now witnessing a surfeit of them during Ganesh Chaturthi. Their numbers increase with every passing year as the Trinamool Congress engages in competitive pandal-building with the BJP for the favour of Ganesha and the Hindu voters he touches. An Indian Express report said last September, the time of the festival, ‘As the Ganesh festival kicked off Thursday, political leaders made a beeline to inaugurate Ganesh Puja pandals in Kolkata and the districts. Senior TMC leaders such as Sadhan Pande, Sovandeb Chattopadhyay and Sujit Bose were seen inaugurating pandals, as were BJP leaders including party national secretary Rahul Sinha, Sayantan Basu and Raju Banerjee… Several big Ganesh Pujas were being held in Bhowanipore—Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee’s constituency… Ganesh Pujas have mushroomed in the state, giving political leaders an opportunity to connect with people ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Kolkata Municipal Corporation officials said, on condition of anonymity, that around 1,570 community Ganesh Pujas were taking place in the city this year, compared to 1,320 last year.’
These gods, even though understudies in the scriptures, have historically always been more relatable to the Hindu masses. In temples, they might still have a place only outside the main sanctum sanctorum but inside homes when trouble struck, it is they to whom the believer made his first prayer. It was inevitable that after the first flush of political Hindutva co-opted the main incarnations, these would be the ones to take centre stage next. And when they lose their political touch, Hindutva will find another new set of gods.
Somewhat paradoxically, most godmen don’t rely on common gods for their spiritual pitches. Take Mata Amritanandamayi, whose entire appeal rests on the brief hugs she gives to devotees. Her reference to the divine is in the form of ‘Brahman is the source of all Love’ variety. The vocal acrobatics of Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are a more elaborate version of the same stuff, with some quasi-yogic spiritual exercises thrown in, discoveries that they claim to own. Ramdev is unique and different in an entirely yoga-driven venture mutating into a consumer goods business empire.
Not all godmen have struck it lucky in the last 10 years and it was not because they misread the political climate. What they didn’t appreciate was that the limits of tolerance had changed. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, had for decades been courted by politicians. He was a caricature of the garish but was considered no more than one more eccentric version of the category he represented. His horrendous criminality—rapes and forced castrations— hadn’t been a secret either, referenced widely in media reports and court cases. But he continued to be acceptable. In 2015, for instance, the Indian Express had him at Number 96 in its 100 most powerful Indians’ list. Its description of why he merited the place is telling: ‘Besides having five crore devotees, he has sold over 10 million CDs of his album Love Charger and has turned filmmaker-actor. His debut film, MSG, released amidst much hype. Politicians from Punjab and Haryana seek his blessings before polls… He got BJP to sign an affidavit supporting his social work before he lent them support in the Haryana polls… He is shooting the MSG sequel and has said he would adopt acid attack victims to help them… He learnt to operate a tractor at the age of seven.’
With such affirmation from the mainstream, the garb of invincibility was getting thicker. But when it did finally run against the idea of law, there was no doubt who triumphed. The Indian system has been easy to manipulate but if there was a new point that could not be breached, Ram Rahim has run headlong into it. A decade-and-a-half after a woman had accused him of rape, he was convicted by a court. An organised riot by devotees in response worsened the public outrage. Within two years of being the 96th most powerful Indian, he was a jailbird and an untouchable for any politician even though he could still deliver exactly the same number of votes as before. Contrast his fate with the allegations against another powerful godman of the past, Sathya Sai Baba, accused of child sexual abuse, which found little mention in India but was revealed in a BBC documentary. Then there were mysterious killings that happened in his ashram allegedly by devotees who were about to assassinate him. And yet, Sathya Sai Baba remained untouched by any investigation. Would his fate have been different today? If he was guilty then quite possibly, given what is happening with another godman. On YouTube, you can see Asaram Bapu sharing the stage with the likes of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Those heady days are over. Asaram is now in jail for rape and murder.
It is too risky politically to patronise criminals, even if they are godmen with vast followings, and that is a salutary change. India’s relationship to godmen is at a curious turn. There is no longer unbridled power that came from their hold over millions while at the same time their empires are taking on magnitudes never seen before (Ramdev’s Patanjali has annual revenues close to Rs 10,000 crore). This might be the beginning of the subservience and taming of godmen to the establishment. Or there is always the next step in their evolution: to become active politicians controlling the establishment and, should that come to pass, it won’t be a surprise either.