Godmen and Conmen

Why the Criticism of Religion Should Now Come On The Agenda

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man.

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But, man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

– Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy ofRight

I.

Sheltering fugitives from the law, laundering money, ‘arranging’ for government contracts, solving your financial woes or even bumbing off a pesky blackmailer – tasks which are normally associated with D company or their local level clones are today not their sole preserve. Spiritual gurus of the day who are a dime a dozen in this country have emerged as powerful challengers to their monopoly. And not only the newly emergent Sadhus, who are recent entrants in the sprawling spiritual bazaar, but even the old ones also seem deeply emersed in this morass of crime and corruption.

One can easily notice that hardly had the discussion around Icchadhari baba alias Shivmurat Dwivedi, who ran a prostitution racket which spanned many states, with his clientele reaching powerful bureaucrats and politicians, has died down, a sting operation by a leading channel has brought forth the different skills developed by the leading lights of this profession.

Few days back Aajtak, a leading TV channel provided snippets of a sting operation (‘Hey Ram’) done by its undercover team which exposed the not so bright side of many of these Spiritual gurus. Whatever might be their outward differences the sting brought forth the interesting commonality between the likes of Asaram Bapu, Sudhanshu Maharaj, Maharshi Sumanand Saraswati, Tantrik Bhairvananda or Mahakaal and Daati Maharaj alias Mahamandleshwar Madan Maharaj Rajasthani. (‘Godmen’s unholy link with criminals, Mailtoday, 11 Sep 2010). And it pertained to the great hiatus which exists between what they preach and what they are engaged in at the ground level.

The report explains how Asaram Bapu, ‘a religious preacher who has over 350 ashrams across the country and lakhs of devotees gave shelter to a woman who claimed to have committted a fraud in the US and fled the country.’..When the woman posing as the conwomen who had committed the said fraud was not convinced , Asaram boasted : “Even dacoits from Chambal and people who have murdered policemen have come to me ..the police dare not tell me to send them out of my ashram.”

The report further added “Money laundering, however, seemed to be the domain of Sudhanshu Maharaj, a well known name in north India” ..”When the team hinted that they had black money slashed away in Mauritius, Sudhanshu offered to find a way to route the funds.”When asked how he would transform black money to white he said : “You’ll be told of the methods to do whatever is required whenever is necessary.”

Maharshi Swami Sumananand Saraswati talked of ‘arranging’ for government contracts for a commission. For a tender worth Rs. 150 crore, the commission would be 10-20 per cent, he said. The team met tantrik Bhairavananda who is better known as Mahakaal. When the team told him about a ‘senior employee’ who had ‘turned against them’ and he is having ‘some top secret documents’ and ‘was using them for blackmail.’ Mahakaal suggested that he could die in an accident. ‘It would not attract a murder charge.’

And the last guru covered by the team was Saturn devotee Daath Maharaj or Mahamandaleshwar Madan Mohan Rajasthani. ‘For Rs 10-15 lakh, he offered the team a rudraksh string, a bangle and a Shani statue to overcome financial crisis and also promised a hydel project’.

The sting operation ‘Hey Ram’ was watched by people from all walks of life and there was a growing clamour for action against them.

II.

As expected the spiritual gurus have formally denied what they are reported to have said in the sting. While for some of them it is part of the competition between different channels for TRP ratings, for some it is part of larger conspiracy to malign them. Interestingly none of these gurus who had boasted about their exploits before the camera have threatened the channel to take legal action.

Coming to the sting operation, only legal experts would be able to tell what action can be taken against these ‘holy men’. Of course, looking at the manner in which cases against the high and the mighty are hushed up in our country it is not difficult to predict what would happen next in this particular case also.

Our recent past is witness to a similar case of coverup when CNN-IBN and Cobrapost had aired an expose which showed godmen laundering money, in the name of God, all for a commission (CNN-IBN Posted Monday , May 07, 2007 at 08:11). The government had then even promised ‘swift and strict’ action in this case which had shocked the entire country. Ramvilas Vedanti, Chairman of the Ramjamabhoomi trust in Ayodhya, who is famous for making inflammatory speeches against Muslims and the secular fraternity, had appeared as a pastmaster of money laundering and tax evasion in this particular sting operation. He had even shared a secret with the interviewer that he has formed a separate trust to facilitate his work of converting black money to white money for a commission.

Titled ‘Godmen turn Conmen, Taxman red’ a writeup on the group website had provided details of the sting operation.  (CNN-IBN Posted Sunday , May 06, 2007 at 20:30 Updated Monday , May 07, 2007 at 02)

New Delhi: Spiritual gurus, babas, Godmen – they are known by many names and are often the repository of a collective religious faith in India.

But the faith has been maligned and many who claim to be Godmen, promising to rid lives of evil are nothing short of evil themselves.

After a CNN-IBN-Cobra Post investigation revealed the ugly side of some the most popular Godmen, sharp reactions have been pouring in.

The investigation caught these gurus – Pilot Baba, a former Indian Air Force officer, Vedanti Maharaj, former BJP MP and Guruvayur Surya Namboodiri, who claims to be an astrologer – on camera and showed how they used their positions to launder money by bargaining like an experienced conmen.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad – to which Vedanti owes his affiliation – seemed eager to distance itself from the baba. VHP Vice President Giriraj Kishore said Vedanti was not a part of the VHP and also blamed the media.

As far as bringing these Godmen under law, it was clear that criminal proceedings could have been initiated against them. The CNN-IBN correspondent Shiv Pujan Jha spoke with the former income tax commissioner Vishwabandhu Gupta to know his reaction. Mr Gupta strongly emphasised on bringing these Godmen under the law. According to him it was a “..[f]it case for criminal proceedings. Two of the biggest religion mafias are the Ram Janmanbhoomi Nyas and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad amongst the Hindus. They have 10 bogus trusts floated from the same address. The names are there (in our record) and so are the addresses. They are getting money from 50 countries abroad and are also getting tax exemptions. There are no accounts as well. You see, this is a big menace. We have calculated and found that religious leaders annually earn $3 bn which is about Rs 10,000 crore -Rs 15,000 crore worth of money. What they do is they get land at throwaway prices. During the last government, 11 including that Sadhvi Ritambhara – whatever her qualifications are – got a fantastic (sic) piece of land at a throwaway price for the services that she heads today. There have fraudulent names, addresses, existences and expenditures. They use it for spreading communal hatred. Money has been used by Bajrang Dal cadres in Gujarat to purchase Motorola, we have got receipts for that.” ( See : CNN-IBN Posted Sunday , May 06, 2007 at 20:30 Updated Monday , May 07, 2007 at 02)

Looking at the dilly-dallying by the state over this expose Brinda Karat, leader of CPI(M) had demanded action against the seven godmen who had ‘admitted involvement in halwa operations on a television programme’ (The Hindu, 26 May 2007). In a letter sent to home minister Shivraj Patil she had categorically said : “These gentlemen run Trusts and charitable foundations which are used as cover for their nefarious and illegal activities. They have cynically misused and made a mockery of the faith of those who have become their devotees. They have made crores through a racket of helping tax evaders. But equally important, the routes they have provided for conversion of black money into white caneasily be used [by] terrorist organisations and anti-national elements to fund their activities,”.

History bears witness to the fact that no action was taken against the erring ‘Godmen’ despite strong prima facie evidence against them.

III.

The response of the powers that be towards such exposures is nothing surprising. But the silence of the thinking people in our country is really baffling.

Of course, this whole episode also throws light on an yet unexplored aspect of the psyche of the Indian people. And this concerns their ‘collective opinion’ about these Godwo/men.

Interestingly despite the reverence and devotion exhibited by them to their respective spiritual Gurus or Sadhvis , despite their joining the religious congregations/satsangs in large numbers one thing is clear to them that as an institution these people cannot be believed or relied upon. Ask any devotee of any  Sadhu/Sadhvi  her/his opinion about the other ‘holy persons’ and s/he is sure to dwell upon the dark corners rather than anything positive.. They would tell you that a large gap exists between the way the ‘other saints’ sermonise and the way they actually function. On further prodding s/he would be ready to tell you the not so spiritual things going on there under the concentrated nasal gaze of the ‘other holy people’.

It is worth giving a thought that while at the individual level  they may be considering their own gurus to be next to god they are not ready to show similar benevolence to other professing similar qualities. Has this disjunction any material basis or  is it all constructed ?

The ‘common sense’ developed by the ordinary people about the real nature of these Sadhus and Mahatmas can even be discerned through the way people talk about them. Everybody is familiar with the pearls of wisdom prevalent among the people which talks about ‘Muhame Ram and Bagal Me Churi’ or in the local parlance someone covering with a ‘Ramnami Chador’ is considered a fraud. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in his editpage article sometime back ‘Unholy Alliance’ ( November 25, 2004, Hindustan Times) tells us that “..[m]ost Hindus have grown up believing that men in religious garbs are not to be trusted blindly. Most of us have been told when young that if one did not obey parents or other elders, the ‘sadhu baba’ would carry us away in his ‘jhola’. Even in popular culture, the sadhu or the head of any ashram or mutt is hardly a man who swears by the Holy Scriptures but instead builds his reputation – and fortunes- by wielding the sword.”

It may be added that the way the polity has unfolded during this last one and half decade this ‘subaltern opinion’ about the real worth of this ‘saffron robed sadhus’ has got further strengthened. Religious minded, pious and peace loving ordinary citizens of this country have discovered to their dismay how the plethora of these Sadhus/ Mahatmas/ Acharyas/ Didimas etc. joined the bandwagon for the demolition of a four hundred-century-old mosque. People have seen with their own eyes how their ‘revered Gurus and Gurumas’ were instrumental in utilizing their devotion towards them for a political project led by the H brigade.

The wo/man on the street has discovered to their dismay that notwithstanding their sermons propagating unity of the people of different faith all the Godwo/men preferred to maintain criminal silence when people owing allegiance to another faith were attacked in a planned manner, when Churches were burnt, when mosques were demolished and innocent ordinary citizens were burnt alive for the ‘crime’ of belonging to other community. They have also watched in horror how many of these ‘holy seers’ egged the Modis and the Togadias in their mission for ‘ethnic cleansing.

IV.

Question arises why and how does the institution of these spiritual gurus – who act as bridge between the so called almighty and the lesser mortals – survives if the ‘collective opinion’ about them is so devastating. Perhaps the relationship between individual human beings and the faith merchants who masquerade as spiritual gurus needs greater scrutiny as it will help us understand what social function (if any) is served by the Sadhudom. If one looks closely at the faithful, the spiritual guru and the congregation around him/her it serves many purposes. The guru not only tells her/him about the otherworldy things s/he is a combination of many other roles : counselor, a healer, an adviser, a Patriarch/Matriarch. The breaking of old collectivities – may it be the joint family or the community – and the consequent loneliness gets compensated in the Satsangs and the gatherings. They build an illusion of community around the individual. The question of negative image associated with counsulting a psychiatrist in times of stress does not arise when the guru/gurumata exactly undertakes similar role.In a society like us which is still in transition, which has left many of the old things but has to adopt many of the new things, the presence of the guru is definitely reassuring who is ready to issue instructions.

One also need to grapple with the dichotomous situation in which we live, where powers that be claim to lead  the country to become economic superpower in the 21 st century whose human development index lags far behind many of the subsaharan countries.

What needs to be done so that the voice of reason does not get drowned in the cacophony of noises emanating from the Spiritual Gurus. Perhaps we will have to take recourse to criticism of religion itself, the manner in which Marx tried to engage with it in his historic treatise “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”

The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

– Subhash Gatade, H 4 Pusa Apts, Rohini Sector 15, Delhi 110089

5 thoughts on “Godmen and Conmen”

  1. being a rational critic of religion is highly unfashionable in the postmodern present, as Meerananda rightly observes.As Lenin says, propagation of bourgeois rationalism, despite their onesided view, is a duty of all progressives, to popularise reason and shock people from slumber to make their own thinking.Recently, in the ‘literate’Kerala, a proletarian fisherman, killed his 2 month old baby by flinging him on floor, as the jyothishi adviced him that the baby would bring bad luck for him.

  2. Joseph,
    I entirely agree with your sentiment. However, the point is not that we must make more and more ‘rational criticism’ of religion. We have been doing so for at least two centuries with precisely the results that you see. Proletarian or not, these are not uncommon things – everybody may not exactly be flinging their child to the floor, but we cannot really claim that either in Lenin’s Russia or in any other part of the world, propagation of rationalism has helped much. The point really is that this rationalism is the language of power and ‘progress’ which can only have contempt for the ‘backward’ believer (unmindful of course of the fact that most important Western philosophers of rationalism were themselves believing Christians). Which is why it is ever always resisted. To my mind Meera Nanda and most such advocates of rationalism simply do not get the basic point: that they are a rapidly shrinking tribe is a result of their own doing; the more aggressively you attack ‘belief’, the more it gets back to you with increased strength. And between the arrogant rationalist and the believer, there is no language of communication left. All that the likes of Meera Nanda can do is to attack those who are trying to find a way of opening channels of communication between ‘rationalism’ and religious or spirtiual ‘believers’.

  3. Aditya Thankyou
    I donot mean to say that rationalism,that too bourgeois rationalism as Marx called it, is a panacea.And I donot necessarily equate rational thinking itself to Eurocentrism, since that would amount to forgeting the legacy of charvaka and Islamist streak of rationalsim.so Wehave to differentiate the kinds of rationalism. before branding rationalism as colonial, can we paper over the way in which vivian dorosseua and periyar used it tactfully to bombard the hierarchical hindu caste system with positive results.Ofcourse blind religous rationalism is a problem and channels for communication should open with religion. but is not blasphemy too a part of human history.apart from that, postmodernism help to regain the authority of clergy, by closing the space for crtiicism on them as unfashionable. the intellectual class who may be athiests at apersonal level, don’t understand it. My own personal experience with Romancatholic christianity is a case in point.My father , acommunist of the50’s and a romancatholic had to carry literlly a knife inhis hand to ward off the goons of church, to marry a hindu lady. we were literally orstracised. now by throwing rationalism for ever arenot we closing space to take on the feudal clergy who think thier authority is ordained by god and shirking basic democratic responsibility. by the way, the rationalist pavanan and liberationtheologist paulose marpaulose were close ideological freinds in Kerala

  4. Religion has many manifest and latent functions in the life of an individual and society,of which its role in identity formation (both individual and collective) and providing a sense of community are most significant in the present era.Unless we are able to present an alternative , mere rational criticism will remain inefective,as in the past.Rationality ,without changing social reality,has very little to offer to a poor ,iliterate,insecure person caught up in uncertainties of life .

    1. Religion is not an entity not suseptible to change or ,can I say, disappearance. Despite all the so-called postive functions of relgiion, it many a times conniving with fascistic,racial and capitalistic systems.So a critique of the authority of the clergy should not be discarded, just for the fact that it may hurt sentiments.Atleast non-believers should have the right to survie as an esoteric tribe in the cacophony of multiculturalism, and right to express their beliefs without fear.

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