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Invading the Secular Space in India

by Ram Puniyani, 14 November 2009

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Satya Sai Baba of Puthaparthi in his recent tour of Mumbai (Nov. 2009) was
invited by the Maharashtra Chief Minister designate, Ashok Chavan to his
official residence, Varsha, for blessing the house and for the associated
puja (invocation). When criticsed for inviting the Holy Guru to his official
residence he said that since he is a devotee of the Baba from last many
decades it is a privilege for him. There are many other news items where
state functionaries mark their presence for the programs of Gurus and Babas (God men).

As far as Satya Sai Baba is concerned he is regarded as the living God by
his devotees, while he himself claims to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of
Shirdi. This Sai Baba is also a miracle person and a spiritual Guru. His
miracles have been exposed by the Rationalist Associations and his trick of
producing Gold chain was brought up in the court, as production of gold is
illegal. This case was not pursued for various reasons. There are many
charges of sexual abuse by Sai baba. Magician of fame P.C. Sarkar also said
his miracles have nothing to do with divinity but are mere magical tricks.

Use of official residence for such functions is in total violation of the
secular constitution of the country where religion is a private matter of
the individual and state functionaries can’t wear their religion on their
sleeves in official capacity and in official places. Contrary to that norm,
lately this norm is known more for its violation than by adherence to it.
Gone are the days of Nehru when he could stand up and snub such actions by whosoever it is in the official capacity. Of course, Gandhi, Father of the
nation and Nehru the architect of Indian state were no devotees of any Baba or Guru. Over a period of time such principles have been violated with
impunity. Uma Bharati during her brief tenure as the Chief Minister ship of
Madhya Pradesh converted her official residence in to a Gaushala (Cow shed) with saffron robed Sadhus forming the main residents of her official

India has quite a broad fare of God men. There are Gurus, Sants, Maharajs,
Acharyas and Purohits (clergy) in the main. Their role has been changing
over a period of time. Last three decades seem to be the time of their major
glory, with their presence in all spheres in a very dominating way. Their
number has also proliferated immensely and while some of these are big
players, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Baba Ramdeo, Asaram Bapu to name the few.
There are hundreds of them scattered in each state. Many of them are working in close tandem with Hindu right, Swami Assmanand, Late Swami Laxmananad Sarswati, Narendra Mahraj etc. These are the one’s who have created their own niche with different techniques, while Shankarachayas, are associated with the Mutts coming from historical times, the Akshrdham chain is also not very old a tradition. The Pramukh swamis (Chief Guru) of these temples wield enormous clout. One recalls Anand Marg came up during the decade of seventies and not much is hearing of that now.

Overall religiosity has been on the upswing and not many are protesting the
promotion of blind faith by many such God men. The rational thought and
movement is on the back foot and political leadership, social leaders, of
many hues are bending over backwards to please these Babas, some of whom are also dispensing health and some of them claim to be looking into the crystal ball of future.

There is an interesting correlation between the coming up of adverse effects
of globalization, rise in the anxieties and deprivations and the current
dominance of God men. Many an interesting observations about these God men are there, the major one being the rise in alienation in last three decades along with the rising religiosity in the social space. Many a remarkable studies on this phenomenon are coming forth. One such is by a US based Indian scholar of repute, Meera Nanda. In her book, The God Market, she makes very profound observations. She points out that this rising religiosity is manifested in boom in pilgrimages and newer rituals. Some old rituals are becoming more rooted and popular. She sees a nexus between state-temple-corporate complexes also. Secular institutions of Nehru era are being replaced by boosting demand and supply of God market.

A new Hindu religiosity is getting deeply rooted in everyday life, in public
and private spheres. The distinction between private and public sphere is
getting eroded as the case of Sai Baba in Maharashtra Chief Ministers
official bungalow shows. Hindu rituals and symbols are becoming part of
state functions; Hinduism de facto is becoming state religion. Hindu
religiosity is becoming part of national pride with the aspiration of
becoming a superpower. She observes a trend of increased religiosity. In
India there are 2.5 million places of worship but only 1.5 million schools
and barely 75000 hospitals. Half of 230 million tourist trips every year are
for religious pilgrimage. Akshardham temple acquired 100 acres of land at
throw away price. Sri Sri Ravishanker’s Art of Living Ashram in banglore has
99 acres of land leased from Karnataka Government. Gujarat Govt. gifted 85 acres of land to establish privately run rishikul in Porbander. Most
significantly Nanda argues that the new culture of political Hinduism is
triumphalist and intolerant, while asserting to be recognized as a tolerant
religion. While claiming to have a higher tolerance, its intolerance is
leading to violence against minorities.

It is because of this that even if the BJP may not be the ruling party, the
political class and other sections of state apparatus have subtly accepted
Hindu religiosity and the consequent politics as the official one, and so
the justice for victims of religious violence eludes them. The question is,
can the struggle for justice for weaker sections also incorporate a
cultural-religious battle against the blind religiosity and proactive
efforts initiated to promote rational thought.