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Saturday July 20, 2024

A land of ‘bholas’

Deceased were part of a massive gathering assembled to listen to the wise words of a ‘holy man’

By Hussain H Zaidi
July 08, 2024
Relatives mourn the death of stampede victims Kamlesh Jatav, 22, and her seven-month-old daughter in Daunkeli village, Hathras district, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, on July 3, 2024. — Reuters
Relatives mourn the death of stampede victims Kamlesh Jatav, 22, and her seven-month-old daughter in Daunkeli village, Hathras district, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, on July 3, 2024. — Reuters

The death of more than 120 devotees, mostly women and children, in a stampede in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh is a grim reminder that despite being the world’s fifth-largest economy and a hotspot for multinationals, India remains mired in superstitions.

The deceased were part of a massive gathering assembled to listen to the wise words of a ‘holy man.’ Popularly known as ‘Bhole Baba’ (simpleton saint), the man in question is a cop-turned preacher/faith healer. Being tech-savvy, he also runs a popular YouTube channel.

Endowed with an immensely rich cultural heritage, India commands tremendous soft power, in addition to immense economic prowess. It is the world’s largest democracy and a ‘bastion’ of secularism. Its entertainment industry and spiritual symbols -- yoga and meditation, each having a plethora of sub-categories, to name only a couple -- hold worldwide sway. Ask any futurist, and the answer in nine out of 10 cases will be that the Asian giant is destined to go places.

Notwithstanding such fetching features, India is far from being a land of milk and honey. Underneath the ‘maya’ or veil of all glory and glamour lies the real India, cast in poverty, squalor, a slew of misery, ignorance and exploitation of religious sentiments. A glimpse of that India is seen from time to time. In 2017, a mob went on a rampage in the state of Punjab to protest the conviction of a ‘holy man’ for molesting two women -- his devotees -- in 2002. The ensuing violence took scores of lives, and curfew had to be clamped down in parts of the state.

The man in question, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh -- the name itself is suggestive indeed -- was sentenced to 20 years in prison. While handing down the sentence, the judge described the convict as a “wild beast”, who deserved no leniency. Subsequently, at least another 40 women levelled allegations of rape against him. In 2019, he was convicted of the murder of a journalist and was awarded a life term.

For years, the fallen guru kept millions in thrall of his alleged spiritual powers. A vast majority of his followers came from the low end of society in terms of both caste and class. While preaching self-restraint, he himself led the life of a playboy: Attired, as a rule, in colourful clothes, he was hooked on a publicity blitz, produced and performed in movies, sung in concerts and churned out music albums. The guru, who himself had a roving eye, has also been accused of encouraging castration among his followers so that they may get closer to the gods.

Be that as it may, the conviction and charges, instead of impressing his followers, rattled their cage and prompted them to wade into the law-enforcement agencies. So strong was his aura that he was listed by ‘The Indian Express’ among the 100 most influential Indians in 2016.

A land of several religions, India, like Pakistan, is teeming with holy men. Given such honorific titles as ‘guru,’ ‘baba,’ ‘saieen,’ ‘yogi,’ ‘swami,’ ‘rishi,’ or ‘hazrat,’ they have held sway over the minds and hearts of tens of millions of people. In contrast with the clergy, their message is syncretic and non-sectarian, cutting across social, religious, economic and political boundaries.

‘Humanity was the true religion, is the true religion, and will always be the true religion,’ taught Bhole Baba. Hence, their clients or devotees represent a cross-section of society: politicians, bureaucrats, showbiz stars, sportspersons, business tycoons and, of course, ordinary people.

These holy men live on the money donated by the devotees. Gobbets of the wealth they spend as charity, which enhances their prestige and makes them even wealthier. The more successful among them have set up big businesses, which sell spiritual goods and services to their followers both at home and abroad. The huge following gives them a position of preeminence in society. They often act as deal makers and arbiters in political as well as corporate affairs (watch the 2006 Bollywood movie, ‘Corporate’). Their support can tip the scales in elections.

The clientele of these holy men is of two types: One, by and large, comprises the disillusioned and dejected people who, attracted by the spiritual message of the gurus, seek a magic bullet for their problems: illness, poverty, infertility, unemployment, lack of social mobility, unrequited love, etc.

This lot has a visceral trust in the holy men even if what they promise is a pie in the sky and their lifestyle manifestly runs counter to their teachings. That is why their tantrums are seen as an expression of truth and wisdom, and their seedy lifestyle is looked upon as merely a cloak for something deeper, which is well beyond the ordinary mortals’ comprehension. Understandably, whether it is rain or shine, such followers remain attached to the guru.

The other type consists of the worldly wise, successful people, who have little faith in the spiritual powers of the holy men. Instead, they are impressed by the political clout of a celebrated guru and count on him for winning the coveted prize. This class is usually the first to jump out of the sinking boat of a guru.

Such hollow spiritualism as exhibited by these cons is merely a caricature of the genuine mysticism for which India has been known to the world for centuries. A life of purity, austerity, and self-abnegation and a singular disdain for the riches was the hallmark of the great mystics, no matter which religion they professed. Like Pakistan, India has also seen decadence of mysticism.

The success of spiritual conmen lays bare some glaring contradictions inherent in Indian society. India aspires to be a developed nation. Yes, the country is making strides towards achieving this goal as evident from its key economic indicators. But development is not synonymous with capital accumulation: building factories, upgrading infrastructure and creating wealth.

Economic development is rooted in culture. In the course of development, the biggest challenge a society faces is to evolve a supportive social structure. The keystone of such a social structure is a rational and empirical mode of thinking. A set of beliefs should not be treated as binding merely because it is rooted in traditions or customs regarded as sacrosanct. In case of a clash between a cherished belief and irrefutable evidence, the latter ought to prevail.

In the case of India, only a small class has been the driver, and the major beneficiary, of economic growth, while the rest of society has been largely excluded from both the process and its outcome. Hence, India has all the characteristics of economic and sociological dualism.

On the one hand is a small modern, urban segment of society, which has put its trust in utilitarianism, empiricism and rationalism. This segment believes in upward social mobility by dint of one’s efforts -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a textbook example of it. It is engaged in sophisticated and capital-intensive ways of producing goods and services. It is fascinated by and has adopted Western lifestyles: liberalism, women’s empowerment, nucleus family, and birth control -- to name some of the characteristics. For most of the members, English is the lingua franca even when they share the same native language.

The other, and the much larger, segment is altogether different from the smaller one. Its members are largely engaged in the primary sector, notably agriculture, and their production methods seem primitive when compared with those of the urban segment. For them, prestige is more significant than utility, belief is more important than evidence, and customs have a greater force than reason. It is this segment of society that makes up the real India -- the land of the simpleton.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets/posts @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com