Gods & Godmen Of India

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"India has been in the Godman business longer and continues to produce more of them than anywhere in the world."

No one has invented a condom for a pen yet

Khushwant Singh’s famous quote tells why he is India’s most prolific author. His writing spared no one. A self-proclaimed agnostic, he did not take kindly to religious doctrine and dogma. Yet, he took his investigation into the nature of religion seriously.

Did a god create the world? Should religions bow before the word of science? Is sex wrong? In his incisive book,”Gods and Godmen of India”, Khushwant relates a lifelong mission to ask these questions. In the context of the Ram Rahim Singh riots, it is important to reacquaint ourselves with the often dubious lives of India’s Godmen.

The first half of the book describes his views on agnosticism, God and prayer. But it’s the second half that gets interesting. He charts a sceptical and irreverent journey to decipher the fraud from the flawed, in the index of India’s holiest men and women, dwelling on the texts of every major religion and quoting seamlessly from the Gita, Quran and the Bible. This armed him with a familiarity with the common themes: abstinence, an afterlife, and the ironic material wealth of the pious.

He had his favourites, no doubt. In the small essay on Osho Rajneesh, he respects the idea of a good life; one of dancing, singing and flirting, saying “all other preachers of religion were constipated with Puritanism…”

But he also dealt with the controversial. Through his accounts of dozens of such Godmen, we find that there is indeed little that is unique about today’s crop. If Ram Rahim Singh is the punching bag of public sentiment today, in the 1980s, it was Dhirendra Brahmachari.

He was the official yoga instructor to Indira Gandhi, had popular segments about yoga on Doordarshan and had even trained Russian cosmonauts in the practice of yoga. But in 1983, he was arrested after it turned out that he was running an illegal gun factory.

Khushwant’s observations were biting. He had a foot in both spiritual and material worlds; as well as having employed many ‘buxom secretaries’ according to Khushwant. Indeed, Dhirendra once gave Singh a brief discourse on the many types of bosoms (large, taut and drooping). Singh thus described him as “no more a Brahmachari than a Mughal emperor.”

Perhaps this human side appealed to Singh, who disapproved of the schadenfreude around Dhirendra’s fall from grace. His reason was that you could not help but admire one “who with little learning could take the mightiest of the land for a ride.”

But he was not equally sympathetic. For Sathya Sai Baba, Singh asked “In no other country will you find such blind, unquestioning faith in another human being. Why?”

Of Kundalini Yoga and Mata Nirmala Devi, Singh is an interviewer at his finest – prodding the link between science and the claimed benefits. On occasion, he seems to have tried and failed to experience the teachings of many of these gurus, from Sai Baba to Nirmala Devi.

Their discourses get repetitive. It becomes apparent that Khushwant Singh could probably pass off as a godman himself. As he wrote:

I am coming round to the idea that there may be more for me in the godmen business than in journalism. I have the necessary accoutrements: unshorn hair, a beard which I can let down (after the black dye has worn off), I can quote the scriptures if needed as well as the Devil at time…like them I can spout world-shattering thoughts which pass as philosophy, e.g., ‘God is love’ or ‘find the truth within yourself’.

Over the book, Singh hears out the other side – but concludes in his own right. His biggest contention, and most frequently posed question, is why godmen and the religious cannot admit “I don’t know” as an answer to life’s biggest questions.

In the Dalai Lama, whom Singh met, he found a satisfactory compromise. He disagreed with the Lama’s beliefs on reincarnation, but found him a reasonable man, who agreed in the course of the interview:

If scientists can prove that there is no next life, we Buddhists will accept it.

This patience for scientific validation is one of Singh’s overarching points. He repeatedly resists the claims of mantra-based healers and of those whose dogma is incomprehensible to the common man. He also decries movements that started on strong moral grounds but that fizzled out when their founders died – a common scenario in India.

Ultimately, godmen come with their own agendas, mostly money, power and women. As Singh concludes, “India has been in the Godman business longer and continues to produce more of them than anywhere in the world.” He raises a socioeconomic dimension to this as well – India, with the world’s second largest population, has a sizeable population who “do nothing and continue to live on beggary.”

The book ends with Singh attempting guided meditation with a female teacher. In many sessions, he had declared that he did not understand meditation and had yet to learn it. She held him by the hand and asked him to relax so she could transmit good vibrations to him. Yet, she noticed that he was still tense. He could not clear his mind.

The reason was that he feared what his wife would think if she saw him holding hands with an attractive young lady in the guise of guided meditation. Singh could never take spirituality as seriously as most Indians.

His final chapter is titled ‘God save us from Godmen.’ The one thing he finds in common with anyone of the powerful guru-teachers in India is that they’re all fantastically wealthy. “Our godmen are not committed to poverty.”

It’s a truism that hits home to this day. The immense wealth of godmen is accompanied by the frenzied fervour of their followers. In the case of Ram Rahim Singh, convicted on charges of rape, we can see hundreds of thousands rioting in the name of a man who has been proven to be – not so holy. Khushwant Singh might have wept, had he been around to witness this. But knowing him, it’s more likely that he would have laughed.

He wrote his own epiteth, in essence, absolving him of the stinging criticism those he might have inadvertently offended through his work:

Here lies one who spared neither man nor God; Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod; Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun; Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.

Khushwant Singh was wiser than he let off. His book may not be as well footnoted as those of comparative religious studies, but it serves the purpose of giving you a gist of the many contesting ‘godly’ souls on this subcontinent.

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