The Politicians and the Sadhus
Posted on 1-July-2011
For Roman Catholics, participation in the Eucharist is the most important form of worship of God. They are also enjoined to periodically go to the confessional and atone for their sins. The Roman Catholic Church has for long admitted the veneration of Mary, Mother of God and of saints--pious people who now must canonically be recognised as such to become worthy of worship. A Roman Catholic is expected to live her life and conduct herself according to moral and spiritual truths of which the Church is the only repository. A good Roman Catholic is expected to strive to work for the fulfillment of God's purposes on earth. In the manner of other Abrahamic religions, the Church forbids venerating any being other than the Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary and the saints.
Sikhism teaches that there is a formless, attributeless, benign Supreme Being, attachment and devotion to which is the highest good. A Sikh is expected to follow the path shown by the ten Gurus, the last of whom said that after him there would be no guru other than the book, the Granth. Sikhs who have followed other subsequent teachers have been considered deviants by the mainstream Sikh community. A Sikh's religious life centres on the Gurudwara where he listens to recitals of devotional songs from the book, bows his head in reverence to the Guru, donates money and tries to participate in some act of service to the community. There is no room in a devout Sikh's religious life for venerating any other holy men even though for him the interdiction may not be as rigorous as in the case of the followers of Abrahamic religions.
Mrs. Sonia Gandhi (nee Antonia Maino), the head of the Indian National Congress and possessor of such political power as to be able to dictate to Government of India whenever she wants, was born to Italian Roman Catholic parents and was presumably brought up as a Roman Catholic. She is not known to have converted to any other religion nor been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and is presumably still a practising Roman Catholic. Sardar Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India was born and brought up as a Sikh and since he sports all the outward signs of being a Sikh, he presumably continues to practise that religion. Neither of them is known to have been followers of Sathyanarain Raju, who became known to the world as Sathya Sri Sai Baba.
Sathya Narain Raju claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century faith healer and miracle worker in India's long tradition of renouncers and mendicant sadhus, and set himself up in the Andhra town of Puttuparthi as Sathya Sri Sai Baba. In time he acquired a very large following of people who believed in his miraculous and spiritual powers. By all accounts he was a very competent conjuror and some of his disillusioned followers even said he was a sexual pervert. None of the controversies surrounding him stopped the circle of his devotees, including a sprinkling of wealthy celebrities, expanding. He set up a large network of ashrams and schools dedicated to the propagation of his teachings. His network also undertook philanthropic work of different kinds. Whatever the spirituality of Sai Baba and his activities, his network was a very efficient money spinning machine and his ashram became very rich in earthly possessions. Now, after his death, stories are coming out suggesting that the Sai and his close associates also might have had sticky fingers.
Towards the end of April this year, Sathya Narain Raju, after many days on life support, died as all living beings must--he did not of his own volition decide to depart this earth as, according to Hindu tradition, true yogis do and go into a samadhi. His devotees mourned his death in sorrow, and for many the sorrow must be genuine and deeply felt. Those around him decided that he would not be cremated but like a true yogi be buried in a samadhi. At the time of this godman's formal consignment to his grave--a grave is a grave, by whatever other name it is called--a ceremonial was organised in the presence obviously of a select gathering, prominent among them, sitting in the front row, closest to the glass coffin containing Raju's body, being the Roman catholic head of the Indian National Congress and the Sikh prime minister of India. Neither their personal religious beliefs nor their stations in India's politics could have impelled these two there. It was difficult for a neutral observer watching television footage of this scene to avoid the conclusion that they were together enacting a nauseatingly hypocritical charade. Only they would know what their objective was--it was certainly not religious or spiritual. Perhaps they and and the managers of their political party hoped to win the votes of a section of Sathya Narain Raju's Hindu followers. Perhaps they hoped to improve the standing of their political party in Andhra Pradesh where Puttuparthi is located and where it is facing some difficulty. But this incident is as good an illustration as as any other of the readiness of the top leadership of the Indian Congress to play upon people's religious sentiments, especially Hindu and Muslim religious sentiments, for making small, electoral gains. Another illustration came in the beginning of June this year.
Another man, Ram Krishn, set himself up as a teacher of yogic asanas and a propagator of ayurvedic medicine under the name of Baba Ramdev. He established an ashram at Haridwar, calling it Patanjali Yoga Ashram after one of the earliest proponents of the Yoga system of Hindu philosophy. In time he also established a facility for making ayurvedic medicaments. He soon acquired a very large following, nearly all Hindu, through his camps and television broadcasts and expectedly he and his group not only became very well known at home and abroad but proved themselves to be another set of efficient money spinners. About a year ago Ramdev declared that he wanted to cleanse India's politics and would set up his candidates, using his establishments' money, at the next general election. When in April this year an unlikely crusader against corruption under the nomenclature of Anna Hazare, dubbed a Gandhian by India's news media, along with a handful of self-styled representatives of civil society (whatever be the nature of that beast!) started a campaign against corruption in government and received wide public support, Ramdev briefly joined them but he and Anna Hazare's group soon parted company. None of the government's and Congress Party's public relations campaigns against the Hazare group seemed to diminish public support for their campaign. At this juncture Ramdev (Baba or Swami) returned to Delhi with the declared intention of starting his own anti-corruption campaign with his own list of must do's and was saluted at the airport by four senior ministers of Government of India including the seniormost--he was for a number of years Monmohan Singh's political boss--and another who was known to be personally close to Ramdev. For three days the government's ministers and Ramdev and his team negotiated over how to implement Ramdev's anti-corruption plan. When the negotiations broke down, Ramdev's followers were removed by force from their camp and Ramdev was shipped out to Haridwar, not to be allowed back in Delhi for a fortnight. Since then the government and the Congress Party machinery have been aggressively trying to paint Ramdev and his followers in black colours. But no matter what the spin doctors say, this was another obvious attempt by the government and the Congress Party to win a Hindu sadhu to its side and, given recent history, it is not surprising. When now the spokesmen of the Congress Party say that the negotiations between the government and Ramdev happened without the approval the Congress High Command (meaning Mrs. Sonia Gandhi) they are plainly lying. Not a long time ago, a prominent member of the Indian National Congress, in a brief episode of revolt against the leadership of the party, said that not a leaf moves in the Congress party without Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's knowledge. She would have k nown.
Poor India is in the sad situation of being saddled at the moment with a bunch of politicians devoid of any ideals. It is the petty manipulators on nearly all sides in the political arena who dominate. At Gandhi's simple memorial at Rajghat in Delhi, there is on display a list of what Gandhi called seven social sins. One of these is politics without principles. That sin is now committed every day, every hour by India's politicians, not excepting those in the Indian National Congress which swears allegiance to Gandhi's principles. On the currently dominant issue of corruption in high places Manmohan Singh has convincingly demonstrated his inability and unwillingness to do anything about it. Very few among India's masses believe that some of the recent instances of large scale corruption in government could have happened without Mrs.Sonia Gandhi's knowledge and acquiescence. Some suspect that some members of Mrs.Gandhi's own family may be complicit. But beyond corruption there is another much more important principle essential for India if it is to become a genuinely modern, multi-religious, democratic republic, the principle of keeping religion on one side and politics and law on the other apart, which is violated all too frequently. The Bharatiya Janata Party believes, only partly rightly, that India's cultural ethos is essentially Hindu and it has given to itself the vocation of protecting Hindu interests against all kinds of imaginary threats. In the process they end up promoting all kinds of cranks and charlatans speaking in the name of Hinduism. But the Congress does not flinch not only at giving in to various groups speaking in the name of this or that religion but also goes the extra length to appeal to the religious sentiments of different groups. The atheistic Marxists are not far behind. Their government gave in to illegal and unacceptable threats by a group of Muslims and in collaboration with the Congress led Government of India organised the expulsion of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen whom they had sheltered for many years. Their government watched silently when another group of Muslims threatened vandalism against the offices of The Statesman in Kolkata for printing an article by Johann Hari, a columnist who writes for The Independent for hurting religious sentiments of Muslims--this has become a new and coercive form of censorship in many places of the world including India. There was nothing anti-Muslim in that article. Besides, in a free democratic society, freedom of expression means freedom to question the tenets of a religious faith, any faith, as long as the questioning is done within the bounds of civilised behaviour.
Upholding of secularism requires in a country like India much more than keeping religion and politics apart. A very large section of India's masses still lives in what some historians and thinkers have called the age of enchantment. Belief in the power of spirits of all kinds, in the influences of various malign or beneficent occult forces of nature, in the power of talismans, holy ashes and relics is still widespread among all religious and cultural groups, making it possible for various charlatans to become godmen and basically enrich themselves. What the country and the people badly need is a heavy dose of disenchantment in the sense of breaking the spell. The way forward is a constant hammering at the benefits of rationalism--a campaign of public education. And some of the most effective educating can be done by popular political leaders. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were educators in addition to being politicians. Gandhi tired himself out talking of ahimsa and satyagraha and Nehru tired himself out talking of the need to inculcate the scientific temper, meaning thereby a rationalist spirit. Nehru as prime minister, therefore subject to the same kinds pressures as any other politician in office, did something remarkable. There is a silly Hindu myth promoted by different right wing groups that Mahmud of Ghazni had in the eleventh century raided the temple of Somnath in Gujarat eighteen times to destroy its idols and plunder its wealth while the non-violent Hindus meekly accepted this humiliation. Some such people had made it their mission to "rebuild" that temple and restore Hindu pride. A temple was built under the leadership of a Congress politician, Kanhaiyalal Maniklal Munshi. The President of India, Rajendra Prasad, was invited to extend his patronage to the venture. Nehru, true to his beliefs, advised the president against associating himself with the venture in his official capacity. That was the beginning of an open rift between Nehru and Prasad. Nehru, born to Hindu Brahman parents almost exhibited his scepticism in the matters of religion and in spite of his many failures was never abandoned by India's masses. What Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh did by being present at the obsequies of Sathyanarain Raju and by encouraging their government to engage in an unseemly flirtation with Ramdev was the opposite of what Nehru, to whose principles they swear fealty morning, noon and night, did all his life. The pity is that in today's India very few voices calling for the inculcation of a rationalist spirit are heard loud and clear. The current crop of India's leading politicians would rather that India's masses remain imprisoned in their enchanted world. They would, given a chance, join hands with all the sadhus, chief priests of major temples, imams of important mosques, mullahs and fakirs.