Mrs. Margaret Bhatty

Rock me Guru Maharaj ji & roll me tonight

Rock me Guru Maharaj ji & say it's all right!

Two lines from a pop song from Millennium 1973 held in Houston, Texas, where an estimated 40,000 devotees arrived from all over the world to honour the roly-poly Child-God, Balyogeshwar, son of a celibate priest from Hardwar. His Divine Light Mission was about to launch the beginning of 1,000 years of peace and plenty.

Those were exciting times indeed, with the Guru cult peaking in the USA. About 125 Indian godmen were operating in the country, with 25 big league ones establshed in oppulent ashrams in major cities.

Today many of these have been discredited, their spiritual heads having fallen victim to their own messages. But in the beginning they appeared as meassaiahs to a hippie generation unable to make sense of a chaos of their own creating. Their deification of poverty, non-attachment to material things, rebirth, karma and a lot of other claptrap seemed to offer values unknown to a rootless society. They raked in the money and earned themselves rolls royces, private jets, commode seats of solid gold, and other riches dear to an Indian's heart.

Today, what Naipaul describes as "the recurring crooked comedy" of our godmen is by no means played out. Quite a number of hardcore nincompoops still hang on, like so many limpets. What do these disciples seek? And what do they get? Do godmen provide solace?

The guru cult, according to Nirad Choudhuri in his book Hinduism, is an example of how this religion seeks to personalise an idea with reference to the two strongest impulses that move humans - a need for power and a need for protection. The guru-shisya bond adequately answers this dependency need. Traditionally, a Guru is a human incarnation to his followers. They even offer prayers and puja to his portrait. And they follow his instructions without question. Many go to more abject lengths of attending to his personal needs, chewing betel nut taken from his mouth, drinking holy water stirred with his big toe, and even swilling his morning's micturation.

Undoubtedly, they are deriving something from their self abasement. Such symbiosis is found even in Nature where two different species benefit from a kind of mutualism. It would be simple to enlarge on this in facetious vein, for nothing amuses and astonishes skeptics more than the bizarre relationships we witness between godmen and their followers. Nevertheless, however ridiculous these appear, the fact remains that one or both are in some way benefiting from the bond.

Traditionally, a Guru is more than a mere guide and mentor. He is seen as a man who has achieved remarkable "spiritual" stature. This could mean he has an exemplary moral character. It could also mean, in popular terms, that he is a magician with power over spirits and an adept in occult practices and magic.

Chaudhuri describes a Guru thus: "He is always a man who has attained to a high religious status in the world by leading a genuinely devout life, or practising nothing better than charlatanry."

For Hindus, the godman as Guru is one who can provide them access to the Higher Reality. There is no scientific explanation for this supranormal level of Awareness. But it is there, and it can be tapped as a source of Knowledge with a capital K. The chief goal of one's search for meaning in life is the achievement of this Higher Consciousness. Its realisation endows one with all wisdom, enabling people like Giggling-Guru Mahesh Yogi to expound the Unified Field Force of Vedic Science with an absolutely straight face.

Frustration with one's common lot and an inability to cope with stress sends people in search of a Guru for solace. Psycho-analyst, Sudhir Kakar writes: "The godman or the devotee turns his back on the painfulness of a hard reality-experience of loss and disappointment in close human relationships - to retreat into a world of imagination where the unacceptable reality is sought to be replaced by an inner one in which he can feel vigorous and powerful, no longer dependent on others' whims. The way of the godman, the spiritual path, is then the culturally sanctioned way to deal with frustration and depression."

In his book Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, Kakar describes his encounters with Her Holiness Mataji Nirmala Devi - the plump and motherly godwoman challenged successfully by rationalists in Pune in December, and earlier forced to cut short her visit to her home town, Nagpur, for refusing to answer awkward questions about her miraculous powers. She had to run away from Trivandrum (Kerala) also when she tried to raise the Kundalini power of the journalists. He examines the susceptibility of the human mind in faith healing. "The apparent success of different healing methods based on all kinds of religious faiths and secular ideologies compels the not improbable conclusion that the healing power resides primarily within the patient's mind than in the tenets of these faiths and ideologies."

He remarks on the self-image projected by people like Mataji that of a protective mother, possessive and warm yet in control (come sit on my lap, my head, says she). The Maharaj Charan Singh of the Radha Saomi sect he sees as a benign patriach, while Bhagwan Rajneesh is indulgent and encouraging of his 'children.'

This parent-child transaction is commonly found in the guru-shishya bond. But for us skeptics the problem arises when we see such confidence exploited by a godman resorting to fraud and conjuring. It baffles us that hundreds honestly believe the Satya Sai Baba can produce something out of nothing, and really materialises gold, jewels and vibhuti by divine power. Such a guru-chela relationship is a fake. But how impossible it proves to convince the followers of that! Their ability to reason is jambed in a kind of mind-set. They are not interested in knowing the truth, because knowing it will not help fulfill their dependency needs.

I recall a mild debate that arose in our local paper on whether the Makarajyoti at Sabarimala is genuine or not. One reader wrote in to say the question was of no importance. "If people want to be fooled what harm is there?"

The same could also be said of religion. But we know too much of baneful effects of blind belief to shelve the argument so easily.

Essays on "DO GODMEN PROVIDE SOLACE?" - for and against are welcome from the readers and other thinkers for publication in the INDIAN SKEPTIC.

The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Last update: 19 June 1998