Navigating the many roads in Delhi named after truth, justice and peace ‚Äď¬†Satya Marg,¬†Nyay Marg,¬†Shanti Path¬†‚Äď several people are making their way to the famous landmark of Jantar Mantar. Once having sought these very virtues from a godman named Asaram Bapu, today they‚Äôre praying for the redemption of their guru. But this godman, who had once claimed to lead them to the path of redemption, is now incarcerated in Jodhpur on the charge of raping a minor.
A variety of prayers, chants, havans, fasts and protests are being organised here. Many sadhus and saints can be seen sitting atop a huge makeshift stage. Announcements are being made at intervals, urging people to keep chanting ‚ÄėOm Hari Om‚Äô for Bapu‚Äôs speedy release from jail. Incantations echo from every corner. People are carrying placards, some with slogans supporting Asaram ‚Äď ‚ÄėSadhu-santo ka apmaan, nahin sahega Hindustan‚Äô (An insult to our sages will not be tolerated) ‚Äď others slamming the media. One of them reads ‚Äď ‚ÄėSara media bikau hai, Bapu ji tikau hai‚Äô (The media has sold out; only Bapu is here to stay). Posters have been pasted on walls, trees, tanks and poles nearby. Entry for all media channels is banned except for one – ‚ÄėSudarshan News‚Äô. The devotees present are convinced that the media has conspired against Asaram Bapu and thus, it is their arch enemy. Some days ago, these seekers of peace also smashed the cameras of a few media persons. Everybody is a volunteer here ‚Äď they can stop you from taking pictures, inspect your camera, tell you to delete pictures they don‚Äôt like and even break your camera. They cannot be intimidated with threats of being handed over to the police because for them, going to jail is an honour. After all, they would be following in the footsteps of their guru. In fact, some of them have earned this ‚Äėhonour‚Äô already by spending a day or two in jail.
If one wants to find out why these people refuse to hear anything against Asaram Bapu and how they came to be so devoted to him, Jantar Mantar is not the right place. The atmosphere is just too tense here. One must meet a devotee in private. Dilip, a 40-year-old resident of Shahdara, Delhi, has just returned after having spent a night in jail. He has been an Asaram devotee for the past ten years. His family used to worship Asaram like God and his wife used to visit Asaram‚Äôs ashram every Sunday. Ever since Asaram was accused of raping a minor, Dilip‚Äôs neighbours have started taunting him. Last Sunday, one of his neighbours cheekily asked him, “Dileep bhai, has your wife¬†gone to Asaram‚Äôs ashram?” This comment provoked Dilip and led him astray from the path of peace he had been following for the past ten years: the argument between the two turned so violent that the police had to lock them up.
Though a native of Bijnor, Dilip has been in Delhi for five years. Vikas, his close friend, tells TEHELKA how Dilip came to know Asaram. In 2001, as Dilip was looking for a job to support his family, he contracted an illness that people usually shy away from revealing ‚Äď piles. The idea of a surgery scared him, so he did not visit a doctor. One day he saw a Baba‚Äôs (godman) advertisement which promised love, resolution of quarrels, revenge against enemies, remedies for ‚Äėsecret diseases‚Äô and a cure for piles without even an injection. If we classify the types of godmen in the country, the babas who promise to solve all sorts of problems are the greatest in number. They are present in every city and village and are frequented mostly by uneducated people. They do not give spiritual guidance, but claim to solve problems using¬†tantra-mantra. This was the first time Dilip came in contact with them. The baba handed him a fistful of ash from the¬†havan kund¬†in exchange for Rs 200. But Dilip did not recover.
Psychologist Nimesh Desai, says, ‚ÄúPeople always look for something to believe in. And these godmen take advantage of it with their tricks. When a person seeks solace in babas, he transfers his entire mental burden upon them. He is deluded into believing that a supernatural power is taking care of his responsibilities and helping him. If any good happens in his life, he takes it as a blessing from the baba and becomes devoted to him for life.‚ÄĚ
Meanwhile, Dilip came to know of another holy man who was visiting a nearby village. He was told that the man cured illnesses by just a touch. When he reached there, he saw the holy man performing miracles. Dilip fell for it like the other villagers and accepted the baba‚Äôs greatness.
People are always intrigued by ‚Äėmiracles‚Äô. The craft of performing miracles has helped the baba business flourish across villages and metros. South India‚Äôs Sathya Sai Baba was also known for such miracles. Two years ago, when he passed away, Rs 11.5 crore, 98 kg of gold and 307 kg of silver was recovered from his room. This is a meagre amount in comparison to what he had accumulated. Some estimate that the Sathya Sai Baba Trust‚Äôs assets amount to Rs 40,000 crore.
According to Mumbai-based psychologist Dr Pradeep Patkar, humans have an innate curiosity for magic. When a sleight of hand is presented in connection with religion or god, it sways people easily. Patkar is the Vice President of Maharashtra‚Äôs Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (CEBF). This committee has exposed many quack doctors and fake godmen in Maharashtra. Its members visit villages and demonstrate how sleights of hand, termed as miracles of godmen, are performed. But such minor godmen do not pose any threat to society as people visit them looking for solutions to their problems and once deceived by them, turn away. Patkar thinks that the most dangerous for society are those godmen who have managed to deceive thousands of people for years by captivating their minds. Asaram Bapu is one of them.
In 2003 when Dilip got engaged, his fianc√©e, who was a devotee of Asaram, advised him to meet the saint. Upon reaching his ashram, Dilip witnessed his devotees engrossed in meditation. Thousands were chanting praises of their guru. Life-size images of him covered with garlands could be seen all around. Asaram‚Äôs aura enraptured Dilip.
Patkar says, ‚ÄúThe first meeting with these godmen usually casts a pleasant impression. It is nothing but a psychological illusion. It is similar to a patriotic film rousing patriotic feelings in someone. This is what happens in the ashrams too. When thousands around you are singing someone‚Äôs praises, one is bound to get affected.‚ÄĚ
Incidentally, Dilip recovered from his illness after visiting Asaram‚Äôs ashram, resulting in deep devotion. Some ‘billionaire babas’ are so well-established that their devotees do not leave them when their problems are ‚Äėsolved‚Äô. The number of their followers is an achievement of which they boast. They have followers from different backgrounds as opposed to the minor godmen whom mostly less educated people approach. But ironically, a section of our society which is the least educated, lives under the harshest conditions and barely manages their daily bread, is the furthest from these gurus.
A close scrutiny of the network of these ‚Äėholy men‚Äô who have come to personify the ideas of religion, yoga, meditation and sometimes even god, reveals that they work in a planned manner. First they attract people using their ‚Äėgodliness‚Äô and eventually make them life-long followers. These followers then become dependent on the godmen who use them to further their own interests.
WHAT DRAWS PEOPLE TO GODMEN
Dilip‚Äôs story explains why some people follow saints. Psychologists believe that depressed and hopeless people are the easiest prey. Patkar says, ‚ÄúWhen you are in trouble or under stress, you are unable to think clearly. People start looking for instant solutions and they get drawn to the fake promises of these godmen.‚ÄĚ Presenting saints as a panacea to all ills has become an industry ‚Äď television does the job of ensuring that people get to know them. Channels are paid to telecast their sermons and assemblies. One can often find people sharing their personal experiences of how a baba‚Äôs blessings helped them prosper. These influence others in need.
Social and economic security also makes people susceptible to the influence of babas. People fear losing what they possess and the current cut-throat economy has increased this fear. Patkar says, ‚ÄúWhen people fear losing something, they become more impressionable, which the babas take advantage of. These days, people often have to compromise on certain important things to succeed. This leads to feelings of guilt, from which they seek refuge in godmen who, instead of dealing with the problem, give them false assurances. People forget their insecurities and feel good for some time. It is akin to closing your eyes when you see impending danger and thinking that the problem has disappeared.‚ÄĚ
A former follower of Nirmal Baba claims that the holy man made crores of rupees just by giving advice as absurd as eating samosas with green chutney instead of red. Godmen utter these recommendations with such confidence that people believe them to be genuine. A crowd of a thousand people attending these samagams (meetings) influences the people watching them on TV. The Director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Nimesh Desai says, ‚ÄúThese holy men know how to use the media for their benefit. They use TV channels to present their desired persona before the public which attracts them.‚ÄĚ
They also extensively use the internet for propaganda. Almost all leading holy men have personal websites. On Asaram Bapu‚Äôs website, one can read personal accounts of people. The website has a separate section for the ‚Äėdivine experiences‚Äô of devotees. One female devotee wrote that her in-laws harassed her and forced her to have sex with her brother-in-law. Even her husband did not support her. One day, as she was meditating, Asaram Bapu appeared and told her that he would set everything right. When she asked her husband to seek Bapu‚Äôs blessings, he refused, only to wake up the next morning with bruises and wounds all over his body. After this incident, her husband was convinced of Bapu‚Äôs powers. When TEHELKA tried to contact this woman using the email address cited at the end of the anecdote, it turned out to be a fake address. Other such accounts were also found to be submitted from fake email addresses. Publicising these presumably self-written ‚Äėspiritual experiences‚Äô, Asaram managed to accumulate a large fan-following.