By Asghar Ali Engineer
Saibaba’s death a couple of days ago has brought thousands of people from India and abroad to have his last darshan (glimpse) and many of them were even crying that Baba’s divine soul has left them forever. On the other hand rationalists are challenging his miraculous powers once again and maintaining that he was man like others and man being mortal, he also died. Many are pointing out that his own forecast that he will die at the age of 96 proved to be wrong and he died at the age of 86.
It should not be very surprising if thousands of people are flocking to his funeral but what is indeed surprising is that the Prime Minister of a secular country, along with Sonia Gandhi, also went to pay his homage. Mrs. Gandhi is free to do so as she does not hold any office in Government but Shri Manmohan Singh holds the highest office and should have refrained from going there. It is not clear whether he went there in his personal capacity or as head of the Government. If he went in his personal capacity who bore his expenses and if he went as Prime Minister, according to which protocol? The Prime Minister of a secular country should not go for funeral of a divine personality.
What I am going to write here is not to condemn but to understand what is happening in our so called post-industrial and post-modern society? I always maintain that it is easier to condemn but difficult to understand and unless we understand we cannot bring about change. Thus understanding an event is of primary importance. Understanding functioning of godmen requires understanding sociological, psychological and political factors. Human behaviour is of very complex nature and all these factors play important role. The entire phenomenon cannot be explained with reference to ‘blind faith’ alone as rationalists tend to do. Human interests too, along with other factors, play an important role and human interests constitute an important part of human behaviour.
Thus, as against rationalists, I believe, human behaviour as it is, needs godmen very much even in 21st century (though I myself do not approve of it). I am just trying to explain the phenomenon as a social scientist. First of all we should understand the structure of our society and also education system it needs. Our society is structurally unjust and is based on exploitation of some by others. Thus the very nature of our society promotes injustices, uncertainties and feeling of insecurity
Our education systems not only promote it but also justify it. The poor and exploited feels helpless and begins to believe in destiny. Those who cannot face uncertainties either tend to resort to irrational religious beliefs or even commit suicide as many peasants in our country are doing. Also, there are ways and ways of believing in religion. For some with proper understanding religion is a source of morality and ethics whereas for many others religion is a source of superstitions.
It is in this sense that Marx called religion an opium i.e. pain killer. Thus religion helps the victims of our social system (exploited and oppressed) to bear the pain of their suffering. It gives them great solace and inner peace. Only the sufferers know the value of this role of religion. Many people flock to godmen and babas in search of this inner solace. In our world which is full of oppression, exploitation and corruption, religion has become source of such peace and solace, in other words it has become only ‘opium’.
Religion, in fact, should be a great source of inspiration to fight against what is wrong and oppressive, it should create inner urge for believer to achieve what is best in human beings and fight against all that is beastly – anger, revenge, lust and greed. In our own times Gandhi took religion in this sense. Thus taken in this sense religion can inspire us to combat all that is oppressive and exploitative and to establish truth and justice in the world. If religion does not inspire us to do this it is nothing more than opium.
Babas and godmen are required because of this nature of our society. Had there been a society just and truthful we would not have needed them. These Babas make this world livable for the victims of justice and oppression in various ways. To achieve for real success, success achieved in a just way, not through fraud and cheating, is very difficult and one has to work very hard indeed. And many of us do not want to work hard and look for miracles as a short cut.
A truly religious person would not look for miracles but face all trivial of life. These Babas try to win over our hearts and minds by exploiting this weakness of ours for miracles. And not only the victims but rich and powerful also look for such miracles and hence they too flock to such Babas. It is not easy for us to overcome this weakness and look for miracles. Also, many people suffer from certain diseases for which modern medicine has no easy cure and so we tend to incline towards miracles and in this category we have both weaker as well as powerful and rich sections of our society.
Earlier at least in this matter there were no classes i.e. there used to be one saint or baba to whom all will go rich or poor. But now in our country there are saints and babas who cater to poor and those who cater to the rich and powerful. The Sai was one among them. Through his miracles he would produce golden rings and Seiko watches and usually the rich would flock to him. Even powerful politicians need babas for various reasons.
Earlier people would go to these saints and babas for spiritual purposes but now rich or poor, politicians and other professional, all go to them for personal and mundane reasons. Hardly anyone goes for any spiritual development. The modern world is too complex for inner peace. Generally, and specially the rich and powerful experience lot of tension and insecurity and they need such external props which babas readily provide.
Also, in this globalized world a successful baba is supposed to have many foreign (specially American) disciples and then argument would go look even foreigners come to him and so he must be really delivering baba. Generally these babas are not very educated. They often happen to be semi-literate but Rajnish, who at one time, was as popular as Sai Baba, was intellectually accomplished. He also catered to upper class professionals.
Rajnish attracted high end professionals for certain reasons. He came into existence in a society where industrialization was taking place and professionals with high income were proliferating. These professional needed lax moralities with spiritual cover (what I call MATERIAL SPIRITUALISM) and that is what Rajnish provided. Rajnish even believed in free sex gratification rather than controlling it as traditional saints did. Thus Rajnish became very popular in these classes of people, especially among the neo-rich. According to him one should enjoy pleasures of life to accomplish ones spirituality. There was hardly any from lower class among his clientele or with rural background. Sai Baba, one must say had no such pretensions of sophisticated philosophy, was illiterate and even catered to the poor and rural folk.
Rajnish did not perform miracles nor did he believe in them. His miracle was his knowledge and his sophistry. Sai Baba needed ‘miracles’ (which was nothing but tricks and sleight of hand) precisely because he was illiterate and could not attract sophisticated clientele by philosophizing. He was a simpleton with rural background. People flocked to him not to listen to philosophical sermons or moral and spiritual discourses but as a man of miracle and hence ‘divine ‘. He also claimed to be an avatara and to carry conviction with people began to perform miracles.
Once he succeeded he began to attract more and more people and more people he attracted, more he succeeded. Thus success has its own dynamics – ‘nothing succeeds like success. But then he had to meet challenges also. Kovvor, a rationalist from Sri Lanka, and others challenged him to perform miracles under controlled conditions. Kovvor even deposited one lakh of rupees in the bank as a reward. He asked Sai Baba to produce pumpkin instead of ring or watch (which could be hidden under loose garment but pumpkin obviously could not be).
Sai Baba failed to take challenge but changed the track. His miracles had already rewarded him and he could do without them now. He began to render socials service, bringing water to water starved areas, building schools and universities and hospitals and this endeared him to another section of people. Thousands really benefited from amongst the poor. He also began to talk of love, love which conquers hearts.
Also, modern day Babas are turning into land mafias and develop megalomania for huge empires. Sai is also reported to have left empire worth some say 40,000 to 1 lakh crore. Building such empires is, in fact beginning of failure of the mission as now there will be fight for succession to control the establishment. A real religious person is not builder of empire but subvert it. Whosoever built empire failed in spiritual sense and whosoever subverted established empires became great.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.