By Swami Agnivesh and Valson Thampu
Sep 5, 2013
If I had a guru, and I am looking for one, I should surrender myself body and soul to him. But in this age of unbelief a true guru is hard to find. A substitute will be worse than useless, often positively harmful. I must therefore warn all against accepting imperfect ones as gurus...Has a man ever learnt swimming by tying a stone to his neck? - M K Gandhi.
Godmen are in the news increasingly for the wrong reasons. Events reported shock us for a while. Public memory being proverbially short, in a few days we leave behind the scandal and get back to business as usual. Till the next scandal breaks out. Then the next. And the next...So the Tamasha of Gurudom continues.
This need not surprise us. What should surprise us instead is the eager readiness of individuals, even highly educated ones, to surrender themselves to the conmen of religion. Con men thrive under the garb of religion when people abandon God. The Godmen syndrome is a symptom of godlessness, not of religiosity. Godmen have as much to do with God as rock gardens have to do with flowers.
Why do people flee from God to Godmen? Why do they stick even to those con men who are fleeing from the arms of law? Why doesn't the grotesque pathos of it move the rest of us to tears? Where have we misplaced our capacity for righteous indignation?
The answer may well be found in Gandhiji's warning cited above. This could well be the punishment that an 'age of unbelief' invites upon itself. The necessary outcome of 'unbelief' is not atheism. It is cultism. It is not no-faith, but false-faith. The choice is not between trusting and not trusting God. The choice is between trusting God and surrendering oneself to Godmen. It is an epochal imperative therefore that cultic con men and bogus Godmen mushroom and commandeers hysterically zealous following in such an age. This does not prove the greatness of individual con men or the worth of teachings they mouth. It proves the sickness of the age in which we live.
Gandhiji warned us a long time ago against 'accepting imperfect ones as gurus'. A guru, by definition, is vastly superior to his disciples. Else the guru cannot command abject obedience and blind trust from those who cast themselves at his feet. By trusting these imperfect specimens of humanity, we degrade and consign ourselves to a level below that of their imperfection. Unwittingly, we invite irrationality, existential insecurity and a life driven and raven by falsehood, hypocrisy and moral anarchy. How else can the so-called followers of a Godman now posture themselves aggressively against the arm of law?
At the popular level God is likely to lose out to Godmen, given the spirit of this age of unbelief. God is a growth-imperative. Spirituality is all about our growth towards the fullness of our scope as human beings. God is the light in this pilgrimage of personal development and empowerment. Growth of this kind is a demanding, even daunting, prospect. Godmen provide the cheap, alluring alternative. You don't have to grow and assume responsibility for your destiny. All you have to do is abandon your life and destiny to the keeping of these men and women of clay. No Godman or Godwoman will ever ask you to outgrow your superstition or stupidity. As a matter of fact, human growth towards existential empowerment is bad news for Godmen and Godwomen. Growth eradicates the need to depend. It abolishes blind faith. Growth is the secret of freedom. God the Creator is also God the Liberator. In God alone, as all religions teach, are we truly free.
In contrast, Godmen facilitate and perpetuate our disempowerment. They effect a sort of cultic slavery that conjures up, for the time being, a specious sort of security. A state of underdevelopment, however, is perforce riddled with anxieties and insecurities. It spews up a deep, irresistible craving to cast oneself upon a larger than life character who, one is eager to believe, has the solutions to all of one's problems. This also explains why so-called devotees volunteer to fight and protect their gurus from the consequences of misdeeds. Ironically, at this stage the protector becomes the protected! The masses become the saviour of their Saviour.
Historically, the godmen syndrome emerged in the wake of the failure of religious establishments. Predictably, it did not take long for wolves to appear on the landscape where naive lambs abounded as easy targets. But, given that it was the landscape of religiosity, wolves had to appear in sheep's clothing. The hybrid nature of this bogus phenomenon is reflected in the hybrid nature of the nomenclature they go by: god-men! Are they God? No. Are they men? No. Then what are they? An in-between phenomenon, haloed freaks. Going by the label that is.
Following these cultic con men and women is, in the words of Gandhiji, like a man trying to learn 'swimming by tying a stone to his neck'. It is our sinking fellow human beings, rather than the thriving con men who tie these stones around their necks, who should be our crying concern. The stones are blind faith. The antidote to blind faith is true faith. God and God alone can be the centre of true faith. It should matter to all rational creatures - and matter a great deal - that wolves are being mistaken by millions for shepherds. Let this country gear up for a fitting tribute to the martyred Narendra Dabholkar.
Swami Agnivesh is president of World Council of Arya Samaj and Rev Valson Thampu is principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi.