In the wake of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan’s 10-year sentence for rape, a question rises as to why controversial self-styled spiritual leaders are gaining mass following in Bharat these days? While it is true that most of these spiritual gurus teach a hodge-podge of different religions, most of them are categorized as Hindu in the popular narrative and many of their followers are indeed Hindu.
The fact that sexual abuse and other misdeeds happen on a much larger scale in the institutionalized clergy of certain global religions, should not be an excuse for Hindu society to avoid serious introspection on this matter.
We talked to Swami Vigyananand, founder of World Hindu Foundation, to try and make sense of this phenomenon. Swami Vigyananand is a Sanyasi of the order called Dasnami – established by Jagadguru Adi Sankaracharya at Kailash Ashram in Rishikesh. He has wandered across the length & breadth of Bharat by foot as a Wandering Monk. After completing his B Tech from IIT Kharagpur, Swamiji studied & taught Panini grammar & Hindu philosophy. He is a Post Graduate (Acharya) in Panini Sanskrit Grammar and Vedang; Vidyavaridhi (Ph. D) in Eastern Philosophy which includes Six school of Hindu Philosophy (Upang) along with Buddhist, Jain, Atheist Philosophy and other Hindu schools of Philosophy; Vachaspathi (Doc. of Lit) Brahmana and Vedic Samhita.
Here is a summarized English transcript of the interview:
HinduPost (HP): Off late we are seeing many self-styled spiritual leaders rising in Bharat, whose teaching is a mix of various religions/beliefs. Our civilization has seen new spiritual leaders arise from time to time in the past too like Sant Ravidas or Basavanna in middle ages, and Buddha, Mahavira before that. How is the current phenomenon different from what used to happen in the past?
Swamiji: In earlier times, there were many well-recognized scholars and sadhus who used to hold regular sabhas (assemblies). Unless you were accepted in these assemblies, you were not sanctified or recognized in society. One needn’t be highly educated or be a scholar in the scriptures, but your sadhna & tapasya (spiritual practise) needed to reflect in your life to gain acceptance from established spiritual leaders and common people. Whether you talk about Basaveshwara, Ravidas or Kabirdas..they were all steeped in old Dharmic traditions….Basaveshwara was from Shaiva tradition – he established Veershaiva..these were all representatives of authentic established traditions.
The main cause of this modern phenomenon (rise of self-styled gurus) is because all our traditional institutions were destroyed during British colonial rule. Post independence, all such institutions where a spiritual leader would get recognized or sanctified were further weakened. Today, the courts decide…if any established Dharmic institutions tries to challenge these new age gurus, they claim that their fundamental rights are being violated. Seculars also start shouting that “orthodoxy is suppressing others.” Hence these new figures like Nirmal Baba, Ram Rahim etc are emerging who fool people by presenting some hodge-podge belief system borrowed from here and there.
Even people are ignorant become modern education doesn’t teach them anything about Dharma. But howsoever much you ignore it, spirituality is a basic need of humans and will find expression in some form or the other. For eg, at one point USSR had banned the Church, but people were used to lighting candles in Church. So people started lighting candles in front of statues of Lenin and Stalin.
If you don’t revive the authentic guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition), knowledge systems, scholarship etc, these fake people will set up shop in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of religious practice and other fundamental rights.
HP: To draw an analogy, there is the concept of “peer review” system in science where any new theory is validated by other scientists and only then does it get accepted by the scientific community. Sounds like Hindu society had a similar peer-review system for Dharmic teachers and that has disappeared today.
Swamiji: Yes, a great Yogi & scholar like Shankaracharya had to go an give an exam in Sharada Peeth as per that traditional peer-review system. It was only after he won debates against scholars there that he was accepted as a Guru. At that time, Sharada Peeth was considered as the final test for Dharma Gurus.
Today, that excellent traditional peer review system is not recognized..it has been discarded. Earlier, even Shankaracharya used to be appointed after a peer review, now the State has recognized a vansh parampara (quasi-dynastic system) where a Guru can appoint his successor. There are many distortions in the name of modernity..for eg., brahmacharis going to collect bhiksha (alms) is called backwardness, but a student who raises funds (through crowd-sourcing etc) is called progressive.
HP: A lot of these self-styled gurus are coming from the Haryana/Punjab region. This phenomenon is seen less in South, Central and Eastern parts of the country. Is it because the North has seen more mixing of populations and ideas, giving rise to the so-called Ganga Jamuna tehzeeb, while the South was free of Islamic invasions & influence for longer compared to North, thus allowing for traditional institutions like mathas to be in relatively better shape?
Swamiji: There are a lot of fake babas in the South and East too. There, some of the fakes are coming up within the traditional institutions which have now collapsed. In Punjab, Haryana, the influence of Sufi / Sant tradition is stronger, and it is easy to declare yourself as a sant (saint) as you don’t have to prove your scholarship.
HP: So there is greater acceptance for such self-styled gurus in Punjab/Haryana belt. Is it true that people flock to such babas because they have a very simple, easy to digest message and these new sects provide people a sense of community and identity that traditional Hindu Dharma or Sikh / Jain Dharma are unable to fulfill?
Swamiji: Caste is another major factor behind the rise of sects like Dera Sacha Sauda, besides religion. As sociologist MN Srinivas said, first caste reflected in politics, but now caste is reflecting in religion. Caste is now used as a tool to exploit for political and religious purposes, and this serves the purpose of certain vested interests.
HP: Do you think the secular state formed since Independence is actively working against Hindu Dharma? For eg. our temples are controlled by the Government, the donations and other temple funds are not used in the right way for Hindu society…traditional institutions like veda pathshalas are weakening because of lack of funding.
Swamiji: You are right. From Day 1 (after Independence) the State has been against our educational institutions. The main reasons for this are the secular nature of the State, secondly most of the education ministers right after Independence were radical Muslims like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – these people created such systems that traditional knowledge institutions like gurukuls were discarded as ‘religious institutions’…these gurukuls were actually knowledge institutions.
HP: And in the West today, you have these Christian seminaries which are respectfully called ‘Divinity Colleges’…
Swamiji: In the West, all the main Universities like Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh had their origins like that (as centers of Christian teaching)..they were maintained and further developed. But we destroyed our major traditional institutions and even the news ones that were created like Benaras Hindu University (BHU) have been weakened. These knowledge systems were discarded by branding them as religion and superstition.
HP: So our educational institutions were attacked, and funding of education and other social institutions through temples was also dried up.
Swamiji: Secular state has no right to control the temples. If the state wants to control & manage temples, it should become a Hindu State. And they don’t manage Church or mosque, they only manage temples. Hindus are legally discriminated against in every field. In the name of preserving minority rights & culture, Constitutional Committee had made certain provisions, but minorities have now gained the upper hand and are exploiting Article 29 & 30 against us, whether it is in Right to Education (RTE) Act, Minority Finance Commissions, college admissions..everywhere.
HP: How should Hindus counter this multi-dimensional attack by the Secular State, missionaries and secular-liberal intelligentsia within? Hindu society has always been open and accepting of different belief systems and spiritual paths. Is this loose, accepting nature now working against us?
Swamiji: Yes, we have an accepting nature but earlier we never accepted fake ideas. Any new thought / path was verified and sanctified. But now we have lost the institutional infrastructure to do that, resulting in the present situation. So first and foremost, we have to re-establish the traditional institutions which will conduct a peer review of any new spiritual leader.
HP: Ultimately, it boils down to resources and funds. Looks like Hindu society has to first create the financial backbone to revive its institutions.
Swamiji: Yes, government should free temples so that temple funds can be used for such work which will prevent masses from being misguided.
HP: We also had this major tradition of dana (giving, donating)..many businesses used to fund such institutions. Do we need to revive that as well?
Swamiji: People do dana even today. But the pattern has changed. Earlier, all charity was done in the name of Dharma, even education. But the State now says that it will take care of secular aspects like education, health etc. So now samaj (society) thinks that as Government will take care of these areas, it need not get involved.
Also, the Government should incentivize people to donate for such causes. In America, there is 100% tax exemption if one donates in the field of education. Why don’t we have that in Bharat? The British introduced the Societies Registration Act in 1860 to diminish our spirit of charity and create obstacles, but even after Independence our Governments have been carrying forward those same outdated laws. In the West, companies give matching grants to encourage their employees to donate.
Our Government should make it easy to do charity and Hindu society should contribute generously for strategic areas like education, not limiting themselves to religious works – education is a core part of our religion, which is vital to protect our civilization. Big philanthropists and endowments need to come forward for this.
HP: So just like we hear talk of economic reform, a similar reform is needed in administration and laws. Colonial era laws are still hurting us badly.
Swamiji: Yes, colonial era laws are still continuing and need to be repealed.
(Disclaimer: Swami Vigyananand is the founder trustee of the Hindu Media Forum, the non-profit trust which runs HinduPost.in)