Society is in constant evolution and so is religion. However, change isn’t always autonomous, it requires at least a certain measure of leadership. At the turn of the century,Max Weber delineated leadership into three classifications- Rational-legal, Traditional and Charismatic. The two former types of authority are status quoist. Change can only be brought by the agency of Charismatic leadership. And for the constant evolution of religion as well as society requires charismatic leaders.
Human beings are a paradox. We seek material security and spiritual salvation. Naturally, humans are more comfortable with the tangible than with the abstract. That’s why we need totems. The present mushrooming of the institution of God Men and their deras provides India’s anxious, materialistic masses with those very totems. They take the very abstract shapeless, formless word of spirituality and convert it into a set of symbols that can be touched, felt and understood. They provide a measure of charismatic leadership in a field that is dominated by traditional and stifled by the rational.
How else would we explain the evolution of Roman Catholicism from a strict monotheistic religion to one that has an entire plethora of Saints and Martyrs? Without St peter and St patrick, who would personify Roman Catholicism? Without the Pirs and Murids of Indic religions who would understand the complexities of the Koran and the Hadith or the speculation of the Upanishads? The question arises however, is this personification good or bad? Are the Babas and their deras functional for society or dysfunctional?
It would be unfair to ignore the functional aspects of God men. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized the masses of India and steered then towards independence in the garb of a traditional Fakir. Was his role functional or dysfunctional? Acharya Vinobha Bhave brought social justice to millions of marginalized agricultural castes in the same way. Were these not charismatic figures that brought about social evolution by changing the very nature of religion?
The deras of Babas give elements of society a place to rest their heads and a sense of belonging to a group or a cause larger than themselves. In the secular-rational west, this function is fulfilled by Sports patriotism. Is it not healthier to be involved with a dera that promotes inner well being, charity and service to humanity than being a die hard fan of Man United or Chelsea and the never ending, futile tirade of rivalry that exists between them?
AND THE COUNTERVIEW
It is an often repeated word that India is a land of sages. There is inherently nothing wrong in that provided the quantity is not devoid of quality. What we see nowadays, a secular proliferation in number of god men across all religions but the question remains whether it is a good or a bad phenomenon?
Keeping all the historical, cultural, sociological, religious, political and psychological factors in mind, this columnist tends to stand against the flourishing Baba culture. The recent controversy regarding Radhe Maa is case in point. She is castigated across the board for what she did but the deeper question remains– What does she represent?
If we go by the understanding of our constitution, it is expected of every citizen to develop a scientific temper. Are these ‘god persons’ militating against that spirit? Of course yes. Indi is a high risk society where the poor want to escape drudgery and the rich to preserve their gains. The ‘Babas’ have answers to both.
This prompts another question. Is it the religiosity/spirituality which is behind their rise? It is simple economics, stupid. They are religious entrepreneurs who are exploiting the individual anxiety caused by alienation and ignominy of present day ‘modern’ life. This proliferation if occultism is making people more and more fatalistic, thereby throwing us back to medievalism.
In supposedly post materialistic world, where our identities should become more and more civic, these Babas are making us cling to our parochial identities. They have become a state within a state. The fortresses erected by Rampal baba and Dera Saccha Sauda bear witness to this fact. Every other day stories are out regarding the sexual exploitation, land grabbing, and embezzlement.
It is not lost upon the columnist that these babas have functionality vis-a-vis certain sections of society and hence they exist. Empirically they exist, but normatively should they? It’s about time we accept this social reality and try to bring in the alternatives. The matters of faith should not be confused with irrationality.