Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh like-godmen breed a cult phenomenon preying on innocent people

Legally and constitutionally, there may be no recourse against godmen unless they commit crimes as heinous as Ram Rahim,

Milind Deora September 01, 2017 15:54:57 IST
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh like-godmen breed a cult phenomenon preying on innocent people

The last few days have been monumental for the Indian judiciary. The ban on triple talaq and the declaration of privacy as a fundamental right are exemplary judgments for the progress of the nation, and have largely been greeted with appreciation.

The third judgment — that of the conviction and sentencing of self-proclaimed godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim — although in the spirit of justice, was met with outrage and violence by his band of followers, and the subsequent imposition of Section 144 in eleven districts of the Delhi NCR region.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh likegodmen breed a cult phenomenon preying on innocent people

File image of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Wikimedia Commons

In my article last week on a uniform civil code for India, I emphasized the necessity of delinking religion and government in the country. This incident provides a fitting demonstration of how the intertwining of the two, including support to and patronage of so-called godmen by political parties, can result in the kind of anarchy and appropriation of the law that we witnessed in the aftermath of the Ram Rahim judgment.

In my perception, the phenomenon of the godman is simply an individual that garners a cult following. In this context, an entertainer or sportsman with a cult following could also be designated a godman. In popular imagination, however, the term has come to acquire certain connotations, and it therefore becomes imperative to draw a distinction between religious/spiritual leaders, and the notorious brand of godmen that has seemingly become pervasive in the country.

Individuals like the Dalai Lama and Baba Ramdev preach and propagate ideas and certain kinds of lifestyles, which may include the exercise of yoga and meditation as a path towards spiritual relief and inner peace. Ramdev is often criticized for capitalizing on his popular following to market his brand and his products, but I don’t see this as something to condemn. Whatever his flaws may be, he simply recognized an opportunity, and by tapping into a centuries-old Indian belief, he has been able to establish an alternative to Western brands for domestic consumers. In the process, he has created a space for Ayurveda in the FMCG market, and is now successfully competing with the world's biggest multinationals.

It would be exciting, for instance, for the Dalai Lama to curate a food line, as we get to know what he recommends for a healthy body, along with his ideas about mindfulness and peace for a healthy mind. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being commercial, and we shouldn’t judge them for it, as long as their means are honest and transparent.

The men and women in this category shouldn’t ideally be the subjects of our criticism and disdain — it should be those individuals who claim to cure diseases and change destinies through the force of their powers, and in the process accumulate piles of cash to lead extravagant lifestyles by duping thousands of innocent people.

Their modus operandi usually is to claim some form of supernatural authority. Unlike priests or pandits, who are practitioners of some ideology or theory, and considered merely the conduits for communication between man and god, “godmen” claim to be the embodiment of god, vested with god-like powers. They seek to be revered and worshipped, they attempt to create a religion around and about themselves. In short, they are nothing more than charlatans and swindlers capitalizing and preying on the helplessness and naivety of people.

Religious and spiritual leaders are merely representatives of an ideology or a religion, not their embodiment. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is much more than a religious leader — you don’t have to be a Buddhist to follow his ideas, and there is much value to be extracted from his philosophy and teachings for members of all faiths. Here, there is scope for disagreement and debate, one can challenge and contemplate the merits and demerits of these ideologies, approaches and practices.

In contrast, anyone who has watched Ram Rahim’s film Messenger of God can testify to the fact that it endorses blind faith in and allegiance to a man harnessing the power of god to perform miracles and 'reform' the lives of individuals.

If you seek the opinion of an atheist, they would condemn all religions as senseless, and godmen as simply another symptom of the overwhelming sway of religious belief. However, even for a believer, the cult of godmen should belong in the realm of fantasy fiction — you’re either a god or a mortal man, there is no in-between.

Legally and constitutionally, there may be no recourse against godmen unless they commit crimes as heinous as Ram Rahim, but there are certainly grave ethical and moral implications for a society that allows and encourages such individuals to flourish.

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