The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Godmen's influence on society is not uniquely Indian

Why cavil at the phenomenon of their existence ' godmen and godwomen are an integral part of the landscape. They are our heritage; they define the current milieu too.

Delve into a bit of pre-history. In both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, seers, who were half-gods, were an integral part of the state apparat: always available on tap, they would counsel the king on the mystique of administration, they would advise him on military strategy, they would arrange marriages between warring dynasties, on occassion, they would even step on to ensure the longevity of a royal dynasty by contributing their semen. And they had their idiosyncrasies the populace were expected to put up with. Many of them did not bother to distance themselves from the standard weaknesses of the human flesh either.

Admittedly, most of this is mythology. But, as the Ram Janmabhoomi business has demonstrated, myths lead the way to objective reality. So much so that seers ' current version of the mythological saints ' turn into role models for the innocent multitude. They are holy, and, lo and behold, are at the same time prey to the temptations we ordinary folk are victims of. They thereby stop being a remote category; it is as if they genuinely belong to us; we are accordingly justified to confide in them. They assume the status of household personage, admonish us, offer us succour too. They are next to god, and yet, so human, subject to follies and foibles of the ordinary kind. This is precisely what makes them darlings of the masses. Since the seers of mythology are beyond their reach, today's householders have to be happy with the godmen and godwomen who are put on the pedestal and worshipped: their seediness, so to say, enhances their charm.

These godly people will occasionally indulge themselves and go on to commit indiscretions, including venal ones. Notwithstanding their departure from societal norms, their dignity remains unsullied. It was so in the Puranic tales, it is so even in the relatively modern times. Remember the Bengali couplet, which, in free translation, reads as follows, 'He frequents bars and brothels. All that is true./ So what, Nityananda Roy still stays as my guru' The individual referred to was the dearest disciple of the 16th-century 'people's' saint, Shri Chaitanya. That man was obviously a charmer.

Actually, in all civilizations, godmen have been an integral part of civil society and, often, of governance. England could flaunt, fairly early, a Thomas ' Becket, and, a few centuries later, Thomas Wolsey: Christiandom was, in any event, for a considerable while ambivalent on the issue of the separation of church from state. Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, no less, was himself a cardinal; that did not stop him from being a military commander. But his greater fame was as a philanderer. His half-sister, the pope's daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, achieved even greater notoriety as a libertine, changing husbands and sleeping partners in a manner emulated by Hollywood stars four centuries later; the suspicion long lingered that she must have poisoned one or two of her husbands. Quite honestly, religiosity and venality have gone together over major stretches of European history. It is barely a century from the days of Gregori Yeflimovich Rasputin, a charlatan, whom the mesmerized Czars accorded laissez passer to commit with impunity the most dastardly crimes even as he donned the role of principal spiritual-cum-political adviser to the Russian emperor.

Those visiting from other cultures may therefore disapprove of the influence exercised by seers and demi-seers over the Indian political system, but they have no business to act superior. Fake religiosity is the legacy of practically all civilizations. Given the level of illiteracy and the general backwardness, it is surprising that the forces of darkness ' which these seers admittedly represent ' are not even more entrenched than they in fact are. Some of the skunks masquerading as holy men still fulfil a social purpose. They help average men and women to rationalize their own lapse from the course of rectitude. The syllogism perhaps runs in the following sequence. We are ordinary mortals. It is unfortunate that we cannot stay away from the temptations of life. But, then, look at these noble religious souls. They are so high-minded, they are so close to god, and yet, they off and on commit the same sins as we do. The almighty not only forgives them, the almighty has even despatched them as his emissary to us. The seers disgrace themselves, and yet remain as seers. So there is nothing wrong if we, the lesser elements, stray from the straight and narrow path every now and then.

At some stage, however, the almighty becomes irrelevant and bread-and-butter political sociology takes over. Godmen acquire a public following just as film stars and cricketers do. Keeping company of cricketers and film stars supposedly strengthens the vote bank of politicians. Film artistes and sportspersons too in their turn gain a few concrete advantages because of their proximity to politicians. Once godmen and godwomen enter the picture, they too become equally capable of providing satisfaction to politicians; politicians return the compliments and satisfy the godmen.

It is fine as long as things remain on the plane of commercial transactions. Complications arise when seers, following the fashion set by cricketers and film stars, want to proceed a further step forward, that is, when they develop political ambitions of their own. Again, it is not a unique Indian phenomenon. As we have seen, the papacy in the Middle Ages was obsessed by an identical ambition; it was for it a chequered experience. India, yet to step out of the medieval period despite the briskness of the call centres, will have to go through the tortuous process the juxtaposition of statecraft and religiosity gives rise to. But a kind of a stable arrangement will be reached sooner or later.

Meanwhile, though, there will be reverberations caused by shifting equations and non-equations in the political arena. There will be the accompanying puzzle of identity: are the crooks seers, or is it the other way round, the seers are really crooks' Not surprisingly, godmen will be, for a time, a fast growing tribe. With an eye on the main chance, masseurs will declare themselves godmen, so will retired rail clerks and bank tellers and failed Sanskrit scholars. Here and there, a maulvi will aspire to be, overnight, an Ayatollah Khomeini. These specimens will build their clientele of admirers and acolytes, which will include politicians and judges and civil servants and businessmen. The intermediation of seers will be used for striking deals between ruling politicians and scheming civil servants or between politicians and judges, or between judges and shady industrial tycoons.

Every now and then, clandestine deals struck between godmen, civil servants, businessmen and members of the judiciary in assorted permutations and combinations will face a hitch. Once that happens, rumour mills will be at work. Since someone's misfortune is someone else's opportunity, from a small beginning, the rumours will assume awesome dimensions. Some people will find the emerging situation conducive to making yet more money. And old seers will fade away, yielding place to the new, exactly what happens with defunct politicians and ageing film stars. Change is a part of life, just as venality seemingly is.

Society, civil or uncivil, its creamy layer in particular, is corrupt to the core, and deserves death: did you say' This is idle patter. The evil streak is not for dying. It is the only constant factor in the society handed down to us. It will be a different matter if a great catharsis, either by miracle or by painstaking device, takes place. But pipedreams are pipedreams.

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