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Indian Godmen and the sacred complex

by Shiv Visvanathan, 3 May 2011

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Comment: Indian Godmen and the sacred complex

Shiv Visvanathan

Our sacred complex in India demands a scrutiny much like the military industrial complex in USA. The sacred complex constitutes the fourth estate far more powerful than the media or the NGOs.

Our sacred complex has two parts. The first is Hinduism as a way of life, a religion without a church, or a central text, syncretic in its orientation and invertebrate in its organization. The second is the collection of Godmen who are singular as individuals but impressive in their diversity.

The Godmen are masters in organization theory. Their religious organization is Semitic. As organizational geniuses, they combine the charisma of the leader, the traditional modes of community around the Darshan and the Satsang and the discourse with the best of management theory. The best-run organizations in India like the Sai ashram or the Swami Narayan sect can make TATA and Infosys sound like management amateurs. Their idea of corporate spiritual responsibility makes corporate social responsibility sound superficial and ridiculous. For example, Sai Baba has to only wish for water and the ashram makes sure that 400 villages in Andhra obtain access to drinking water. The leaders wish becomes the community’s command. Oddly, no IIM has a reliable case study of the Godmen as an organizational phenomenon.

There are three things that mark the Godman phenomenon. It is anchored in a middle class search for meaning and faith as the class turns competitive and mobile. The Godman provides both the collective message and often the individual advice in anxious times. His spiritual therapy, as Art of living, or any other message, combines religion, psychoanalysis and good career tactics – in effective packages. Each Godmen has a tremendous diasporic following turning each leader into a global player. Thirdly, the Indian Godman sees little contradiction between science and religion and is usually tech savvy. The ashrams usually have the best IT technologies, the latest innovations and the best marketing techniques.

As fourth estate, each Godman controls a community, a constituency, a spiritual electorate which can be converted to secular purposes. But the politics is more subtle. Our elite is affiliated to a variety of Godmen. Our politicians and bureaucrats, our corporate dons go to them for advice. As those involved in risk, they seek solace. They are also shrewd enough to realize that Godmen shape orientations to politics. Closeness to a Godman creates legitimation and adds to the power of the politician. A politician without a Godman is a losing proposition. As a result, each Godman is an influence peddler in a spiritual guise. As corporate complexes, they wield enormous power. As one Swamiji confessed, political parties come and go, our power is permanent. This matter of factness hides one part of political decision making we have not scrutinized. Consider just two simple events. When the Supreme Court silenced the anti-Narmada critics and as the waters flowed down Sabarmati, Narendra Modi was accompanied by Pramukh Swamiji. The Anna Hazare movement received tremendous support from Ram Dev and the Art of living movement. The Godman today collect political followers like confetti. Their advice, their role as middleman needs scrutiny in any electoral system. They influence politics without being politically accountable. One is not suggesting conspiracy only just asking for information.

Think of a simple project. Just as you have an annual review of B-Schools, why not an annual review of Godmen in terms of followers, especially VIPs, good works, branded products, land owned, money acquired, nature of message. Here is a sociological world whose political power we have not grasped. What is native, what is spiritual or authoritarian or fundamentalist has to be unraveled? The spiritual one understands and respects but when spirituality creates a corporate style, a political constituency one needs to understand it further. Politicians realize this. It is time social science follows their intuitive sense of power and legitimacy.

(Shiv Visvanathan is one of India’s leading social scientists)