Right from childhood, stories that had their foundation in magic and ‘chamatkars’ always appealed to me. I must have watched 10s of combinations of stories like – Ramu’s son is ill and no doctor is able to cure him; Ramu goes to a godman who whips up a magical powder; Ramu applies the powder on his son’s forehead and the kid is magically cured. As a child, I remember being in awe of the godman and thinking, “Wow! This man is amazing!”. Friends readily contributed their own stories of how the godman was indeed magical.
Even our school administrators were believers in a particular godman and we often had teachers from that godman’s foundation coming over. They taught us prayers and narrated stories of his exploits. The students loved the stories as we all knew that they would end with the godman producing a magical powder or blessing the person and saving the day. The stories were remarkably straightforward. They either involved a devotee in trouble whose prayers the godman answered or they showed how a non-believer was forced to become a believer seeing the amazing powers of the godman. The characters and events changed but the core was always the same.
After school, further education, reading and science unfortunately spoiled it for me. I realized that these godmen were hocus-pocus with careers built upon exploiting the fears of their devotees. Also there was no such thing as magical powders and that nothing done by the godmen had ever been scientifically proven. Tales narrated by believers and devotees unfortunately amount to nothing. The godmen have enough influence over their subjects to make them shut their eyes to logic and believe anything and everything that suits the godman. Although I still enjoy watching and listening to all stories that end with a godman producing a magical powder, it no longer is as much fun as it was during my school days. I no longer can go “Wow, that’s awesome!”.
However it looks like I belong to a small minority in India. Everyday I hear stories flying around about entire families being great believers in some godman or the other. Every second day there’s a grand procession and a yatra happening somewhere with lakhs of devotees thronging for darshan of a godman or something associated with him. The religious channels have been a god sent for the godmen (pun intended), getting them entry into each and every household. Even mainstream channels have more than a fair share of godman content. You no longer can ignore them as you invariably run into them every time you flick TV channels.
I occasionally do watch religion TV and listen to the god men in an attempt to figure out why and how they are converting millions of Indians into their followers. Have to confess that most of the godmen were quite captivating, with their flowing beards, special suits and forceful voices. They even told many sensible things that really could improve people’s lives. However it was mostly common sense that even you and me can dish out fairly easily. Some of these godmen also taught some exercises. However all this just didn’t seem enough to justify their phenomenal popularity.
So I watched some more and soon realized that their key selling point was when they talked about things that made no sense or could not be judged based on scientific parameters. I believe that once they started talking of afterlife, effect of sins, etc. the devotee could break free from whatever science he might have ever learnt and easily become a follower and a believer. If the godman said that all devotees who recite a particular prayer will be able to fly, devotees will have a tough time believing it. That’s because their schooling and their knowledge of the world will try to make them see reason. However if the godman said that reciting a prayer for a month will bring happiness or will free them of of their sins, science no longer can pull back. These vague ideas can neither can be proved nor disproved. The listener is now freed from the baggage of science and open to becoming a believer.
Once a person becomes a believer, it’s a long and ardous way back. The mind gets used to relying on the crutch offered by the godman and his philosophies. I have seen devotees believing in absolutely anything and everything that was told under the name of the godman. I am quite certain that if these followers were told that the godman had got enlightened and had flown off to Jupiter to meditate, a majority will believe.
Recently, I was repeatedly told by friends to enroll in a course initiated by a popular godman. I was told that as part of the course they teach exercises and relaxation techniques that are very effective. I was somewhat interested. However once I was told that the course also involved worshiping the said godman, I wanted no more. Mix religion with anything and it becomes a deadly combination. The godmen seem to have mastered the art of making a heady cocktail of religion and reality that promises to take care of real life worries like stress, loss and failure.
In this age of science, when scientific temper is ‘supposedly’ being encouraged, it is shocking that the number of followers of these godmen just keep rising. Strangely enough and unfortunately for the godmen, they seem to become most successful after their death, because they move from the realm of mere mortals into being gods. A living godman at least has to have good oratory and some dexterity to be able to convince people. But once the godman has passed on, the heirs can just milk people’s beliefs for eternity.
It’s sad that even well educated youngsters get so hopelessly caught up in this mess that they lose all belief in their own abilities. They believe that only a certain godman can tell them the right path or fix their lives.
TV is the godman’s biggest ally. There are innumerable TV shows that promote superstitions. All of these tirelessly work at making people believe that everything except they themselves are responsible for the troubles in their lives. I was appalled when I saw a TV ad or infomercial as they call it, for a locket that supposedly kept off the evil eye (buri najar). The ad had animations showing how the evil eye is blocked by the locket and even people quoting experiences about how the locket saved them and changed their lives. There were other ads that sold devices and chains that claimed to have such other magical powers. I couldn’t believe that such stuff was being seen in lakhs of homes across India.
Believing in the supernatural and the magical is certainly good fun and definitely should be a part of the entertainment media. However that’s where it should stop. India cannot afford to have millions of productive people drained of their self belief and becoming incapable of standing on their own feet. Science of the day is certainly an inadequate guru, but it’s the best we have. The author can be reached at HarshadOak.com