Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Business Of God

Courtesy - http://www.dotheknowledge.com/

There is a very famous anecdote about Sri Ramanujacharya, the greatest Srivaishnava Guru. ‘Om Namo Narayanaya’ is a sacred 8-syllable mantra that is considered very powerful. Ramanujacharya sought initiation from another great guru called Nambi in order to do this japa. It is said that Nambi denied initiation for 18 times, testing the resolve of the young Ramanuja. Finally, having initiated Ramanuja into the japa, Nambi warned him to be very discrete in revealing the mantra, otherwise he would face harsh karmic punishment.

Having learnt the mantra, Ramanuja promptly scaled a temple gopura and yelled the mantra over and over again – so that each and every person passing by heard it and learnt it. His logic was simple – since the mantra is so powerful, surely it will benefit mankind. So why keep it a secret? Even if he has to face dire consequences, so be it – if millions find salvation, it is indeed worth a journey to hell! This probably took place somewhere between 1037 and 1047 AD.

Cut to 2010. An acquaintance paid a tidy sum of money for initiation into a certain meditation course. I thought of Ramanujacharya and smiled wryly. I wonder what he would say if he saw the religious corporations of today. The benefits of this meditation is accessible only to people with money, and not to the average man-woman on the street. The ‘CEOs’ of these religious corporations move around in luxury cars, jets and helicopters. Once again, I thought of the young Ramanuja. He walked between Srirangam (his base) and Thirukottiyur (Nambi’s base) 18 times, just to receive that initiation. In today's infrastructure, I think the distance is about 78-80Kms one way! He only had to nod: he would have had hundreds of disciples vying to carry him around in a palanquin! I bet he considered such an egoistic vanity a sin.

But coming back to the gurus of today; it looks like you can’t throw a stone on the road without hitting a couple of them. In the eighties, I had only heard of the one guru – the one who snatched wrist watches, rings, vibhuti out of thin air. Now, almost every family has a ‘family’ swamiji and a personal ‘mutt’.

While the alvaars and gurus such as Ramanujacharya, Shankaracharya, Madvacharya led ascetic lives – the glamour and opulence of today’s rockstar swamijis is mind-boggling. Golden thrones, marble ashrams, foreign real estate, and not to mention wealth that is equivalent to the GDP of a small country.

Last year, I was urged to attend one such swamiji’s meet. I was told (unsolicited) ‘all my problems will be solved’. While I did not (and don’t) have any problems – at least none that I cannot solve by myself; I was amused by this reason to go to a swamiji.

How and why on earth should I believe that a man clad in silken robes; a man who has no idea what it is to  live from pay check to pay check; a man who does not have to lift a finger to do any chore – be it fetching a glass of water for himself or cooking a meal; indeed a man who does not have to worry about where his next meal is coming from; a man who lives in a palatial mansion and does not have to worry about a crack in the wall or a chip in the tile; a man who travels in a car that most can never own even if they worked their entire life; a man who hobnobs with the rich and famous and powerful – that such a man will ‘solve’ any of my problems? Or indeed what makes his prayer better than mine – so much so his prayers will accelerate and ensure a speedy response from god?

The attendees of the meet descended in a sea of silk and expensive perfumes, transported in all kinds of sedans. Diamond rings and solitaires winked and sparkled as they were greeted with refreshing fruit juices. Pedestal fans whirred and state-of-art speakers were tuned. The swamiji came. I’ve never heard of him, never seen him before. He is that particular family’s swamiji I was told. Yup, just like a family doctor – a family swamiji. A young man, no more than forty.

He sat on the dais, on a red velvet chair with gilt fittings. His silk saffron robe shimmered in the afternoon sun. He started his discourse, and I dozed off internally. He knew exactly what the crowd wanted to hear, and he gave it to them. I clucked my tongue – we need the likes of him in our actual corporates, I thought. Glib tongue, suave, sense of humour – what a dynamite for a CEO role. He told the crowd about how stressed they were because of their materialistic needs. ‘You are not happy with a Maruthi 800; you apply for loan to buy a Honda City, you work even more hard to repay the loan,’ he surmised as everyone nodded and smiled at his wise words. It was funny – had no one noticed the swamiji came in a shiny Audi? He continued with some more gyaan about greed, even as he drank saffron-laced, cold badam milk served in a silver tumbler on a silver tray – while across the road, rag-picking children rummaged dust bins for an evening meal. I left.

And then there was this episode where this gentleman berated another ‘Guru’, who is now no more. The guru was known for his shocking views on sex and spirituality – his discourses criticise the notion of marriage and the notion of ‘suffering is required for spiritual upliftment’. More importantly, the guru never claimed to be a celibate; he spoke of sex in the spiritual context drawing from his own experiences. ‘Such fraud fellows bring a bad name to Hinduism,’ the gentleman continued angrily – he himself being a follower of the ring-dispensing guru.

I bit my tongue. I wanted to remind this gentleman of our revered Adi Shankaracharya and his famous philosophical debate with the famed Mandana Misra. When it looked like Misra would be defeated, his supremely intelligent and scholarly wife Bharati stepped in and challenged Shankara. Amongst various topics, she asked the sanyasi questions on the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Being a true celibate and having no knowledge, Shankara requested for some time. It is said that through his yogic powers, he separated his physical body from his consciousness; and kind of ‘possessed’ the body of a deceased king. He briefly enjoyed conjugal happiness through the ‘now alive’ king and gained knowledge. One might scoff at the episode, but the importance here is the essence - that sexuality and sexual well-being was never demonised, never considered as a sin in Hinduism. Perhaps the repeated invasions of less liberal, less tolerant faiths; and the repeated misinterpretations of our texts led to such a narrow frame of mind.

Today, psychology grudgingly talks about altered states of consciousness. We’ve often heard of meditative states described as ‘inner bliss’ or ‘ecstasy’ – an indescribable state of happiness that has nothing to do with the physical world; a state of weightlessness; a state of extreme awareness beyond the body (and hence the term ‘heightened state of consciousness') . This state can be ‘reached’ by various ways – psychedelic drugs, intense meditation or even sex; and in this case, sex has nothing to do with the physical act itself – it is more of reaching that heightened state of bliss where one literally floats free. Of all the ways, I suppose many find the act of love-making the easiest and fastest way to reach that state.

But then, anything dependent on the physical body is not sustainable; and pleasure (even if it is mental) gained through physical means such as sex and ingestion of drugs is addictive and debilitating in the long run. Hence a person seeking that super normal state of consciousness prefers to take the harder journey through meditation. It’s like scaling Everest. You can either take the hard route and climb up; or you can take a chopper and land on the peak – which do you think will empower you, strengthen you and give you a sense of achievement?

Coming back the gentleman – his tirade made me understand why the godman business is so lucrative. We’ve reached a stage where we have stopped questioning, introspecting, learning and unlearning. Our minds are shut, and we absorb ‘knowledge’ that only pleases our ego and conforms to set prejudices and notions. We value gimmicks more than a meaningful message. We have reached a state where we need an agent even for our personal, spiritual interaction with god. There is a belief that these agents can ‘influence’ god in our favour; just as we can bribe an officer to speed up our file in a government office. By keeping these agents pleased, we believe we will be showered with ‘blessings’ – that elusive promotion, winning of that court case, winning a lottery and so on.

How utterly tragic! There was a time when we believed there is no greater Guru than the four principle Vedas. Our ancient Masters spent life times condensing the abstract, metaphysical science of the Vedas into something more vernacular, more understandable by householders like you and I. But that apart, as far as I am concerned, there is no greater Guru than one’s own conscience, one’s own life and experiences. There is no truer prayer, than a prayer uttered from one’s own lips, formed in one’s own heart. Most of the ‘gurus’ of today are of a pop genre, and seem to run profit centres thanks to our dumb stupidity and misguided, egoistic, lazy notion of god and faith.

The spiritual journey is a solitary one, and a mental marathon. This is a journey that requires a Guru; and I believe once you’ve evolved to that state, a true Guru will seek you out! Until then, I recommend running marathons for charities – it will not only keep you mentally and physically fit, but also instead of funding marble tiles for some swamiji’s sea-side ashram in amreeka, your money will actually go for a good cause.

© Sumana Khan - 2012


  1. Nice post. But I guess it takes all sorts to make the world. Imagine a world where everyone was sensible...the term would lose its meaning. These fake Swamijis are fascinating. I wonder how they start, and convert opportunity to enterprise. Also, despite the lure of wealth, it's tiresome to lead a double-life. Or maybe I'm naive.

    1. I agree! At least India is more interesting because of them :) I think I came across this name just two weeks ago - 'Nirmal Baba'....can't stop laughing! He is one of the few who now has cheating cases registered against him apparently!

      True..they are a different breed - it takes a lot of charisma and business sense to build empires! And I think it is tiresome too ;)

    2. MB, you made my day! This Nirmal Baba guys is a riot! Among other rib-tickling stuff, Wiki says "charging exorbitant sums of money from people claiming to solve their problems with the help of self proclaimed "divine powers" and solutions through eating certain things like rabdi, pani-puri"

      What a novel solution! A whole new meaning to thindi, theertha! lol

    3. kculon - exactly LMAO! I could not stop laughing after reading that. As someone commented on TOI - 'nirmal baba is not normal baba' hahahaha...!!

  2. Brilliantly written. Every word of your post almost echoes what I think as well. I truly believe as you said that spiritual journey is a solitarty one...not even shared by family be it parents, spouse.

    I still get so surprised to see that all these modern day Swamijis have so much of a following ..maybe I'm just deluding myself rather than believing the way things are going. Sad situation.

    A wonderful post.

    - Aparna V.

    1. Thank you Aparna! Yes, I too get surprised by the 'following' - the 'meet' I briefly attended looked like an election campaign in terms of the number of attendees! Not to mention the 'side' business - there were stalls for selling that swamiji brand agarbathi, wall-clocks, CDs and so on! As a business model, it is amazing :)

  3. Good to read.
    Sorry for this short comment with nothing wortwhile to say.
    Am traveling.
    Read this and am commenting using my Samsung galaxy note
    Will send a proper comment after returning.
    Typing on this device is a pain!
    Camp: Delhi

    1. Nonetheless, thank you for taking time off to read and comment! Hope you are enjoying your vacation!

      are you using a tablet or a phone? either way how does it compare to apple ?:)

  4. Clap clap! Every word rings true.
    I hate this whole mediator business. The worst thing about it is as soon as people "find" their 'guru' they suddenly turn into these canvassers for their guru and his prowess. The rest of us become just worthless worms in their eyes. It is a job keeping them off your back.

    1. yes...and they have this 'am so going to heaven you sinful earthling' look :|

  5. Hi! im a new blogger on the block:-), happened to visit this blogspot for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
    "swamijis beware" is what we should hold banner everywhere to create this kind of awareness. Or may be these self proclaimed god agents should be accorded status of marketing gurus or bussiness badshahs for a return favour of stepping away from lives of innocent..err..ignorant junta!For god's sake, these godmen should vanish:-)

    1. Totally agree Nithya! Thanks for stopping by :)

  6. You've written it so well I couldn't help but nod with every sentence. I am too bored to entertain any such swamis and its been ages since I interacted with one. Not too good with social skills and being politically correct, so I guess elders at my place make sure I and swami don't interact on a one-to-one basis :P
    BTW here is my not so articulate take on one experience with such a swami. He's a small timer though.

    1. Coffee...I too hope I don't come face to face with a 'swamiji'. Not that I will be rude; but there will be a scene if I'm asked to 'touch his feet'...arrggghhh! Will hop over to your blog right away!