The historic moment of freedom at midnight may seem romantic but only for the effect. The story behind the midnight jubilation may not be as appealing. 70 years ago, when the destiny of the sub-continent was being shaped, transfer of power from British to the newly created two dominions of India and Pakistan being announced, the choice of the timing ironically shackled the spirit of the newly born nations by the legacy of superstitions and blind faith. Britain’s last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten chose August 15 because he believed the date to be lucky for his career as on this day the Japanese Army had surrendered before him during the World War II while he was the commander of the allied forces. When the date of independence was announced to public, there was an outrage among astrologers across the country because it was considered inauspicious according to astrological calculations. Alternative dates were suggested but Lord Mountbatten was adamant on sticking to his ‘lucky date’. As a compromise, the astrologers suggested the midnight hour between August 14 and August 15 (as day starts according to Hindu calendar at sunrise). As per this compromise and on the insistence of the astrologers, the speech of acknowledgement of transfer of power had to be delivered within the time frame of 48 minutes between 11:51 PM and 12:39AM. Ironically Nehru’s famous midnight address that sees a vision of freedom and liberty was timed not in keeping with the values that his address espoused but in accordance with superstition.
Seventy years down the road, the country finds itself far more deeply immersed in the whirlpool of superstitions. Despite that ironic beginning to a new era, India began its tryst with freedom revealing an appetite for education, scientific quest, critical thinking and rationality but continued to be guided by the underpinnings for superstition and satisfied this urge by raising self styled godmen to lofty pedestals.
The conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, a self proclaimed godman, with a jail term of 20 years for two rapes should serve as an eye-opener. Ram Rahim is not the only evil. This evil is not only about the kind of cult he promoted, of amassing assets and wielding influence and power over his devotees, drawn to him out of hypnotism, fear or blind faith. It isn’t just about one man. One after the other such men held in high esteem, their egos fattened by their die-hard supporters who would be ready to resort to loot and arson for saving from the clutches of law the man who they believe can bring them deliverance in their blind belief; though he eventually ends up being the man who is unable to even save himself and is reported to have loudly wept and howled in court and prison after his conviction. We’ve seen this journey from glory to jail repeatedly in recent years with Ram Rahim, Asaram, Rampal and Nityanand proving to be clones of each other.
The sleazy story of Ram Rahim’s empire is now being unfolded. His multiple rapes were facilitated by blind believers who were ready to give their daughters and wives as offerings to him, and worse still he wielded such immense power over his devotees that many men underwent castrations, willingly or by coercive methods. Several politicians patronised him and he ensured vote banks for them.
Ram Rahim phenomenon is symptom of a larger malaise – of the ability to perpetuate superstitions, amass wealth and power and befool ordinary citizens driven to situations of despair and frustration by their conditions to the extent that they start believing in miracles or are on the lookout for some spiritual deliverance, much like some would turn to drugs, drinking, gambling or therapists. The likes of Ram Rahim lure them with that promise of magically changing their lives. In a country with an old tradition of spiritual gurus and faith, this is not difficult. When some godmen use magic tricks, otherwise explained scientifically by many rationalists, like bringing sacred ash out of thin air, lighting a lamp by pouring water, lying on a bed of nails or levitating on air, they make themselves more convincing for their gullible audiences. These may be tricks anyone could perform with lot of practice but the self-styled Godmen have cheated people by using these to claim they have extraordinary powers.
In a country of many disparities and caste based exclusions, some of these fraud godmen have sought to enhance their following by making their cults inclusive. Gurmeet Ram Rahim was one such example. He is only one of the many examples, there are many more self styled, gurus and godmen and faith healers lurking around in every nook and corner of the country, some who wield power and influence in their smaller areas and some whose power and fame outstrips the boundaries of the country like Ramdev or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, both of whom have built up virtual corporate organic empires through sheer ecological vandalism, brutal business principles and cheating public. They have become far too powerful and politically influential to be touched, even though allegations of their wrong doings abound. Sri Sri got away without even paying meager compensation for the Yamuna river bed he is accused of vandalizing and Ramdev’s case of synthetic and bones as components of his many products was swept under the carpet long back.
If one godman is exposed, another replaces him. The phenomenon of superstitions and blind faith continues with much more gusto. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his scientific temperament, could not challenge it. The present government has only helped promote it by patronizing astrology as a science and perpetuating myths of an ancient past of cosmetic and nuclear technology. About two decades ago, the nation was swept off its feet when it began hallucinating over the myth of Ganesh idols drinking milk, perpetuated and endorsed by politicians and media. Whether by coincidence or by design, the following years have seen the phenomenal rise of the saffron party and the growth of such superstitions hand in hand. Not to miss in this scenario is the media acting as an agent in promoting myths with hordes of channels dedicated to the conmen godmen, astrology, tarot cards, vaastu and promoting brands that sell a wide range of ‘miracle’ products from evil eye and idols to capture the imagination of the superstitious public. This is a huge business enterprise in which godmen are not the only ones reaping the harvest of wealth, power and influence.
Even as the beginning of this country’s journey after freedom was marred by the superstititous selection of time and date of formal announcement of independence, India began its quest for scientific and rational tempering gradually. There was a time when education, intellect, scientific temperament and reason was being promoted at all official and intellectual levels. The official television channel Doordarshan screened scientific programmes in which among others, the great humanist and scientist Dr Yashpaul, who recently died almost unsung, was a regular feature talking about the scientific explanations of events like solar and lunar eclipse that were believed by those blinded by faith and superstitions as super natural. Many modern day news channels do just the opposite. As a nation, we were once embarking on the road to education and liberation of minds where scientific reasoning was looked upon and superstitions were being scorned. Superstitions existed but weren’t fashionable. When we began the journey backwards to scorn at science and raise superstitions to a holier level is when the manufacture of fake godmen began on a larger scale and their con businesses proliferated. To reverse that, the country needs more education that is bereft of its superstitious component.