Gods for Sale

It is a very, very Indian story.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine filed a petition in the Indian Supreme Court against – believe it or not- the tenth incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu!  Or at least, against a person who claims to be nothing less than that and has in the past decade drummed up a following of over several million people in the southern part of India.

Blasphemous as the claim of this fake avatar is the court battle is not really about the finer details of Hindu cosmology or theological doctrine.

Based on several years of painstaking investigation and research it is my friend’s claim that ‘Kalki Bhagwan’, as the defendant calls himself, has taken money from the public for rural development activities and fraudulently diverted it to his personal bank accounts as well as that of his close relatives.  From being an ordinary clerk working for a state-owned life insurance company fifteen years ago today the ‘Tenth Incarnation of Vishnu’ is allegedly worth many million dollars and owns vast properties in many parts of South India.

The Indian Supreme Court has been asked, based on the merits of the evidence presented, to order a thorough investigation by state agencies into the functioning of the  ‘Kalki’ empire.

The ‘Kalki’ case is not very unique in a country that gave the world the word ‘guru’ to begin with and produces more of them every year than the rest of the world combined. (I am including some software programmers here!!!). The manipulation of abstract (often abstruse) thought to manipulate animate creatures has deep roots in this ancient land, which has produced several of the world’s major religions apart from numerous cults and mystical traditions. 

Out of all the  ‘gurus’ that routinely spring up on the spiritually fertile Indian soil only a few are genuinely enlightened souls who help spread goodness and true religiosity around them. The bulk of them are unfortunately ordinary conmen out to make a quick buck.

Once upon a time the typical ‘guru’ would prey on the gullibility of the predominantly rural and illiterate Indian population. Considering the raw deal these village folks got here on Planet Earth their attraction to anyone promising a better life in the Heavens above was never surprising.

But in recent times god men and gurus of all kinds have developed a huge following within the urban Indian lower middle and middle classes.  Since the early eighties in particular there has been a boom in the `guru industry’ across urban India and some of them have acquired virtual pop-star status. (All that long hair helps, I am sure)

So what explains this phenomenon of otherwise educated, well-heeled Indians queuing up in droves to fall at the feet of fake god men and shower them with money? Is this about the genuine quest of individuals seeking spiritual salvation in a very materialist world or is it about their dishonest attempts to get quick-fix solutions to the moral dilemmas they face in an increasingly unscrupulous world? To be fair I guess one would have to say it is a bit of both.

On one hand there is a genuine search for spiritual satisfaction that many individuals undertake, in a world where there is growing material consumption but diminishing human happiness. This leads many to experiment with one false prophet after the other in the hope of arriving at a magic formula that will bring balance between mind and matter.

Also given the inability of institutionalized religion to cater to the specific spiritual needs of individuals, many people turn to gurus who offer precisely such personalized service.  Like having your own custom-built conduit to nirvana.

At another level, the kind of things that most members of the middle-classes need to do in their jobs to both keep their jobs and get ahead of the Jains (the Indian equivalent of the Jones) creates considerable moral turbulence to say the least. While most people justify whatever they do as being part of ‘what everyone does to survive’ the fact is their conscience still undergoes a torment that simply cannot be wished away- and hence has to be whitewashed away. 

The more troubled a society is by feelings of guilt and sinfulness that the consumerism of the few amidst poverty of the many engenders, the more frenetic its public display of pretended religiosity. It is this vast growing market for moral mufflers across the small towns and cities of India that the guru industry has managed to cleverly identify and capture.

With their instant solutions of spiritual salvation- sold at steep moral discounts with pay-as-you-pray options- the gurus have struck a commercial goldmine. In exchange for a fat fee they offer the modern citizen an easy way out of the more difficult task of maintaining integrity or decency in their day-to-day lives.

There was a time in the past when the typical guru would become popular by exhorting the public to give up their material desires and then sit back to watch all the lovely money flow into his own bank account. Nowadays though the average guru is more realistic about public attitudes and instead promises them all kinds of shortcuts to instant wealth while charging a commission for his services.

“Don’t shun worldly pleasures, seek ultimate happiness” the Tenth Avatar is quoted as preaching to his devotees, (sounds like the late Chairman Deng to me!) to whom he promises everything from winning lotteries to marrying a bride who looks just like their favorite movie star. His foundations charge followers for attending courses on something called ‘pragmatic materialism’.

The Indian public is lapping up this kind of drivel and paying for it too. Today the sad situation is that while the average urban Indian becomes more and more overtly religious in his/her public activities, politics, priorities and cultural symbolism- this is accompanied by a steep fall in his/her actual moral worth. 

For all their hedonist holiness the Indian middle-classes have neither become more charitable, or generous, or kinder or tolerant- not a single sign that they have somehow become better human beings than before. (‘Don’t interrupt my orgasm! You unhappy, pseudo-secular, bloody communist!!’ I can hear them say)

At the macro-level too there are other pressures that bear upon the individual pushing them towards blind unquestioning faith.  One of these is the deliberate injection of uncertainty into the material lives of millions of Indians in recent decades by successive governments implementing neo-liberal economic policies.

Since the early eighties successive Indian regimes have pursued a path of Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation (the LPG model) which has resulted in increasing income inequalities, diminishing job opportunities and the rapid erosion of the rights of employees in both the state and private sectors. The last two decades of the Indian economy has been aptly characterized by some as consisting of an industrial sector which had growth without jobs, while the rural sector saw employment without income. According to the Indian Planning Commission there are currently 212 million people in the country between the ages of 14 to 24, but only 107 million have jobs.

The insecurity of the average Indian family today is one of gigantic proportions as they witness before their own eyes the systematic destruction of all hopes for a better life by policies designed only to enrich a few at the expense of the many. Unable to understand this process and in the absence of organized resistance many have resigned themselves to their fate or sought refuge in the false but comfortable world of pseudo-religiosity.

Another major factor promoting the growth of spiritual supermarkets and religious retailers in India is of course the speculative greed unleashed among its middle classes by the ‘casinofication’ of its economy- as a consequence of globalisation. 

The sheer volumes and velocity of global financial flows conjures an awe among many human beings that was once upon a time reserved only for the grand forces of Mother Nature.  And in a world where money mysteriously appears in some lives and disappears from others, like the incarnation of an ancient God, it is difficult not to become superstitious.

It is not accidental therefore that financial speculators, aptly dubbed as ‘wizards’ by the media, have become the new high priests of our societies and role models for many people. “When in sorrow contact Soros, for happiness try the Hedge Fund! ” has become the new mantra of the punting classes.     

And like all gamblers everywhere the speculating middle-class citizen today will do any damn desperate thing to keep fate of his/her financial investments prospering. Go through the classifieds section of any major Indian newspaper and you will find outfits peddling everything from astrology, numerology, fengshui, magic gems side by side with finance companies, stock brokers, real estate agents, investment consultants, wheelers and dealers of every description.

 So what we have right now in much of urban India is a mad scramble by the middle classes to blindly bet everything they have on the market and equally blindly buy insurance from the nearest holy-looking scamster and hope it all works out fine.

While I have described so far the dilemmas of the temple (also mosque/church in the Indian context) going public the question that troubles me is that if the people have become vulnerable is it not the responsibility of the truly religious to restore their moral spines? Unfortunately as far as most contemporary religious institutions are concerned one sees no attempt whatsoever to help ordinary citizens cope in an honest and dignified manner with the momentous economic and social upheavals tossing around their once simple lives.

 Instead what we witness is that religious outfits- after having served out their feudal masters in the past- are quickly adapting to the corporatisation of the world and becoming full-fledged enterprises on their own. And all signs are that they have been extremely successful too- using every modern corporate tool from slick advertising to internet marketing to get their customers.

Just to give an example from Thailand- one new Buddhist sect here called the Dhammakaya which preaches the Kalki/Deng line of “to get rich is glorious’ actually won a national award in 1988 for its ‘market planning strategies’ from the Business Management Association of Thailand. 

 Before anyone gets me wrong let me explain that I do seriously believe in the possibility of religious institutions playing a very positive role in many societies provided they put the interests of ordinary folk above that of rich elites or their own survival. Just to give another example from Thailand again the Buddhist Sangha here does a fantastic service to society by absorbing large numbers of rural youth from poor farming families into the monkhood. The Sangha provides the young monks with shelter, a basic education and a sense of social responsibility  and at the same time is not dogmatic or rigid about their leaving the monkhood to take up other professions. Some of Thailand’s best know writers, artists and even social activists come from a background in the monkhood.

Maybe one can argue that it is the role of the state to provide such welfare but in many a developing country given the dysfunctional state of the state such traditional social welfare systems still have an important role. (If such opportunities were extended to young Thai women, who are unfortunately discriminated against,  Thailand could get rid of much of its notorious commercial sex industry)

In stark contrast in India, with a few splendid exceptions, most religious institutions have ceased to serve the public in any meaningful way and instead parasitically live off them.  At the time of Indian Independence Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, famously claimed that industries would become the ‘temples of modern India’.  What we see now is that instead it is the temples that have become ‘industries of a revivalist India’!

If this is going to be the case then I have a suggestion to make. Subject all religious institutions to the same laws that apply to all other industries, businesses and trade. Allow all those employed by the religious industry to form trade unions and empower consumers of religion to claim compensation in the courts when they get products of ‘low spiritual quality’. If they are in the business of selling God then there should at least be a sales tax on the proceeds. Tax these religious outfits and use the money to pay for truly religious actions such as giving the weak and poor a better life.

A good start would be to straighten out the booming business empire of none other than our dear ‘Tenth Avatar of Vishnu’.

Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment