A market for holy men

A market for holy men
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First Published: Fri, Aug 21 2009. 09 05 PM IST

One-man show: Nanda warns against gurus such as Baba Ramdev who indirectly propagate a Hindu majoritarian mindset. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
One-man show: Nanda warns against gurus such as Baba Ramdev who indirectly propagate a Hindu majoritarian mindset. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Fri, Aug 21 2009. 09 05 PM IST
There has always been a massive god market in India. Even today, the volume of religious tourism exceeds travel for work or pleasure; the collection boxes of religious institutions are flooded with donations from both rich and poor; and any entrepreneur can expect an immediate profit from the sale of flowers, incense, beads and lucky threads. God pressures us in his commercial form at weddings and cremations; when a baby is born or a consumer durable is bought; and whenever the next festival in the yearly roll appears. As scholar Lise McKean wittily observes in Meera Nanda’s The God Market, “Religion is not only good for business...it is the best business of all: start-up costs are low, there are never any problems with supply or inventory and one receives tangible goods for intangible ones.”
One-man show: Nanda warns against gurus such as Baba Ramdev who indirectly propagate a Hindu majoritarian mindset. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
The point of Nanda’s book, however, is a more polemical one. A staunch critic of capitalism, at least as embodied in the tenets of neoliberalism, and an atheist, Nanda has problems with both God and the market, and especially with the two when they come together to subtly undercut, and finally overwhelm, the secular public sphere.
The core of her cogent thesis, if not always temperately argued, is that several powerful forces in India today are contributing to “a deep and widespread Hinduization of the public sphere”, when the vision of our Constitution is that this sphere should, in the interests of all citizens, be a secular space. As it globalizes, India is also being Hinduized by a middle class hungry for religious assertion and revivalism, and for an interpretation of tradition and scripture that will sanctify and rationalize their material ambitions. Not only does the established religious order have an interest in this creeping Hinduization, but so does the state (which hands out subsidies and land at concessional rates to religious institutions, many of which practise a “soft Hindutva”) and the corporate world.
The result is that the sacred is gradually trespassing upon the realm of the secular; superstition and unreason are openly trumping rationalism and the scientific temper; gurus and godmen are wielding a disproportionate influence on our cultural life, and we are being led towards a realm where all the achievements of our multi-faith and multicultural civilization may be attributed to the greatness and depth of ancient Hindu wisdom. The yoga-Ayurveda empire of Baba Ramdev is, for Nanda, “a paradigm case of the seamless merging of state, business, and religious-cultural elites and the openly communalist, xenophobic Hindu right”.
The God Market: Random House India, 240 pages, Rs395
It is not Nanda’s contention that every Hindu who is proud of his cultural heritage and observant of ritual is automatically a communalist. What she wants to warn us against, though, is a lapse into a Hindu majoritarian mindset, into what she calls a pride that also breeds prejudice. With such a mindset, we are likely to turn a blind eye to outrages visited upon members of minority communities, even if we ourselves remain law-abiding and do not actually participate in such projects.
Although Nanda has mined a lot of data, and perceptively sketches in the details of the Indian picture against the larger currents of secularization and religious assertion seen around the world, her reflexive hostility to religion can sometimes blunt the power of her otherwise substantial case. In one of the bullet-point lists of facts she sometimes supplies to bolster her thesis, she complains that “religious belief remains widespread among (Indian) scientists”, as if to suggest that one can only be a real scientist when one has destroyed every last trace of religious feeling (Isaac Newton was a devout believer). I was appalled to see Nanda assert that “the once atheistic China has emerged as one of the most religious countries in the world”, when the truth is that China’s encounter with atheism was enforced from above by the Communist Party through means far more perverse than anything the Indian state has so far managed.
It was also surprising to see Nanda aver, in her introduction, that her book is not a work “of polemics or ideological argumentation”. It transparently is a polemical and ideological work, and there is no need for Nanda to be defensive about it; we need more intellectuals committed to tearing away the illusions we invent to make us feel good about ourselves. Better editing would have made this a more secure book, but The God Market still scores a lot of points.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author ofArzee the Dwarf.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 21 2009. 09 05 PM IST