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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The artificial trappings of our ‘gurus’

I love the rogue or picaro who takes advantage of the innocence and naivety of nations. If one is polite, one might say he services a need. I wish I had the drive to do this, but I do not, and this is something I cannot correct. If I could I would. The one thing I can acquire is the fraud externals that are essential to the holy men and women of our parts. They are in sum:

1. Fancy title

2. Costume

3. Hair and make-up

4. Spouting banalities

These are the only essentials, assuming that the drive, meaning desire, to do this is already there. Why do our gurus need a fancy title? The answer is the same as it is for questions about why the robe and the beard and long hair and the rest of the attendant regalia. For, clean-shaven and in shirt and trousers, they would not be taken seriously by their audience. The paying public demands authenticity through costume drama. The holy man and spiritual guru provides it.

Indians are particularly gullible, most not having the ability to think independently of their sanskriti (culture). Externals, like visual signalling and nomenclature, are absolutely vital. That explains why our leaders all have epithets: Sardar and Pandit and Mahatma and Maulana (which means “our master"). Stripped of these, their haloes start fading, and it makes Indians uncomfortable. Speaking in English, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was heckled for calling our saint “Mr Gandhi", instead of Mahatma Gandhi, even though it was appropriate. In a nation where leaders are revered but not really read, this is how we engage with them.

And so that is why our holy figures insist they be called “Baba" and “Bapu" and “Ma" and “Yogi" and the rest. Without these titles, they would be seen for what they are: like the rest of us, not special.

Bollywood has tried to look at this phenomenon through the character of the dhongi baba. This is someone who pretends to be a guru but is a fraud. What is different about such an individual (assuming we agree that no human, whether dhongi or not, has supernatural powers)? The beard and costume are fake. If they were real, the baba would not be a dhongi. There is no other difference.

Armed with the magic threads on his wrist, protected by chants and special pujas (which arc the universe’s blessings towards him), the Indian sallies forth into the world. It is in this culture that the guru figure is bred. It is ridiculously easy, in a nation where costume and title are taken seriously, to peddle hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo and gurumantra. Numerology and astrology and palmistry are the modern versions of ancient nonsense.

But they have existed for a long time.

The second century Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata, was merciless towards Brahmins. To him, like Christian martyrs, they radiated a fake and unnecessary piety, even when they immolated themselves, like Calanus does in the field court of Alexander. One of Lucian’s best works is called The Passing Of Peregrinus. It is about a cynic (someone who gives up the material world, like our gurus) who announces he will commit suicide publicly after the Olympic Games of 165 AD. Of course, before the act, Peregrinus begins to make a speech. This is what Lucian, who was present, observes:

“The more witless among the people began to shed tears and call out: ‘Preserve your life for the Greeks!’ but the more virile part bawled ‘Carry out your purpose!’ by which the old man was immoderately upset, because he hoped that all would cling to him and not give him over to the fire, but retain him in life—against his will, naturally! That ‘Carry out your purpose’ assailing him quite unexpectedly caused him to turn still paler, although his colour was already deathly, and even to tremble slightly, so that he brought his speech to an end.

“You can imagine, I expect, how I laughed; for it was not fitting to pity a man so desperately in love with glory beyond all others who are driven by the same Fury. Anyhow, he was being escorted by crowds and getting his fill of glory as he gazed at the number of his admirers, not knowing, poor wretch, that men on their way to the cross or in the grip of the executioner have many more at their heels."

After the games, Peregrinus “kept making postponements, but at last had announced a night on which he would stage his cremation; so, as one of my friends had invited me to go along, I arose at midnight and took the road to Harpina, where the pyre was. This is quite twenty furlongs from Olympia as one goes past the hippodrome towards the east. As soon as we arrived, we found a pyre built in a pit about six feet deep. It was composed mostly of torchwood, and the interstices filled with brush, that it might take fire quickly. When the moon was rising—for she too had to witness this glorious deed—he came forward, dressed in his usual fashion, and with him the leaders of the Cynics, in particular, the gentleman from Patras, with a torch—no bad understudy. Proteus too was bearing a torch. Men, approaching from this side and that, kindled the fire into a very great flame, since it came from torchwood and brush. Peregrinus—and give me your close attention now!—laying aside the wallet, the cloak, and that notable Heracles-club, stood there in a shirt that was downright filthy. Then he requested incense to throw on the fire; when someone had proffered it, he threw it on, and gazing towards the south—even the south, too, had to do with the show—he said, ‘Spirits of my mother and my father, receive me with favour.’ With that he leaped into the fire; he was not visible, however, but was encompassed by the flames, which had risen to a great height."

Lucian is brutal, but he makes it come alive for us. He makes us realize how banal this all is. And he, of course, shows no mercy even though his godman kills himself. Think of what he might have made of our godmen, with their costumes and airs and empires. Then again, Lucian would be wasted on this society.

Anyway, as I said, I admire those who do what I do not have the drive to: Take advantage of the innocence and naivety all around us. Those of you who do should try it. There is a lot of money to be made and power to be acquired. Indians are suckers for this sort of thing.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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