Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Godmen of India

I probably should keep my trap shut and just not “go there.” Not today, the 65th birthday of the world’s largest democracy. But then, this week’s topic practically begs it. Perhaps especially today…
A swami opened the Woodstock Music Festival, coincidentally on today's date in 1969. (Photo: Mark Goff)
When I think of saints and sinners with regards to India, one of the first groups to come to mind is, of course, corrupt politicians, but also those multitude of priests and swamis who occupy temples and religious centers on practically every block of urban and rural area of India I’ve traveled to.

The English word "pundits" comes from the Sanskrit word pandits, which translates as “learned men,” and in India, generally refers to Hindu priests. The Indian pandits carry out the daily rituals of washing idols, decorating them with garlands of flowers, and laying out offerings of fruits and sweets early each morning (let me repeat, each morning), after which they clean up those same offerings and garlands at the end of each day, only to repeat this day after day except for those more auspicious days that require even more flowers and more offerings. In between, they pray, chant, meditate, dole out blessings and advice, and perform important rituals such as weddings and baptisms.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of these individuals and institutions are honest and well meaning, and that the pandits themselves provide uplifting and powerful messages to their followers.

But over the past decade or so, something has happened in the country that seems to defy logic. Most of us probably see part of this phenomenon a lot, whatever part of the world we live in: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Granted, the middle class in India are faring economically much better than ever, but that may be despite the Hindu nationalist leaders who incite a sort of religious mistrust of the other and whom most ordinary people have to circumvent to achieve any real progress.

My issue with the excess of temples and spiritual advisors, though, and maybe this is just me being overly cynical, is how specifically does it help a country that’s sinking deeper into poverty atop the vast but crumbling infrastructure? I get that there are psychic and personal rewards that come with prayer and faith, but shouldn't it accompany some sort of parallel trend of positive social change? In fact, many of the country's deepest problems are worsening, even as new ones spring up.

On top of that, the temple business is often just big business. On a recent visit to Mumbai, I read a top, front-page news story about a pure gold idol that had been stolen overnight from a local suburban temple. I'm still thinking about that story. All that gold in all those temples! All those offerings of other valuables, not just gold, silver, and the like, but the fresh fruits, milk, sugar, and other consumables from ordinary people. It’s more than likely a thief stealing an idol from a neighborhood temple would be doing so out of necessity, maybe to feed a family rather than from pure greediness.

Speaking of greed, the extraordinary hypocrisy of some godmen in deceiving the masses of followers who believe in them is depressing, even frightening. You can find loads of examples of who did what through a quick Internet search, so I’ll spare you names and dates, but some of the most common tactics these mystics and soothsayers use are performing “miracles” and “magic;” claiming to be an incarnation of God; promising “instant nirvana;” curing cancer, depression, or even family squabbles with holy water or ash. At times, it’s worse. Secret international bank accounts (fat ones), or else the opposite, such as overt displays of wealth (luxury cars, business-class air travel, lofty price tags for “purchasing” a blessing). Worse still, accusations of fraud, sexual abuse, rape.

Despite many such instances of improprieties of one kind or another, the Indian public often buys into the sham. Literally buys in, donating both their money and time. Admirably, Indians have a great deal of faith and spirituality as well as trust in their religious leaders. But when their godmen claim to be gods, performing miracles like popping a gold coin out of their mouths, how do these same leaders explain not being able to solve any of the country’s major social ills yet still command a following?

Sixty-five years ago, India gained its independence after a very long and hard-won freedom struggle. In a speech this week to commemorate today’s independence day, newly elected president, Pranab Mukherjee, said what India now needs is a second freedom struggle, this one against hunger, disease, and poverty. I agree, though I have to add, the freedom from false gods would be a great first step in that direction.


  1. Supriya, your passion for the country of your forbears is clear. You've obviously touched a cultural nerve, but congratulations on your courage. And congratulations to India on its 65th anniversary as a democracy.

  2. Supriya, what's the connection between the religious temples and the state in India? Does the state typically own the grander temples or do religious sects own them?