Ram Rahim didn’t spin his guru-dom out of thin air. So what made him a guru to millions? : NATION
Again in 2004 once I visited Sirsa to observe up my curiosity within the melodrama of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) charity, the theatricality of Ram Rahim’s guru-ship was instantly obvious. At one of many satsangs I attended, the then-current Hindi movie track ‘Balle Balle’ was performed at excessive quantity, and it was to this soundtrack that the guru made his entrance. He was accompanied by a small deer. Male devotees, of various ages, stood up and danced frenetically, all of the whereas agitatedly pointing their fingers and arms ahead towards the guru. Because the guru took to his throne, his palanquin jerked ahead and started to maneuver steadily, most likely on a rail monitor, bisecting the gang in a type of royal progress, enabling even far-off devotees to realize close-up darshan. So issues had been already fairly filmi again then. Furthermore, the much-observed melodrama of Bollywood was evident within the DSS’s prostitution eradication programme (which concerned devotees ‘saving’ intercourse employees by marrying them), its international designs (‘The day will come quickly when each youngster on this world may have the identify of Sacha Sauda on his tongue’), routine exaggerations (‘A miraculously large “Ajooba” washer. What a surprise it’s! The washermen [in a Sacha Sacha students’ hostel] urged Hazoor Maharaj ji, and He gave directions about this glorious washer [which] has the capability of concurrently washing 1,000 garments inside half an hour solely’), and within the important position of the spectacular within the DSS’s type of devotion. Borrowing from Tom Gunning who coined ‘cinema of points of interest’ to discuss with the dominance of particular results and technological wonders over narrative coherence in early cinematography, we are able to say that the DSS birthed a devotion of points of interest. The guru’s exhibitionism and fixed stream of devotional particular results had been, after all, technique of soliciting the devotee’s consideration. The roles of spectator and bhakt are folded collectively, and because the anthropologist Birgit Meyer has identified, spectacles are offered as miracles.
On condition that the DSS was already a devotion of points of interest, it wasn’t solely a shock – certainly it appeared becoming – when rumours of the primary instalment of MSG: Messenger of God surfaced. Along with India’s famend fashionable movie trade, there are, after all, well-established genres of devotional and mythological movies. MSG confused classes in combining, maybe for the primary time, the mythological and have movie genres of Indian cinema: filled with mythological tropes, its stylisation additionally conformed to that of India’s fashionable cinema, with music, dance and stylised violence and exaggeration because the guru went about curing a mess of social ills. Additional, the movie and its sequels noticed a shift from the depiction of gurus in film-something that’s completely conventional-to the brand new state of affairs of the guru as movie star enjoying himself. It’s well-known that sure movie stars, significantly in south India, are worshipped – generally within the cinema corridor itself. Right here we discover the reversal of this-i.e. one who’s already worshipped turning movie star. We are able to suppose right here of Jai Santoshi Maa (1975), a movie well-known for performatively creating among the devotional phenomena it described, leading to new devotional rituals. However what sort of spiritual devotion, if any, did MSG produce? And does all of it now lie in ruins?
Current media protection of this explicit guru has, after all, been lurid and sensational – and, arguably, that’s solely applicable for one whose spectacularised guru-ship got here readymade for mass media consumption: a guru-ship of grand gestures. Along with the sexual assaults of which he has been discovered responsible, there’s the additional allegation that he ordered the castration of tons of of his devotees. Positioned facet by facet, the instances might appear to counsel an alpha male eliminating his sexual competitors. Then there are the allegations of intercourse dependancy and illicit relations together with his adopted daughter, Honeypreet. Media presentation of those instances has framed every of them when it comes to pure novelty. But castration and intercourse in devotional contexts are hardly with out precedent. As an example, in his e-book, Gods on Earth, Peter van der Veer data numerous conferences with tyagis who’ve been sterilised for ascetic causes. Daniel Gold, in his e-book Comprehending the Guru, rightly notes that corruption is known to happen in devotional contexts ‘when an excessive amount of apparently unregenerate humanness makes hyperlinks to the infinite divine appear visibly tenuous’; clearly, that’s what has occurred within the DSS guru’s case, nevertheless it also needs to be recalled that it’s possible-or at the very least was attainable previous to the hollowing out of the collective memory-for intimate relations with a guru to depend as spiritually uplifting. None of that is to defend the actions of the DSS guru however somewhat to level out that he did not simply invent these practices-they did not come from nowhere.
Equally, when Ram Rahim started serially to overflow the roles of guru and philanthropist to change into a pop star after which movie actor, and got here to be christened ‘guru of glitz’, media experiences appeared to counsel he was the primary guru ever to put on ostentatious clothes and jewelry. Maybe his accoutrements had been uniquely garish, however one can discover many movies on YouTube of Sathya Sai Baba’s penchant for bling as he materialises rings, watches and different ornaments. Rings and jewelry have for a very long time been (1) materialised by gurus (as calling card ‘miracles’) and (2) advisable to devotees as cures to explicit issues or illnesses. (Astrology, with its gem stones and ruby rings, can be after all full of glitz.) He’s additionally hardly the primary theatrically-inclined guru.
In his e-book Mad and Divine, Sudhir Kakar defined how ‘Rajneesh [a.k.a. Osho] self-consciously ready for his public appearances as does an actor for his position. In later life, he would use make-up, put on wealthy robes that accentuated his broad shoulders and jewel-studded caps that hid his baldness’. Mata Amritanandamayi additionally periodically clothes up because the goddess Devi. Dressing up in several methods is essential to being a guru. It’s actually one of the vital efficient technique of changing into one.
Charisma, it has been urged, is doing issues you aren’t alleged to do and getting away with it. However charisma wasn’t the one purpose for DSS guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s ability-until very lately – to maintain getting away with it: as is well-known, the guru obtained safety from multiple political social gathering in return for his devotees’ votes. However there have been different methods as nicely. One was charity. Clearly, charity has a protracted historical past as a method of fame laundering, and I urged in my e-book Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Spiritual Expertise in North India that the DSS’s feats of supercharity – similar to incomes Guinness World Information for many models of blood donated in a single day, largest ever eye screening camp, and epic organ and entire physique donation pledges-were at the very least partially makes an attempt to create a media presence able to hiding from view a unique set of damaging tales that had been then threatening to outline his public picture. (After all, it was his devotees doing most of the charitable works and him taking the credit score; the guru’s world data, which circulated his resonant identify all through the world, had been the transfigured capital of his management over his devotees’ our bodies.) Therefore, when in 2007 Sikhs took exception to Ram Rahim making an attempt to go himself off as Guru Gobind Singh, devotees pointed to the guru’s charitable endeavours as proof of his true and saintly nature and that he did not deserve the criticism being heaped upon him. To stress the purpose, the DSS organised blood donations in protest on the assaults on its premises. And positive sufficient, when it got here to the sentencing of the guru final month, his lawyer pleaded for the guru’s nice largesse to be taken into consideration in deciding the jail time period.
To be honest, fame laundering wasn’t all that DSS charity sought to attain. Little question it has genuinely helped folks – particularly, the free medical therapy supplied to devotees – whereas devotees, too, in forming a part of the guru’s enlarged sense of persona had been capable of assume the position of givers in significant methods; embodied within the guru’s prolonged personhood, they too might give outwards to society, whereas concurrently giving to the guru: permitting his identify to journey, his kingly charisma based mostly on extreme giving to develop, his fame to be laundered. You may say that the guru’s present to his economically deprived devotees was to allow them to change into givers, too. Right here we are able to recall the etymology of bhakti, ‘bhaj’: ‘to take part’.
Faux, fraud, imposter, nakli, dhongi, pakhandi. Ram Rahim has been referred to as all of those and much worse since his imprisonment (and nicely earlier than it, too, however at a decrease frequency). Once more, to not defend him, however different readings can be found. It does not actually do to name him a pretend guru (he is maybe only a very dangerous one). He was (is?) a significant guru to tens of millions. And the very hyperbole of his devotion of points of interest lends itself, maybe perversely, to a type of truth-telling. Allow us to level to 3 facets of what we’d name his technicolour disclosure of the strategies of guru-ship.
First, his notoriously controversial sartorial and ritual imitation of Guru Gobind Singh in 2007 underlines how changing into a ‘reputable’ guru requires one to partake of prior gurus and different divine kinds. Mimetic strategies for reaching this are numerous. A guru who claims to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba will undertake mannerisms and regalia stated to be attribute of the sooner holy man. The son of a lately deceased guru could, quickly after his father’s passing, start uttering surprising remarks of the kind previously made by his father, suggesting the latter’s presence inside him. As ever, it is the profitable facet that writes the historical past books, and people holy males or ladies whose imitative expertise achieve bestowing legitimacy on them aren’t remembered as confidence tricksters (holy man confidence tricksters date again to at the very least the Kautiliya Arthasastra). There’s a nice Indian custom of dressing up as gurus whose members aren’t least gurus themselves.
Second, the feverishness of Ram Rahim’s boundary-crossing-from ‘mere’ saint, he turns into CEO, social activist, philanthropist, pop star, movie actor and so on., whereas additionally crossing boundaries of style, standard decency and religion-highlights the bigger tendency of gurus to transgress outlined roles and social and conceptual boundaries: their uncontainability, as Aya Ikegame and I’ve put it elsewhere. Lastly, one may ask about Ram Rahim’s teachings: nicely, they’re pretty customary, mediocre even. It isn’t by-the-by that they had been utterly eclipsed in media experiences earlier than and after his conviction. Right here we return to the thought of a devotion of points of interest, for the message of his guru-ship was all the time outdone by the command ‘See!’, by devotional novelties; his capability to indicate however to not inform. Ultimately, as we all know, the glare of the highlight discovered its approach to hidden darknesses. However the devotion of points of interest he made so evident via personifying it’s practised nicely past Sirsa, has pure media allies and facilitators, and goes nowhere quickly.
Jacob Copeman is an affiliate professor of social anthropology on the College of Edinburgh, UK. He co-edited The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Views (Routledge 2012) with Aya Ikegame