The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition.
Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.
Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.
The success of self-styled godmen doesn’t come without any preparation, though. In Mahapurush, Birinchi Baba recalls conversations he has had with the Buddha and Plato in the same breath. He is the ageless seer-scientist-messiah who claims to have coached Einstein for coming up with the theory of relativity and boasts of sifting through thousands of shlokas by Manu to edit and compile the final version of Manusmriti.
“They call Jesus’s death crucifixion, but I call it cruci-fact, for I saw it with my own eyes,” Birinchi declares to a roomful of entranced disciples. Behind the scenes, while not interacting with his followers, he’s shown reading a fat history tome even as a Hindi film song plays on the radio. His sidekick, played by Rabi Ghosh, complains about missing a new movie at the theatre. This book-reading, tantrum-managing ordinariness of such a man’s life likely eludes those who remain within the room, so to speak, willingly at that. In the business of bartering assets – spiritual barkat for one’s time and money – a guru’s mortal avatar can be expediently overlooked. What else would explain followers, including highly-educated ones, clutching onto gurus despite having knowledge of their sexual escapades or their flagrant violation of environmental norms? As Birinchi Baba demonstrates, the part-physician and part-therapist persona of a guru is a vital instrument in consolidating his devotee base. In Mahapurush, a rationalist who decides to expose Birinchi Baba, draws a pithy character sketch of such holy men. He describes Birinchi Baba as “a high-class actor who understands psychology, knows history and has imagination and guts.”
In a curious subplot in Pankaj Parashar’s whacky debut film, Ab Ayega Mazaa, made nearly two decades after Mahapurush, a corrupt godman involved in the narcotics trade is seen to have a single-minded focus on acquiring a precious statue that would add to his already prosperous empire. He asks one of his disciples, a corporate honcho, to get his son married to the daughter of the businessman in possession of the said statue. The closeness of the devotee to the guru, who he meets in the latter’s hideout (reminiscent of Singh’s infamous cave), is suggestive of the noxious symbiosis between godmen and political and financial heads who feed each other’s interests with vote banks and funds. Singh, far from being an exception, is the norm when it comes to the phenomenon of godmen building massive empires with support from the political establishment of the day. From Chandraswami to Asaram Bapu and many other “holy” men before and ever since this is a nexus that flourishes in defiance of all red flags. Both parties have usually something (or a lot) – sex scandals, murder and rape charges, financial scams – to hide. Collusion is the well-oiled cog that keeps their machine running without a hitch.
The power godmen wield is absolute. Not only do they have control over the minds of their devotees but as the Singh case shows, they can even script electoral wins and bring up armies of resourceful and armed disciples. The purple robe-wearing aides of Shivbooti Baba in Ab Ayega Mazaa have no qualms about thrashing up anyone who tries to get in their way. As did Singh’s, and before that Rampal’s, followers even as the state administration stood and stared when blood flowed on the street and lives were lost due to police inaction, evidently deliberate.
In watching the two films in the aftermath of Singh’s sentencing, one thing became clear to me – the fall of godmen from a saint (as Singh called himself) to a sinner is no less dramatic than their ascent to the peaks of babadom. In Mahapurush, the famed Birinchi Baba and his sidekick make a run for their lives as fire apparently engulfs the house they are holding their meeting in. In a chuckle-inducing final act, Rabi Ghosh is seen running towards Birinchi, not before grabbing a bunch of ladies handbags amid the ensuing chaos. A case of women coming to their rescue, even if indirectly. Remember Baba Ramdev fleeing the Ramlila Maidan in 2011 wearing a salwar-kameez, his hands on the shoulders of two women by his side until his beard gave him away to the police?
Women can also send these self-proclaimed messengers of god to jail. In Ab Ayega Mazaa, a young woman the depraved guru had kidnapped and held captive for years comes out as a whistleblower to help expose him. In real life, Asaram and his successor, Ram Rahim are behind bars, thanks to women who refused to bow down to any and all power and persuasion in their fight for justice.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction.