Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The con of man

I have started re-reading Narayan sir’s classic “The Guide”. Despite having read the tale almost half a dozen times, I always find each renewed attempt a fresh encounter. Over dinner, last night, my wife and I were discussing Narayan sir’s life and works and how, in a bizarre twist of fate, Dev Anand and co. ‘misguided’ the novel’s original content in their Hindi adaptation which went on to become Navketan productions’ biggest milestone. As I continued going through the days of a hero with shades of humble villainy (or vice versa?) called Raju today, I was taken back to the time my family and I, back home in India, had visited our community’s matha.

Now, for the uninitiated in the Brahmin ways, a ‘matha’ essentially is a religious establishment which has, as all good ashrams do, a guruji and a very strict code of protocols to adhere to. That these protocols sometimes can be flexible, despite what the house might claim, is another issue. But nevertheless, my thoughts ran back to that day when I was taken there by my parents to submit our respects to the aged guru.

I had never really been to many mathas before. Considering I don’t really think of myself as an extremely religious person, I hadn’t found the need to periodically go to a place where I had to fall at the feet of another man. As ‘Railway Raju’ puts it (I mentioned I am quite into ‘The Guide’ these days didn’t I?) only the Almighty deserves such reverence and no human. If I ever were to add the only exceptions to that thought, it would be a teacher and a mother; the only two extraordinary humans who always give more than they receive. For them, I shall forever bow.

Apart from these exceptions, I don’t see myself intentionally getting down on the ground and saluting the feet of another mortal. But given the fact that respect in India as I know it is more out of fear than anything else, I decided to follow suit and stood in line to accept the holy water from the 90+ year old gentleman who had taken a bath for the 15th time that morning. His conviction to such rigorous rituals, I thought, was truly worth commending even if I still don’t technically understand the scientific concept behind it, if there is one. When mom’s turn came to accept the holy offering she chose to cleanse her hands with what she thought was the first serving of the water. Seeing his ‘gift’ disrespected thus, the aged guru immediately snapped. He mumbled a few words of rage and yelled at my 65+ year old mother for not knowing how to accept offerings of such divinity. He, of course, did go on to give her a second serving, but with a lot of obvious and visible rage and contempt.

As I reflected on the sermons that Raju comes up with in the book, I couldn’t help think back to that day. This was probably why once I reached the ‘age of reason’ (as George Carlin would say) I had decided never to consciously go to any matha and try to please a complete stranger into blessing me with a miracle I probably didn’t deserve in the first place. For one thing, such blessings are meaningless since the swami doesn’t really know who I am. And for another, they usually don’t work. What really bothered me though was how my mother was treated by that ill tempered swami who was more worried about the water than the faith mom was bringing to his presence. This suddenly made the whole thing seem like one giant void. A farce. A namesake. A street play.

I read each day of fake gurus getting caught with either a woman or a wonder of another kind. Yet I see people continue to seek their blessings and sit through their hymns and endless speeches. Up until recently I was convinced it was the gurus who were the real conmen in such scenarios. Those wile cunning creatures who had somehow figured out the right formula to combine worthless philosophy with homebody ingredients to serve up a new dish each day. But now that I think about it, maybe it’s not them after all. It is our faith, as humans and as creatures capable of basic empathy, which is the real con. It is here, that faithful followers have possibly managed to cheat their beliefs into thinking that they are inferior creatures who need the divine light held bright by the enlightened men in saffron robes (and a few dozen BMWs and Mercs parked outside his ashram for divine interventions and such).

I find all of this very confusing. ‘The Guide’ was written back in 1958 by Narayan sir. At such an early age in our land’s post British history we had already been given a brilliant example of how faith can be such a lethal potion if served in the right cups. But I guess even after 52 years we still aren’t done being conned. I do not deny that there are indeed spiritual leaders in India who are doing some excellent work in the societies they live in, but I somehow suspect the ratio of our Nityanandas and Chandra Swamis is definitely an overwhelming majority. Nothing else can explain why in a land of such ‘overwhelming wisdom’, we are still talking about illiteracy and poverty as being our immediate concerns. Maybe our ‘Railway Rajus’ were the only ones who managed to read Narayan sir’s book. If so, then somewhere up in heaven, Narayan sir is shaking his head in great disappointment.

2 reflections:

Sandhya said...

A thoughtful post, Shakri. Your post reminds me of a fake swami who was arrested in Andhra Pradesh a couple of years ago. Would you believe that he had many followers and most of them women who were childless, why? Because this fake swami claimed that when he placed his hand on such womens' chest and uttered mantras, "maternal" hormones would be released in the woman's body and she would eventually become pregnant. How silly can this get? If you thought it was only uneducated rural women who flocked to seek his so called 'blessings', nope, educated women also sought his 'blessings'. There was another swami who died in Hyderabad few years ago. In this case, a deranged man was bought to Hyderabad, his tongue cut and was made to live in a cage like surroundings. He was called 'beedi swami'. 'Devotees' would have to place cigarette or beedi in his mouth and collect the ash as he smoked and apply that ash on the forehead. Someone reported about this in the newspaper and the man was then rescued and kept in a home. He died later due to several years of abuse and lack of proper food. I mention about these stories here because I lived in Andhra Pradesh for many years and these stories made rounds in newspapers and emails.

I simply cannot understand why people flock to so called 'swami' or 'swaminis' even after knowing they may involved in one scandal or the other. Is it desparation or blind faith? I dont know.

But as you said, there are good swami and swaminis who have done excellent work for betterment of mankind.


ShaK said...


Conmen exist because there are folks just waiting to be conned. It makes me wonder if it is ignorance, lack of awareness or sheer desperation that drives otherwise sane people to jump at the mercy of these 'divine messengers'. It is one thing to be inspired by them, use their words as a source of motivation to lead a happy life + do something productive. But to grant them complete control of one's instincts...that I just cannot comprehend.

As I mentioned, all this is very confusing. Thank you for the words.