In the globalised world, the Guru needs no miracles……s/he allows for the lateral thinking our society needs
Spiritualism in the age of globalisation is not just a pop theory of the occult or sociology. It needs no miracles to sustain it. If modernity cut the world into painful oppositions, spiritualism and spirituality produced the hybrid, the weave, knitting dualisms together. In doing so, they made oppositions and contradictions playful, by creating Lego sets of meaning and vocabularies of life that each individual could work with. They helped Indian lives reach beyond unlivable oppositions like science vs religion, science vs politics and religious vs secular.
Spiritualism needs a guru. A guru is more than an ideologist. An ideologist propounds a doctrine, a guru a way of life. A guru is more than a management consultant. Remember, we call our Prahlads and Jagdish Sheths management gurus. We don’t call our gurus spiritual managers. But managers they are. The guru and his ashram create not just a community of meaning and a society of doing. They have created a service ethic that can match an army.
Out of this have emerged educational institutions, water projects that rival any technology mission, disaster managers and adoption of cutting-edge IT innovations. Gurus understand media and multimedia without being objectified by them. They allow for the lateral thinking our society needs.
The journalist Mahesh Llanga told me this lovely story of Murari Bapu. It seems pregnant shark whales would beach on the Gujarat coast, especially between Somnath and Dwarka. This patch has one of the largest concentrations of fishermen, and they used to beat the whales to death. Whale meat commands huge prices in the export market. Witnessing this, wildlife activists appealed to Murari Bapu, who agreed to talk to the fishermen. Murari Bapu had a simple message. He asked the fishermen: how can you beat the shark whale? She is your daughter who’s come home to rest. The fishermen then virtually adopted the whale as a totem. No secular environmentalist, no Greenpeace movement could have spoken such a language or had such a profound impact.
In gurus like Murari Bapu or Ramdev, there is no Hamletian pathos about modernity. In fact, the gurus, through the discourse of spiritualism, have woven a meaningful everydayness around health, food, hygiene and meaning. Culturally, I think this is important in a society where neither the confessional nor psychiatry play a major role. One should also emphasise that gurus have been part of family life. Even now people fix images of gurus on their car windows. It is a simple statement of belief. Families in crisis, people facing dilemmas, or in search of meaning, visit the guru. Sometimes they find a solution, at other times they find themselves.
I think of India as a collection of texts and temples and discourses. It is the discourses of these gurus—Mata Amritanandamayi, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Sai Baba, Baba Ramdev—that keep India together. If temples provide a sacred geography, gurus provide a spiritualist one. I am a secularist, yet I realise that secularism can never create equivalent acts of community without the help of the state. I’m not saying in a Kantian way that I don’t need God but my charwoman does. I follow no guru but I realise they have invented creative texts and contexts for our society.
There is a lot one can be cynical about. There are regular reports of sexual excess, financial irregularity. Gurus, while not political, are intimate with power. As a wag once put it, IAS officers should be classified not by state cadres but the guru they are affiliated to. Regardless, I think the gurus have generally discarded Orientalism and met modernity head on, while being sceptical about westernisation. Our ashrams are better problem-solving agencies than our universities.