TV creates its own democratic debates, especially around culture. Pundits can criticize the jingoism around security and policy but TV brings a special sensitivity to religion, spirituality and culture. Some of the most fascinating programmes are around religion and faith. The Astha and Sanskar programmes offer you a bouquet of diversity from Baba Ramdev, Nirmal Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swamy Jaggi Vasudev.
For me, spirituality is the true reality TV of the day. It captures the everyday with a deep sense of insight. The formats are far superior to any discussion on elections, inflation or RBI reform. The Guru seems closer, more grounded in talking about the divine. The informal economy of spirituality faces questions, debates in more open ended way.
Consider the Nirmal Baba controversy. Even as a secular person, I find him fascinating to watch. Baba appears the most everyday of Gurus. The questions he is asked reflect little fears about exams, promotions, success, children, guilt. It is the way he answers them that is fascinating.
There is a basic template where correct ritual is treated as the basic technology for any form of problem solving. His obsession is with the right kind of ritual behaviour. Kheer is not just kheer, but a way of life in harmony with powers. Baba believes in Shakti, a hidden power which understands and protects the believer. Between Shakti as power and kheer as ritual correctness, Baba solves the everydayness of problems.
Baba’s world like most spiritual groups is brilliantly organized. He is TV friendly and his televised show is covered over 40 channels including Star News, AXN, TV Asia. The routine is roughly the same. He sits ensconced in an ornate chair. Each believer is part of a life stage with specific exits and entrances. The script is oddly pathetic including a list of complaints with Baba ushering them away as he recites the solution. Their body language of gratitude is treated matter of factly. Each entrant pays 2000 for entry. The blend of the rustic and urban wisdom and empathy gives him a following which believes his insights into ordinary life reflect special power.
Food and comments around food appear to be his special forte. Baba understands the Indian faith in food as myth, ritual and right behaviour. The third eye functions as psychologist, management expert and spiritual guru. Baba sounds content in these domestic solutions. Even if it sounds like a combination of spirituality and a home science class, dealing with malai, tikki, golgappa, kheer and mobile ring tones and cars.
Stirring these as signals his third eye looks at domestic rituals suggesting correctives which combine precision with mild acts of charity like distributing cold drinks to the neighborhood. It sounds amiable, convincing, convincing yet oddly banal. Ritual provides the technical rectitude of time and place that keeps the cosmos intact.
Baba has been accused of fraud which his third eye could not discern. A complaint from Ludhiana claims he has duped a couple financially. Baba seems to have invested money in a hotel and boutique. Baba appears unrepentant. He says that he has the money but that his money is white. Every bit of tax has been paid on it. He claims he has dream of building a temple for his believers.
It is the response to his case that is interesting. The Baba has retained his equanimity content that his shakti is intact. He is confident that his cosmology of food and materials is a correct one. The believer is strong on his spirituality. There is no secular hangover about superstition. Rationalists might complain but the followers are clear that what belongs to the state is owed to the state and what belongs to Baba is Baba’s. They still stand behind this former owner of the brick kiln convinced of his empathy and power.
What is interesting about the debate is that there is no dualism about secular and spiritual. Our society feels that there are some things beyond science and some things subject to science. It also senses the blur between the two. Contrast this debate on spirituality and its hardheadedness with the Rushdie controversy. There was hysteria and breast beating around it. Here even if the Baba is found guilty, the regime of faith and spirituality continues. TV allows for a certain tolerance, confusion, affability when it comes to these cultural and religious issues. One wishes that it showed the same cultural openness about science or politics. This is the beauty of TV culture. It handles the official discourse of state, science, and economics firmly and linearly. Yet it is affable about the rest. Ramdev can clash with Brinda Karat, Nirmal Baba can quarrel about his power but TV and life go on as if the world is curiouser than it is believed to be.