THE FIRST thing we have to understand is that India is
a very religious country. We have more temples than schools. The second
is that there is a great deal of atomism and isolationism in the burgeoning
urban culture of India. There is a transition happening from the solace
and comfort of joint families, to the anonymity and isolationism of the
big cities. And when that happens, one of the altars where people find
their solace is religion. The third aspect is that in this quest, newer
icons are replacing traditional forms of worship. These gurus and godmen
cater to this feeling of alienation and loneliness. It’s not the
ritual visit to a temple, or the family ceremony, that is the object of
the quest. The fourth factor is that religion cannot exist in a watertight
compartment. It begins to mirror, absorb, internalise the developments
in society as a whole. Therefore, the ability of religion to use modern
means of communication, newer ways of reaching out, is obvious. So there
is a marriage between modernity, in terms of its technological accomplishments,
and tradition, in terms of religious belief. That leads to the corporatisation
The new religions
are reinterpretations of the essential tenets of traditional religion.
Their appeal has less to do with final salvation as with some degree
of equilibrium, equanimity and solace. That is the transformation that
is happening. The modern-day gurus are speaking about a sense of wellbeing
in the present, rather than the possibility of salvation in the afterlife.
Indians especially, and I can speak for Hindus, are harmonious schizophrenics.
There is no contradiction between visiting a modern guru and learning
the art of meditation, or a bit of yoga, and doing the navratras and
going to a temple. Look at Baba Ramdev. The national following for his
yoga is because of television, but it also comes with a vision of an
alternative way of life, because it’s not pure yoga. It is about
mythology, traditional ways of health, conduct, dharma.
middle class is willing to look at choices between gurus and,
if necessary, bargain for a discount
The appeal of many of the modern gurus is largely among
the urban middle class. The poor don’t form a valuable enough segment
of the flock. They have less to contribute and perhaps their morals are
still rooted in traditional forms of worship. Perhaps, for all their vicissitudes,
they are less vulnerable to neurosis. Neurosis is not a result of either
complete fulfilment or of absolute want. Neurosis is the result of over-choice.
When you have choices, and when these choices are new, and when the exercise
of choice means uncharted territory, then your need is for a different
kind of solace.
Indians are effortless stoics with great resilience within
them. No other middle class of a country that considers itself to be on
the development curve lives in the kind of urban unpredictability that
the Indian middle class does. Nothing can be taken for granted: water,
electricity, transport, health services, schooling. When you add to all
of that the emotional strife that comes from increased choice and increasing
competition and aspiration, the traditional notion of contentment ceases
to exist. The yardstick has changed. Earlier, the idea was that you got
into a service and it paid you a salary. You got married, had children
and worked for their education. And in the summer holidays, you went to
your ancestral home to spend time with your grandparents. All that has
changed. The objects of desire are everywhere. On television, in magazines,
on billboards. Somewhere there is a subterranean strife building in people
as they struggle to cope. Perhaps Indians are better wired to cope than
most, but there is a demand for some kind of antidote to that.
I believe that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living
is doing immense help to a great many middle class people in terms of
the simple remedies he provides to complex problems, through yoga and
meditation. So long as there is an audience that is growing, new groups
will emerge, older groups will become bigger, others will fade away. The
important thing is that there is an audience, and it is not something
peculiar to India. Here there is a huge and growing audience. Another
reason for their success is the revolution in communications. A guru can
communicate to ten million today on television. If channels feel there
are enough people to hear it, they will beam it, because such programming
is commercially sustainable.
Earlier, the temples were under the patronage of rajas.
Now the rajas don’t exist. Now the praja wants to become a patron,
and now he can pay. The nexus between religious institutions and money
has always existed, because you cannot yet conjure financial sustainability
from your meditation. The middle class is willing to look at choices between
gurus, to pay and, if necessary, bargain for a discount.