Rationalists must win the day
Ram Puniyani on how blind faith must not be allowed to prevail over social justice
SANAL EDAMARKULU, a rationalist, is in the legal trap for abusing others’ faith. At the same time Nirmal Baba, whose paid programmes flash over 40 TV channels, advising people on solving their problems with various divine solutions, is facing a case of fraud. Recently, a local court directed the police to register a case against him for allegedly cheating people. The two cases have a deep connection. In case of Edamakulu, he was able to show how water seeped from the feet of Jesus Christ in Mumbai’s Irla area. Sanal showed that water was from the choked drain and getting pushed up by capillary action. The ‘merchants of faith’ put cases against him and he is facing the wrath of the community for hurting their faith.
Nirmal Baba is actually Nirmaljit Singh Nirula, a failed businessman disappeared in 1970 and then later reappeared, claiming to have divine powers. In his TV shows, the audience was initially paid to ask for solutions to their problems. Later, thousands paid money to enter these ‘Nirmal darbars’ and Baba started dishing out ‘solutions’ while his bank accounts swelled. In few years time, Baba became a multi-millionaire with a good deal of property under his belt.
For the large section of followers thronging for the divine water seeping from the feet of Lord Jesus, to explain the source of water came as an insult of their faith. To the multiple people seeking solutions from Nirmal Baba, it was again a matter of faith. The boundaries between faith and blind faith many a time are blurred. As such, faith and reason have been counter-posed in society. Faith has been ruling the roost in the areas of ‘unknown’ and the future. It has been constructed around the supernatural powers and clergy of different religions or self made Godmen have been the custodian of faith. Many an area which was in the domain of faith shifted to reason over a period of time like the nature of earth, eclipse, diseases, etc.
At the same time, faith has been used or manipulated for different purposes in society, including for political ones. The Ram Temple movement is the example of such use or abuse of faith. Hiding behind the Sharia to continue with certain retrograde social practices is another such example.
One concedes that the insecurities in society have gone up. Natural phenomenon being interpreted through the angle of faith -- Earth is flat, God created life in such-and-such fashion, is one thing and to create a well-planned show to rouse people’s faith and then to make business of it with the help of media, unmindful of their social responsibility, is another side of the coin. One concedes that the insecurities of the society have gone up by leaps and bounds and this faith gives a emotional support to many to sustain in the midst of the hardships prevalent all around. Still, we do need to draw the boundaries where rational thinking, the one our Constitution ordains us to promote, needs to be adhered to sincerely. In the case of Nirmal Baba, the state has correctly woken up and a case has been filed against him. In case of Sanal, the state and society need to protect him from the trappings of law to uphold reason. The mechanical interpretation of laws ‘hurting the faith’ of others needs to be sanitised for protection of the mandate of Indian Constitution to promote rational thinking and to protect the likes of Sanal.
In the case of Nirmal Baba, the media, which has aired the sponsored shows of Baba and built up his fraud, needs to undergo introspection.
The claims that these are matters related to religion are again far from the truth and present a distorted perception of the complex phenomenon of religion. The core part of any religion is the morality developed by the prophets and society over a time. The institutions built around religions and the hyper-emphasis on rituals, Sharia, is an insertion by the clergy, which has its own vested interests and which has ensured the suppression of rational thought all along. One recalls the battles between Charvak and clergy related to the oldest struggle of reason to come up in social thinking and pull the society out of the clutches of the vested interests of clergy.
In Europe, scientists like Bruno, Servatus, and Galileo suffered immense torture at the hands of powerful mediators of the institutional religions. One must re-emphasise the difference between the teachings of the prophets and emphasis on identity and rituals by institutions of religion and a variety of godmen. The institutions built in the name of prophets are there for status quo and for preserving the system where a few benefit and most in the society suffer. Rational thinkers, scientists had to face imprisonment or other harassment for discovering things like Earth is round, diseases are not due to wrath of God, etc. The response of the clergy was a severe condemnation of this rational thinking as it would undermine their privileges in the society.
WHILE EUROPE has seen its battle against faith-based knowledge; it seems at broader level we in India are still struggling to come out from the impositions of faith. One can say that even in recent times those who stood for social change and justice like Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker and Bhagat Singh resorted to rational thought and those for status quo of social relationships; those taking cover under the politics in the name of religion, harped on faith and issues built around identity issues.
The continuation of the mindset of feudal society has got mixed up with the new challenges of globalisation and contemporary insecurities for the average people have increased manifold. Nirmal Baba may be a crude example from the battery of these godmen. There are others who are more sophisticated and have a vast reach through diverse mechanisms. Godmen, faith merchants are those who have encashed on the insecurities of people by mixing miracles with faith.
As Meera Nanda, an eminent social scientist in her book God Market has demonstrated, this phenomenon has expanded by leaps and bounds in the last three decades. The proliferation of Babas of different hues all around has put a brake on the growth and promotion of rational though and scientific temper. The patronage of high and mighty to these godmen, or persecution of people like Sanal is a matter of deep concern and is a mirror showing us as to where our society is going in the matters of faith.
The litmus test of the values of Babas and those putting cases against the likes of Sanal has to be, how much these elements are talking of prevalent social injustices, how much they are promoting the morality inherent in their religions? On this count the godmen are tongue-tied. It is time we build the conduits to promote rational thinking and confront the tricks played by the likes of Nirmal Baba and those trying to put Sanal Edamarkulu in the dock.
Ram Puniyani is a communal harmony activist based in