New Age gurudom

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. Photo: L.SRINIVASAN

It is one hell of a spiritual sell.

THE growing dominance of religiosity in the public sphere engineered by New Age gurus and godmen (and women) is a new reality suddenly upon us and which poses a challenge to the secular assumptions of the Constitution. It has been happening over the years and subtly altering our social and cultural context and awareness. We might not have noticed, for instance, that the engagement columns of newspapers had been undergoing a change in terms of the type of events of the day they brought to public notice; that they were no longer mainly about talks or performances or discussions or events which were composite and cosmopolitan in nature, but about religious discourses, or vigils, or proto-religious functions in the garb of entertainment or culture. In recent times, this creeping religious takeover of the public sphere has been compounded by the overlapping shadow public sphere of the mass media in which it is these pop gurus, other than film stars, who dominate and freely air their views on everything under the sun.

They are the very opposite of the self-abnegating spiritual seeker, the cloistered sanyasin. They are intrusively in your face, bearing down upon you from huge hoardings and a rash of street wall posters, from TV screens, from newspapers and magazines, almost as if vying with film stars and politicians, who normally have a run of these media, for public attention. They are, each of them, big brands publicised and promoted by their respective market- and technology-savvy bands of followers. They command the allegiance of big businesses and run their religious establishments like transnational corporations. It is one hell of a spiritual sell.

It is a tiered and hierarchised order of spiritual hard sell and god-mongering out there. The common run of saffron cult gurus who manage to buy time and exposure on one or the other of the numerous TV channels in the religious category keep their credulous flock loyal or captive by further mythologising mythology (if that is possible) and instilling fear, hope and fatalism through therapeutic chants and charms. The ones at the top are deceptively different. They may even scoff at these lowly vendors of Hindu dharma. Theirs is the higher realm where the principles of Vedanta and yoga meet and create new vibrations, fresh insights, inner peace and fulfilment. That, at least, is what is on offer. Organised or ritualistic religion is set aside, or so it is made out, to achieve a distinctly different spiritual transformation. But scratch the surface, or dig a little deeper, and it is much the same syndrome of generating psychological dependence, of tapping into the mass neurosis that the tension of modern-day living throws up.

The Vedanta-Yoga mix was not always a spurious alchemy. When Patanjali Yoga was combined with Advaita Vendanta sometime in the medieval period it marked a shift from Adi Sankara’s Advaita tradition. Sankara significantly was dismissive of yoga because he did not consider yogis truth seekers; for him knowledge alone could remove ignorance, not suppression of thought as demanded in a yogic state of mind. It was Swami Vivekananda who laced Advaita with yoga to propound his famous “universal religion” at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, making for what Travis Webster from the Centre for Traditional Vedanta in North Carolina, United States, calls “psychologisation of Hinduism” in a recent essay, “Secularisation and Cosmopolitan Gurus”, published in Asian Ethnology. Since then yoga has been a legit supplement in religious practice to trigger a supra consciousness.

“Liberation therapeutics”

The New Age corporate gurus seem to mix and match yoga and Vedanta in different combinations and degrees to arrive at their respective trademark spiritual concoctions. They set up their own signature brands of “liberation therapeutics”. Along the way they pretend to, rather than actually do, sidestep normative ritualistic religion. A spiritual nationalism and a propagative fervour lurk beneath their surface beatitude. They liberally draw on and cite mythology, treating it almost as if it is recent experienced history, to illustrate and underwrite their homegrown modern theophilosophy. It is as anachronistic as it is dilettantist.

A recent book, a bestseller, by one such cult figure, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, titled Inner Engineering: The Yogi’s Guide to Joy is a bundle of such contradictions, but then is no worse of for it, going by its market success, because it also conveniently takes recourse to an esoteric (frustrating, actually) theory of the irrelevance or illogic of logic itself. The book, like the first impressions one has of Sadhguru himself going by what seem to be his more rational and enlightened views on issues of public interest, begins on a sound note. Do not, Sadhguru tells us, take him at his word. Question, doubt, interrogate, he exhorts us. He ridicules blind faith and formulaic religion and proceeds to, with promise of systematic exploration and investigation, turn our awareness inward. There is even a simple resplendent Vedantic-cum-yogic charm about the sadhana exercises prescribed to guide us on this promised path.

But then, some distance into this joyride, he undoes all of this by asking us to suspend or get rid of reason and logic, by rubbishing science and scientific method. Towards the end, he is the opposite of the author and guru we started out with. He is wading into mythology, citing his near magical powers to consecrate places and objects, celebrating proliferation of temples and urging us to take a leap of faith, or trust, with him into an unknown where logic and reason and science are unknown. By then it has indeed become difficult and risky to take him at his word.

The context and category in which we find the book perhaps provides a clue to its “ New York Times Bestseller” status. It figures 10th in a listing on The New York Times in early October 2016. The nine titles preceding it are also about personality engineering in one form or the other. First in the list is a book called Designing your life, and the introductory blurb says it is about your not needing “to know your passion to design a life you love”. The second, titled Uninvited, “examines the roots of rejection and its ability to poison relationships, including ones relationship with God”. The third, The Five Love Languages, is “a guide to communicating love in a way that a spouse will understand”; the fourth, The Seasoned Life, is about recipes from a basketball star’s wife; the fifth, You are a Badass provides “tips for the doubtful and self-effacing on roaring ahead through life.”; the sixth, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is “a guide to decluttering by discarding your expendable objects… and taking charge of your space”; the seventh, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, tells us “how to stop trying to be ‘positive’ all the time and, instead, become better at handling adversity”; the eighth, The Whole30, is “a 30-day guide to better health and weight loss”; and the ninth, Pussy, “offers tools and practices for women to reclaim their power”. So there—its place is in the pantheon of quick-fix “how to” titles which are of course what sell fastest and are, for the most part, pop psychological props for their vast mentally or emotionally listless and restive readership.

What the jet-set gurus, with their misleading cosmopolitan veneer and pretence of rarefied thinking, actually achieve is to push religion into regressive identity politics, into a means of mass mobilisation for political purposes, so much so that we are left worrying about the future of secularism enshrined in the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act. In an age of privatisation across the board, the one key aspect of life that should be private and personal, namely one’s religion, is dragged into and paraded in the public sphere, vitiating it. It becomes a subliminal, or sometimes not so subtle, majoritarian assertiveness, a process of “othering”, which creates a state of disquiet in society. Religion is no stranger to politics in India. As a way of life it has always enmeshed into the common man’s political consciousness.

Gandhiji understood and harnessed this with remarkable astuteness. His religious-metaphoric invocation of “Ram rajya” did not feed into identity politics. Indeed that was the problem the lunatic fringe, who physically eliminated him, had with him. He would not allow his religious metaphor to be hijacked. As he said of those who tried to: “ Lethe hai naam Ram ka. Karthe hai kaam Raavan ka” (They take the name of Ram and do the work of Raavan).