In India, the guru of the 21st century is “less the wandering ascetic, and more a powerful, flamboyant personality, often rich, and with the means to summon supporters onto the streets”. Across the Indian Ocean in South Africa, a similar trend is emerging.
Recent events in India and South Africa suggest that as states fail the poor, godmen and prophets fill the vacuum and exploit their vulnerability. Some of these fakes canoodle with politicians, endorse electoral candidates, support their campaigns, use their cult following as vote banks, and are often handsomely rewarded in cash and kind. In north India it is estimated that millions follow these godmen, who command vast empires, accumulated from donations from “blind” devotees, who are ultimately reduced to puppets.
Mahatma Gandhi had warned that in this “age of unbelief a true guru is hard to find. A substitute will be worse than useless, often positively harmful. I must therefore warn all against accepting imperfect ones as gurus… Has a man ever learnt swimming by tying a stone to his neck?”
Invariably, some of the godmen think that they are invincible, and are above and beyond the law, and implicitly believe that they will receive protection from politicians should this be necessary, because of the enormous amount of “informal power” they command:
“Political patronage sometimes allows these godmen to literally run parallel states, replete with their own armies, at times! Many, in fact, start seeing themselves as being above law, operating in their own zones, where they command unparalleled devotion and in what can be argued, true power in the form of mass following.”
Several godmen have been accused of land grabs, fraud, sexual abuse, violence, assault and murder. Invariably, their victims are disciples who have the courage to speak out, expose and file charges against the fakes who parade as demi-gods. Even when charges are eventually laid, the wheels of justice almost grind to a halt, and invariably well-greased palms favour the perpetrators rather than the victims.
Some of these godmen have been convicted, the latest being the sentencing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to two consecutive 10-year jail terms for raping two women. His followers reacted with outrage, and in the ensuing riots 38 people were killed, 352 injured and property destroyed. Asaram Bapu, 76, was arrested in 2013 for raping a minor. Guru Nithyananda from south India has been embroiled in sex abuse charges.
Bhavdeep Kang, author of Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas, contends that godmen are seldom held liable, especially by their devotees: “The centrality of the godman in the lives of their flock – as spiritual preceptor, family confidante and business adviser – creates a dependency syndrome, making the devotee as invested in the purity of the guru as the guru himself. The scope for abuse of trust is enormous. Often, even the family of the alleged victim prefers the guru’s version to that of a blood relative.” The gurus almost have a hypnotic control over the minds of their disciples.
As reported by Reuters, in India there are “many gurus who also play a positive role in the lives of their followers: delivering charity to the needy, and providing ostracised lower castes with the hope that they need not be trapped by rigid caste hierarchies”. However, the guru of the 21st century is “less the wandering ascetic, and more a powerful, flamboyant personality, often rich, and with the means to summon supporters onto the streets”.
Across the Indian Ocean in South Africa, a similar trend is emerging. Charismatic Christian preachers and pastors invite their congregations to prove or test their faith by eating grass, drinking petrol or being sprayed with insecticides – take your pick. For further reinforcement, the pastor walks on their backs, or for good measure, drives his car over them.
According to Pastor Lesego Daniel of the Rabboni Centre Ministry (who apparently has a reputation for performing miracles), he can convert petrol to pineapple juice, and eating grass brings people closer to god. There was some public outrage: “Any person who reduces human beings to animals is definitely not of God … Why is he stepping on people? This is inhumane. Shocking.”
There is also the political connection. Notwithstanding the lurid allegations and alleged dirty tricks campaign against Cyril Ramaphosa, he can take (cold?) comfort from the revelation by Prophet Calvin Lebepe Oneness Body of Christ Church in Ebony Park that he (Ramaphosa) “is the chosen son … [to] be the next president of South Africa”.
According to Elvis Masoga, the “unexplained mushrooming of false prophets and dodgy pastors within the Christian domain is crippling the moral greatness of that sacred religion … fake prophets and tsotsi pastors are abusing and exploiting the sanctified name of Jesus Christ in order to extract financial benefits from unsuspecting congregants. Many [churches] are neither legally registered nor spiritually genuine … Self-enrichment, self-gratification, extortionism and a ‘get-rich-quick’ ambition are the prime motives behind the existence of such churches”.
The Commission for Protection of the Rights of Religious, Cultural and Linguistic Communities has recommended that all religious organisations and practitioners be registered and regulated in terms of financial accountability. Those guilty of abuse and malpractice will understandably be opposed to such regulation.
In India, “Hinduism lacks formal organised structures that would limit the emergence of self-ordained men claiming to embody god”. However, the South African Hindu Maha Sabha has made great progress in promoting a scripturally based, structured approach to Hinduism, and preventing godmen from crossing the Indian Ocean.
India and South Africa are among the world’s most unequal countries, partly related to the socio-economic consequences of neoliberal policies. The poor and downtrodden desperately seek to escape from their misery. Politicians predictably make false promises about quick-fix remedies. The stage is set for purveyors of false hopes and dreams (or nightmares) – the religious conmen. DM
Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí