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HVK Archives: On spiritual entreprenuers; and a comment

On spiritual entreprenuers; and a comment - Frontline

Badrinath K Rao ()
29 November 1996

Title : On spiritual entrepreneurs
Author : Badrinath K Rao
Publication : Frontline
Date : November 29, 1996

Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement by Lise McKean;
University of Chicago press, Chicago and London; 1995; Pages xvii + 361; $60
(cloth-bound), $21.95 (paperback).

Though disturbed by the communal violence and the rhetoric of hatred and
intolerance accompanying the Hindutva movement, well-intentioned Hindus think
that such bigotry is an aberration of an otherwise untainted Hinduism. Lise
McKean's book debunks this myth by showing how even 'respectable' religious
institutions and their gurus play a central role in politics by legitimising
Hindu nationalism, an ideology of the upper castes and classes. She has
probed the political uses of spirituality and explains how it is used "to
construct emotional identities for groups and individuals which can be
mobilised for political ends," specifically for winning support for Hindu
nationalism.
Divine Enterprise is based on McKean's Ph.D. dissertation, submitted to the
University of Sydney. A cultural anthropologist by training, she conducted
the field work for this book mainly in Hardwar, Rishikesh and Delhi.

McKean has meticulously researched two major religious bodies: Swami
Satyamitranand's Bharat Mata temple in Hardwar and the Divine Life Society
(DLS) founded by Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh. Besides, she has critically
examined two lesser known institutions: the Gayatri Parivar started by the
late Acharya Shri Rim Sharma and the Manav Utthan Seva Samiti headed by
Satpal Rawat. Mackean's theis is that Hindu gurus have commodified
spiritualism and used it as an instrument of domination. She posits a
mutually beneficial relationship between spirituality and consumer capitalism
in India and argues that the former mystifies "the social relations involved
in the production, circulation and consumption of commodities" and creates
"individual and group identities that secure the dominance of ruling class
groups."

Gurus of all hues, in McKean's view, are anything but spiritual. She argues
that spirituality. has become a "divine enterprise", one that not only
provides huge profits but also confers on spiritual entrepreneurs staggering
political and social clout, the like of which even influential people like
sports icons, film stars, politicians, business magnates and so on can barely
dream of. Pedlars of spirituality, do not have to worry about mundane matters
that beset ordinary entrepreneurs, problems, for instance, about initial
investments, or about whether their enterprises will succeed or not. All
them. need is a simplistic, well-rounded ideology that reinforces the
existing social order, promotes the interests of the elites in business and
politics and promises rewards in the future for the layperson.

Devout Hindus are apt to dismiss such a characterisation of spirituality as
Marxian nonsense. The shenanigans of charlatans, their spurious teachings,
and the unedifying careers of the likes of Chandraswami, Rajneesh and so on,
they think, are fringe phenomena. The truly original contribution of McKean
lies in that she has demonstrated that far from being a peripheral
phenomenon, the exploitation of Hinduism for securing one's socio-economic
and political ends is a ubiquitous feature, an inalienable part of all
institutions that claim to promote Hinduism.

She provides a penetrating analysis of the activities of the DLS and the
Bharat Mata Mandir, of the swamis and their everyday, interaction with
devotees, to show how spiritualism is a respectable facade for accomplishing
political objectives. Mainstream Hindu organisations like the DLS, though not
mired in scandals, propagate the ideology of Hindu nationalism and secure
popular support for their agenda.

McKean critiques Hindu nationalism as the ideology of the dominant social
group, particularly the upper castes, whose aim is to consolidate their
socio-economic and political power and thwart the challenge to their
leadership from the lower castes, She views the call for establishing a Hindu
nation as essentially a means to deflect popular attention from crucial
socio-economic issues and the predatory activities of the entrenched castes
and classes. The liberalisation of the Indian economy has accentuated the gap
between the rich and the poor and has caused deep resentment among those who
cannot reap its benefits. Given this context, McKean argues that
spirituality serves as "mortar for coalition building among socio-economic
classes", that it "operates as a populist and democratic facade for the
militant and authoritarian structure of the Hindu nationalist movement."

Tracing the historical evolution of militant Hinduism from the days of V.D.
Savarkar to the present time, she rightly emphasises that the use of
spirituality in formulating nationalist ideology enabled the Indian nation to
construct itself as an institution of domination. However, since the
mid-1970s Indian nationalism is gradually losing its appeal to the
marginalised, the minorities and the lower castes because nearly five decades
of development has not made much difference to their lives. The militancy of
backward caste movements, sub-nationalist movements and separatist movements
in Kashmir and Punjab are all desperate responses to the inegalitarian nature
of development and the hegemony of the upper castes. To subvert the subaltern
challenge, the ruling elites have raised the bogey of threats to Hinduism,
particularly from Islam. They declare the need to assert the Hindu identity
of India to offset the threat posed by Islam; the real motive, of course, is
to pre-empt the challenges posed by the marginalised. The success of the
project of Hindutva hinges critically on the role of gurus and godmen, a fact
that McKean rightly accentuates. The entrenched elites of Indian business
and politics exploit the phenomenal legitimacy of the gurus among the masses
to gain support for Hindutva.

McKean's interest in Hindu nationalism was triggered by a rather unpleasant
encounter in New Delhi with Ashok Singhal, general secretary of the Vishwa
Hindu Parishad (VHP). During an interview with him, she saw first hand "the
ferocious determination of Hindu nationalist leadership" and hence made it
the focus of her study. McKean analyses the VHP's neo-Hindu ideology and its
attempts to homogenise what is essentially a plural tradition. Notably, she
identifies the VHP's six-point code of conduct for devout Hindus, its
consecration of Ved Bhagawan (a book containing the text of all the four
Vedas), its paravartan (homecoming) ritual for reconverting Muslims and
Christians to Hinduism and its Ekatmata Yagna (sacrifice for national unity)
as the important means it employs to construct and consolidate a monolithic
Hindu identity.

McKean faults gurus for propagating this semitised version of Hinduism and
lays hare their hidden political agenda. Through their personal charisma and
satellite organisations such as schools and temples, the gurus attract
followers and provide them patronage, prestige and access to new networks of
power. Businessmen flock to the gurus and support their religious
organisations only to further their own business interests and to earn
respectability.

McKean exposes the symbiotic relationship between gurus and businessmen and
maintains that the latter are fond of spiritual masters as they purvey an
ideology that promotes docility and resignation and creates the right
conditions for capitalist exploitation. Spirituality glorifies
sub-missiveness and constructs pliant identities that can be easily
manipulated. Lately, gurus of all hues have come to occupy the centre-stage
of politics and have formed their own interest groups in the form of the VHP,
the Sadhu Samaj and so on, which wield enormous political clout. Their
chicanery goes unchallenged because they cleverly camouflage their desire for
profits in the idiom of spiritualism and renunciation.

McKean zeroes in on the "political economy of spiritualism" and critically
examines the strategies Hindu gurus employ to endear themselves to their
patrons and devotees. Central to this enterprise is the mindless celebration
of 'Hindu' culture and nationhood, of Bharat Mata. The Gayatri Parivar in
Hardwar attracts devotes by stressing the importance of the Gayatri mantra
and of yagna. Describing yagna as an "audiovisual method to instill moral and
spiritual values" and as the "key to the revival of Divine Culture", the
institutional conduct fire sacrifices regularly and garners huge sums of
money and popular support in the process. In addition, the Parivar runs
"Brahmavarchas", a laboratory of spiritual science. McKean's account of this
laboratory and its so-called experiments are amusing and insightful. As she
rightly points out, the laboratory is all hocus-pocus and aimed at convincing
gullible devotees that the ancient Hindus were well aware of all that modern
science has now achieved.

McKean also cites the case of Swami Satyamitranand who spent Rs. 1 crore to
build the eight-storey Bharat Mata temple in Hardwar. The son of a Brahmin
school teacher in Agra, he is now a wealthy, jet-setting swami with a huge
following in India and abroad. The temple was inaugurated by none other than
Indira Gandhi.

In his novel Anandmath, Bankim Chandra Chatterji propounded the notion of
Bharat Mata. He inaugurated a tradition of conceiving nationhood in feminine,
matriotic terms, largely to win support for the nascent nationalist movement.
Given the strong tradition of ritual worship of Hindu goddesses in Bengal,
the idea of Bharat Mata fired the popular imagination and eventually spread
throughout India. Capitalising on this, Satyamitranand decided to build a
temple for Bharat Mata to "acquaint visitors with Bharat Mata's cultural,
spiritual and divine glory." The temple houses the icon of Mother India on
the main floor and regular worship and rituals are carried out daily as in
any other temple. On the other floors there are idols of important
personalities of Hinduism, including Hindu nationalist leaders such as Madan
Mohan Malaviya, Savarkar and Chandrashekar Azad. The temple epitomises a
blatantly upper caste Hindu view of Indian history and culture. McKean
describes how the iconic representation and deification of Bharat Mata
promotes the notion that India is the sacred motherland of Hindus alone. She
maintains that by presenting the nation as an object of devotion and
sacrifice, the temple "defines national identity in terms of Hindu piety and
sacrifice."

McKean's account of Satyamitranand and his institution is riveting. She
delves into the man and his work by painstakingly reviewing all the
publications of the Bharat Mata temple, talking to the devotees and critics
of the swami and analysing the hagoigraphical tales of his life and divine
powers. What makes her narrative interesting is that she never loses sight of
die mundane pursuits of the swami, his careful cultivation of wealthy
devotees and politicians, his numerous trips abroad, the vast sums he
collects as donations and so on. One gets a clear sense of how like a
"divine enterprise' the business of running a religious institution is. As
for Satyamitranand's teachings, McKean draws attention to their militant
pro-Hindutva accent on sacrifice and self-surrender for the nation, the need
for developing strength, in keeping with the VHP agenda of militarisation of
Hinduism, and so on.

In contrast with the garish and chauvinistic Hindutva of the Bharat Mata
temple, the DLS in Rishikesh is discreet about its ideological predilections.
This is one reason why it commands an enormous following from all sections.
Beneath this veneer of cosmopolitanism, however, the DLS is not very
different from other organs of Hindutva. Since this is not widely known, the
popular notion is that the DLS represents a benign face of Hinduism and is
closer to the supposedly Hindu ethos of "tolerance and non-violence".
Perhaps for the first time, McKean, with the disinterestedness of an
anthropologist, lays bare a picture of the DLS that its well-wishers will
hope is false.

Founded in 1936 by Swami Sivananda, a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu, the DLS has
grown into a huge institution and resembles a "highly, successful corporate
enterprise". In addition to marketing Hinduism, the DLS sells commodities
medicines, Sivananda's audio cassettes, wrist watches" and the like. Then, of
course, it does provide opportunities to develop business and political
contacts. More worrisome than this commodification of spirituality are the
convert affinity that the DLS has for the project of Hindutva and its ties
with the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - facts that the
institution chooses to down-play in its publications and activities.

Given this outwardly tenuous link between the DLS and the disturbing trends
in contemporary Hinduism, McKean does a commendable job of bringing to light
the going on within the institution and the outright pro-Hindutva bias in its
teachings. She critiques the orientalist worldview of the DLS: its rather
simplistic notions of Indian spiritualism and Western materialism, its views
on the "800 years of oppression by greedy men" - a euphemism for Mughal rule
- and its ethnocentric views on the greatness of Hindu culture.

McKean attended the activities in June 1987 held in connection with the
centenary celebrations of Swami Sivananda's initiation into sanyaas.
Celebrated on a grand scale with lavish funding from several business houses,
the centenary provided her an occasion to observe the ideological bias of the
DLS.

McKean's account of the racist speeches that were delivered by the swamis,
their eulogies of the RSS/VHP views of Indian history and culture and their
intolerance of Christians and minorities are enough to convince anyone that
the DLS is aligned with the forces of Hindutva and has little to do with the
lofty ideals of Vedanta that it seeks to propagate.

The most interesting part of McKean's work is the original insights she
provides about the day-to-day events of the Sivananda ashram. She spent
several weeks in the ashram, interacted closely with the swamis, the inmates
and devotees and unfailingly observed the pettiness and insular outlook of
the swamis, how they brutalise helpless women - and the poor, their
obsequious attitude towards the rich and the famous and their internecine
quarrels.

McKean's observations are genuine and free from malice. Her detached
attitude, wry sense of humour and ability to contextualise even the most
trivial detail lend strength and credibility to her work.

The penultimate chapter discusses the tragicomic bunglings of sundry swamis
belonging to different sects. A swami who elopes his woman disciple, another
locked in a court case over a property dispute, and a third accused of
'homosexuality, and embezzlement', all add up to quite a different picture
from the one that lay devotees have of their religious leaders.

That precisely is McKean's point. She exposes the Achilles' heels of some of
the more respected institutions and gurus and shown how petty and mundane
their preoccupations are. Her signal contribution is in exposing the
hypocrisy, pursuit of power and crass materialism that flourish in the name
of spiritualism and Hindu nationalism. This is an interesting study that
every devout Hindu must read.

____________________________________________________________

COMMENT

WE have tried to get in touch with Ms Mckean. However, she refuses to
respond. She even does not wish to give us papers which are in public
domain. The magazine where the above review has appeared is a hard line
marxist publication, whose main objective is to denigrate Hinduism. As is
common with the psecularists, they only seek to destroy, and not to build.


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