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Hindu tele-evangelists

Hindu tele-evangelists

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: Sunday Pioneer
Date: December 5, 2004

One of the great strengths of Hinduism is that it is not an organised religion rigidly structured on verse and chapter of a single holy book. Hinduism accommodates in its fold both believers and non-believers, iconoclasts and idol-worshippers, liberals and conservatives. It is at once amorphous and intense, reverent and irreverent, ancient and modern. It is this strength that makes Hinduism a living religion, a life-sustaining experience.

Paradoxically, this strength is also Hinduism's weakness - the absence of congregational worship, of preachers, of missionary zeal, of social bonding through religious discourse, of a single god who command absolute fealty, have worked to its disadvantage. Hence, we have a situation where the majority community of the country is deeply divided and splintered, both in thought and action. There are 1.25 billion Hindus in the world today, by no means a small number, but no corresponding Hindu voice.

The Constitution of India guarantees the right to religious freedom: to practice, preach and convert. This freedom has been used to great advantage by adherents of Islam and Christianity with an aggression that is inversely proportionate to their numerical strength. Rice bowl conversions by Christian missionaries and Saudi charity induced conversions by Islamic clerics are presumed to be perfectly legitimate since they enjoy the protection of the Constitution.

But if Hindu activists follow the same path, of preaching Hinduism and converting non-Hindus to the Hindu fold, there are howls of protest. The Constitutional right that accrues to others is presumed to be unavailable to Hindus. It is legitimate to preach and 'convert' Hindus to the non-Hindu fold but illegitimate to preach and 're-convert' non-Hindus to the Hindu fold. Evangelism is fine so long as it is not Hindu evangelism; a born-again Christian or Muslim is admired, a born-again Hindu is reviled. Such is the perversion of Indian secularism.

This duplicitous attitude of both state and non-state players is largely because till now Hinduism has been bereft of evangelism and evangelists, both powerful instruments of mobilising support and moulding public opinion. That absence is now being filled by new age gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and more down-to-earth preachers like Sant Morari Bapu, Guru Maa, Sukhbodhanandji, Sudhanshu Maharaj and Asaram Bapu.

And, in this day and age of television as a powerful means of communication, it is only natural that they should make use of the increasing number of channels that cater to the spiritual and devotional quest of millions of Hindus. Channels like Aastha, Sanskar, Maharishi, Sadhna, Jagran, Om Shanti and Maa TV are fast grabbing viewer time. This is virtual congregational mobilization through tele-evangelism.

Not only does tele-evangelism by popular preachers with their nuanced spiritual and devotional pravachan transcend social barriers, it also ensures a happy blend of higher and little traditions of Hinduism, thus catering to a vast audience. The fact that tele-evangelism has succeeded in great measure to mobilise Hindus, irrespective of their caste or their personal preference for a god or goddess, was evident in ample measure when Asaram Bapu joined the BJP's dharna to protest against the arrest of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi.

Thousands of men and women, who regularly tune into Asaram Bapu's tele-pravachan, joined the dharna. More than an expression of political solidarity with the BJP, it was a demonstration of emerging Hindu unity, of congregating for a cause closely linked to their religion, their faith; it was an expression of their spiritual resolve. This, then, is the power of Hindu tele-evangelism.

Of course, India's secularists and their fellow travellers are alarmed by Hindu tele-evangelism's success in mobilizing Hindus for Hindu causes. This mobilisation transcends Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi; the bonding is much stronger than flip-flop Hindutva could achieve. This is gradual but sure rediscovery of Hindu pride. The process of reversing loss of faith and weakening resolve in India's, indeed the world's, Hindu community has begun. Hence the foul calls and the cat calls of the secularist brigade.

Yes, there will be contemptible attempts to tar Hindu tele-evangelists, to denigrate them and paint them and their mission in the bleakest of colours. We will hear allegations of "crass commercialisation", of "tele-marketing spiritualism", of catering to the "lowest common denominator" and even of "distortion of the scriptures". There are two possible responses to these allegations and others of similar nature.

First, no religion survives, leave alone flourishes, on the strength of the good word alone. As a senior Vatican cardinal once said, "You have to be a fool to think the church survives on 'Hail Marys'." Mobilisation and expansion comes with a price tag. Hindu preachers and tele-evangelists are neither raising funds from Rome and Arabia, nor are they using their resources for subverting the Indian state and society.

Second, for too long have we allowed India's Hindu spiritual heritage to remain the exclusive domain of a chosen few. It's time the doors to this heritage are opened to the Hindu masses. This will awaken latent pride and confidence, and spur a larger Hindu renaissance.

It's not without reason why secularists and their fundamentalist wards are running scared.

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