Why criticism of religion should now come on the agenda ?
There are some ‘unnatural deaths’ which remain a mystery forever.
Whether death of Mahant Narendra Giri, of the Baghambari Math, Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) last year – who was found hanging in his room, merely a day after he had a meeting with a senior minister of the state government, is also moving in that direction ?
Formally, Mahants own disciples Anand Giri and two others have been chargesheeted by the CBI for their alleged role in abetting the Mahant to commit suicide but with fresh application filed before the trial court by two of closest associates of the late Mahant – Amar Giri and Pawan Maharaj – that they had neither expressed apprehension of suicide or murder nor had mentioned any person as an accused in the FIR ( a submission on which the whole case depends) fresh complications have arisen in the case. (https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/disciples-of-deceased-seer-mahant-narendra-giri-seek-to-withdraw-firs-1135369.html)
The controversy around Mahant’s death – which has been declared a suicide – received a new lease of life when the probe team opened the late Mahants’s own room for the first time after his death. (https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2022/sep/17/one-yearafter-mahant-narendra-giris-suicide-cbi-finds-rs-3-crore-10-quintal-ghee-gold-in-seers-room-2499068.html) To its surprise it not only found lot of cash – to the tune of few Crore Rs, ornaments worth crores and even propery papers. Recovery of an electric chair worth five lakh Rs and also of rifles was also claimed in one report but not much was heard about it later. (https://www.amarujala.com/uttar-pradesh/allahabad/narendra-giri-case-three-crore-cash-jewelery-and-such-things-found-from-the-mahant-room)
The last update about the case was that the probe team has handed over all those things to the designated successor – Balbir Giri, who had promptly declared that the actual recovery was much less than initially claimed.
The opacity about actual recovery – which is evident in differing reports – raises further questions.
What was the actual cash which was recovered ? Was it three crores or 8 crores or ‘much less’ ?
Whether the probe team had the authority to hand over the ‘material recovered’ to the ‘designated successor’ without courts orders ? Whether it was not incumbent upon the team to have made a proper list of items recovered and made it public or submitted it to the government ?
Looking at the fact that the late Mahant who was close to the saffron establishment and was even head of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad – an apex body of 14 Akharas, or organisations of Hindu Sants and Sadhus – and was re-elected to the post, one expects that full transparency will be maintained around the whole issue and nothing will be hushed up.
Whatever might be the amount recovered, this query does not become irrelevant that what was the source of money, was it money donated to the Ashram by some charitable individuals, who were they who had so much money that they donated it to the Ashram and secondly whether it had been accounted for in government records ? Whether there was an annual audit of the Ashram and its various activities or whether it was declared a charitable organisation and was supposedly exempted from necessary annual exercise of checking accounts.
Time and again such questions are raised when it comes to spiritual gurus, babas, Godmen who are often the repository of a collective religious faith in India but have been found to be involved in activities which are completely anti-thetical to their outward postures. (https://www.popxo.com/article/self-proclaimed-spiritual-gurus-699854/)
It is now history how leading Swamis / Sadhvis have come under scanner of probe agencies or even investigative journalists for their alleged participation in money laundering activities on many occasions.
With the ascent of Hindutva Supremacism at the centre and a large section of this Babadom having endorsed the regime unconditionally, such exposes or investigations have become rare but one can get an idea about their modus operandi from earlier reports as well.
People’s memory is very short but they can have a glimpse of the money flows with these self proclaimed god men if they are reminded about the exposure at Prashanthi Nilayam, the place where Satya Sai Baba lived.
Media reported that when the personal room of Satya Sai Baba was opened after his death in the presence of retired judges and assessor provided by the Income Tax Department to evaluate gold, jewellery etc, they discovered 98 kilos of gold, 11.56 crore in cash and 307 kilos of silver (https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/12-crores-98-kgs-gold-found-in-sri-sathya-sai-babas-room-458778) An operation which required twenty people 36 hours to count the cash recovered from the private chambers of Sai Baba at his ashram in Puttaparthi.
Later reports told that on further investigation more gold was discovered. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/more-gold-found-in-sai-babas-room/articleshow/9290417.cms)
One can recall an expose done by CNN-IBN and Cobrapost jointly which had shown godmen laundering money, in the name of God, all for a commission ( (CNN-IBN Posted Sunday , May 06, 2007 at 20:30 Updated Monday , May 07, 2007 at 02 ; CNN-IBN Posted Monday , May 07, 2007 at 08:11). A leading light among these godmen/women , who was proactive in the early nineties movement of majoritarian consolidation had even shared a secret with the interviewer that he has formed a separate trust to facilitate his work of converting black money to white money for a commission.
This expose which covered the underhand dealings of these Spiritual Gurus, many who claim to be Godmen promising ‘to rid lives of evil are nothing short of evil themselves.’ (https://www.countercurrents.org/gatade140910.htm)
A few years later, a programme aired on TV under the title ‘Hey Ram’ had brought forth interesting commonality between this god men / women fraternity. (‘Godmen’s unholy link with criminals, Mailtoday, 11 Sep 2010).
Question arises why can’t all these Godmen / Women be brought under law ? If a middle class salaried person is supposed to fill Income Tax Return every year, if an organisation working for people – if it gets funds from others – is bound to do it more rigorously, why such individuals – who are able to influence thousands of people or even millions with their oratory and engage in various fund generating activities be exempted from rigorous scrutiny.
When time and again we are getting examples how such Godmen / women, spiritual gurus, are involved in activities which are not at all commensurate with their teachings, how they act as conduits for illegal flows of money or even other offences, this demand has become more urgent.
No doubt various organs of the state and its agencies will have to become proactive to bring more transparency to their activities and these spiritual gurus are not allowed to cynically misuse and make a mockery of the faith of those who have become their devotees. Question arises when the state itself is found to be engaged in sectarian politics or using these faith merchants for its immediate political goals, any strict action to uphold a clear separation of religion from politics becomes impossible.
Merely five years back it was an unprecedented moment in the history of Odisha that it witnessed mass movements targeting many such Babas/spiritual gurus which had compelled the state government to arrest few of them. In fact the judiciary had also expressed grave concern over such Babas masquerading as spiritual leaders, robbing innocent followers of money and leading a “licentious life”. (https://sabrangindia.in/article/time-akhara-certified-babas)
Times are such that we need similar awakening elsewhere as well so that various faith merchants are not able to exploit people further. Perhaps the best way to move forward is to think of something like anti superstition law at the national level, a law for which Dr Narendra Dabholkar led a struggle for more than eighteen years.
Experience of Maharashtra which passed anti-superstition law in 2013 is worth emulating. Till date have been hundreds of cases against fraudulent godmen who thrived on the superstition and fears of many and many amongst them have been convicted also.
Ultimately what needs to be done so that the voice of reason does not get drowned in the cacophony of noises emanating from the Spiritual Gurus. Perhaps we will have to take recourse to criticism of religion itself, the manner in which Marx tried to engage with it in his historic treatise “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”
The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…
More about some time later ..
Subhash Gatade is a left activist associated with New Socialist Initiative