Why we must be wary of modern babas

Hari Ravikumar
Hari RavikumarJan 29, 2016 | 10:36

Why we must be wary of modern babas

  • If you are not smart enough
  • to learn anything
  • you can always become
  • a mantrika or a yogi or a sanyasi!
  • If you bring results instantly
  • you are hailed a success
  • If success is delayed, prescribe
  • elaborate rituals and make money!
  • The mantrikas are lucky -
  • they gain from both
  • the happiness of the rich people
  • and the troubles of the destitute!
  • Just remain silent when ignorant
  • and display erratic behaviour -
  • you will be hailed
  • as a great mantrika!

If you thought this is a modern poem written by a disgruntled atheist then it only goes to show the greatness of its composer Nilakantha Dikshita, who wrote these lines in the 17th century in his satire, Kalividambana (a mockery of Kaliyuga).

In India we are familiar with people who claim to be god-(wo)men. Some claim to be omniscient. Some claim to be gurus. Some even claim to know nothing except bhakti for the supreme. We have people claiming to be mystics, clairvoyants, yogis, past-birth-experts, ascetics, and sorcerers. There are a few who explicitly state that they have no special powers and are merely helping their fellow students on the path of spirituality (and yet have a huge fan following). Then there are ascetics who have been appointed as the heads of their respective matha-s or dioceses or ashram-s that represent a particular community or sect - remember that they are different from the self-appointed, new age gurus.

Often traditional families in India are associated with a spiritual leader, either because of their parents' faith or due to community leaning. In addition to this, some of them are followers of a new age guru. In some cases, when the family is not associated with any spiritual leader, the children get associated with one of the new age gurus. And then there are people who don't follow any spiritual leader at all.


Among all these various combinations, I have rarely found people who have a balanced view about new age gurus. In my experience, either people are devoted followers of one or more spiritual leaders, or they vehemently oppose the idea of following a spiritual leader of any kind. When I began to examine our popular new age gurus, one thing I found common was their huge fan following (especially including the white-skinned). There is clearly something attractive about them. At the same time, there is also something unsettling. So what makes them popular - is it their speeches, their social work, or something else?

I've heard and read representative samples of what the new age gurus have to say. And I find that most of them have nothing new to say. It's true that I'm prejudiced in this matter because I have access to the primary sources as well as reliable secondary sources. If I want to know what the Upanishads say, I go to the original texts rather than listen to a lecture about the Upanishads by one of the new age gurus. If I want to make a critical examination of a particular character of the Mahabharata, I go to some of the great scholars of our tradition who have written about that. Even so, while some of the new age gurus have the ability to simplify complicated messages of the scriptures, some of them are shockingly ignorant. And with bad oratory skills. And not particularly good looking. Yet they are popular.


Is it then their social work? This is an area some of the new age gurus have done remarkable work. They are able to tap the religious fervor of their devotees/fans in order to bring about a change in the natural environment or in the society. But there are also gurus who use the social service as a façade for money laundering and other not-so-noble undertakings.Apart from their speeches, writings, and their social work, an important factor that contributes to the fan following is the methodical approach they use in order to increase their "membership". They hire some of the best management professionals to create strategies to increase the number of devotees. Politicians find great camaraderie in these gurus for various reasons - not only do they get a free dose of spirituality but they also get to park their black money and broker deals with other parties without being seen with them. Our new age guru is happy to play caretaker and mediator. Movie stars, business magnates, media barons, and sportspersons use their association with their guru for effective networking and brand building. As for the common folk, associate with a guru provides succor - be it the satsang with other devotees, the carefree singing of songs, or being in a quiet ashram where they can forget their worries for a little while.

As the family structure weakens and the elders of the family are no longer able to build the inner fortitude of the next generation, the need for such gurus will only increase. We all need assistance in dealing with the chaos that daily encircles our lives. Not everyone has the mental stamina and calmness to deal with fast-changing world. So we have to fall back on some kind of a teacher-figure.

While we can be respectful of gurus and ascetics who help make a difference in people's lives, we should be wary not to deify them or falsely attribute superpowers to them. The reality is that there are no superpowers except for what each of us is capable of, which is probably why Vivekananda said, "Each soul is potentially divine." It is the awakening of the guru-hood within us that should drive us rather than a blind devotion to another. Realizing this will hold us in check before we try to evangelize our guru to the world. What worked for us might not work for another. And if we are genuinely interested in the welfare of our friends, we can invite but not impose. Else we end up becoming the unwitting vectors of the plague of blind faith.

Last updated: April 25, 2018 | 17:59
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy