Why Deras are thriving in Punjab

Babas are better counselors than regular priests.

 |  3-minute read |   23-07-2016
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The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was non-practicing. Yet, the Austrian neurologist wrote Moses and Monotheism. Nearing death, the steadfast atheist had discovered a new insight into religion as his last book suggested.

And see what American literary critic Harold Bloom wrote:

"We are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the quest, which must be for the original self, a spark of breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the Creation."

The "quest" the author refers to in the context of faith in his country, the United States, is personal. But we know it can be both private as well as congregational in many other cultures, such as in the Arab world, India and elsewhere in Asia.

Freud noted humans crave for a rendezvous with divinity, visible or invisible.

I find these theories universal.

Punjab is not just one of India's 29 states. It's also the cradle of one of the youngest, monotheistic religions, Sikhism.

The faith prohibits human worship.

sikhism_072316061619.jpg Punjab is the cradle of one of the youngest, monotheistic religions, Sikhism.

For the faithful, the sacred words of the Gurus and other saintly figures, as collectively compiled in Guru Granth Sahib, are commanded to be the spiritual guide.

But when you criss-cross Punjab, you'll see the landscape is dotted with Deras, or camps run by deified humans with sublime titles of Sants and Babas.

This phenomenon stands out paradoxically to the monotheistic philosophy of the faith.

And so do drugs, liquor stores and sex-selective abortions because the religion permits no intoxicants and misogyny.

Most of these activities have been blamed on what critics call the misrule of successive administrations in Punjab, and New Delhi's own nationalistic model of governance, as opposed to federal in spirit.

Many religious scholars, though, selectively attribute the rise of Deradom - as I may term it - to chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has all along been in control of Sikh religious institutions.

They see the Deradom as an infiltration, as a dilution of the core values of the faith because the Badal-managed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) allegedly failed to promote them.

I think this critique is only partly true.

At the same time, I find the Deradom in Punjab is also a manifestation of human desires that Freud and Bloom wrote about in their books. After the Green Revolution, Deras proliferated proportionately to the state's economic growth. And so did gurdwaras under organised religion.

The monotheism in Sikhism denotes the ascendancy of intellect over anything physical. Still, a large population of Sikhs turned to godmen as the quest for a one-on-one with the supposedly divine but with human attributes grew stronger.

And remember, that was also the period when communism, which had a strong presence in Punjab back then ideologically, started declining.

The state's economic health began to deteriorate sooner than expected after the adverse impacts of the Green Revolution unfolded.

As happened in other parts, commercial success post-liberalisation of the 1990s produced mixed results. Few people became richer but many more were left behind in the success story. For both categories, religion provided a soul-soothing space.

For the wealthy, it's internal hollowness that drive them to the babas. For the not-so-affluent, it's perhaps the age-old wish-fulfillment urge.

And this is where the babas play their role as great communicators. Some of them sound better than trained psychologists.

Their followers find their counsel much easier to grasp than from the sermons of the largely not-so-well-read or tightly-regulated preachers in local gurdwaras.

Babas and deras are there to stay - and mushroom - in Punjab.

Ordinary people, the rich and the poor alike, are no researchers. When distressed, they need quick spiritual uplift.

For organised Sikh religious institutions, here's a momentous challenge: producing skilled, spiritual conversationalists and not muzzled employees.


Harmeet Shah Singh Harmeet Shah Singh @harmeetss

The writer is Editor with India Today TV.

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