How Godmen Unite—And Divide—Families

Either you succumb or you fight.

Godmen attach Bapu, Baba, Guru or Swami to their names for a reason. The titles elevate them to the status of revered figures such as parents, teachers and mentors, and permit a crucial bit of projection: that of themselves as paterfamilias, their followers as family.

Result? The godman gains stature and moral authority in followers' eyes; followers, possibly illusorily, find themselves feeling valued, bonding with each other as equals, and connecting better with a benevolent patriarch. All of which is important in a relationship where reason must never overtake faith, loyalty has to be sustained amidst growing competition, and prescriptions for life improvement are increasingly bundling spiritual content, dal, toothpaste and shampoo.

But how does the embrace of godmen pan out in actual families? There seem two trajectories.

The first, where an early follower recruits family members and offers a full, converted family at the master's feet, is the more visible one. Which I imagine was the case with N, who came to school one day with an ash-streaked forehead. Being ten-year-olds, we naturally found it funny, until an unusually riled N pointed out that the ash was holy and had flowed out from the eyes of an S Baba picture at his home, and that providential wrath would visit those who mocked said miracle. (For the benefit of those who hadn't instantly wiped off their grins, N added that it wasn't the first miracle his family had witnessed.)

The choice between surrendering one's agency at the altar of family peace and being locked into a 24x7 attritional battle with non-believers under the same roof is hardly enviable.

I lost contact with N years ago, but I can imagine him having coaxed his wife and children into S Baba's fold now. It is almost reflexive of hardcore followers to do that. You have seen such folk too. The ones who line up their kids at satsangs, drive their new daughters-in-law to ashrams, and leave their equivalent of the Gideon Bible in guest rooms.

The second trajectory is where conversion efforts are resisted. This can happen for a number of reasons. Worried about the Pandora's Box even one "concession" can open, particularly vegetarianism, one friend has withstood years of pressure to once, just once, meet the family guru. Another friend refuses to budge because babas of any kind creep her out, and yet another has stood his ground simply to spite his parents.

My own mother shares none of my dad's serial enthusiasm for godmen. She was raised by rationalists who were too humble to know what 'rationalist' meant, but nevertheless managed to instil in her great scepticism regarding, among other things, humans claiming godly status.

Whatever the underlying cause for resistance, domestic tensions are inevitable when obduracy challenges evangelical zeal. Ordinary questions—what to eat, wear, read, watch and celebrate— become grounds for battle, adding fresh axes of conflict to already testy spousal and parent-child relationships. It shouldn't surprise us. In other times and planes, these have sparked wars.

It is a great time to be a godman in India. The super-rich, those perennial seekers of spiritual legitimacy and social approval, have more money than ever before to throw around. An unforeseen spurt in personal wealth has seen guilt and expiatory impulses peak among the middle and upper-middle classes. Persistent social exclusion, together with state failure to deliver basic services, is prompting the poor to seek succour outside the political domain. And across classes, the ruling dispensation's evocations of ancient India's cultural capital are enabling not only an appeal to powerful religious and nationalist sentiments, but also its unquestioning acceptance.

For families though, the scenario may not be as rosy. The choice between surrendering one's agency at the altar of family peace and being locked into a 24x7 attritional battle with non-believers under the same roof is hardly enviable.

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