19/01/2016 8:38 AM IST | Updated 06/10/2017 6:37 PM IST

Why The Dera Can't Take A Joke

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 13: Followers rushed to cinema hall to watch controversial film 'MSG The Messenger', featuring Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim on February 13, 2015 in New Delhi, India. The film released in cinemas across the country amid tight security as even as some parts of Delhi, Haryana and Jammu witnessed protests by Sikh groups seeking its ban. (Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

At the moment, it's very easy to demonise the members of Dera Sacha Sauda.

Devotees take umbrage over a comedian's mimicking of their guru, invoke Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code and move the judicial system to arrest him. After all, what could be more galling in a purported democracy? (Some would even say that more disturbing was the way in which the comedian apologised on TV to a guru and his followers with folded hands for having hurt their sentiments....)

I was wondering about their lack of humour... when I chanced upon an old book on my shelf -- the hugely popular 7 Habits of Highly Effective People...

The outrage over Kiku Sharda's brief incarceration is widespread. The incident has, of course, provoked heated debate on both social and mainstream media. Arnab Goswami certainly looked like he was having the time of his life on the Newshour Debate, especially when the Dera's spokesperson stormed off the set, thus demonstrating, some would say, that people in religious movements are irrational, illogical and not open to discussion and debate.

Many are confounded by the blind devotion to a "religious" figure -- especially one who has serious criminal charges levelled against him. Why did they have to arrest the comedian? Where does it all end? Putting aside for the moment the dark possibility that the whole sordid episode was a calculated and carefully calibrated threat sent out to the country by the opponents of free speech, perhaps we should ask why followers of a (quasi) religious movement found it so hard to take a joke on their leader.

I was wondering about their lack of humour myself when I chanced upon an old book on my shelf -- the hugely popular 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey. Many who wouldn't touch the self-help genre with a 10-foot pole concede that despite its rather didactic title, the book, which has sold over 25 million copies since its publication in 1989, actually manages to make a case for principle-centred living and sheds some light on why people behave the way they do.

In the book, Covey makes a telling observation:

"Whatever is at the center of our life will be the source of our security, guidance, wisdom, and power."

He then goes on to talk about the various "life centers" people have and how these affect their lives and behaviour in distinct ways. He talks about money-centeredness, possession-centeredness, self-centeredness, even spouse-centeredness, and expounds on the effects of each of these on individuals.

Perhaps if we made peace with and within ourselves first and foremost, we would stop attacking others? Isn't that the whole point of religion, after all?

I personally found his exposition on "church-centeredness" most fascinating!

Although Covey specifically refers to those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, simply replace the world "church" in the following excerpt with the name of any religious outfit whose behaviour confounds you and I dare say you will find he has succinctly summed up a universal religious and social phenomenon.

"Churchgoing is not synonymous with personal spirituality. There are some people who get so busy in church worship and projects that they become insensitive to the pressing human needs that surround them, contradicting the very precepts they profess to believe deeply. There are others who attend church less frequently or not at all but whose attitudes and behavior reflect a more genuine centering in the principles of the basic (religious) ethic.

"Having participated throughout my life in organized church and community service groups, I have found that attending church does not necessarily mean living the principles taught in those meetings. You can be active in a church but inactive in its gospel. In the church-centered life, image or appearance can become a person's dominant consideration, leading to hypocrisy that undermines personal security and intrinsic worth. Guidance comes from a social conscience, and the church-centered person tends to label others artificially in terms of "active," "inactive," "liberal," "orthodox," or "conservative."

"Because the church is a formal organization made up of policies, programs, practices, and people, it cannot by itself give a person any deep, permanent security or sense of intrinsic worth. Nor can the church give a person a constant sense of guidance.

"Church-centered people often tend to live in compartments, acting and thinking and feeling in certain ways on the Sabbath and in totally different ways on weekdays. Such a lack of wholeness or unity or integrity is a further threat to security, creating the need for increased labeling and self-justifying. Seeing the church as an end rather than as a means to an end undermines a person's wisdom and sense of balance."

Apply all of that to the Dera, (or to any other less-than-tolerant religious outfit, for that matter) and you start to see why they behave the way they do.

Elsewhere in his writings, Covey says,

"The dehumanizing of others starts from a deep insecurity within the self. This is also where conflict begins."

And that, I think, is a profound insight for India today. Could it be that the reason we attack others is because we are not at peace with ourselves? It is, after all, the unhappy who spread unhappiness. Perhaps if we made peace with and within ourselves first and foremost, we would stop attacking others?

Isn't that the whole point of religion, after all?

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