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In defiance of organised religion

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published by The Hindu 

Even as we take stock of Gurmeet Singh’s crimes, it’s important to understand the role of folk and guru-based religious orders

Using one’s institutional status and spiritual halo to grab and boorishly display power, fame and wealth is bad enough, but recently more and more ‘gurus’ are coming out as sexual perverts, embroiled in horrific exploitation of their own followers — raping women and castrating men. It came as a relief, therefore, when the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, also accused of murdering journalist Ramchander Chhatrapati for exposing his misdeeds, was convicted for rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Reassuring as this was, it was also deeply distressing to read that he hobnobbed with and was patronised by various political parties. Until recently, the Central government had afforded him use of VIP airport lounges meant exclusively for the Prime Minister, the President and heads of foreign governments. Worse, Ministers of the Khattar-led BJP government of Haryana had bowed before the chief. Furthermore, the BJP government in Haryana betrayed its own brand of ‘vote bank politics’ when, despite knowing that they were armed with weapons and explosives, it allowed Singh’s followers to congregate in large numbers a day before the verdict.

Shameful and shocking as all this is, the Dera Sacha Sauda case also raises other issues, demonstrating, if one is prepared to keep one’s eyes and ears open, how socially complex and ridden with deep moral ambiguity such social phenomena are. A straightforward, unbiased examination of any such organisation goes straight to the heart of issues of religious diversity and institutionalised religious domination.

Forms of religious diversity

Take the issue of religious diversity. Two forms of it commonly come to my mind. First, diversity of religion — the existence in society of a populace professing faith in distinct, well-demarcated Hindu, Christian, Jewish or Islamic ideals. Second, diversity within religion. Here what immediately appears before us is what can be called horizontal diversity — when a religion is internally differentiated because its core beliefs and practices are differently interpreted, especially by competing elites. For example, Protestants, Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox among Christians; Shias, Sunnis, Ismailis, Ahmadis among Muslims; or Vaishnavites, Shaivites and Shaktas among Hindus.

What is less noticed is that religions are characterised by another kind of diversity — call it vertical diversity. This occurs when people of the same religion engage in diverse but hierarchically arranged practices. A religion might mandate that only some of its members engage in certain kind of practices and others be excluded. For example, caste-ridden Hinduism makes a distinction between pure and impure practices. Practices performed by certain castes are pure and members of other castes or women are excluded from them. For instance, women or Dalits may not be allowed entry into the inner sanctum of temples and in many cases even into the precincts of an upper-caste temple. But such marginalised or dissenting sections of society do not cease thereby to have religious or spiritual lives. They invent gods (or pantheons that include spirits, ancestors and deified heroes), identify gurus, develop forms of worship of their own, often away from the eye of, and sometimes in tension with caste-laden Hinduism. Song-based devotionalism among women of virtually all castes, and yogic or meditation-based practices of individual salvation among “lower castes”, provide examples of such diversity.

Vertical diversity brings home a point that ought to have been made at the very outset. Every form of diversity, including religious diversity, is enmeshed in power relations. If so, endemic to every religiously diverse society is an illegitimate use of power whereby the basic interests of one group are threatened by the actions of another. It further follows that inherent in religiously diverse societies is the possibility of both inter-religious and intra-religious domination (discrimination, marginalisation, humiliation, exclusion, reproduction of hierarchy). In short, domination can develop between religions (say, between Hindus and Muslims), within religions (e.g., sectarian domination of Shias by Sunnis), and even within faith practices of the marginalised (domination of women among OBCs, Dalits or tribals).


The case of Dera Sacha Sauda

To come now to my main point: what we have seen recently in the case of Dera Sacha Sauda is a highly pernicious form of intra-religious domination — oppression of followers, particularly female, by their own guru. No condemnation is strong enough of what has happened. But a cursory glance at the history of their formation shows that such organisations frequently grow out of resistance to inter- as well as intra-religious dominations.

Dera Sacha Sauda, from what I have gathered, was formed in 1948 by an ascetic spiritual seeker called Mastana Balochistani. It apparently grew from resistance to the totalising claims of mainstream, organised Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. The Dera’s simple teachings emphasise the recitation of sacred words, meditation and the achievement of individual transcendence. The devotees are asked to practice forms of asceticism and avoid self-indulgence, to abstain from ritualism and from making monetary religious donations. Facilities of drinking water and langar are provided in their ashrams. They are inclusive and have not only Sikh but Christian, Hindu and Muslim followers, many of them from Dalit and working class backgrounds. Though Singh clearly abandoned the original milieu of Mastana’s religiosity, replacing it with the sickeningly glitzy world of fame, power and wealth, during his satsang gatherings, he still sat beneath Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian symbols and attracted the marginalised.

Such folk and guru-based religious orders, at least at their birth, valorise individuality and personal freedom, are egalitarian, and focus on mental and physical health and this-worldly happiness for all. In doing this, they reproduce the fluidity and flexibility of ancient and popular Hinduism. It would be wise not to dismiss or overlook this aspect of these organisations — that they are part of a religiously plural landscape and, at their best, resist intra- and inter-religious domination. Also, that they are a bulwark against the homogenising practices of large, powerful, totalising religions, unless of course they are copted by them!

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