Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda July 5 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 35 secs

Cults led by godmen erode rational discourse and exploit vulnerable populations. In times of crisis, these leaders offer false hope and gain immense wealth, often encouraging sectarianism, intolerance, and weakening societal structures, writes Vinta Nanda.

A stampede at a Satsang led by spiritual guru Narayan Sakar Vishva Hari Bhole Baba in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, resulted in the deaths of 120 devotees on Tuesday evening. Baba Narayan Sakar Hari, known for his large gatherings despite past controversies, was conducting the 'Manav Mangal Milan Sadbhavna Samagam' (Human Welfare and Goodwill Gathering) when the incident occurred. The Satsang saw a massive turnout, leading to the tragic stampede in the Sikandrarao area of Hathras district.

Narayan Sakar Hari hails from Bahadur Nagari village in Etah district. Before his spiritual sojourn, he worked in the intelligence department of the police but left to focus on his mission. This isn't the first time one of his events has seen overwhelming attendance. Reports convey that in May 2022, during the Covid-19 wave, he organized a Satsang in Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh. Despite the district administration's permission for only 50 attendees, over 50,000 people participated, causing major traffic disruptions and leading to a report being filed against the organizers.

Understanding godmen and godwomen like Narayan Sakar Vishva Hari Bhole Baba reveals why they have achieved cult status in India. Why many of them pose a threat to democracy and even become enablers of governmental failures to deliver equality and inclusivity leaving large populations excluded from the mainstream and thus insecure.

People, especially from marginalized populations, are drawn to godmen and godwomen for psychological, social, and cultural reasons. These figures, perceived as possessing extraordinary spiritual powers, provide a sense of hope in an increasingly complex world. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian Constitution, criticized godmen for perpetuating social inequalities and superstitions, stating, "Religion is for man and not man for religion."

In times of crisis—disasters, disruptions, displacements, health calamities—individuals seek answers. With floods becoming commonplace due to climate change, arbitrary policy decisions of the government, e.g. demonetisation, which changed people’s lives overnight without a warning, deforestation across the country in the name of development without adequate attention towards rehabilitation and pandemics like the recent Covid-19, excluded populations, which are in huge numbers, have become fearful and anxious. Spiritual leaders step in here, during conflict, economic struggle, and disparity, posturing to give answers to existential questions, especially to those people for whom science and rationality are elusive, inaccessibility to the education reserved for the elite is a curse. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, cautioned against abandoning reason for superstition, stating, "This combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." 

Most cults led by godmen and godwomen severely damage democracies by eroding democratic principles and engineering social division. They’re exploitative. Democracies thrive on informed citizens capable of critical thinking, but these cults promote blind faith and discourage questioning. The authoritarian control exercised by them undermines equality, freedom of thought, and participation. They manipulate followers for political gain, influencing policy-making to serve their interests rather than the public good, resulting in policies misaligned with democratic values and the broader population's best interests.  

These cults also, more often than not, promote exclusivity and erode the spirit of pluralism. By positioning themselves as alternatives to secular institutions, these leaders promote distrust in democratic institutions, weakening their legitimacy. Their ability to evade legal accountability unleashes a culture of impunity, also weakening the rule of law.

There have been numerous cases where spiritual leaders have exploited their followers financially, emotionally, or sexually, causing significant harm to individuals and communities. Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in introducing Indian philosophies to the West, warned against blindly following spiritual leaders. He stated, "It is a weakness to think someone else is your strength, that someone else is your guide and master."

In India, contributions to these spiritual leaders, often disguised as donations or charity, frequently accumulate immense wealth, raising doubts about their legitimacy. There's a common belief that the wealthy and influential endorse these cults, using religious leaders as conduits for transferring unaccounted funds. The repercussions are severe for the poor, who are often misled and vulnerable, as evidenced by tragedies such as stampedes in poorly organized Satsangs lacking adequate planning and management.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.