Why so many Indians fall victim to false prophets – The Economist

MATA AMRITANANDAMAYI, a self-proclaimed spiritual leader who runs a charity in the southern Indian state of Kerala, has reportedly embraced 40m people from across the world. Devotees queue up for hours to receive her “healing hugs”, and those farther afield can pay for puja (ceremonial worship) via the internet. She is one of India’s many “godmen” and “godwomen”, as the spiritual entrepreneurs are known. Millions of people look to them for spiritual guidance, yet recent high-profile cases of abuse show that their influence is not always innocuous. Why are so many Indians in thrall to gurus?
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Self-ordained spiritual guides are well-established in Hinduism, India’s majority religion, but gurus are popular with Sikhs too. They evoke images of bearded ascetics who settle in the mountains to seek salvation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers included the Beatles, changed that in the 1960s. Adherents of “transcendental meditation”, a technique that he trademarked, pay organisations including the Maharishi Foundation, a non-profit, hundreds of dollars to learn its secrets. Such was his popularity among Indians and foreign visitors to his ashram (spiritual retreat) in Rishikesh, a holy city in the foothills of Himalayas, that the Soviet Union sent a spy to learn more about the “brainwashing centre”.
People flock to gurus to seek divine assistance in every part of their lives, be it the birth of a child, a promotion at work, the purchase of a new car or to treat a disease. Many believers use them like they would therapists and counsellors, says Bhavdeep Kang, author of “Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas”. Some holymen offer little more than incantations, while others see money-making opportunities. Baba Ramdev, a yogi, also runs Patanjali, a $4bn consumer-goods giant that competes with companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble. “He already has our trust, unlike other brands that need to advertise to win trust,” says a follower who buys Patanjali’s hair oil. Popular gurus often do philanthropic works and have close ties with politicians, who hope to win votes by associating themselves with the divine.
But there are some with more insidious motives: spiritual guides are serving time for crimes including rape, sexual assault, kidnapping and tax evasion. One charlatan was arrested for peddling “miracle oil” to a pregnant woman whose in-laws demanded a boy. Another controversial guru named Sathya Sai Baba, famous for conjuring gold rings, amulets, watches and necklaces by sleight of hand, was accused of money-laundering. Dignitaries at his funeral in 2011 included Manmohan Singh, then India’s prime minister. The obsession can be deadly: in 2017 Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan (pictured), a flamboyant guru who starred in his own films and music videos, was sentenced to prison for rape. On hearing the verdict, his followers rioted and the police opened fire on them; 38 people were killed and 250 were injured in the violence. His ashram in Sirsa, a sleepy city in the northern state of Haryana, still attracts visitors who believe that his incarceration was part of a conspiracy.
And dissenting voices are sometimes silenced. In 2013 Narendra Dabholkar, a rational thinker who fought against “black magic” and superstition, was shot dead by men on motorbikes in Pune, in western India. The trial of five men accused of involvement in his murder begins on September 30th. For as long as people put their faith in miracles over science, India’s enlightenment industry will continue to flourish, and its false prophets will keep finding ways to exploit them.
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