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VIEWS ON NEWS: Hey Radhe Maa!

My thoughts on why it appears popular to reject India’s latest ‘godwoman’

Here’s the thing…the day before India launched its historic Mars Mission in 2013, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Dr K Radhakrishnan placed a replica of the Mars Orbiter Mission at the Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati and performed a special pooja. He was seeking blessings to ensure the mission would be a success. His predecessor G Madhavan Nair also did the same thing before the Chadrayaan mission (Lunar Exploration Programme). While loud protestations came from the rationalists, most of India could see where the two ‘men of science’, were coming from. I mean, isn’t it most commonplace to crack open a coconut, and crush lemons under the wheels of your vehicle to ward-off the ‘evil-eye’? Don’t most Indians, even the ‘rational’ ones, drive around with a string of lemons and chillies hanging from the bumper of their car, for good luck? Well, Of course. This is just who we are. We believe, and we surrender- to unknown ‘higher powers’ who we presume, run the show. How else can most of us explain the deep mystery of how a nation like India carries on, in the immense chaos which is our everyday reality? This is why I’m a bit curious about the overwhelming reaction to the latest ‘godwoman’ to grab our attention- 50 year old Sukhvinder Kaur from Gurdaspur in Punjab, who now calls herself ‘Radhe Maa’, and an incarnation of goddess Durga. I’m curious not because she made it to prime-time news, but because of the logic that seemed to drive the TV debates. Most anchors argued from the point that it would be ‘unscientific’ to place self-appointed ‘godwomen’ such as ‘Radhe Maa’ on a pedestal. What makes me curious is why the same logic hasn’t been extended equally to question every other ‘unscientific’ ‘godman’ and ‘godwoman’. In fact all kinds of bizarre claims have been made about the supposed strides made by ancient India in fields ranging from plastic surgery and genetics to aviation technology.  These assertions blurring the differences between myth and reality have come from the highest offices of power but have mostly been dismissed with a snigger by cynics, not quite attracting the same degree of rejection we now see. So how come nobody has a problem panning ‘Radhe Maa’? One reason could be that she seems a soft target, an easy prey perhaps, one yet to find powerful patrons.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying characters like ‘Radhe Maa’ should be welcomed and celebrated. All I’m saying is, maybe we need to keep an open mind and be consistent in maintaining our ‘scientific temper’. She certainly isn’t the first of India’s legion of ‘godwomen’. She’s the latest to gain publicity and has her fair share of ‘devotees’ too. The charges levelled against her, in a dowry related complaint  seem almost benign when compared to allegations made against several other of India’s  controversial Godmen– that range from fraud to murder and rape.

The charges against Radhe Maa also include ‘obscenity’. She has been photographed in a mini-skirt. That’s certainly a first for a so-called ‘godwoman’, but do we honestly consider wearing mini-skirts obscene in general? Radhe Maa has been shown on TV being physically carried by her ‘devotees’- both male and female. Its hard to see the point of this, but oddly, these sort of things are not new. In ‘Gods and Godmen of India’, the late Khushwant Singh spoke about the late Anandamayee Ma (Mother of Bliss). He wrote that Anandamayee Ma, who died in 1982 referred to herself as “the doll” or “the body” and that “She allows her devotees to bathe and dress her. She does not eat with her own hands; her female devotees take turns to place food in her mouth.”

A lot has been said and written about the peculiar phenomenon of self-styled ‘godmen/women’ in India and why they seem to flourish extraordinarily well here. I’d agree with Dipankar Gupta’s view that India’s godmen/women have their fingers in several pies- both religious and political, when he says “People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes.”

Given the symbiotic nature of relations between India’s so-called ‘holy’ figures and politicians, their patronage appears to be a thing of mutual advantage. Whether Radhe Maa’s stock rises or diminishes, could then well depend on the powers and influence wielded by her benefactors. The latest politician to come to Radhe Maa’s rescue is Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Vijay Sampla. After  pictures of the minister with the godwoman became public, he has claimed that all allegations against her are baseless. 

India’s fascination for human incarnations of gods, is a complex matter. There’s a reason why India is known globally as a land of mystics and mysticism. Prone as we are to accepting and believing in invisible forces, we also open the door for that faith to be abused by the smarter amongst a growing breed of self-styled ‘spiritual leaders’. 

Article 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution that makes it the duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry and reform, is hardly an insurance against our proclivity to go in the opposite direction. Besides, science in India is not synonymous with atheism. In the complex plurality that is India, everybody and everything coexist. Of course, which forces thrive from time to time depend on the factors that nourish them. ‘Radhe Maa’ might just ride out the storm on her trident. She has already declared that she is “pure and pious” and said she’s prepared to endure the pyre if allegations of amassing wealth illegally are proven against her.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is to each his own, and who am I to say whom or what anyone else should or not worship? But in the unfolding circus, it might be nice if the discerning saw all the players equally, instead of letting the bigger fish get away.