In an age with a plethora of god-men, gurus, preachers, some so popular as to have ashrams in many states and even in many countries, it is an astonishing truth that society is rudderless, adrift on an ocean of hedonism, without spiritual and moral guidance.
The fault lies with Star Gurus who seek self-aggrandisement by building huge cult followings and five-star ashrams where rich Indian and foreign devotees can practice yoga and meditation in comfort, in salubrious, resort-like environs. Justifying the Marxist slander of religion as the opium of the people, they peddle lullabies to frustrated millions seeking release from life'smyriad problems. Such vicarious redemption is totally un-Hindu, and extremely harmful, as it turns a blind eye to festering evils and allows them to multiply under cover of a guru'sbenign gaze.
As the majority community, the ill-health of the Hindu community impacts the nation as a whole. Other religious communities may have problems, but their impact is in proportion to their relative numbers. Hindus therefore dominate the national discourse when it comes to social problems, most notably the growing menace of dowry, female foeticide, sexual harassment, and new forms of exploitation in the natal and marital homes. Then there are new forms of caste animosities and perverted forms of addressing religious issues.
In sharp contrast to the vigorous debates by social and religious reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, independent India and particularly the twenty-first century is conspicuous for an absence of social, religious, and political leadership. In an era in which mass communications have made it so easy to reach out to the people, there are no great men to analyze and articulate the ills of the day, much less offer solutions.
Today, the most obvious place to begin a critique of our religious leadership is Amarnath. It is well-known that the Muslim-majority Government of J&K had decided to allot a small piece of land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board for building facilities for pilgrims. This was deliberately exploited by a section of the ruling coalition to whip up sentiments in view of the forthcoming elections, and violence broke out. As Hindus refused to take it lying down, casualties are increasing even as the Jammu-Pathankot highway is blockaded to make the protests punitive for Srinagar 'sfruit-sellers.
While all the Muslim political leaders of Kashmir have come out and opposed land transfer for Amarnath pilgrims, the few sane voices of Muslim religious leaders have been drowned in the din. But the deafening silence of Hindu religious leaders on the matter is inexplicable. Amazing as it sounds, some modern godmen have flown to Seattle, USA, to endorse the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal, and though they peddle ?Hindu wares like yoga and meditation,? their followers abroad claim status as non-Hindu spiritual groups (whatever that means).
The events in Kashmir must legitimately be viewed as a new form of jihad against Hindu pilgrims, but no high-flying international swami has dared call upon the Hurriyat leadership to stem the violence! Worse, some of them have actually asked the aggrieved Hindus to practice non-violence – after sustained police violence that is taking Hindu lives daily. Police in fact even stole the body of a man who consumed poison out of excessive grief over the land issue, and tried to burn it hastily with tyres and kerosene, until people'saction retrieved the body. Clearly Hindu society has to provide its own leadership in such critical times.
Just 80 years ago, social reformer Swami Shraddhanand made such an impact upon north Indian society that even Muslims were attracted to his meetings, and some converted back to the dharma (this was the reason why he was murdered). Today, very well-known gurus are refusing to help the families of devotees asking them to speak up against inter-religious marriages, and to counsel their young children from taking the risk of breaking community ties for marriages that may not work. It is well-known that many high profile inter-religious marriages have ended in divorce, leaving young mothers in a peculiar quandary regarding the upbringing of their offspring.
Closer home, there are too many distortions within the Hindu family that are going unaddressed by social and religious leaders. Most pressing are the rising incidents of dowry – which even the highly publicized incidents of returning barats and refusing to marry greedy grooms – have not been able to quell. Even the full salaries of working women – grabbed instantly the minute they are received – do not satisfy the greed of those addicted to getting everything free. Closely related to this is the rising incidence of female foeticide, as families who regard young wives as a resource to extract funds from the natal families of the girls, do not want daughters who might need similar dowries!
Despite the clampdown by the legal system?thanks to the fact that women'sgroups woke up to the menace very early?female foeticide has warped the male-female population ratio in several states, which is unlikely to be rectified easily. Many communities now pay a bride price to buy brides from girl-surplus states, yet female foeticide increases among groups that do not bother to think that by the time their sons marry, there may be no girls with dowries but girls for whom a price has to be paid! Hindu religious leaders?barring Jathedar Vedanti who declared it immoral and illegal for Sikhs?have maintained inexplicable silence on these rising atrocities within the family and society.
Such myriad problems naturally cause a spiralling divorce rate. Here again, there are complex issues, which are not addressed by social activists, the legal system, or religious leaders. Currently, Government ministers and judges are urging aggrieved women not to ?misuse? the law to settle scores with estranged husbands and in-laws.
Yet the root cause of such alleged ?misuse? remains un-addressed, which is that aggrieved women are pushed by their lawyers to use the existing provisions of the law to get justice, because the law does not address the actual problems. If there was a sensible mechanism to assessing the genuine grievances of women leaving the marital home, if there was a time-bound facility for divorce for unhappy women and reasonable legal charges, if the system showed an ability to dispense justice rather than settle ?cases,? there would be no reason to settle scores through whatever legal provisions are available. Women seeking exit from unworkable marriages need a break, not a sermon.
From the time Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and similar stalwarts spoke out for widow remarriage, women'seducation, economic empowerment and later marriages, to the current religious leadership?it is a story of social stagnation. Old evils are being reinvented in more virulent forms because there is no desire to invest time and energy in identifying the fixing the problems. Thus, the cults of various gurus rise and their personal affluence soars heavenwards in direct proportion as society languishes in escapism and despair.
The flip side of this story is that an increasing number of people, thousands upon thousands, are fast making their way back to the traditional temples and pilgrimages that have ever been the sources of Hindu dharma. As the hoary founts of dharma are rejuvenated by the bhakti of believers, the glitter of 5-star ashrams will dim, and traditional bhajan-mandalis, kathas, and lilas will return to the centrestage. As small groups congregate in small temples and compounds, the real problems of the people will be heard and solutions found. Hindu dharma was created by sadhus and sants who walked on foot, not by those who travelled in aeroplanes. It was created by those who talked to the people, not by those who talked to media. Like Prahlad who had to find his own way in a universe dominated by his father Hiranyakasipu and aunt Holika, Hindus will have to find their own way out of the morass.
(The writer is a senior journalist and can be contacted at [email protected])