I was unsurprised to read about the arrest of spiritual frauds who were recently in the news in India. Sooner or later, most of the glitzy spiritual organisations that ply a flourishing trade in regular and custom-made packages of pop philosophy, meditation, and yoga will go the same way, as they should – for they add no real value to the average seekers who approach them, and indeed cause short-time or permanent harm at various levels:physical, mental and even spiritual to the individuals who get caught in their cults. The ubiquitous Babas and Ammas, the self-styled Godmen and Godwomen who attract followers with the promise of peace and joy only to suck them of all possible resources. The Sai Baba cults, the hugging saint, the gruesome couple whose followers call them god, the poisonous cult of the art of living – nearly every other spiritual cult operating in India is a dangerous scam and a fraud.
I say this from my observations of having been a spiritual seeker who spent seven years in my twenties trying to find the meaning of life in spirituality by reading through tomes of philosophy and mysticism, listening to talks by self-proclaimed spiritual teachers at their institutions, and writing features on a few of them. At the end of those seven years, I realised that the most spiritual person around me was the CEO of the company where I worked at the time, whose vision in creating a product company when the IT industry was facing one of its worst recessions not only helped hundreds of employees to survive the industry’s crisis but also elevated them from common software service professionals into creators of niche software products. That CEO is one of the greatest karma yogis for through his company he has done more good for society that all the popular spiritual teachers who flaunt themselves on social media put together. I say this having taken an objective look at more than fifteen different spiritual organisations with respect to their ideologies, practices and also discussions with people involved including the head of the institution in a few cases.
The levels of delusion of the followers who believe in these godmen and godwomen as well as the megalomania involved has to be seen to be believed. An up and coming godman who expounded a rather interesting core concept (similar to The Celestine Prophecy) shared his vision statement to establish a fully self-sufficient city with schools, colleges, hospitals, parks, shopping complexes, in short everything that anyone would need, naturally with him as the overlord at the centre of this mini-universe. Most successful self-styled godmen and godwomen already have similar complexes in place, centres which peddle spirituality in flashy little sachets and are projected as havens of peace. One of the chief disciples of a godman who teaches breathing techniques and targets yuppies to join his cult mentioned how people from nearby villages (parasites, he called them) would sneak into the ashram kitchens, posing as followers. It was ironic considering that he and his teacher were far more dangerous parasites that made a living by leeched off hardworking members of society. Pseudo spirituality is one of the greatest banes of present times.
I choose to use the word ‘Spiritual teacher’ here and not Guru. For Guru is a sacred term that indicates a teacher who deserves the greatest respect and reverence. Not every teacher is or can be a Guru. There are instructors who barter knowledge and skills, there are teachers who coach and guide, and there are Gurus who inspire and enlighten, and awaken the student to the state where they can self-actualize themselves. In ancient India, Gurus were teachers who imparted education and professional skills to the students. They led normal lives with their families, taking batches of students under their wing during the course of education. The immense respect and veneration associated with Gurus are for such teachers, the real teachers. It was these Gurus of yore who were regarded as second to the parents and honoured before God.
The conmen peddling spirituality in the present day abuse this concept by projecting themselves as messiahs. They lead flashy lifestyles by squeezing resources and psychic energy from the hapless souls whom they ensnare by advertising, pyramid schemes of recruitment and mesmerising music that brainwashes them of all independent thought. After having seen the amount of fraud that goes on in such spiritual shops, the biggest surprise was the number of people who continue to fall for the propaganda of these charlatans, seeking some kind of solace in an abrasive world. Seekers would be better off spending their time and resources by seeking on their own, but then everyone walks a unique path and perhaps some have to get conned before they can learn their lessons.
Here is a short related excerpt from The Reengineers. Most of the action of the book is set in the campus of a spiritual institution called The Seeker’s School. Everything about this school is fictitious and yet it is rooted in the story of the many unscrupulous frauds whom I encountered during my days as a spiritual seeker.
Excerpt from The Reengineers
The women who had been meditating started to leave the hall one by one after prostrating before the photograph. One of them walked up to us, smiling widely.
‘Be happy my friends, in the name of the most hallowed master.’ She handed him a set of glossy papers. ‘Is this your first visit to the school, my brother?’
‘What about you, dear sister?’ She asked Nivedita, handing her another set of papers. I crept into the shadows of the palms, as did Anu and Sabi.
‘Did you know about the post-graduate seeker programme? Prefect Govind is uplifting a new batch tomorrow. Would you like to join? Wait, wait, don’t say no, it is the greatest gift that you can give yourself, this gift of the seeker quest. As we go through our mundane lives, how many of us ever pause to stop and observe and wonder where it is all leading to? Now the seeker programme—’
‘But don’t we need to complete the junior seeker programme before attending the senior class?’ Nivedita asked.
‘Not necessary, sister. You now have the blessed opportunity to pay first and register in advance for the junior seeker, primary seeker, middle seeker, higher secondary seeker, senior secondary seeker and graduate seeker programmes and catch up with them later, one by one after you finish this. We offer a special discount package if you start your journey with the postgraduate seeker programme. This is for a short time only, so you had better register fast. Ah, the bliss, the pure joy of it! You will be doubly blessed to do it in the presence of the most hallowed master, with Prefect Govind personally teaching it.’
‘No doubt that will be doubly blissful,’ Siddharth said dryly.
‘Oh yes, each teacher brings their own special flavour to a class, so it is advisable to repeat any programme any number of times. After all, the fees you pay help
send so many poor children to school.’ The woman smiled sweetly. ‘How many programmes should I sign you up for? The total cost for the postgraduate programme is just about the cost of the latest iPhone. You can pay by cash, cheque, any Master or VISA card or I can arrange a loan with our tie-in corporate bank, which you can then pay back in easy monthly installments. It is the best investment that you can ever make in your lifetime, for your own peace of mind and happiness. Isn’t happiness the most important thing in life? Isn’t it, brother?’
Siddharth made a gesture indicating that he was not interested.
Excerpt from The Reengineers