When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.
– Robert Pirsig
I had barely managed to get through my 12th standard. My father decided to send me to Puttaparthy for a college education. Puttaparthy is a small town in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, well known for its famed religious Guru, Sai Baba. I had no particular objection to the chosen destination except that it was far away from my home town. In fact, my family had been a follower of Sai Baba for many years. Getting a seat for kids in Baba’s college is one of the cherished dreams of many devoted families. In terms of grades, I hadn’t really done too well in my precollege exams. So I wasn’t really very confident of clearing the admission test for the college studies. All my hopes were rested on some sort of miracles; stories of which were taught to us from childhood. People known to me closely had the firm belief that getting admission in Baba’s college is a matter of divine grace and not the academic performance. No power on earth could stop you if you are one of those chosen by God! Only qualification is to earn Baba’s grace. But even on that ground, my credentials were doubtful. I had no special talent or religious temperaments to consider myself a worthy recipient of divine grace. Unsure of myself on both accounts -spiritual and intellectual, I kept my finger crossed. Amidst such self-doubts and ambiguities, we made necessary arrangements to visit South India for seeking the admission in Sai Baba’s college. My father was accompanying me. We had to go to Delhi to catch the long distance train to reach Puttaparthy. Just before boarding the train, we wanted to make a small change in our travel plans. Unfortunately, the clerk at the reservation counter turned out to be extremely negligent. In moments of haste and carelessness, he canceled our reserved ticket. With great reluctance and dismay, we decided to travel in the general coach. As for the divine grace, it was neither a very encouraging sign, nor a whole lot of fun, to travel in unreserved class for two days at the peak of Indian summer.
I cannot really recall all about the entrance test and subsequent interview. I was delighted, though, to see my name in the list of selected candidates. Leaving me at Whitefield, Bangalore, my father went home with unconcealed pride. His desire to get me admitted at Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning had made him contented and cheerful. (Editor’s Note: This institution is known today as the Sri Sathya Sai University). Not that I had my own plans and ambitions at that age. But looking back, I think, I was doing things to satisfy my parents and earn the approval and appreciation of our family friends and many well wishers who were also the followers of Sai Baba. Unconsciously I was happy to live up to their expectations in my own sentimental ways.
Traditionally, the formal commencement of the classes was usually preceded by a two week long program called summer school. The summer school used to be an orientation programme meant to initiate freshmen into the new curriculum. It is aimed at fostering spiritual values and invigorated socio-cultural identity through sustained religious teachings and practices. Days were usually filled with several religious activities, debates and spiritual discourses. Many government servants, high profile visitors, celebrities, artists, teachers and eminent devotees from every walk of life, would give series after series of public lecturers. During these talks, students were constantly reminded of their great fortune of studying in Baba’s colleges. The message rang out loud and clear. “We were selected not due to our own merits but because of the divine grace.” Students, it seemed, “were chosen soldiers in Baba’s mission.” The inflated opinion that ‘the great sages and spiritual seekers too fail to earn such opportunities’ was meant to flatter our ego. Everyone spoke enthusiastically about the divine mission. It was not fortuitous. “We were specially blessed to participate in some predestined divine plans.” The glowing expositions had powerful and lasting impact on many innocent minds. It was enigmatic to me as to how and when this grand plan was revealed to these handful of speakers. At times, I was amazed and deeply disturbed by their near-prophetic ability to foresee our future. But honesty, none of those, including Baba, clearly spelt out the real character and timings of the providential mission. What was it that we were exactly supposed to do?
To check my growing curiosity, I had to invent my own wishful stories. These stories were not too different from what others may have thought. I fancied that someday humanity would be inflicted with untold suffering brought upon itself by some moral degradation or visitation of some dreaded plague etc. The real divine mission would then unfold to emancipate humanity from such inevitable calamity. Students’ role, as specially chosen soldiers, would be to establish Dharma and restore the righteousness and faith in the broken hearts. But again, another contradictory thought would then cross my mind. Unless God is a sadist, wouldn’t he use his discretion and intervene well in advance to stop the impending disasters? Will he or will he not? No matter what, the idea of mass destruction and infliction of unendurable sufferings upon others is utterly barbaric, humiliating and vulgar. Only an extremely vindictive and morally reprehensible person would indulge in such scheming. Letting the crisis unfold in the first place and then making midcourse corrections is simply bad management. The captain of the ship ought to know better. But then, I would doubt, maybe God is helpless. He must be self-limiting in some sense. If so, he wouldn’t be all powerful as universally claimed! I miserably failed to resolve such disgusting questions. Several times, I must have cursed myself for indulging in this futile and gibberish thinking. Wrong assumptions invariably lead to circular reasoning and gaping conclusions. Many imaginative and earnest people have wasted their talents in illusive hope of resolving logically inconsistent and unfalsifiable conjectures. Nonetheless, the imagined cataclysm never took place. During my six long years of stay no such opportunity arose. As an alleged soldier, my tender hopes to venture outside the segregated hostel premises (in the pretext of saving and serving the humanity) were slowly dashed!
Anyway, soon something unthinkable happened. On June 6, 1993, barely a week after the summer school, six young people had lost their lives in a most gruesome and cold blooded murder that took place inside the Ashram in Puttaparthy. Two students who were close associates of Baba were brutally attacked and killed by smuggled knives and daggers. The four alleged assailants were later shot dead by the local police in most mysterious circumstances. They were reported to have committed this dastardly act out of vengeance and personal enmity towards Ashram inmates. I still believe, if the police had made an earnest attempt, they could have easily caught all the four intruders alive. Knives cannot be a match for guns. By acting in a hurry the ashram authorities and police only brought disrepute to their name and profession. Later, I read a statement issued by a top trust official who said, “the matter is purely internal and we do not wish to have any law enforcement agency investigating into it.” He made the whole incidence look like an ordinary family feud. The despotic utterance was enough to silence the families of the victims. No one knew their fate. It was a travesty of both justice and truth. How did the government of the day respond? It responded brazenly by preventing the ‘law of the land’ from taking its natural course. With the full blessing and political support of the ‘then home minister’, the matter was virtually closed on all fronts.
In any case, the incident sent shock waves among hostel inmates at Whitefield. Rumors were exchanged in hurried secrecy. No one was willing to talk about the incident openly. The entire atmosphere was strange and chaotic. The air was filled with suspicion. Sober faces were apparently filled with anxiety and fear. Everyone was terrified. The prevailing vagueness was impenetrable to my senses. The foremost question that came to everyone’s mind was this. How come the almighty, omnipresent and infinitely wise God had let these murders happen right inside his own house? What happened to divine power? During those sermons in summer school, the sublime assurance that God protects his devotees from earthly misfortunes was impressed upon us in no uncertain terms. The most fool proof and trusted security apparatus of ‘divine protection and promise’ had crumbled like a pack of cards. The murdered students were in nearest physical proximity of Baba. If Baba could not protect his closest aides, where was the hope for ordinary mortals? The perennial proverbs such as, ‘Why fear when I am here’ inscribed all over the place in Ashram premises were rendered worthless and hollow.
Something had terribly gone wrong. This was a powerful tsunami that has struck the heart of most believers. Boys were visibly shocked and inflicted with the horrifying idea that what they believed with all their hearts may not be necessarily true. These tormenting thoughts were simultaneously betraying faith and reasons. Initially, the hostel authorities were rattled. No explanation was forthcoming. There seemed to be no escape from the despair that had overpowered most individuals in the hostels. Only after a while the efforts to do the damage control were taken up. The formidable challenge in front of the hostel administrators was to somehow restore the lost faith. Some kind of convincing rationalization was necessary to explain away the fateful event. Thanks to the propaganda machine that was already working in the background! As usual, the rationality and reasons are the first casualties in matter of faith. Religious pieties supersede any and all considerations pertaining to legality, justice, law, freedom and equality etc.
The burden of the sinful act was to befall on the most innocent and least suspect. The spin doctors were working overtime to come up with some incredible stories. They invented all kinds of fanciful explanations and whacky arguments to reinstate the badly shaken faith. Many strange hypotheses were advanced. Every new explanation was mired with loopholes and contradictions. It was argued that when two slained boys were attacked they were not bearing the protective rings and amulets that Baba had given to them. The ring and talisman etc were supposed to provide physical safety to devotees against evil. Some tried to invoke the Karmic theory. Others assumed the incident was just a passing act in the backdrop of a grand cosmic drama. Among these speculative tell-tales, the general lack of religiosity and the lack of prayers gained a wider consensus. One of overriding assumptions was that if our prayers were genuine then the horrendous incident would not have occurred at the first place. Having established this extraordinary complicity in the appalling crime, a decision was made to pray and pray hard to seek divine forgiveness. The arguments from ignorance had their intended effect. The stage was set for mortification.
The concocted formula worked. What followed next was an insane act of extreme religiosity undertaken to exonerate ourselves from the collective sin. Emotionally charged speeches were delivered. Many faces contoured up with visible signs of self-hatred and indignation. A new choking realization had dawned. Initial doubts and dilemmas were gradually subsumed by the imposed sense of guilt. How to make Baba happy was the supreme and unstated goal of one and all. The response was almost hysterical. Remorseful students started observing silence for hours. Some stopped partaking food and drinks. Many throats grew hoarse due to nonstop and uninterrupted singing of Bhajans. Holy mantras were recited ceaselessly to cleanse the sinful hearts. Like a heavily militarized zone, all loose gossip and gathering was strictly forbidden. In those few days, the devotional quotient of individuals had shot to unfamiliar and frenzy terrains. In my living memories, it was most uncommon display of irrational religiosity and Godly passion.
The shocking memories of murders slowly disappeared into the melting pot of faith and devotion. We talked God, thought God, breathed God, sang God and dreamt God. In those days Baba was very upset, partly because of the dreaded incident and partly because of the alleged ingratitude of students. But it really didn’t matter once the spell of delusion was complete. The power of religious intoxication was absolute. Any rational thought would have retreated in horror.
To me, this overdoing was repelling. Appeasing God with self-incrimination is a stifling and disgusting act. But admitting rebellious thoughts at that juncture would have meant treason and betrayal of Godly faith. The innate fear of divine retribution disguised itself in the form of animated feelings and reverence for God. People were scared of being watched over by some invisible power. The power that would convict you of thought crimes and blasphemy. The real ramifications of which were evident to me years later when I first read the George Orwell’s 1984.
Gradually things changed for better. After several deliberations and conscious efforts, I managed to free myself from religious scourges and absurdities. An extremely fruitful, but no more than accidental, association with discerning individuals later helped me alter my perception of the world. This was indeed a most liberating, educating and uplifting experience. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to recall the words of French philosopher and writer Voltaire who justly said that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Examples abound, should one cares to notice. India today sits on an insidious landmine of overly enthused religious zeal and reactionary sentiments, waiting for an erratic spark, to implode. The situation is further compounded by the arrival of new-age religious gurus, cult- figures and self-declared godmen who wield tremendous power and influence over millions of followers. They secure blind allegiance and unwavering faith that could be easily appropriated to subvert the political landscape of the country from a secular to a theocratic state.
Not that every religious person is inherently prone to wickedness or intentional wrongdoing. Since prehistoric times, religion has inspired many people to do kind acts and be sympathetic to fellow human beings. However, the presumed certainty of religious beliefs may lead to devastating consequences. Religious moderates, no doubt, condemn acts of grave injustice and extremism committed in the name of religion. But they generally blame it on literal interpretation or misunderstanding of scriptures and holy books. The sacred texts are still considered infallible and supreme by most believers. The problem actually is not misunderstanding or wrong reading of the religious texts. The real problem is the literal stuff that is written in the book. It is foolish to undermine the power of indoctrination which largely draws its inspirations and strength from stories proclaimed in old gospels and scriptural writings. In fact, there are very clear and logical pathways, as Richard Dawkin often says, from a position of religious moderation to a position of religious extremism. Mild religious dispositions and unexamined convictions can easily outgrow their benign moulds to unleash dreadful violence and hatred among different sects and faiths. Therefore, it is to our benefit to regulate and sustain our lives on progressive values of justice, equality and universal human rights. For the long term survival of our species, it is important that reasons, rationality and all encompassing humane solidarity alone guide our thoughts and actions. I would like to conclude this article with an insightful paragraph from a book, The End of Faith, by Sam Harris which states:
The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are killing each other over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?