The priest as transgressive protagonist has been the subject of many books in fiction. But suddenly they seem to have jumped right out of the pages and into real life, blurring boundaries between the profound and the profane. Has saffron been irredeemably stained?
Sex," said Henry Miller, "is one of the nine reasons of reincarnation; the other eight are unimportant." He was paraphrasing an unnamed source from Buddhism, a religion which, not incorrectly, is seen as an offshoot of Hinduism. And it is the Hindu ’godmen’ - read, fakes or fraudsters - who have for the past week been swathed in infamy for sex and sleaze.
While one of them, Swami Nityananda of Chennai, was caught having sex with a Tamil actress, the other, going by the laughable moniker of Ichadhari Sant Bhimanand (ichhadhari, literally, means one who merely has to wish for things to happen) was arrested and charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) for running a prostitution racket. Interestingly, the ’saint’ has been to jail five times.
Bhimanand, whose actual name is Shiv Murat Dwivedi, has been filmed doing the ’naagin (snake-woman ) dance’, seemingly drunk, to the tune of the famous snake song Man doley, mera tan doley. His cronies, writhing in front of a large picture of Shirdi Sai Baba, match him step for step. Check it out on YouTube; a more grotesque and hilarious sight will rarely be seen. And Nityananda’s "disciple", the actress Ranjitha, has said that her videographed romp with the so-called swami was her "service and offering to him". She said she offered it like she offered other services: bringing Nityananda food and giving him a massage. She seemed to see nothing wrong in what she was doing.
What’s not okay is this: the two outlaws - one an obnoxious fraud and the other a spiritual swami with a more than apparent empty core - are not alone; there have been a number of deviants calling themselves sadhus and sanyasis, all fighting dark allegations in various courts of law across the country for crimes like rape and murder. So how does one square up spirituality and sex, or, for that matter, spirituality and crime?
Whatever the connection between spirituality and sex, there’s of course no link between spirituality and crime - notwithstanding the number of supposedly significant Hindu religious leaders fighting legal battles. Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham’s Swami Jayendra Saraswati, Dera Sacha Sauda’s Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and Asaram Bapu in Gujarat being the most glaring examples. Has their karma caught up with them? Or have they been framed? The jury is still out.
But, to focus on sex and spirituality, ever since Osho Rajneesh’s extraordinary success in teaching that sex could be transcended only through experience and not through its renunciation, many "swamis" appear to have rampantly and readily misunderstood what he said. Rajneesh’s take on sex - he wrote the controversial book Sambhog se Samadhi (From Sex to Superconsciousness) - was backed by a cogently argued philosophy.
According to him, forced celibacy was not just wrong, it was damaging to the soul of man. It was against man’s natural instincts and his essential nature. Celibacy as a vow had to be voluntary, and under the guidance of a capable preceptor. Otherwise there was every possibility of the act of self-mortification destroying the initiate. Going by Rajneesh’s dictum, someone like Nityanand was ill-prepared for a life of complete detachment.
But there is a need to first understand the monastic order in Hinduism and its provenance. Hinduism borrowed the concept of monasteries - and its peculiar kind of celibacy - from Buddhism. This was because Buddhism had grown to become one massive umbrella that held vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent in near-total control by the 8th century. When Adi Shankaracharya arrived on the scene to take Sanatan Dharma out of the morass, he selected some of the attributes of Buddhism to reinvent Hinduism. It was also his own tribute to the success of Buddhism.
In other words, there was no concept of renunciation in Hinduism until Shankara arrived, at least not in any organised sort of way. The best that exists in Sanatani philosophy on the subject is Patanjali’s statement, ’Swa-ang jugupsa, parai asansargah’. It means that with increasing spiritual insights, with greater realisation, with the mind’s constant attachment with truth, there develops apathy for the physical body, and it loses its physical affiliation with others. This is considered a high state of spiritual being, and that is what has made celibacy the plinth of sanyas. Before Shankara, Indian rishis were known to have families and children. Shankara was merely following the "market leader" of the time, Buddhism, and in the process institutionalised renunciation to help Hinduism survive the crisis it was in because of Buddhism.
What’s truly lamentable about those donning saffron but flouting the principles they erroneously pledged to uphold - including celibacy - is that they have forgotten the deep Sanatani value that their raiment represents.
Interestingly, in this as well, in the idea of a single-colour garment to represent a monastic order, the competitive interplay between Buddhism and Hinduism is evident. The Buddha had selected yellow as the colour of renunciation; yellow being the shade of falling leaves at the end of the Indian winter. Yellow signified a bhikshu’s final departure from the world of desires.
Shankara, too, wanted to give the Sanatani monastic order he had created a mark of distinction out of the cultural necessity to successfully compete with Buddhism. He found the colour saffron - a bright orange - from the sacrificial fire. He said anyone who wears this robe must imagine himself sitting on ’chitaa’ or the funerary pyre, burning all his past samskaras and making sure that no new ones are added. For it was only after all the samskaras were burnt that vairagya or dispassion could develop, and with it the spiritual insights for which one had made the conscious decision to become a sadhu or a sanyasi.
It is obvious that none of this terribly excites the likes of the Ichadharis and Nityanandas. But it would only be fair to pose that, in the process, our true saints must not invite derision or ridicule. It would be folly to tar all the saffron-robed monks with the same brush. Instead, what is needed is more discernment among people in choosing their preceptor - that is, if they think they need one in the first place.
Indeed, charlatans like Ichadhari would not become an embarrassment in the name of religion without the help of blindly-worshipful people. The success - howsoever temporary - of these fake swamis also exposes the alarming levels of ignorance in society. Tantriks, exploiting the superstitions among people, are routinely in the news for rape and murder for money, making them no different from thugs and mercenaries. In March 2009, the Mumbai police arrested a tantrik, Hansmukh Rathod, and the parents of a girl who was sexually violated by her father, to improve his business.
There is no reason to believe such things will come to an end, especially when there has been a spate of scandals involving the hollow ’holy’ men. As Swami Dharmendra said on a TV talk show this week, "If adulterating medicines is a crime, then adulterating faith, too, should be a crime. Bhakti must remain pure in the heart of the bhakta."