By Dhruv Ramnath, MA Social Anthropology
In colonial times, there were reports on Hindu gurus in Eastern and Western newspapers, but these were not what pulled devotees to visit—to use Max Weber’s term—”charismatic leaders” as such. Major Chadwick would not have known the great sage of Thiruvannamalai, Ramana Maharishi, if it were not for the obstreperousness of colonisation. The British Empire had an agenda to loot and plunder, and escaping the clutches of Empire a man from the British Army, Chadwick, found a guru who was self-realised, and silent. Chadwick wrote of Ramana and translated his teachings into English, a process of cultural and spiritual expansion whose resonances can be felt today as seekers read, and reread, the words of Ramana to attain enlightenment.
In the 19th century, the newspapers of India did not contain columns on Spirituality, nor did writers write for large audiences who actively sought godmen and godwomen for solace. The production of religious meaning was tied to daily practice, and caste as well as devotional desire were intimately connected with each other. Books were the sources of wisdom and knowledge which drew seekers of self-revelation to the foothills of towns like Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, south India.
If you have read about Gandhi’s visit to Ramana’s ashram, you will know that the history of India would have changed if he had entered its precincts. We know of this through the stuff of books, and of Rajaji’s intelligent move which was recorded as stuff. While the media were strongly bound up in bookishness, history and Empire were caught up in a web of karmic debts, as Britain and India were to part ways in 1947.
In the transnational world, the spiritual landscape of South Asia has changed for better or worse. The media today, thanks to revolutionised technologies, are part and parcel of the internet. It is through the internet that gurus and devotees spread their messages. Other “communities of sentiment”, as Arjun Appadurai would put it, form different terrains simultaneously in this complex game of democratic politics. In this new media of social media, there is both the demonic and the saintly, there is a perceptive and emotive longing to know who people are; and the drive to see the internet, which is unmonitored at large, as reality remains as ambiguous as the need to understand society itself. There is a lot of net spillage which necessitates desire for information and communication, which ultimately is as constructed as the outer world.
The media have been unkind to gurus. This does not mean that as an anthropologist I must refute the claims of ‘genuine’ and ‘fraudulent’ gurus; it means the opposite, that I must write of what I witness both online and offline, acknowledging the complicity and interest with which such a subject would bring to those who pride themselves in knowing the science of rationality, which good scholars of modern Hindu traditions employ to advantage.
I confess that like scholars who study gurus and their movements, I am fascinated by the distinct casualness of journalists who write copious amounts on superstition, who film episodes on frauds, and who discuss ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ in the public sphere without consulting the very people whose organisations are spoken of. The debate is more nuanced: not all gurus are the same. The distinction between who is ‘genuine’ and who is ‘fraudulent’—and whether being a guru itself means that he or she is ipso facto imbued with fraudulence—is what the media decidedly ignore. The reputation of gurus is tarnished because the few who do bad make those who do good seem bad, and an ethnography of a guru movement would tell us a lot about guru discourse. Who are rationalists, or self-coined antidotes to superstition, when they themselves put their faith in guru-busting? When ‘rational’ leaders are glorified and promoted like gurus themselves? On the other hand, who are the gurus who rape and murder? Who are the gurus who do not?
The answers to these questions lie in films on gurus. Films are caught up in the hermeneutical crisis, and are superior to shallow debates on TV which are dovetailed to the imaginations of different ideological groups desiring a stake in the debate, and who will accord no meaning to the subject of wonder, magic, the cultural reproduction of charisma, the ways in which guru-religion is articulated, its transformative capacity and zeal, which offer broader insights and no TRPs.
If Ramana Maharishi were to be alive, it is very likely that the departure and arrival of aeroplanes (what I believe spurred globalisation), would have automatically attracted a large number of followers to him. Global networks of mass communication and technology supplement the absence of the omnipresent media in the 19th and 20th centuries. We meet our own ends through the digital. This is how late capitalist modernity works. Those who think gurus are ever to be found in caves are sorely misled by their own perception of who gurus are supposed to be. Yesterday’s Ramana Maharishi is today’s marketable guru with a movement attracting critical attention (owing to the media), inviting scholarly attention (owing to the media again), and deserving devotion (owing to the guru’s own media).
My association with a guru called Sharavana Baba from Kerala has led me to believe that as an active participant in a filmmaking project in 2016 I was amazed to learn how achievable it is for lay persons to engage with a contemporary movement seeking a global following. I worked as a filmmaker trying to solve the riddle of hagiography, and contributed to this guru’s media by directing a documentary all by myself. The difference between his media and the media which paint gurus with the same brush lies in social media, with its freedom to speak and write as many truths and as many lies as possible. The anthropologist who studies new guru-faiths adopts a lens to decipher and reveal the different kinds of media, the internal politics of guru movements, and anti-guru activism, all the while acknowledging the role of being part of a larger promotional trope.
Having straddled variant intellectual positions throughout my life as a student of the social sciences, I decided to pursue Social Anthropology at the Master’s level at this School to work on what I was already interested in: the anthropology of the media, and Hindu gurus and their movements. So far I have charted out the history of my subject and noticed that this history owes a lot to the Information Age, without which I would be nowhere as an aspiring scholar.
What was once relegated to books written by colonial thinkers such as Malinowski and Evans Prichard is now in the hands of people of colour, and of all genders, who enquire in ways that surpass those who did so in the past. At the time of writing, it is exciting to note that we investigate power dynamics to grasp the nature of the social world and to produce more knowledge which births new fieldwork. I hope that self-realised gurus who are not averse to anthropological play will be proud to know, if they ever do find out, that so far I have not been caught up in the ridiculous binaries of ‘faith’ versus ‘reason’ which the mainstream media have for so long used in their promulgations.