Asaram Case Is Tragedy With Three Victims: Rape Survivor, Followers, Hinduism

Asaram Case Is Tragedy With Three Victims:  Rape Survivor, Followers,  HinduismAsaram Bapu. (Ramji Vyas/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
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  • To combat Hinduphobia and retain the trust of their followers, Hindu gurus and babas needs to acknowledge their human qualities before asserting their godliness.

The conviction of Asaram Bapu for rape of a 16-year-old in his ashram, and the earlier conviction on a similar charge of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda – both surely well-deserved – is a double-tragedy for Indic religious sects, especially Hindus: first, it is a betrayal of the trust of millions of their followers; and second, it has fuelled the innate Hinduphobia of India’s elites, which will surely be fanned by the international media.

On TV channels yesterday (25 April), anchors and guests took extraordinary pleasure in calling Asaram a “Rapist Baba”, and one channel even posed the question as to how can one stop India’s “rapist” babas and gurus, as if it is possible to “bobbitise” or castrate all of them to prevent them from indulging in such crimes. The New York Times, which shows great willingness to drum up anything that is likely to embarrass Hindus, used terms like “self-styled” and “godman” to describe Asaram. The reality is that no godman, guru, swami, prophet or son of god is anything other than a “self-declared godman”. Spiritual leadership is almost always self-declared.

As for rape and sexual abuse, it has been rampant in church and mosque, with the Vatican paying nearly $4 billion in compensation to the victims of paedophilia over the last few decades, and Indian churches have not been immune from contagion (read here and here). In Islam, jihadi extremists have found Quranic sanctions for rape of infidels, but even those who would like to read the Quran in a better light, quote Chapter 23:1-6, to emphasise that it sanctions sexual relations with spouses and concubines (“And successful are the believers who guard their chastity … except from their wives or those that their right hands possess.”).

The above references to sexual misconduct and crimes in other religious orders have been made not to indulge in “whataboutery” – a term used by the Lutyens elite to escape charges of selective outrage – but to make a different point: there seems to be some institutional device within Christian and Islamic dogma to separate the misconduct of their priesthoods from damaging the larger image of their faiths, but not among Hindus and Indic sects.

In part, this is because dharmic religions are often bottom-up faiths, where gurus, avatars and gods are recognised as such from below, as opposed to the Abrahamic faiths, where sons of god and prophets are inserted from above. Abrahamic godmen come with the complete kit, direct sanctions from God Almighty and unalterable spiritual texts delivered on mountains and through angels. In Indic systems, even though Shrutis are said to be divinely revealed, every other sacred text is widely acknowledged as man-made (Smritis), written and contributed to by divinely-inspired humans or thought processes. Remedies to texts that look out of sync with modern ethical needs can be remedied through public argumentation and the writing of new Smritis that have evolved beyond the age in which the older texts were written.

This is, therefore, a time for followers of Indic faiths and belief structures to introspect on what needs to be done so that the toxic behaviour of a few does not poison the whole atmosphere in society. The Abrahamic faiths wait for such opportunities to indulge in Hindu-baiting, since it facilitates their programme of debunking and invalidating dharmic approaches to faith. Predatory faiths are like that only.

The three underlying issues to focus on are in-built patriarchy, the abuse of power by religious leaders, and the exalted status given to celibacy in Indic thought.

Patriarchy: Among major faiths, Hinduism is the least patriarchal of the lot, but there is no point denying that Hindu society today is patriarchal. The fact that we revere goddesses as much as gods, and the reality that there are some women gurus who head sects does not mean that our basic structure is not patriarchal. This is slowly changing, as women begin to challenge male domination in priestly duties and religious ceremonies (read examples here, here, here) – apart from homes and workplaces. In this process of challenging patriarchy, they will have considerable support within the spiritual traditions of Hinduism itself.

The truth is that dharmic ideas transcend patriarchy, with ideas like Ardhanariswar – where humans are seen as encapsulating both masculine and feminine traits – providing the intellectual basis for both men and women to see beyond their own genders. These are trends and ideas that our spiritual gurus should encourage and expand till patriarchy in its old form is vanquished. The ideology for the replacement of patriarchy is not matriarchy or western forms of misandry and anti-men rhetoric, but androgyny. We are both male and female, and our humanity and sense of wholeness is the result of combining the best of both traits.

Abuse of power: It is ironic that a spiritual system that exalts power over oneself over power over others should itself fall victim to the abuse of power and inflict damage on others. A guru, swami, or spiritual head is in a position of power for the simple reason that his followers are predisposed to putting extraordinary faith and trust in him (or occasionally her). This position is often earned by genuinely good deeds and high thinking on the part of the guru or gurumata, but it also implies that our gurus must internalise a much higher sense of responsibility of how this power is exercised. It cannot be used for personal ends. If gurus are not going to use this power wisely and for the benefit of all, maybe it is time for Hindu spiritual leaders themselves to come together on one platform and evolve a broad code of conduct and ostracise those who abuse power.

Alternatively, gurus should themselves create ombudsmen or structures within their denominations to address complaints and concerns among followers. It can’t all begin and end with the guru himself. The guru can’t be accused, judge and jury to himself. If he is, he is not fit to head a spiritual institution.

Celibacy: Another anachronism in Hinduism (and even more in Christianity) is the extreme veneration we have for celibacy. To be sure, Asaram was not single; he married Laxmi Devi and had two children from her, but his sexual interest was not limited to her. His real crime is indulgence in non-consensual sex, and that too with a minor.

The idea of desexualised spirituality is a historical enigma for Hindus. Very few of our gods and goddesses are celibates, from Rama, Krishna and Shiva to several others. (The odd exception may be Lord Ayyappa, which is why feminists who oppose entry restrictions for women in the menstruating stage should do a rethink. Outlier conventions cannot be construed as cases of misogyny and discrimination, just differentiated tradition). What feminists should worry about is the religious injunction that treats women as impure when they menstruate, when this is normal body function. It comes with the territory of being woman. The question of whether they should or should not participate in religious functions when they have their periods should be left to individual women themselves to decide, but that is another issue).

Celibacy is not something that followers should thrust on spiritual leaders. In fact, celibacy is something everyone, including spiritual leaders, should choose at a stage in life where they can transcend their sexual energies into something far greater. If they can’t, there is no ignominy is being married to someone or seeking consensual sexual partnerships in a transparent way. It does not diminish their spiritual qualities to acknowledge that sex is part of being human – so human, that even our gods don’t have a problem with it.

The unholy admiration of celibate gurus is a fixation Hindu society should abandon. To repeat: it is something that individuals must choose for themselves, and not have it chosen for them by public expectation from gurus, including child spiritual prodigies. Some children may show exceptional spiritual tendencies and interest in sacred texts, but by making them into guru prodigies at an early age, their followers (and mentors) may be thrusting celibacy on them at an age when they may not even have experienced sexual desires.

Many of our gurus and babas are making a mistake by pretending to be celibate, and then giving in to the all-too-human biological need for sex. It is time to abandon this hypocrisy. A good guru needs to be a good human being, and they cannot do this is they have to seek sex clandestinely or through an abuse of power.

This is not to cast aspersions on those who are strong enough or have achieved higher levels of spirituality where sexual gratification is not needed, but the word is choice: celibacy ought to be a choice. Even a celibate guru ought to have the right to abandon celibacy without being thought of as some kind of failure. We are demanding something of humans that we don’t even demand of gods.

To combat Hinduphobia and retain the trust of their followers, Hindu gurus and babas needs to acknowledge their human qualities before asserting their godliness.

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