Saturday, January 27, 2007

Keeping our backs bent

This is something that I have noticed quite often these days: we Indians love to keep our backs bent. There are cornerside "temples" that spring up everywhere in Bombay, since every street corner is home to some devi or the other. Everyone who claims to know something even remotely mystical immediately gets a huge following. We need no reason to follow, we believe that everyone who claims that he is a mystic must be one. Travel to the banks of the Ganges and you will come across thousands of sadhus (holy people) who all claim to know everything. Even in a fairly educated city like Bombay there are tons of faith healers, fortune tellers, roadside sadhus. Every Indian family has some sort of family sadhu, much like their family doctor. Do the names Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Gorakh baba, sound familiar? Look around at your house: if you have a picture of a non-ancestral human decked in flowers: that's your family sadhu. (Ancestors are usually decked in flowers and for good reason: they worked quite hard to get us where we are. I might not worship them but I have a great amount of respect for them, and their hard work.)

When will we grow a respectable degree of skepticism? Following anyone with a beard and a saffron cloth makes us supremely gullible. It is not just the Hindu charlatans that I loath. On reading The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice, by Christopher Hitchens , I was amazed at how little I knew about the woman. I have heard countless school and college kids say that Mother Teresa is their role model. It is amazing how a little PR can turn a person into a saint.

Ultimately it costs us dearly: pointless trips to view holy people from far away, to be given the honor of sweeping their estates, pointless hours wasted in listening to charlatans talk of how they could recite the Gita when they were two years old, and of course, large amounts of money handed over to these crooks.

Considering that I am doing research into a fairly narrow field, I could think of a hundred questions to ask to a person who claims to know everything. The questions themselves are immaterial since even understanding the question would take quite some knowledge which I know these crooks don't have. And answering them would take wisdom which they surely lack. But that is not important: what is important is to have the skepticism to say, "I will not believe you are a wise man till you prove it to me."

Holding someone at the same level as God is a fairly large move. Don't you think the person needs to pass some sort of tests? If you cannot trust this person with all your money, your children (and especially your daughters, this is India after all!), your spouse, then perhaps you shouldn't be worshipping them.