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Sects and the new Indian - The Sunday Times of India

Narendra Panjwani and Rashme Sehgal ()
10 November 1996

Title : Sects and the new Indian
Author : Narendra Panjwani and Rashme Sehgal
Publication : The Sunday Times of India
Date : November 10, 1996

The tonga drivers who taxi between Beas railway station
and the dera accept only a low, fixed price for their
service, and not a rupee more. In downtown Ahmedabad,
Navin Shah. owner of a grocery store, has stopped selling
cigarettes, He makes a loss of Rs 1,500 per month. but
is undeterred.

The tonga drivers have been scrupulously honest ever
since they became members of the Radhasoami Satsang in
this small town near Amritsar As for Shah, he looks upon
the sadhus of the Swaminarayan Sanstha in Ahmedabad
which he has recently been drawn into, with awe. "If
those sadhus can ow up all the pleasures of life in this
day and age, and that too in their youth, then surely I
can stand a small loss and do some good,' he says.

Yuppies too have jumped onto the bandwagon. In Beas.
financial whizkids, engineers and IAF righter pilots rub
shoulders with hatta-katta sons- and daughters-of-the-
soil who, as part of their seva, can be seen helping run
the vast estate of the Radhasoamis, from ploughing the
soil, to doing construction work, to spending long hours
cooking in the langar.

"Mere idol worship did not appeal to me." explains Raj
Lavani, an Air India pilot. "A philosophy where the
disciple is in close communion with a Satguru, who shows
the way, and is the embodiment of the divine spirit was
more appealing." His wife Vibha and daughter are also
converts and believe their life has changed radically
after they joined.

Lavani's disenchantment with 'mere idol worship' reflects
a disenchantment with religion and its functionaries - be
it the pandit, the mullah or the Sikh sant - that many of
the members of these sects share.

The best way to manage people is to manage them from the
heart. People resist change when they feel they are
being changed. But if everyone starts changing from
within, team spirit. co-operation, and commitment to work
comes automatically." says E J Kalwachia, president of
Godrej's locks division in Mumbai, whose company experi-
mented with the meditation-based Self Managing Leadership
(SML) programme of the Mt Abu-based celibate sisterhood,
the Bramhakumaris.

SML's simple philosophy, says Brian Bacon, an Australian
business consultant who devised the programme along with
the Bramhakumaris, "is that to be able to lead others,
you must first learn to manage yourself."

Several other Indian industries have adopted the program-
me, but it first took off in the US at General Electric,
followed by Ford, Sony and others. A new kind of manage-
ment guru is here, it appears, and his guru dakshina is
not money but meditation.

A relatively new set of reformist movements. broadly
based on Hindu principles, that cut across communities
and established religions and focus on morality, as

ceticism and self-renewal. have been quietly attracting
tens of thou sands of followers from both the urban
middle classes and the NRIs. Amongst the biggest and
oldest of these groups are the Radhasoami Satsang in UP
and Punjab. the Akshardham Swaminarayan Sanstha in Gujar-
at, and the Bramhakumaris headquartered in Mount Abu,
Rajasthan. Each of these organisations now has branches
all over the country and abroad. Their combined follow-
ing, at a conservative estimate, has grown by 1.5 million
over the last decade, to reach a figure estimated to be
over 2 million.

What people find most appealing about the movements is
the way they combine hi-tech, eco-friendly management
skills and social work with the revival of the celibate,
ascetic Guru as priest, psycho-therapist and counsellor.

The celibacy of the Swaminarayan sadhus, for instance,
evokes awe amongst their followers. "They are not just
ordinary celibates. They have broken all links with their
families. including their parents, and can never again
meet, speak to or even listen to a woman including their
mother," says 52-year-old Paresh Mehta, an Ahmedabad-
based devotee and garment exporter.

What distinguishes these gurus from other one-man cults
is also their greater accessibility, their decentralised
functioning and their willingness to meet devotees at
their convenience. The Bramhakumaris, for instance, have
3,500 branches world-wide. The other two groups are
similarly accessible.

Set up in the 1830s and 1840s, when the founder of the
Swaminarayan Sampradaya, Lord Swaminarayan, as he is
called, began his campaign against superstition and blind
faith, the Swaminarayan movement gathered momentum in the
1970s and '80s. Now, a constant stream of believers come
every day to Pramukh Swami, head of the Swaminarayans, in
Ahmedabad for advice. And he gives it-be it the naming of
children, marriage and divorce, career decisions, and so
on. He travels constantly to visit followers in India and
abroad. His schedule is regularly published and announced
at weekly meetings. The sanstha's 530 celibate sadhus all
attend to similar tasks in the various centres.

Similarly, believes throng to the Radhasoami centres in
lakhs. The numbers are rising so rapidly that the three
Radhasoami centres of Dayalbagh, Soami Nagar and Beas
find it difficult to cope.

Dayalbagh is a religious-cum-educational centre spanning
1200 acres. The ashram has 10.000 inmates who run a
dairy, a farm, a hospital and several small-scale indus-

"Everything we produce is sold at cost price, and we pay
a nominal rent of Rs 75 for spacious quarters," says a
retired educationist. "But everything is rationed, in-
cluding electricity. The idea is to learn to lead simple,
ascetic lives."

The Radhasoami sect goes back to the 1860s when Swami
Shiv Dayal Singh or Soamiji established an organisation
by that name in the outskirt of Agra.

Author and corporate consultant Gurcharan Das, who is

associated with the Radhasoamis, explains its growing
appeal: "In Punjab during the terrorist period of the
'80s, a lot of Sikhs turned to Radhasoami as a reaction
to the politicisation of organised religion. The ordi-
nary Indian has become very wary of religious fundamen-
talism, and of most traditional priests for the way they
buckled under it.

"The Radhasoamis, in contrast, have very few rituals, no
prophet, no books, no temples or priests. All you need
do is practise the basic values of honesty, austerity and
self-discipline, and meditate wherever you are ... There
is also a universalism here: when the Radhasoami guru
talks of God he will quote from Nanak, from Kabir, from
the Bible, the Gita. You can join the group whether you
are a Muslim, Christian or Hindu."

Mumbai-based industrialist Pranlal Bhogilal, who is close
to the Swaminarayan movement says, "This movement is re-
estabhshing the process of virtue across Boundaries like
Hindu, Muslim etc, which is a real need today. In the
old days the brahmin's job was to promote virtue, which
required him to set an example. He was admired for his
self-discipline, his intellectual breadth and detachment.
But today, you become a brahmin by birth, automatically,
and religion has become a set of rituals. This won't
work. The old-style guru has to be brought back - if only
to make people believe in virtue."

The guru, however, is not the focus of the Bramhakumaris,
who stress on self-help through meditation and yoga.
Predominantly a celibate sisterhood - both its leading
figures and its staff are women. with men, the 'broth-
ers', in a small, subordinate minority - the movement was
founded by Dada Lekhraj Kripalani, a prosperous Sindhi
jeweller born in Hyderabad, Sind, in 1876. He gave up
all his property to start the Bramhakumari trust in 1937,
placing his hope on women from both his family and the
neighbourhood. not only because they were the prime
victims of Hindu society, 'but also its fountain of
strength'. In 1951, after Partition, they moved to Mount

Bramha Dada, as he came to be known, passed away in 1969,
but by then the movement had taken root under the leader-
ship of the Bramhakumaris groomed by him. After 1983,
their membership began to take oil, as did the financial

But there is a growing suspicion among local people in
Mount Abu at the speed with which the Bramhakumaris are
acquiring prime property in the small hill-station.
"Where do they get so much money from, these women? From
spirituality?" remarks Sumer Singh, a cynical old resi-
dent. Several observers refuse to believe that the funds
of both the Swaminarayans and the Bramhakumaris come from
their predominantly middle and upper class constituency,
both here and abroad. For their part, the spokespersons
of the two groups say that they submit audited accounts
to the charity commissioner every year.

Of course, while membership is growing, believers also
opt out of the movements for various reasons. But the
gap caused by these dropouts continues to be filled.
There seems to be no dearth of young people willing to
'dedicate' themselves to these sects.

The growing popularity of these sects stems from a new
national mood. writes American historian Mark Juergens-
meyer, who has researched the Radhasoami movement: "These
characteristics of Radhasoami thought - an appropriation
of a truth that transcends science, a therapeutic ap-
proach to the self. and the re-establishment of personal
authority in the social realm - appeal to those who for
various reasons have tired of the modem world but are
unsatisfied with what the more traditional forms of faith
offer as alternatives."

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