21st Century Spiritualism

Media, Modernity and Guru-faith

Dhruv Ramnath

Media, modernity and guru-faith resulting from the modern India's engagement with globalization, generate new forms of meaning in the transnational spiritual landscape. The engagement with modernity by the Mata Amritanandamayi movement is extensive on account of the fact that its media-related activities reach the farthest corners of the globe. There is a far-reaching and vibrant media network which the Mata's disciples have sought to spread—the messages of their 'Master' as they think the Mata a reincarnation of the divine mother.

The Mata's vibrant Internet presence comprises the Mata's annual tours across the world which she delivers, thanks to the millions of dollars flowing in from devotees who donate to the organization to instill in them the existential concept of 'seva' or selfless service, an integral component of the Mata's teachings. The most vital web page of the Mata is maintained by her ardent disciples who update her sayings and whereabouts every day. The spiritual journal, 'Matruvani', appears in several languages and it is apparent in the literature that it seeks to garner potential devotees. Modernity, media and migration, therefore, are transformed by the sudden thrust of revolutionized technological communications and scientific advancement in trans-global spiritual theater.

This particular development is not new in India's teeming guru landscape. The Sathya Sai Baba movement had generated a vast amount of literature—both in the mainstream media and the media of his devotees—which spurred the debate on "Godmen" in India. Media, as constructed by and from these organizations, underscores the way media uses the various discourses already present in the mindset of the people. The selective outrage against the Baba was seen by devotees as an outrage against the concept of the divine itself, after the screening of a documentary by the BBC many years ago. Well, this has reference to the way the Indian Rationalist Association went on a rampage on televised debates. While there are concerns about the genuineness or fraudulence of gurus in general, to look at modernity as it has come to be made by devotees and laymen in the media and not the apparent fraudulence of the movement or its spiritual authenticity, is relatively new.

The media thus spur issues, which push and pull devotees and laymen to engage with twenty-first century spiritualism. A simplistic view of the media's popularity in urban India provides a view that India and the West are no longer separated by traditionalism and modernism. Indeed, it stymes the oft-repeated idea that India is separated by its uniquely spiritual orientation and the West—its materialistic enterprise. The technological advancement of the West has penetrated into India and the traditional is now contained in the modern. The web pages of the Mata become sacred spaces where devotees can secure 'darshan' of the Mata. There are 'Virtual darshan' sites of the Mata, a visual spillage of images and videos of her hugging. A Google search for the Mata brings up many sites with more attachments. Devotees gather their devotional cartography by visiting these sites and gaining an intuitive understanding of her 'selfless spirit' which they think a great deal.

Critical to these representations is the fact that the Mata, while she does not openly denounce patriarchy, is seen by her devotees to be the only woman who has traversed the traditional boundaries of caste, class and religion. Her essentially pluralistic teachings find resonance with previous guru movements which have provided a religious-plural architecture: 'all religions are legitimate paths to the divine'. Since many of the Mata's devotees use technology to keep in touch with Amritapuri, the headquarters of the Mata's spiritual empire, the media is a portal to the spiritual world of the Mata and ensures that devotees do not lose touch with the ashram activities. As Tulasi Srinivas, noted sociologist M N Srinivas's daughter, had written in regards to the Sathya Sai Baba movement, "...devotees see both Web pages and religious objects as representations of Sai Baba's divinity and as a portal through which his divinity may shine. For devotees, these spaces are devotional and structured by the divine transcendence of Sai Baba. They allow devotees to be touched by Sai Baba's divinity through e-darshan."

From a post-colonial position, many scholars have pointed out a rupture in India's modern selfhood. The rise of Hindu nationalism in the early 1980s, the violence against women and caste inequalities have added to the Indian nation's fractured selfhood. These positions do not consider the way media is a contribution to the selfhood, and by ignoring religious groups like the Mata's they seek to posit a secular understanding, ignoring the consequences of how secularism has come to be defined in relation to the State. But what about secularism as upsurged by the Mata's organization? Is it not in relation to a particular organization? Is it Western or Indian secularism or global and ecumenical spirituality? Why does the Mata and why do devotees use spirituality cloaked within a palpably religious (and thereby Hindu) practice when spirituality is supposed to go beyond religion? Should one see secularism in opposition to forms of state nationalism always or can one see secularism here as a reaction to the war on terror and what the Mata sees as the evils of the modern world?

Scholars have pointed out how modern Hindus have reacted against their supposed alienation, their ruptured self transmogrified by colonialism and through militant Hindu forces. They argue a new form of masculinity has been invented to cure the modern Indian man's alienation. The violence is directed against the minority who is seen as a threat to the Hindutwa agenda. It is imperative to contrast Mata Amritanandamayi's institutional structure as the Indian state and the devotees as its citizenry. The fracture here is that the 'voice of the people' gets translated as absolute surrender and devotion to the state apparatus and its head (the institutional forms and the Mata herself). While the Mata is liberal and egalitarian, there is no question of rebellion to the Mata—the rebellion is internal and directed to the evils within. The minority to Hindutwa forces is the enemy of the nation, while in the Mata's scheme of things the enemy is the ego. And owing to the fact that one cannot drop the ego, the spiritual ruse has always been to hide it.

In the Hindutwa agenda, Ram is a central motif. In the Mata's mission, the Mata herself, venerated as a god, becomes Ram to her devotees. The anger against minorities seen in propaganda literature by Hindutwa forces in the media is contrasted with the anger against the ego. The formation of identities, the movement of people across the globe and the spread of media have contributed immensely to the rise of the spiritual, the local, the global and the secular. Secularism is in apposition to the State, spirituality is in apposition to the ego. The apposition to the ego has a method and the method is sociological : there is an institution at work, which spreads through the Mata Amrita-nandamayi faith-based media.

The transnational ideology often associated with twenty-first-century spiritual missions belongs to the discourse of self-revelation as espoused by religious groups. As devotees claim, the truth of spiritual imagination does not elude the true seeker who simply serves the guru with love, devotion, and surrender. Devotees claim the usage of mental faculties redundant in approaching the Mata. However, as diaspora communities deal with fractured selves abroad, it is worthwhile to ask whether the Amma movement will continue to hide under the tolerance of Hinduism or seek to form a militant Hindu self.

Vol. 48, No. 23, Dec 13 - 19, 2015