Followers of Indian religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh throw stones at security forces during clashes after the controversial guru was convicted of rape in Panchkula, Aug. 25, 2017. Getty photo, via CBS NewsA lot of people in the US, where I live, have a lot of preconceptions about India. Many of them view that country through the lens of some of its most famous figures … in particular, Mahatma Gandhi. There’s no doubt that Gandhi left his mark on the world; he instigated India’s independence from British rule, and in the process showed that civil disobedience and non-violent resistance could change history. A lot of Americans, therefore, tend to view India as a land of pacifists.

It’d be nice if the world’s second-largest country by population were actually a collection of pacifists, but that’s not so. I don’t say that to denigrate India. I only say that, because that’s just how humanity is: Pacifism, in the long run, is the exception rather than the rule — by far! An example of how things really are in India made itself evident, as CBS News reports, just a few days ago, with catastrophic consequences (Archive.Is cached article):

At least 30 people were killed and more than 200 injured in violence in the two Indian states of Haryana and Punjab after a court convicted a spiritual guru of rape, incensing his loyal followers to riot.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted Friday of raping two women 15 years ago, but an estimated 100,000 of his followers had already gathered in the town of Panchkula, in Haryana, ahead of the verdict.

The violence left at least 30 people dead and more than 200 others wounded, Haryana state government officials told CBS News.…

When the guilty verdict was announced, the gathered members of Singh’s sect clashed with police and paramilitary forces, set several buildings and part of a gas station on fire and attacked television news crews. Several government offices were also reportedly vandalized by followers of the so-called “godman.”

This “guru” is extremely popular, and influential, in spite of the charges against him or (now) his conviction:

In a show of strength, the guru, who heads the powerful Dera Sacha Sauda sect, arrived to court in Panchkula on Friday in a 200-car cavalcade. He has featured in a number of self-produced movies where he has played the lead character, of a messiah.

India is home to many gurus like Singh, some of whom amass followings in the millions, and who become incredibly wealthy in the process.

I suppose these “gurus” might be a rough equivalent of American megapastors or televangelists … perhaps. Maybe. At any rate, it’s sickening to see this kind of religious loyalty turn into mayhem and death. Americans’ visions of India as a paradise of deep, abiding spirituality clearly is unjustified. As I’ve said many, many, many, many times … all metaphysics is liable to lead to extremes. All of them! No matter what kind. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Many people erroneously think religious extremism comes only from the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity. It’s true those two do lead to a lot of militancy and violence … but that doesn’t mean other religious milieus, such as the dharmic faiths that saturate India, don’t lead to extremes, either.

Photo credit: Getty photo, via CBS News.

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  • Many of them view that country through the lens of some of its most famous figures … in particular, Mahatma Gandhi.

    Westerners often think that the revered figures in a foreign culture represent the common values of that culture — ignoring the fact that very often those figures became revered by standing against the worst of their society. It’s like foreigners who know little of the US learning about Martin Luther King and assuming that Americans generally must be pacifists who love their enemies.

    India is actually a very violent culture and probably always has been. A society dedicated to some kumbaya-singing pacifist “enlightenment” wouldn’t have produced the mass slaughters of the 1948 partition, the religious riots of the last few years that killed hundreds of people, the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist thuggery, village “courts” ordering gang rapes as punishments, etc. Buddha’s dedication to pacifism, too, sprang from his horror at atrocities he witnessed.

    I suppose these “gurus” might be a rough equivalent of American megapastors or televangelists … perhaps.

    Exactly. Religion anywhere is a scam mostly run by con men out for money, sex, or power. Don’t think it’s different just because it’s happening in a distant foreign country and the superficial trappings (costumes, language, terminology) seem exotic.

    • To be honest, I’m more than familiar with India’s history, having studied it for a while in college. I even learned a little Sanskrit. Which is what exposed me, originally, to some occidental misconceptions about India: While taking a yoga class I’d been told that namaste meant “the divine in me honors the divine in you.” But I knew better. It actually means “I bow to you.” Nothing more. 

      I didn’t make an issue of it at the time but it dawned on me how people happily overlaid all their own preconceptions on top of many things Indian, making them into something they never were at all. 

      That said, there are definitely some aspects of Indian culture and history that fly in the face of its otherwise-violent nature. The Jains, for instance, who famously walk around with brooms, constantly sweeping in front of them in order to ensure they won’t step on any insects, worms, etc. Definitely an eclectic mix of things, there.