Few things pollute the atmosphere worse than a slighted journalist. What’s an even worse pollution than that is a slighted journalist whose writings reek with a stink of suspicious agenda. Meet Manu Joseph: a non-entity until his Open magazine exposed the Radia tapes sleaze last year. That was its ticket to media stardom. As is the case with such things, the public judgment on the magazine was as immediate as it was knee-jerk: bold, courageous, took on powerful media persons like Barkha Dutt, etc. Of course, not too many of us looked at Open’s “About Us” page (which borders on the rubbish anyway) or looked at some of the stuff it carried in the pre-Radia Tapes days, which provides hints of its thought processes if not leanings. It’s the near-total absence of applying even the most fundamental critical thinking skills—among other reasons—that has allowed the English media to spout trash and get away with it repeatedly.
If we had bothered to scratch just a few inches below the surface, we wouldn’t be surprised or shocked to read this ignorant balderdash published in the India-phobic New York Times (first published in the International Herald Tribune). Oh, and congrats Manu Joseph, you’re a star already! The piece innocuously titled, Indian Spiritualism Made for the Modern Age is a snide piece of hack-work whose sole purpose seems to be to target the Art of Living founder-cum-head, Sri Sri Ravishankar. But because Manu Joseph needs a larger canvas to place him in, he picks on Indian spirituality. In this, he slightly departs from his distinguished peers in the pantheon of India’s English journalism where the norm is to write copiously in vacuum. However, the canvas is as dirty as the ugly picture he paints; actually it’s rather apt because pigs love nothing more than a gutter overflowing with garbage.
He begins his hacking with a sweeping generalization on—get this: dress! Don’t believe me? Read this:
The majority of Indian men today wear shirts and trousers, including a tribal king who lives on top of a hill in the South Indian state of Kerala. But political and philosophical figures in India continue to wear costumes from another time. Among them is a middle-aged man in white silk robes.
Not merely content with making such an idiotic observation, he gets it even factually wrong. The majority of Indians live in villages, a fact that escapes these air-conditioned journalists whose India doesn’t include the bad and parched lands of yonder. In which case, his statement is correct. But, and thankfully, the real India is not the India of the Manu Josephs of the world. And so we have some 70% of Indians who dwell in villages and guess what their clothing is? Dhoti. Citing an example of some tribal king doesn’t alter this reality. And from that shirt-and-trouser-wearing tribal king, Manu Joseph descends to a guy in white silk robes.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of a movement called the Art of Living, is one of the most influential people in urban India. It may appear that Sri Sri is a typo, but it is actually a compliment he has paid himself. A single “Sri” is an honorific that can be granted to any Indian male. A double “Sri” is in spiritual territory.
Doesn’t the crude attempt at sarcasm charm your gills? So it appears that Sri Sri Ravishankar called Joseph up and told him that he added the extra Sri as a compliment to himself. If Manu Joseph had only looked around at traditional Hindu swamis and gurus, one of the first things he would notice is the fact that there aren’t two but three Sri’s prefixed to their names. Like a child visiting a foreign land is wonderstruck by how people dress in that land—daddy! he dresses so funny!—our Joseph dwells on shirts and trousers and silk robes but fails to notice this time-honoured practice of using such prefixes.
And this much ignorance dripping in every word before the second paragraphs ends. Imagine my pain.
After this, he embarks on more lame attempts at sarcasm in drab prose and lands again in the familiar territory of ignorance. This time around, he varies the script a little and refers to Sri Sri Ravishankar as “Mr. Shankar,” a triumphant declaration that he cares two hoots for this white silk-robed spiritual guru. To Manu Joseph, he is just another human being. A highly recommended, rebellious approach to pulling that swami down a peg or two. Actually let me correct what I said earlier: he lands in not just the familiar territory of ignorance, he sprays it with liberal doses of logical fallacies presented as analysis. Check this out.
In the first week of July, in Berlin, the Art of Living Foundation celebrated 30 years of existence.
It is not surprising that the first decade of the foundation was unremarkable. In the 1980s, the Indian middle class was closer in spirit to the poor than to the rich. There were no solutions to emotional problems. The sleeping pill came close, but there was something morbidly modern about it. Art films showed tragic creative men and licentious women in sleeveless blouses taking sleeping pills.
The underlined sentences are so terrible that even if you want to abuse them, you won’t know where to begin. Let’s take it point by point:
- What does “closer in spirit to the poor than to the rich” even mean?
- How does Joseph conclude that there we no solutions to emotional problems? In reality, there is really no Magic Pill—but India has a long history of both preventing and limiting the ill-effects of emotional problems. In passing, this was achieved by a very strong joint family system and the perpetuation of our epics.
- What the hell does “[t]he sleeping pill came close, but there was something morbidly modern about it” mean?
As for art films, what exactly was the audience they commanded? And why aren’t there any of these (f)art films being made anymore? The answer, Mr.Joseph, is simpler: in the dreadful ‘80s, middle class Indians were busy working their butts off, walking to the next bus stop to save 15 Paise, getting their kids educated, saving up to buy a few square feet of land while the Socialist Indian Raj stole money from them month after month. When your focus is on ensuring that you survive without trading your self-respect, dignity and values, emotional problems are the last of your concerns. Not that people didn’t have emotional problems but that there is such a thing as priority of problems and there is such a stupidity as exemplified by Joseph’s blanket assertion that there were no solutions to these problems.
But Manu Joseph fleetingly rises in our esteem because he’s pretty accurate when he links Ravishankar’s popularity and riches with the affluence—and the problems that said affluence generates—of the Indian middle class post liberalization.
In the 1990s, as the economy was liberalized and the middle class grew more prosperous, the word “stress” slowly entered their vocabulary, first as a somewhat self-congratulatory description of what their professional success has done to them. Later, “stress” began to include heartbreaks and other traumas. As urban India began to search for inner peace, the Art of Living made deep inroads into the newly affluent society.
It’s quite a quirk of sorts that he gets the diagnosis right but gets the history wrong. A pretty remarkable feat. Here’s the thing: the middle class of the 80s belonged to a different generation, a generation that wasn’t as fully cut off from its Hindu roots as the one that came after it. This generation kept fasts, lived frugally, went to temples, did their Sai Baba or Sabarimala or Vaishnodevi or whatever pilgrimages and things like that. Whether that yielded them material benefit or solved emotional problems or whatever is beside the point: what’s important is that if these things are done despite the frustration of monotony or routine that might set in, they yield a kind of mental and emotional toughness in the long run. And these practices are ingrained in the collective cultural consciousness of millions of Indians. Ignoramus Extraordinarie Manu Joseph is obviously not aware of these things and so he tries to mask his ignorance with “there were no solutions.” The generation that came after this was fed on a heady diet of severe dumbeddownness thanks to the media, plus an aversion to intelligence and learning. Toxic textbooks had also done their job by then. A Ravishankar stepped in and clothed his message in a manner that appealed to this generation, which is also why Manu Joseph croaks in rage at him. We’ll get there in a bit but before that, we need to dwell on the next gem:
It provided a yogic alternative to going to a shrink, stigmatized even today in India as an evidence of mental imbalance. Mr. Shankar, an educated, English-speaking South Indian, impressed the modern affluent with stock phrases (“Do not fall in love, rise in love”) and a brand of Hindu philosophy that is secular in nature.
The key phrase as you’ve noticed is “a brand of Hindu philosophy that is secular in nature.” Of course, Manu Joseph’s knowledge of Hindu philosophy, which is somewhere in the order of subzero, doesn’t prevent him from spouting such soporific nonsense. So Mr. Joseph, is there a “brand” of Hindu philosophy that’s also communal in nature? How about a “brand” that’s Size Zero? What’s next? Louis Vuitton Hinduism? Oh but wait, it might probably mean that there’s another “brand” that’s titled “religious”—going by the definition of “religious” and “secular” handed to Brown Scribe-Sahibs who have for generations self-colonized their vacuous minds with ill-informed definitions handed down by their erstwhile White Masters. In Manu Joseph’s case, that’s more than accurate. Check out this tidbit:
Manu Joseph is the editor of the Open Magazine, an off-beat Indian newsweekly. Serious Men, his first novel, has won The Hindu Best Fiction Award and is one of Huffington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2010.
That’s his brief profile on The Man Asian Literary Prize website for which his novel was shortlisted. And guess who sponsors the MALP? That piddling group of Yearners for the Return of the Glorious Brit Colonialism, also known as the Man Group—the same group that awards the Booker Prize. Doesn’t it all fit nicely now: an Indian Editor who’s been honoured by being shortlisted for a literary prize instituted by a bunch of erstwhile slave-trade sympathizers doing a hitjob on a Hindu spiritual leader in an India-phobic American newspaper? Highly flattering. With such credentials, is it unsurprising that he can dispense with stuff like even basic commonsense? Check this out:
As in the case of many self-proclaimed Indian gurus, Mr. Shankar’s success lies not in deceiving others but in convincing himself that he is an extraordinary entity.
Manu Joseph needs to provide exactly one fragment of proof to back his claim that Ravishankar is deceiving others. As for deceiving himself, we return to what we said earlier: Ravishankar picks up the phone, calls Manu Joseph and tells him, “Manu, look, don’t tell this to anybody, but I’m convinced that I’m an extraordinary entity.” Yes. This is the Gold Standard of informed commentary that the likes of Joseph adhere to. Actually, the reason why he heaps such disdain towards poor Ravishankar is clear in the very next paragraph.
Nine years ago, I was invited by the Art of Living Foundation to interview Mr. Shankar. Mr. Shankar was in the house of a wealthy businessman in South Mumbai. In the living room he sat on a large, embellished, thronelike chair as about 50 of Mumbai’s rich and famous sat on the floor, among them the film actor Vinod Khanna and the actress Nagma. At Mr. Shankar’s feet sat a newspaper reporter, taking down notes as he spoke.
All the interviews that evening were supposed to be conducted in this manner, with the reporter on the floor, at his feet, and he on the throne.
When it was my turn, an absolute silence filled the room as I dragged a chair toward him. When I sat down, there was an audible moan from his followers. The interview did not go well. Most of his answers were snubs that elicited loud guffaws from his audience.
Now recall what I said in the very first sentence of this piece: Few things pollute the atmosphere worse than a slighted journalist. Revenge was sworn. The actual operation was published in the IHT and NYT. What’s with your sense of entitlement Mr. Joseph? Don’t you have even the basic etiquette that if you visit somebody, you’re supposed to abide by the mores of the host’s house? If the thought of sitting on the floor to do an interview disgusted you, what prevented you from leaving the place? You know what? You set yourself up for those snubs and guffaws and then like a bullied child you whine to Daddy IHT, which Daddy NYT faithfully echoes. There’s no other way of saying this.
After this, there’s no stopping Manu Joseph. He piles on anecdotes, irrelevant reports and suchlike. Sample this:
Over the years Mr. Shankar has tried to expand the Art of Living to the less affluent masses by offering free courses and sharing the stage with spiritual leaders who already enjoy a mass following. During the public appearances of Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as “the hugging saint” because she tries to hug every person in her audience even if there are thousands, Mr. Shankar sometimes stands by her side to share the glow. But he has not had much success.
Forget Ravishankar or Amritanandamayi—it’s not uncommon in India to see spiritual leaders and gurus often sharing the same stage. Acharya sabhas (congregations of various Hindu spiritual leaders) happen all the time in various parts of India quite frequently and they are attended by lakhs of followers. It’s just that the secular English media doesn’t report it because people there don’t wear bikinis or serve liquor or speak in English. And so when a Manu Joseph sees or hears of one such meeting, his ill-informed brain thinks such events are shows for expanding their influence or something. Actually, he’s on a more sinister track.
The failure of Mr. Shankar to spread his influence beyond the affluent represents an inexplicable anomaly in a familiar pattern of Indian society. Usually, an elite obsession percolates down the layers to the masses. Most of Indian culture has spread this way, including food, rituals, music and cricket. But, for some reason, elite spiritual masters have made little impact on the masses.
What’s with Joseph’s hair-tearing obsession to criticize every single strand of hair on Ravishankar’s body? Why does Ravishankar’s—in Joseph’s words—limited reach among the poorer sections of Indian society drive him to such frenzied craziness? The last I heard, Ravishankar didn’t lament anywhere about this. Also did anybody note the interesting play of words: “failure of Mr. Shankar to spread his influence?” It cleverly seeks to impute to Ravishankar something he himself hasn’t claimed to do or claimed to have done. But what’s really interesting is Manu Joseph’s assertion of an “inexplicable anomaly.” The anomaly if it exists, exists in Manu Joseph’s anomalous mind. And gives us yet another peek into his panoramic ignorance. Yes, the obsessions and habits and mores percolate top-down. But where anomalous Manu stumbles and falls on his face is when he claims that “elite spiritual masters have made little impact on the masses.” Basvanna, a Brahmin—elite, yes—founded his own sect, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers in a very few years. Vidyaranya, a Brahmin guru—elite, yes—inspired an entire empire, which included the masses who swore devotion to him. Hell! You can start as early as Mahavira and Buddha who were as elite as elite is. We don’t need to spell out how widespread Jainism and Buddhism became in their own lifetimes. Closer to our own time, we don’t need to explicitly list out the contribution and influence of an “elite” Vivekananda? Oh but Vivekananda is just a nationalist in the polluted lexicon of the likes of Manu Joseph. Even in our own time, the pontiff of Pejawar Mutt at Udupi has enormous reach and following among the masses in Coastal Karnataka and adjoining regions. You can list out hundreds of such elite spiritual masters who have made a sweeping impact on the masses. The question is: has Manu Joseph even heard the names of even 10 such masters? Actually he doesn’t need to for he derives his strength from the school of thought that forbids ignorance from being a barrier to airing your opinion.
The Josephite pollution doesn’t end there. He takes his tarnish Ravishankar campaign to the national stage. Literally. In one broad stroke of his dirty brush, he says:
Mr. Shankar has, however, succeeded in taking the Art of Living to the West, which is not surprising. In most of the first world, an Indian has a better chance of being accepted as a spiritual leader than, say, a Hungarian. In several interviews, Mr. Shankar has emphasized the branding of India as the spiritual home of the world. It is one of the most enduring and absurd of myths.
Before we dissect this tripe, let’s go the whole hog and see how he bolsters this bullshit by belittling Tagore for his appearance, and calling the poet’s statement as “laughable.”
The writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who was yet another national figure who professed love for the common man but took to wearing Dumbledore’s gown to distinguish himself said…”Is not the East the mother of spiritual humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays, when they get hurt, when they get famished and hungry, turn their faces to that serene mother, the East?” His statement may seem laughable now, but the myth at the core of his speech survives…
Right. So India as the spiritual home of the world is a myth. The hundreds of thousands of Westerners who continue to come in droves here are all fools who had nothing better to do. And those Westerners who took on Hindu names, those who adopted the Hindu way of life and those who became first rate scholars in Hinduism are even bigger fools. But could you, Mr. Know-it-All Manu, care to elucidate exactly how it is a myth that India is the spiritual home? And it’d probably upset you more Mr. Openly Ignoramus, if I told you that Tagore wasn’t alone in saying that—there’s an entire army of highly intelligent, accomplished and well-read people of that time—both Indians and Westerners—who echoed Tagore’s statement in their own ways. Ever heard of an Ananda Coomaraswamy? No? Shame on you! Yes? Then greater shame on you for you’re a hypocrite! Ever heard of a Romain Rolland? No? Ditto. Yes? Ditto. Perhaps your kingdom of Eternal Ignorance forbids you to discern why the West came to India for its spiritual quest instead of going next door to the Vatican, or the Deep South in the US or Saudi Arabia. And as evidence, you present this smelly piece of chicken poop:
Indians would argue that there is indeed a unique spiritual side to India, and as evidence they would present the many gurus here who find a ready market. But the fact is that many of these gurus are charlatans, like the man who convinced his female followers that his blessing was bestowed by massaging their breasts.
Oh absolutely! One swallow doesn’t a summer make, Mr. Manu. On the subject of charlatans, let’s talk about a certain Holy Priest named Fr Joseph Jordan. Oops! Now there…it’s unfortunate that he shares your fair surname, I’m so sorry. Damn, of all things, my research on the Web turned out this one. So this Most Revered Joseph Jordan took a very delicate and personal interest in the well-being of boys as young as 9 and 10 and had a huge stash of child porn. He was sent to jail for 8 years. A casual search for “pedophile priests” yields horrific reading material enough to last a few months. This doesn’t include the material available in the printed form. It also doesn’t include information related to…umm…how shall I put it?…Fathers who have sex with Sisters (Hint: Google for "sex scandals in the church”). Sounds horrible already, doesn’t it? Forgive me if I’ve sinned, Mr. Joseph. And in the same breath that you talk about gurus massaging breasts, please do mention the Banquet of Chestnuts and Pope Alexander VI. You might find it disgusting or delightful depending on your temperamental prevarications. And so, based on such enormous amounts of sordid records publicly available, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that Christianity is full of religious teachers who like to have sex with kids, and women who have assumed a sacred oath of lifelong sexual abstinence? I mean, these guys are appointed by the Vatican, so what does that say about the Vatican itself? There! didn’t you enjoy this bout of mudslinging, Mr. Manu? No? Actually, the answer is yes. He does enjoy it. Why else will he continue to peddle more nonsense like the following?
These exotic gurus emerge because Hinduism is not a structured faith with a central authority or a chain of command. So there is more room for spiritual freelancers.
What in Satan’s name does “spiritual freelancer” mean? Words have meanings and it’s always good to define something before using it. Anyway, here at last is where Manu Joseph betrays where he’s really coming from. Note the bits about “not a structured faith or a chain of command” and “spiritual freelancers (sic).” This makes possible the following reasonable conclusion: it’s the absence of a structure and chain of command in Hinduism that gives rise to charlatans posing as spiritual gurus. And because the article focuses on Ravishankar, “Mr. Shankar” is a spiritual freelancer, a charlatan and a deceiver posing as a spiritual guru. So what’s the alternative for Hinduism? Of course, Joseph doesn’t say it but it’s clear: either establish such a structure, etc or Join the Fold of the Blessed. Nice try, Manu, but like your silly attempts at sarcasm, it fails. Miserably. If anything, anybody can become a Guru in Hinduism: a true Guru will neither seek followers nor promise redemption or Heaven like the Fathers and Brothers or the Son of God who was born without sexual intercourse (blasphemy!) do in exchange of mortgaging your brains at their feet.
But wait, earlier on, Manu says Ravishankar “tells people how to breathe, how to meditate and how to manage stress” and now he puts him, inexplicably, in the bracket of a spiritual freelancer and guru. But then the likes of Manu Joseph don’t bother with things like providing explanations. We just need to take their Word.
I don’t hold a candle for either Ravishankar or Art of Living. If those who follow him derive some benefit or solace or whatever, that’s their call. Nor is there a Government Directive or law to follow him (Help! Communal!) The last I heard, Ravishankar didn’t threaten his followers into following him. Neither have I heard or read anything scandalous about AOL or Ravishankar. It’s a free country and if one chooses to find peace in AOL or in whisky, it’s up to him or her.
In the end, the whole piece is an exercise in heaping muck on Ravishankar under a very deceptive title. Nobody on earth can reasonably hope to expect reading a nasty hitjob on an individual based on a lame title like Indian Spiritualism Made for the Modern Age. And it follows a pattern. The Open magazine—as I’ve pointed to links to some of its pieces earlier in this post—seems to be following a consistent policy of needlessly targetting only Hindu Swamis and gurus and similar spiritual leaders. And it owes the public an honest explanation why it’s doing so. Out of curiosity, I searched for “priest” on the Open magazine website and it yielded results that buttress this suspicion.
To his eternal infamy, Manu Joseph hasn’t even done enough research on AOL or Ravishankar before vomitting his poison. An email addressed both to Manu Joseph and NYT by the respected veteran journalist and writer, Francois Gautier confirms Joseph’s poor (or non) research. Gautier has made India his home and has been associated with AOL for several years and has even written a book about Ravishankar.
I have respect for India’s ancient culture and would never dare running it down the way you did.
The history of respect and devotion to Gurus is a very ancient tradition and is something that is both spontaneous and natural to millions of Indians. I have also interacted for many years with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and observed that he is engaged in countless charity works, both in India and abroad; that he gives selflessly his time to others, never getting angry, never getting impatient, in the nearly 20 years I have known him….What I have also observed during my many years in India is that not only both the Hindus and Indian media will never run down the Pope or Indian bishops, but will even go to churches, even if they are Hindus, because they recognize that God takes many forms and incarnations.
Apparently Manu Joseph gives two hoots for this kind of thing: “respect” and “devotion” don’t appear in his toxic lexicon. A failed interview makes him froth incoherently at the mouth, screaming as if Ravishankar has yanked his underwear off in public.