Marketing God with deceit
Commentary: Of Karma and Dharma
By Ramesh N. Rao
FARMVILLE, August 18 (UPI) — Fraud to sell God is an age-old tactic. And it is not just the poor, the ignorant, and the innocent who have been mesmerized or seduced by godmen, televangelists, and roadside hucksters but even the educated and wealthy who have succumbed to the wiles of conmen.
One of the first essays that I wrote, which was published in "Youth Times" in India in 1977, and for which I was paid a princely sum of Rs. 300, was on the Hindu godman, Sathya Sai Baba. He has followers all over the world, including Dan Aykroyd who gives pride of place in his House of Blues restaurant in New Orleans to a picture of Sai Baba.
In my 1977 essay I pointed out that one of Sai Baba's devout followers was a director of the Indian Institute of Science, and one of his persistent detractors was Dr. Narasimhaiah, a physicist who also was principal of the National College in Bangalore. Sai Baba was known then to produce out of thin air, wrist watches that he gave to his prominent and well-known disciples. Some mocked that the wrist watches bore the brand name of "HMT" or Hindustan Machine Tools, which manufactured the watches in a local factory in Bangalore.
He was also known to give devotees sacred ash that he also materialized out of thin air or from a secret compartment under his flowing saffron robe. When I went to Bangalore in 1998, some of my friends took me to see the godman. He glided past me, and I saw some of his followers reach beseechingly to him, or scramble to touch his feet. My friends and I were skeptical about the whole spectacle but we could not but note the throng of multi-national followers whose faces glowed with love and beatitude as they saw the Sai Baba glide past them.
More recently, the Sai Baba has attracted the ire and attention of investigative reporters and disappointed followers, and Salon magazine published an essay accusing the man of pedophilia. But as the writer notes, Sai Baba is not preaching any new religion: "There are no indoctrination or even meditation sessions. Aside from strict vegetarianism, Sai Baba prescribes no particular practices. His teachings are flowery and vague, combining colorful Hindu mythology, a Buddhist focus on transcending worldly desire, the Christian idea of service and an evangelical emphasis on direct experience of the divine.
According to "Ocean of Love," a book published last year by the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, "there is no new path that He is preaching, no new order that He has created. There is no new religion that He has come to add or a particular philosophy that He recommends... His mission is unique and simple. His mission is that of love and compassion."
The Sathya Sai Baba mission is engaged in social and philanthropic work, and provides good education and fine medical care in its schools, colleges, and hospitals. People worship him as God or his incarnation, and some have simply labeled him a charlatan and a pedophile.
The problem with selling snake oil, however, gets exacerbated when not only are you selling an unverifiable product, but when you claim that the other's unverifiable product is false or fake. Thus, when Christian missionaries — 15 year-old pubescents, 18 year-old wet-behind-the-ears high schoolers, dyed-in-the-wool old curmudgeons, or jet setting charlatans like Benny Hinn - travel the world and seek to seduce the ignorant, the gullible, the poor, or even the powerful (as in Benny Hinn's case) there is righteous indignation, and worse yet, violence and social upheaval.
It is said there's a sucker born every minute, and there are millions of poor and young in India who can easily be suckered by an agenda driven soul harvester. In the past there were a lot more Western/White Christian missionaries who either openly did their proselytizing or who entered India with a tourist or business visa. Now, there are enough trained local marketers of Christianity who have learned their lessons well. Since the 1990s, when Hindu activists became loud in their protests over proselytism campaigns like Project Thessalonica, they have worked their wiles in carefully orchestrated ways.
For example, recently there was news of a pastor who was distributing pamphlets on Christianity to the Hindu devotees who were traveling in a bus from Tirupati to Tirumala — the abode of Lord Venkateshwara in the sacred seven hills in Chittoor District in Andhra Pradesh, India. The people got angry and beat the fellow up. Martyrdom is a peculiar Christian and Muslim fetish, and most probably this man was either following the martyrdom prescription or merely playing out the clever trick of garnering the sympathy of India's NGOs and secularists. We may suspect that it is the latter than the former because in so many ways even converted Hindus love life too much to be simply squander it away distributing Christian pamphlets.
Once the beating is invited, the local Christian missionary mafia swing into action, and call their masters in New Delhi or the local state capital, and overnight copious copy is transmitted across the world and which are duly published by human rights organizations like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, and by Christian groups like Mission Indiaand Compass Direct which makes no bones about publishing "persecution news"!
The other insidious way of trying to convert the Hindu is when Christian businessmen overtly propagate Christianity in their business premises. In Goa, it is reported that in one such Christian-run business, a Christian priest visits the business twice a week and talks to workers about Christianity. The owner of the business is said to have organized a
"Workers Retreat and Training Camp," the agenda for which the workers did not have a clue about. What is known is that the local church and the Christian priest are the ones busy preparing the organizational details of the retreat. Details of many such incidents and examples are now being published by a web site called Christian Aggression that seeks to counter the organized campaign of conversion by global Christist organizations.
A former Indian Administrative Service officer, V. Sundaram, has been active investigating and reporting the work of Christian evangelists in India, especially in his native state of Tamil Nadu. According to him, poor Hindus are promised free houses if they convert to Christianity. Once they convert, then they are led on a dispiriting ride of broken promises. Sundaram quotes the English poet Crabbe in this instance: "Deceivers are the most dangerous members of society. They trifle with the best affections of our nature, and violate the most sacred obligations".
In a recent investigative report, Sundaram describes the activities of Bishop Anandaraj who has used the Hindu heritage site of Mahabalipuram, famous for its Pallava temples, to cheat people of millions of rupees by promising them free houses.
Of course, there is no story of proselytism complete without the mention of Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa has been marketed as a symbol of selfless service, and the Nobel Committee, the White House, and hundreds of other big and small organizations and institutions around the world heaped on her gold, medals, and money. She is on the fast track to sainthood.
Some people may know of journalist Christopher Hitchens' acerbic take on Mother Teresa in a book titled, "The Missionary Position", and her project of harvesting souls for Christ through the good offices of The Vatican, the White House, and Charles Keating. However, very few know of the careful investigative report by a British doctor of Indian origin, Aroup Chatterjee, who has carefully followed Mother Teresa's life and work.
His indictment of Mother Teresa is more powerful because it does not resort to hyperbole or to double-entendres. The irony is that this über-missionary received the 21-gun salute at her funeral by the Indian government which has denied that honor to almost every other Indian humanitarian and life-long activist for the poor and downtrodden.
The Nobel Peace prize that was given to her was denied India's greatest peace-maker, Mahatma Gandhi. And the gushing and reverent tone with which my students present their speeches of commemoration to Mother Teresa is uninformed about the sleight of hand by this world famous missionary whose mission it was not to feed the hungry and poor as much as to ready them for Jesus.
We come full circle: Is it ethical to use lies and deceit to spread the word of whichever God you believe in? Is it ethical to use lies and deceit to market that which is unverifiable? It may be necessary to do so to win converts, but is it ethical? Neither Benny Hinn nor The Vatican, or the Southern Baptists and the Hezbollah can market their exclusivist message without serious consequences to the well-being of humanity, nor can the Sai Baba trick people into believing he is God.
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Dr. Ramesh N. Rao is professor of communication studies, and Chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre at Longwood University, Farmville, VA. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of the institution to which he belongs. His email address is email@example.com. © copyright 2006 by Ramesh N. Rao
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