chapter  13
21 Pages

Relics of Faith: Fleshly Desires, Ascetic Disciplines and Devotional Affect in the Transnational Sathya Sai Movement

ByTulasi Srinivas

This chapter2 focuses upon anthropological understanding of the frugal and ascetic religious body in and of South Asia – particularly to practices of abstention (sattvica) and asceticism (tapasya) – through the embodied experience of being a transnational Sathya Sai devotee. Beginning with Carrette’s illuminating meditation on Foucault’s consideration of medieval Christian monastic ascetic practice, we come to the understanding that contemporary embodiment veils religious tropes ‘revealing how our sensory and discursive beings are shrouded by a relic of the religious imagination’ (Carrette, 2007: 195). In an earlier essay I tentatively explored the fascinating Sai understanding of a devotional body (Srinivas, 2010) which suggested it is enshrouded within syncretic, popular Hinduism which includes within it ambiguous and often contraindicative traces of Advaita and Vedanta Hindu philosophy, Sufi Islamic mysticism, and Ayurvedic (Hindu) and Unani (Islamic) medico-moral leanings culturally dominant in the subcontinent and in global neoHindu movements3 emergent thereof. The enshrouding moral underpinnings of ascetic practice, particularly in the South Asian context, have been well documented. But as Flood in his overarching study of asceticism in Hinduism and Buddhism noted that, ‘ascetic discourse and practice have become alien in a world where religion is de-cosmologized and the idea of deferring the gratification of desire for some other good is only accepted with some hesitation’ (Flood, 2004: 1) and so if, as Wills argues, asceticism is a ‘wider cultural phenomenon present in all societies’ (Wills, 2006: 903) the fascinating question that arises is; how does ascetic practice, premised as it is on celibacy, solitude, detachment, wandering and the ‘standard practices of meditation, fasting, and fierce psycho-physical austerities’ (DeNapoli, 2009: 857) fit the post-modern ‘sensible’ world, filled as it is with overt sexual imagery, self-indulgent proscriptions and hedonistic consumption? Or, in the contemporary globalized world where desire is constructed, managed and maintained and various erotic, sensual, aesthetic and celebrant attitudes are made manifest, what is the place of asceticism? Is it seen as a moral force, a redemptive clause? Is it possible to conceive of a ‘global’ ascetic practice? And if so, how is the body implicated? The contemporary philosopher Zizek states that, ‘in today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling

ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice … ’ (Zizek, 2007: 2). Besides the fascinating question of who can and should ‘appropriate’ discipline and to what ends, Zizek raises another significant problem: about the seeming embedded duality between the everyday

‘hedonistic permissivity’ and ‘sacrifice’ that I too have alluded to in the previous paragraph. Singh boldly argues that such a duality sets ‘God and Mammon’ in a dialectic that is ‘artificial’, and the question of frugality (and I add asceticism for I see frugality as a part of ascetic practice, as does he) in the contemporary world is ‘intimately tied to the history of religion, more specifically to ascetic ideals, variably actualized across seemingly every world religion’ (Singh, 2010: 1). Let me note here that the concepts of asceticism and consumption that I set out here will be seen as both religious and bleeding into the politico-secular, but they are not to be thought of as dialectical (though I myself am guilty of slipping into dialectical thought as a heuristic device) but rather as equally valid and coexisting – sometimes ‘antagonistic but sometimes mutually reinforcing and gesturing to a continuum’ (Singh, 2010: 1-2) along which many different variations and differing degrees of renunciation can be productively mapped. In fact asceticism itself is a multifarious set of fuzzy practices, and as Copeman postulates in his brilliant and thought-provoking essay on the meaning of cadaver donation in Delhi, what is renounced is questionable (Copeman, 2006). I ask if engaging these potent and potency enhancing embodied practices shift ‘metaphors of membership’ within global religious movements (Turner, 2001)? In attempting to explore these and other allied questions, I offer a preliminary meditation on the changing topography – a few of the ‘embryonic innovations’ (Copeman, 2006: 103) – of the Sathya Sai globalizing narrative of embodied abstentions, which explores a range of ways in which the corporal, moral and social are connected in neo-Hindu, post-modern, capitalist worlds. It is important to note here that Max Weber suggested that a ‘rationalization’ of ascetic practice was a part of the trajectory of orthodox Hinduism; an attempt to systematize and re-interpret asceticism towards greater ideological and practical expansion (such as through the accessible practice of yoga) and so I suggest that Sai ascetic practices can be considered such an extension of an established trend within Hinduism but with some striking differences which we will unearth. Bodily engagement it has been argued, is the conformity – the binding – to larger power structures, but it is

also, as Flood notes, a form of subversion to the tradition and to the society by means of the transcendence (Flood, 2004: 6) – the unbinding – of the societally bound normative body and so considerations of a globalizing Sai ascetic body begins with a consideration of the bound and unbound body. The initial orientation for such an exploration resides in Foucault’s earlier studies of Greco-Roman asceticism (Foucault, 1990) where asceticism is ‘not codified as an injunction sanctioned by divine revelation, but it is a kind of exertion – a spiritual exercise – designed to test and enhance one’s self-mastery’, what Foucault calls the ‘cultivation of the self’ (Singh, 2010: 2). As Laidlaw points out in his masterful Foucauldian consideration of Jain asceticism, the relationship with the self is not simply ‘self awareness but self formation’ (Laidlaw, 1995: 19, italics mine) rooted in an ethical understanding of the ‘kind of relationship you should have with yourself’ (Laidlaw, 1995: 19) and so the individual ‘delimits part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice’ to create the ethical subject through certain embodied ontologies (Laidlaw, 1995: 19). This focus on the body as the site of ascetic self construction shifts the discourse from the body as the bearer of certain qualities to the body as life as constitutive and denotative of lived politics (Venn, 2007: 113-14) and therefore a question of the geneaology of transformation of the self arises. It is this ‘delimiting’ or binding that is central to ascetic which Foucault defined as ‘a training of oneself by oneself’ through ‘restrictions, exercises, disciplines’ (Laidlaw, 1995: 19) to subject oneself to moral conduct. In other words, these exercises are both spiritual and political (Singh, 2010) and carry potent moral understandings of self and other.

In recent years, the Sai ashram in Puttaparthi, South India, has witnessed the remarkable growth of Sai devotion and become the epicenter of an enormous transnational movement. Estimates of the total number of Baba devotees around the world vary between 10 and 70 million, though a recent article ‘India Today’ estimates their strength at 20 million in 137 countries and their net worth at approximately 6 billion dollars.4

Unlike other transnational charismatic civil religious movements emerging out of India, their following is

not confined to the Indian diaspora (Babb, 1987; Klass, 1991) but has expanded to include the middle classes of many different countries and cultures, what sociologist S. Srinivas calls an urban following (Srinivas, 2008). Devotees typically come from among the ‘urban alienates’ (Bharathi, 1962). They are usually welleducated, middle-class, professionals. Many, though not all, of the devotees interviewed were ‘cosmopolitan’ (Hannerz, 1992) well traveled, and knowledgeable about different cultures – a body unbound by territory. Their difference is additionally animated by being from different religions since Sathya Sai Baba insists on Sai devotees retaining the faith that they were born into, and adding Sai belief onto their existing religions. His followers claim that an uncritical love of God is the truest form of devotion, reinterpreting modern devotion to his sect as a seamless continuation of the bhakti devotional tradition of Hinduism. The Sai movement is not an elite phenomenon but it appeals broadly to the pragmatic, flexible, tech-

nocrats, who form a new global middle class characterized by their mobility and their affluence. Their common goal is to create a healthy union between body, spirit, and mind for themselves through forms of healing and self awareness. Devotees strive for a ‘better society’ defined as less poverty, cruelty, inequality, and other forms of repression (Srinivas, 2010) through seva (spiritual work). The modern Sai self is, what Castelli would call, a ‘de-centered self’ as ‘individuals become aware that

views of reality that place the individual at the center of reality are socially constructed,’ such as during the large scale socio-economic processes (Castelli in Wills, 2006: 903) of modern globalization. The ‘decentered self’ is unbounded but seeks to be bound as it is not capable of the mastery of the senses that leads to a moral self (Castelli in Wills, 2006: 903), a loss that is acutely felt both at the individual level of interiority and at the public exterior level of community and society, creating the ideal conditions for spiritual seeking, as Heelas and Woodhead have demonstrated so clearly (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005). What makes Sathya Sai Baba so different from other religious philosophers is an assertion of his divinity in his human form5 (Hawkins, 1999; Srinivas, 2010) – interpreted by some as a mystical presence but by others as divinity itself – typical for Godmen in the subcontinent. The Sai faith, which is seen by many as a sect of Neo-Hinduism, has acquired greater prominence

globally in the past three decades (Babb, 1983, 1987; Kent, 2004a, 2004b). To comprehend the experience of Sai devotion, it is central to understand the relationship between guru (teacher) and bhakta/sishya (believer student) – an interactional and ritual binding relationship. Devotees have claimed that Sai Baba is an avatara (incarnation) of God, instigating deeper devotion and obedience. The charismatic authority of Sai Baba is based on his being an embodiment of divine love (prema) and his embodied, magical, mystical powers (siddhi). Evidence such as magical healing through touch (sparshan) and look (darshan), materializations, and spiritual power occur in both public and among smaller private groups of devotees. Conflict ridden stories of Sai Baba’s demonstration of magical powers have grown along with his global following, but his devotees believe that these powers are evidence of his sacredness.6 Foucault suggests that power has two ‘functions’ – one, juridical where ‘obligations, oaths, commitments, and the law to bind’; on the other, power has a magical ‘function, role, and efficacy: power dazzles, and power petrifies’ (Foucault, 2003: 67-68) and as we see in the relationship between Sai Baba and his devotees both functions of power, juridical and magical, are demonstrated. When Sai Baba speaks of self control he does not merely speak of carnal sexual control, though that is

central to the experience, but also dietary, economic, and emotional control. For him the bodily and emotional control combine to form a ‘mindful’ self where serene authority and detachment is the goal (Srinivas, 2010). So in the Sai faith the body becomes a phenomenological arena in which the contest of faith, values, and attitudes, is enacted; or where the flesh ‘anchors’ the religious hermeneutic (Carrette in Baldwin, Fowler and Weller, 2007: 200) in the world but where the objective is to transcend the flesh. The Sai religious body, in common with the monastic Christian body, is posited as a ‘site of a cosmological battle between good and evil, with control over the flesh being the index of good’s victory’ (Carrette in Baldwin, Fowler and Weller, 2007: 200). Weber’s assertion (Weber, 1958: 323) that ‘Indian religiosity is the cradle for those religious ethics which have abnegated the world, theoretically, practically, and to the

greatest extent’ is matched by Uberoi’s statement that the renouncer (sannyasi) in Hinduism ‘severs all connection to the world’ (Uberoi, 1996: 324) in order to ‘pursue the individualist quest for liberation’ (moksha) (Copeman, 2006: 104) and holds true for Sai devotees as well. As Rudolph and Rudolph (2006) note about asceticism with regards to Gandhi’s embodied practices, the connection of ascetic practice to the internal world of self and to the external world of other is considered to be both complex and direct. Sai ascetics embrace ‘ascetic revisionism’ (Copeman, 2006: 103) whereby far from ‘seeking withdrawal form society they seek to serve it from within’ through self control. In fact as Parry clarifies (Parry, 1994: 252 in Copeman, 2006: 107) one of the accepted purposes of asceticism is to benefit the world and radiate outwards from the self for despite ‘being oriented to an escape from the world, it generates a power that can be put to use inside it’. To control the outside world one must first control ones inner self ‘testing it to its limits’ and this control leads to inner freedom (Copeman, 2006: 224). Thus salvific routes exist in ascetic proscriptions that aid the spiritual self to triumph over fleshly desire, and as Flood notes, is seen as an ‘internalizing of cosmological processes, a self directed enterprise of interiority’ (Flood, 2004: 11); an expanded understanding of the Csordasian body as a workable site for self creation7 through acquisition of ascetic skills towards ‘self-mastery’ (Valiani, 2010), where the body seeks self binding8 towards the goal of the self ultimately being unfettered. As Copeman delightfully and pertinently states, what is sought to be renounced here is the body itself (Copeman, 2006: 104, italics mine).