BANGALORE - Silicon Valley is a silly name for this city located on the Deccan Plateau at an altitude of 3,000 feet. Even Indians have forgotten that Bangalore was once called the Garden City, and one is reminded of Kathmandu's lost charms as you go around this city recalling that it really used to be a cool and green garden. All that is history now.
Today there are silicon boys around who earn obscene salaries as Bill Gate's cyber coolies, but for everyone else in India and beyond Bangalore is better known as the gateway to Sai Baba. A holy man (or, as the Indian media likes to label them, a "god-man") who considers himself an incarnation of a Sufi saint from Maharastra, this Sai Baba is 75 years young, has an afro hairdo and commands a following of millions all over the world many of whom make a pilgrimage to his ashram at Whitefields, about 25 km outside Bangalore.
Sai Baba is of course suddenly in the news after a rather negative expose of his sexual escapades in a British paper, picked up in a cover story earlier this month by the mass circulation India Today. There is obviously more to the cult of Sai Baba than sacred ash materialising out of thin air and actually falling off his photographic portraits and images. The Sai Baba phenomenon, like the Falung Gong or Christian evangelical sects in North America, is all about keeping the faith in the times of deep disillusionment: the realisation that consumerism, materialism, and the pursuit of wealth does not always bring happiness. Religion may be the opium of the masses, but it addresses the emptiness inside.
Back in 1973, Whitefield was a sleepy suburb of a backwater town called Bangalore. Sai Baba was not a rage then as he is now, and you could quite easily get close to him. Today, the inner sanctum is surrounded by a huge wall where devotees gather and sing bhajans in praise of the Baba. Brindavanam, as the place is now called, is abuzz with activity. Sai Baba himself sits majestically on a high-backed, throne-like gilded chair placed on an elevated platform. Faithfuls squat in rows, gazing wide-eyed at the Baba's face as if in a trance. The atmosphere is magical during morning and evening bhajans. That over, you can buy yourself a cup of coffee or Pepsi from the Ashram shop and walk around observing subcontinentals, orientals, Anglo-Saxons and even Africans mingling in the vast lawns-a rainbow coalition of devotees.
I was there on Friday, and among the devotees was a sizeable group from Nepal including Swami Anand Arun, the Oshoite who runs South Asia's most popular meditation destination at Nagarjun in Kathmandu Valley. The Baba has quite a following in Nepal, even among the high and mighty. (Finance and Defence Minister Mahesh Acharya and Rastra Bank governor Dipendra Purush Dhakal are devout Sai Baba followers.) There are Sai Baba temples sprouting in several Kathmandu neighbourhoods. And instead of increasing flights to Bangkok, Royal Nepal Airlines in October started a new link to Bangalore: it seems pilgrim traffic is more lucrative than casino traffic.
Outside Brindavanam are trinket-shops festooned with portraits of Sai Baba invariably with an aura, halo or rays of light emanating from behind his head. The posters sell for many times more than the cost of a comparable one of Madhuri Dixit. There is no doubt who is god around here. And like in all holy places in the subcontinent, honesty and fair play has not trickled down to the level of the auto-rickshaw drivers who behave like vultures. My driver was comparatively honest and offered to throw in a tour of the Technological Park of Silicon Plateau for free if I chartered his vehicle. There are a few pragmatic fellows in Holy Land.
You do not have to be a devotee of Sai Baba to see that he does perform a function in globalised free market world that has lost a sense of direction, is suffering ecological meltdown and where spiritual solace is hard to come by. For the same reason that the Ramayana and Mahabharata have become popular TV serials, a procession of god-men command large followings. Irony, isn't it, that television serials that have the highest ratings tap into this spiritual longing, and the channels rake in billions through commercials. Nothing like peddling the opium of the masses to amass wealth.
So, the new rich build their villas with driveways supported by Corinthian columns and with lavish lavatories. The puja room is an afterthought. And as you get on in life, and your heart gives its first hiccup, you come to a realisation that someday soon you have to leave it all and continue on your journey to eternity. An irony of our times that even in the most crowded of our cities, the only place that you can have completely to yourself is inside a toilet. There is so much loneliness all around, but no solitude. And as we ruminate there we realise how quickly we rot, how transitory it all is.
Traditional family structures are crumbling. In our nuclear subcontinent, extended clans are being replaced by nuclear families. Bangalore has the dubious distinction of having a Non-resident Indians' Parents Association (NRIPA). Can you get any more lonely than that? If you don't have a straw to hang on to you can easily go mad. But don't panic, help is at hand. There is always a magician-turned-cult guru who will market salvation. Sai Baba at least runs schools and hospitals from his earnings, and does not ask you to burn schools as they do in United States or poison subways as they do in Japan.
Devotees at Brindavanam have middle-class frustration writ large over their faces. There may be some who have no one else to turn to. There may be others who suffer terminal ailments. Here they have found what many of us have lost-innocence. Even in these hard and cynical times, it is a moving experience to see people can find faith. Walking around, I soon felt like an intruder in this assemblage of faithful. Was I the only one who didn't come here looking for a spiritual placebo? In the autorickshaw, puttering back to the cyberdhabas of Bangalore I couldn't help thinking about what would happen when the Osho departs. Despite his enigmatic epitaph: "Never born, never dead" perhaps the Sai Baba cult will also fade, just as you don't see Rajneesh lockets in Kathmandu these days. But you can be sure there will be another engineer of human souls to take his place.