Beyond Easy Blame: Understanding the Tragedy of the Satsang Stampede

TK Arun

When 2.5 lakh people scramble to grab some particles of the dust kicked up by a departing godman’s car, it offers a telling commentary on the state of society.

They came to the Satsang (religious gathering) for salvation and enlightenment, and got stomped and crushed, many of them to death. Many blame the Baba, the godman who led the Satsang, and are baying for his blood. Others blame the Baba’s organisers, who underestimated the size of the crowd that would gather to hear his wise words. They expected 85,000, and nearly three times as many turned up. Yet others blame the police, for not turning out in large enough numbers to maintain order.

All of them miss the point. When 2.5 lakh people scramble to grab some particles, at least, of the dust kicked up by a departing godman’s car, and 121 of them die in the resulting crush, it offers a telling commentary on the state of society. Poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity hold large swathes of India’s population in their vile grip, and suck their innate rationality and human agency out of them, reducing them to a malleable, torpid herd, conditioned to repose facile faith in any self-accredited retail salesman of divinity.

The only affordable painkiller

India is justifiably proud of the progress it has been making. Poverty, we are told, has come down from over a fifth of the population in 2011-12 to less than a tenth today. But the misery that people feel seems to have come down not a whit. The demand for the salve of religion grows in inverse proportion to the degree of material well-being. The more people suffer in this life, the greater the attraction of salvation in the hereafter.

Many people misinterpret Karl Marx’s observation that religion is the opiate of the masses. They believe that he was criticizing religion of serving as an intoxicant, a mind-altering substance, on a par with marijuana or cocaine. Stalin is also guilty of such obfuscation.

What Marx meant was that religion served as an anaesthetic, the only affordable painkiller for the bulk of the suffering humanity. This is made clear by the lines that follow his assertion that religion is the opiate of the masses: “It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.”

Marxists vs rationalists

The social conditions that make the painkiller of religion necessary are, in Marx’s view, ultimately to blame for the masses’ misguided attachment to religion. This is where Marxists differ from rationalists. Rationalists focus on critiquing religion as religion and expect people to shed this bit of irrationality, as a result of the resultant enlightenment. Marxists focus on changing society, so that people live better lives, moving ever closer to the ideal of reaching a twofold equilibrium, the individual with society and human society, with nature. As they progress towards this equilibrium, people grow increasingly free from the enchantment of religion.

Considering that even popular leaders have to pay people to assemble at their political rallies, the Baba’s ability to attract listeners by the lakh is impressive. We are not privy to what he preaches to his followers.

But, considering that people were dying, literally, to grab hold of a speck of dust that has made even indirect contact with the Baba, by being churned by his car’s wheels, it seems unlikely that he was giving his listeners greater self-awareness and spiritual agency by, for example, expounding on the meaning of tattvamasi (tad tvam asi or that thou art, the aphorism through which a learned father tries to explain to his son that Atman, the indivisible unity of the creator and the creation, is something to be found in everything animate and inanimate).

Stunted bodies and stunted brains

Persistent, involuntary material deprivation is fertile soil for spiritual emaciation as well. All kinds of imposters take advantage of this vulnerability. Stunted bodies and straitened lives lead to stunted brains and a developed appetite for otherworldly deliverance. Rickets and faith in overnight godmen probably go hand in hand.

This is the bitter truth. To blame entrepreneurs in piety, their disciples, and the police is easy. To take action against these actors is easy — they can be identified, arrested, and subjected to the full force of prosecutorial might, with relative dispatch, and once the public outcry has died down and television crews have shifted their attention to the next atrocity, the multiple loopholes built into the judicial process can be trusted to let them off the hook, so that they can continue to tend to the souls of the subaltern in their own profitable fashion.

To actually end poverty and ignorance and disease and the inequality of opportunity is hard work. It is far safer to not draw attention to these longstanding blights of society, even if the fault lies with them for the proliferation of godmen, and the misfortunes that befall those who place their faith in them.

Let us blame those whom it is easy to blame. But let us also acknowledge the fault lines in society.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as Let’s not just blame the easy targets for the stampede deaths at satsang on July 3, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.