Tamil Nadu boasts of the largest number of spiritual magazines (around 70). Most of them are geared to exploit the vulnerability of their readers
Tamil Nadu boasts the highest number of spiritual magazines in India. At last count, the number of such magazines was hovering at around 70. What is common to all these magazines is dollops and dollops of free spiritual advice (new mantras being published every month) besides, of course, the ubiquitous astrological advice. Almost 25% of the state's population seems to look at astrology as a full-time career option.
Let us take a look at the typical content in such magazines. The cover story would be an enticing topic like-"How to ensure your ward's success in exams"- an annual feature during the months of March and April. Then there are a few think-pieces on hypothetical issues like whether LordRam did the right thing in banishing Seeta from Ayodhya-never mind if the issue has been discussed a zillion times before. Then there are pages after pages about new temples with the gratuitous mention at the end of each that "visiting these shrines will help the poor earn wealth, parents to get their daughters married, unemployed will get a job and the sick heal quickly". There is nothing wrong in publishing information about new and unknown temples but the unsubstantiated reason offered at the end to nudge people into visiting them is what rankles readers like me the most.
The less said about astrological forecasts offered by these publications the better. The predictions range from - "you will fight with your brother" or "mother's health needs attention" or attention getters like "please be careful with your boss" or "you will enter into a land dispute". Stuff like, "you will suffer from stomach ache and diarrhoea" is always a possibility in India and cuts across age and gender barriers!
Tamil TV channels telecast several programmes exclusively devoted to astrological forecasts. Jaya TV, the Tamil Nadu chief minister's channel tops the list. But this is a trend that cuts across Indian states and language barriers. For the past couple of months, many Hindi channels too have devoted their prime time coverage to a strange Nirmal Baba, some under the guise of exposing his hollow antics. In fact, several godmen and godwomen are prime time newsmakers on all regional channels.
The promotion is not restricted to advice. A magazine called "Kumudam Bhakti" used to supply 'holy' Ganga water along with its Diwali issue. Another magazine regularly sent out "tantras" to be kept in the pooja room with assurance that doing so would result in a flood of gold coins in one's home.
If you analyse a one-year collection of any of these astrological magazines, it becomes apparent that there is a simple formula to dishing out advice. Inject a bit of fear with regard to health, wealth and relationships and pander to greed by dangling the prospect of goodies. Who is going to cross-check anyway? It is like Vividh Bharati playing the same "Man Chahe" geet on a few Wednesdays without anyone noticing it. And who is to know whether a "Rekha, Madan, Rinku, Chinky and Pintoo" from Udhampur or jhumritalaiya have really requested a particular Hindi song? Does anyone know if the same predictions are repeated?
Most of astrologers give themselves titles like "Chakravarthy , "King of Astrologers", "Real Astrologer". I also learn that a new breed of people who have taken voluntary retirement from nationalised banks have found themselves a second career as astrologers. No wonder, India has no dearth of them.
There may be a few good astrologers but they are conspicuous by their absence. MR Ramarathnam, a retired professional, based in Chennai, says, "The real astrologers will never take money for predictions. Neither will they look at horoscopes after sunset". Gone are the days when astrological advice was given cautiously keeping the reading public in mind.
Sukumar Sakthivel approached a Tanjore-based astrologer who calls himself "the King of Mandreekam" (mandreekam is the Tamil word for sorcery). Within a week, he received a detailed letter from the astrologer telling him that his life was in danger and someone had performed black magic on him. Solution? "He advised me to send him a cheque for Rs39,000 immediately to perform a chandika homam that would help in warding off my enemies", says Sukumar. There was also a veiled threat that in case he did not do the pooja, his condition would worsen. Sukumar's spouse Sanyogita fired him for even approaching the astrologer. A week later, Sukumar and his family took off for a trip to Kerala (a kind of religious pilgrimage) and in the next three weeks, Sukumar landed a new job. He is doing fine now. I hope this incident serves as warning to those who spend money based on such advice.
A retired professional who wanted to build a temple for Lord Hanuman shared his experience with a local magazine. He started out by approaching an astrologer for "prasannam" (an astrological forecast using sea-conches and shells) and as shocked to be told that he wouldn't live to see the temple completed. While he was completely shattered, his wife rubbished the astrologer's predictions and gave him the confidence to continue his work. Twenty-seven years later, the gentleman is still alive and though his wife passed away two years ago, he can't thank her enough.
Ramarathnam adds, "The world today is characterized by an extreme avarice even in the religious community. Even temple priests do not perform the archanas religiously. Most of them are only after money. There is also an explanation that they offer that they also need to survive and so they need the money". Again, this is not restricted to Tamil Nadu. The greed and grasping behaviour of the pandas (priests) at the world famous Jagganath temple a Puri (Orissa) is often a culture shock for first time visitors, even if they have been warned. Nobody denies temple priests their legitimate dues, but can money be the only driving factor in a temple?
A Mumbai-based priest who performs poojas at film stars' homes was famous for demanding gold chains and gold rings to religious ceremonies. He is so glamorous that he even appeared in a television advertisement. Another Dombivli-based priest has extended his brand to offer catering services. In South Indian Brahmin families, there is a tradition of visiting the "kula deivam" (family deity) after a marriage in the family. The temples of the family deities located in small towns are seldom maintained well as none of the younger generation of Brahmins is willing to take up the job of a village priest.
The dwindling population of Tamil Brahmins in villages in Tamil Nadu (and even in cities) is posing a major challenge. Prior to visiting these temples, you have to keep the priest informed well in advance! Interestingly, most cities have an acute shortage of priests and pujaris because the next generation don't necessarily want to follow the family tradition or devote time, beyond their school work for the rigor involved in learning all the Sanskrit rituals and mantras by rote. This means the price of having a priest for rituals soars during major festivals or the wedding season. Most of priests have four-wheelers and two-wheelers and during major festivals, most religious activity has to be timed according to the appointment given by the busy priest for the puja and rituals. It is this shortage that has removed the taboo on women conducting religious rituals.
On the flip side, the new generation is far less religious or inclined to follow rituals like thread changing ceremonies or the "sandhya vandanam" or performing the gayatri japa regularly.
Nikhil Kelkar a retired professional says, "I follow the principle of Sadguru Wamanrao Pai (who passed away recently). Man can shape his destiny if he has the will". Mumbai based professional C Vaidyanathan, a logistics expert, believes that self-confidence is the key. He adds, "No problem is insurmountable if you have the will to face it head on. If you are part of the problem, then the solution lies with you".
Lastly, readers will do well to recall a short story written by Munshi Premchand. Look at his foresight! An angry housewife throws something at a cat which has entered her kitchen. The cat is dead. There is a furore in the house. The priest is summoned and he orders that a golden statue of cat is made and donated to him to seek salvation from the sin of the cat-hatya. Even as deliberations and negotiations are on with the priest, there is a shriek from the kitchen. The cat is not dead-it has run away!