The phenomenon of God is probably the most complex one in the World. For believers there is a range of belief system about the supernatural powers. For agnostics it is ‘I don’t know’ and for atheists there is no supernatural power. The systems of thought relevant to the topic range from Animists (nature worshippers), polytheists (multiple gods/goddesses), tri-theists (Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh or Father, Son and the Holy spirit), Monotheists (single Universal God) to Atheists. In the concept of God we have ‘god as a physical being’ to formless the God. Adivasis are animists, worshipping the nature and spirits of their ancestors. In different religions the concept is very different, including the fact that some religions do not have the concept of God like Buddhism and Jainism. Polytheism prevailed in Greek society, with different Gods and Goddesses endowed with special virtues. Ancient Aryans also had polytheism, with multitude of Gods and Goddesses looking after different virtues and aspects of the life on Earth. We have a Goddess each for wealth (Laxmi) knowledge (Sarswati) and Power (Durga) We also have a God each for lightening (Indra) air (Marut) sex (Kamdevta) liquor (Som devta) amongst the plethora of the divine powers. Hindu mythology is a rainbow exposition of the diversity and complexity of the lives of Gods and Goddesses.
There is no fixed timeline of the phenomenon of God. Diverse concepts begin in different time periods. From animism, the most ancient concept to polytheism-monotheism and atheism come up over a period of time but not in a sequential fashion. Simultaneously, there come up the traditions of Charvak, Buddhism and Jainism which either do not talk about God or deny the existence of God. While today the prophet based religions like Christianity and Islam have a definitive concept, the Hindu religion has plethora of divine powers, Hinduism also has assimilated the diverse concepts, which merrily co-exist. That’s how in my childhood while reciting Hanuman Chalisa and reading Ramayan, (Lord Ram) I could reverentially go through the text of Mahabharata, with many Gods playing their different interesting roles. My family-community, worshipped Banyan tree on one hand and on the other had parallel worship of bullocks, of snakes and what have you. I vividly remember taking the wooden bullocks to neighbors and getting some sweets or small change as a reward. Every Saturday, mendicants with a vessel filled with oil used to come and my grandfather used to slip some coins in to the vessel, while at the same time performing the puja of Lord Ram.
Last three decades in particular while on one hand one saw the plethora of Godmen like Mahesh Yogi, Rajneesh, J.Krishnamurthy, Asaram Bapu, Satya Sai baba (Bhagwan) coming to the fore, the popularity of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Mata Vaishno Devi has gone up exponentially. Bhagwan Satya Sai, who died few years ago, had vast following and he was regarded as the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai baba. At the same time Shirdi Sai pilgrimage became very popular and his temples came up in most cities. Sai Baba of Shirdi has a beautiful syncretic background. While he was born in a Muslim family he came up more in Sufi tradition and intermingled with equal affection amongst Hindus as well as Muslims. His major focus was bringing Hindus and Muslims together. One major landmark in his life will give the essence of his efforts. In 1896 he instituted the annual Sufi ‘urs' festival with the explicit purpose of bringing these two communities together. In 1912 he combined this Urs with Hindu Ram navami festival. This effort of his strengthened his Sufi initiative of co-operation, symbiosis and tolerance. During the festival Hindus would worship in the mosque along with Muslims, each community following their own rituals. The Baba would put the sandalwood paste on the forehead of Mlahspati, the priest of local Khandoba temple, who in turn would reciprocate the gesture. Baba was deeply steeped in humanism, the core of all religions, and so initially Muslims as well as Hindus started respecting him.
By and by more and more of Hindus started worshipping him and today he is more of a Hindu deity than a Muslim one. In Hinduism as such there is a scope for new Gods and Goddesses also (e.g. Santoshi Ma, Satyanarayan). Apart from Sai Baba; Swami Parmhans is another one who has been raised to the level of divinity, and his more famous disciple Swami Vivekananda, also started a mission in his name.
The controversy around worshipping of Sai Baba was raised by Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand (June 2014) who described Shirdi Sai baba as a Muslim ascetic, and proclaimed that he cannot be worshipped like a Hindu deity. He also said that his campaign is to protect the Hindu religion and that he will continue irrespective. Sadhvi Uma bharti currently Union Minister of Water Resources, who was one of the prominent figures in Ram Temple agitation, leading to demolition of Babri masjid and deepening the communal divides, is also worshipper of Sai baba. In a letter to Swami Swaroopanand she explained the rationale behind her statement where she had said that looking upon someone as a god was people's personal choice.
While Sai Baba has been accepted as God by large sections of Hindus, it is probably for the first time that someone, Shankaracharya, has objected to this popular trend. As such Hinduism is a collation of multiple traditions. The clerical Brahminical tradition to which Shankracharya belongs is rigid and orthodox, while the other traditions of Nath, Tantra, Siddhanta and Bhakti are more flexible and adapt to the situation very easily. The Hindu practices have evolved continuously. On one hand the clerical ones emphasize on the status quo, the non Brahminical traditions have flexibility and fluidity. It will require a deeper study to understand as to why the worship of Jai Mata Di, Sai Baba, Santoshi Maa has become more popular during last few decades, surely it is part of broader inclusive Hindu practice as well. One needs to realize that the religious practices of different religions are not uniform. Even in the Universal, Prophet based religions; there are sects, Catholic-Protestants, Shia-Sunni, Hinayan-Mahayan, Digambar-Shetambar, to name the few. The orthodox versions of religions have been used as the base of politics within every religion. South Asia is today in the grip of rising religiosity on the one hand and growing assertion of politics in the name of religion on the other. The more conservative orthodox versions are picked up for political abuse, Wahabi version from Islam, Brahminical version from Hinduism, and similar conservative version from Buddhism in Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand in particular.
People should be left to their own wisdom and choice in matters of the faith. Imposing, asserting a particular version from the interpretation of the texts does complicate the matters and creates strife, the way the controversy raised by Shankaracharya is doing.
While on the topic of God, recently a book has come out, “Why Atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky” written by Nigel Barber. This book predicts that religions, believers, will become a minority Vis a Vis the practice of secularism in the decade of 2040s. This book relates the rise/fall of the religion with economic power and makes an observation that atheists are much more in number in developed countries. This book is based on the study of 137 nations conducted by the author who concludes that in the countries; more developed the welfare system; higher is the number of atheists. The book’s crunch line is, in countries where distribution of income is even, lesser is the number of religious people. The author is a prominent psychologist. He makes a prediction that people will feel lesser need of supernatural beliefs when the tangible world is providing them for their real needs. Also in a survey conducted in America 20% people identified themselves as Atheists.
While we wait for the realisability of such prediction, we should respect the people’s choices about their faith, this is a message loud and clear given by the followers of Sai baba in response to what Shankaracharya said.