The first time I heard the term ‘Yeshu baba’ was in Tihar jail.
I was not a prisoner – I was visiting along with a group of school-children who were performing a Christmas programme for about a thousand women inmates in Jail No. 6, Central Prison.
The children sang Christmas carols and the prisoners sang along. Afterwards, one of the inmates came up to the microphone and thanked the kids for their programme on the birth of ‘Yeshu Baba’.
The name struck me and stuck with me. I had heard Jesus Christ referred to as ‘Isa Masih’ or ‘Ishu Masih’ in Hindi before, of course. ‘Yeshu Baba’ sounded a lot more human and definitely a lot more familiar.
If you were to put a picture of (a non-crucified) Jesus next to one of a contemporary Indian baba, like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a casual observer might see little or no difference (except in height, in the case of Sri Sri, and hair colour in the case of Jaggi Vasudev.)
As I rode back from the jail that Christmas afternoon with a bus full of school kids, a question struck me and then lodged itself in my brain:
How would Yeshu Baba have fared in contemporary India, the very land of babas?
As someone constantly fascinated with the psychology of new religious movements, cults, godmen and their followers, I decided to read through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament which document the life of Jesus to try and find an answer to my question.
The conclusion I reached was that by contemporary standards, Yeshu Baba would have been a disaster as a contemporary Indian godman. In the following paragraphs I literally quote chapter and verse to undergird my hypothesis.
Relationship with the rich
Patronage by the wealthy is essential for any baba’s career, which is why most successful babas cultivate the rich assiduously. One should not hold it against them when they spend the majority of their time ministering to those with the means to fund their operations. It is good business sense to minister spiritually to those who can support you, and not waste too much time and energy on the poor masses. (The poor can find spiritual sustenance at large satsangs.)
Yeshu Baba, on the other hand, seemed to have no special favouritism for the rich. A passage from the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 10, verses 17 – 31) records a conversation that Yeshu had with “a rich young ruler” who wanted to follow him. In response,
Jesus … said to him, “There is one thing you lack: Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But the man was saddened by these words and went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth.…
“Sell everything you have and give to the poor?”
A modern day baba with a smidgen of common sense would have leveraged the rich young man’s wealth and used it to perhaps build another ashram. Not Yeshu, who, quite matter-of-factly, also pointed out the non-compatibility between wealth and spirituality:
“It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew, Chapter 10, verse 25)
Yeshu baba, it seems was also not big on place worship. When a woman tries to argue religion with him, (John Chapter 4, verses 19 – 21) he tells her,
“Woman, the hour has comes when those who worship God will worship neither in this temple nor on that mountain. God is a Spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
One is not surprised that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders of the day whose livelihood and way of life revolved around the primacy of the Great Temple at Jerusalem were not very happy with him. It goes without saying that Yeshu baba’s complete lack of concern for temples of worship would not have stood him in very good stead in modern India.
Relationship with women
Speaking of women, Yeshu stood with the marginalised woman of his day and far from ostracising them, treated them as equals, with respect and understanding in clear departure from the patriarchal traditions of his day. A classic example of this can be found in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John when the religious leaders of the day bring a woman caught in adultery, and throw her at his feet quoting ancient law at him,
“Moses said that such should be stoned to death. What do you say?”
And Yeshu responds by saying,
“He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
The Gospel of John continues,
“And one by one they dropped their stones and walked away and at last Jesus was left standing with the women. He then asked her, “Has no man condemned thee?” And she said, “No man.” To which he replied, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”
In a complete denigration of religious ritualism, Yeshu also advises his disciples to first make things right with each other before making offerings to the divine. How wonderful our world would be if, instead of hiding behind religion and rituals, human beings would first make things right with other humans beings. In chapters 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, he goes to town condemning the hypocrisy of religious leaders who do things for show and public acclaim and emphasises instead the need for quiet humility and service without show.
Pro-service, anti-ritualism; pro-poor, anti-elitism; pro-women; anti-patriarchalism; pro-freedom, anti-orthodoxy; Yeshu Baba’s career as a godman would have ended before it began.
Had he been around, he would have most probably found no traction at all with the rich, the powerful and the religious. He might, on the other hand, have found huge appeal amongst the marginalised, the feminists and the liberal.
Who’s to say, I might even have become one of his followers.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.
Published in arrangement with The Wire.