Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Religious leadership and authority in India derive from a number of important factors. Certainly there is the issue of birth; most religious leaders in Hinduism are Brahmins. Gurus, who are usually Brahmins, attain their status through their knowledge of sacred texts and rituals, which they pass on to their students. Religious authority can also come from the actions one performs in one's life. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was certainly a learned man, but his religious leadership came not from his knowledge of the sacred texts, but from his actions. It was his moral example that led people to follow him.
Some figures who are regarded by their followers as living gods attain that status through particularly auspicious, even miraculous acts. Chaitanya, the 15th-century Krishna devotee, has been elevated to the status of sainthood through his intense devotion to Krishna. He has for centuries been held up as the model of bhakti, loving devotion to the god. Likewise, Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali saint, is regarded by his followers as a saint because of his intense devotion and exemplary meditation, as well as the actual content of his spiritual message.
Such figures, and countless others, become holy in part through the devotion of their followers. They become divine because they are regarded as divine. There are temples throughout India dedicated to such figures, some of them quite famous and known throughout India and abroad, others only known in a particular town or village. Mata Amritanandamay Devi (b. 1953), known to her followers as "Amma," mother, and famous outside of India as the "hugging saint"—she is the subject of the 2005 documentary film Darshan: The Embrace—is a contemporary example of a person who becomes a religious leader, a saint in the eyes of her millions of devotees, through a combination of her acts on earth and the love and devotion shown by her followers. She offers daily darshan to her followers and hugs each one in a warm embrace. Some reports say she has hugged over 25 million people in the course of the last thirty-five years. Furthermore, she has sponsored a number of prominent social causes, thus further elevating her divine status in the eyes of her followers.
1. Who are the Brahmins?
2. How do gurus differ from Brahmins?
3. How could a Hindu become a saint?