The media often refers to Rampal, Ramdev, and Asaram, as ‘self-styled’ saints, much to the irritation of their huge fan following. What other kind of saint is there? Perhaps the ‘registered’ saint, those acknowledged by an institution, such as the Church?
To be a saint, one not only needs to be holy (that can be disputed) but also have followers (that can be proved). It is the followers who usually declare a holy man/woman a saint, which may or may not be endorsed by an institution or the media. India’s had a long tradition of bhakti-poets and Sufi-poets such as Kabir and Mirabai, deemed saints, none of whom are registered. One can argue that unlike a popular saint, the self-styled saint takes commercial advantage of his fandom and popularity in his lifetime. The popular saint is poor, while the self-styled saint is rich. Somewhere in our minds we are convinced the rich cannot be saintly.
While Shia Islam of Persia does value the role of the holy man, the more orthodox Sunni Islam of Arabia rejects the idea that a human, however pious, can be worthy of reverence. Only Allah should be revered, no other. Koran speaks of prophets, the last of whom is Muhammad, but no saints. Sunnis consider visiting dargahs, the tombs of these saints, as haram, sinful. This is a cause of tension, further complicated by the fact that in India, many Hindus have no problem going to dargahs of holy men commonly addressed as Pirs.
Recently two Indian saints from Kerala, who lived in the 19th century, were canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.
What makes this interesting is the process by which they were declared saints: A meticulous process which involves documentation, testimonies, arguments, evidence and voting; a team set up to investigate and confirm facts related to beliefs, miracles, charity, and heroism of the saint-to-be; a Devil’s advocate who challenges the information presented. Eventually, the saint-to-be is first elevated to the position of venerated, then beatified and finally canonised. If it all sounds very corporate, we must remind ourselves that modern management has strong roots in the Church, which based itself on the discipline of the Roman Army. Church began this process in the 13th century to prevent just anyone from being declared a saint. Non-institutional religions like Hinduism are at a disadvantage as there is no registration authority to register a saint. While many radicals want to institutionalise Hinduism, it goes against the spirit of Hinduism.
Before Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the 3rd century, all Christians who were killed on account of being Christian were declared martyrs and then saints. No one bothered to check facts. Thus we have the story of St Barlaam and St Josaphat. There was a king in India who persecuted Christians. Astrologers predicted that his son, Josaphat, would become Christian. So the father kept his son locked from external influences. Still the son met the Christian hermit, Barlaam, and converted to Christianity and stayed true to the faith despite his father’s opposition.
Eventually the father converted to Christianity, gave the throne to his son, who, after a successful reign, abdicated and retired into seclusion with his old teacher. Modern researchers have traced this story of the Christian martyr saint to the Buddha!