Before the release of a Rajinikanth film, the fans of Thalaiva — translated in English as ‘the head of people’ — perform certain rituals. The 150-ft cutouts of Rajini’s film posters are washed with milk and garlanded, and an offering of a coconut split in two is made. This ritual, called Abhisheka, is usually performed by Hindus for their gods in temples.
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Everywhere around the theater, extreme respect, nay devotion, is demanded of everyone present there. Anyone who even comes close to disrespecting Thalaiva finds themselves at great risk. The magnitude of punishment varies between a serious verbal onslaught to a proper beating by a mob of fans who won’t hold back.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Crazier forms of hero worship can be seen in India. For instance, actors like Rajinikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and Khushboo and political figures like Sonia Gandhi and M.G. Ramachandran have had temples built in their name. Regular aartis are performed for these heroes for the sake of their prosperity and well-being.
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When Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, was recovering from a near-fatal accident, prayers were offered by fans across the country. Among these fans was a woman who went to the extent of observing roza (fast) throughout the time that Bachchan was in the hospital and offered namaaz five times a day as a prayer for his recovery.
Why Hero Worship is prevalent in India
Providing exact reasons for hero worship in India is challenging, as no real study has concluded anything substantial or concrete. But it can roughly be attributed to a complex combination of factors.
Worship during Childhood
As kids growing up in India, we’re taught to worship gods or god-like figures. The teachings begin with mythology, where we’re introduced to characters like Ram, Sita, and Laxman from Ramayan and the Panch Pandavas and Krishna from Mahabharat. The stories bathe these characters in reverence and devotion, and our parents, grandparents and relatives, ferverently believe in these gods and worship them. Children growing up in such households pick up these mannerisms from their families.
Somewhere during a child’s pre-teenage to teenage years, they get introduced to god-like figures in Bollywood. They see actors on screen, punching all the bad guys in their face, loving someone wholeheartedly, being funny and leaving everyone in splits, being morally correct even in the most trying of times, and most importantly, being loved by everyone (except the bad guys).
On seeing this, children begin to think of actors as perfect human beings and as role models for life. And then as time passes, this habit grows into hero worship. It’s not then hard to understand why, actors like Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Madhuri Dixit are so revered around the country and have a massive fan base who’ve started admiring them since they were kids.
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Bollywood is not, however, the only platform for hero worship. There’s politics, too, but perhaps a more popular gateway for hero worship in childhood is cricket. It’s not without reason that Sachin was considered the god of cricket for as long as he played. The kids who saw him bat never forgot what a champion batsman he was – and will always worship him for it. Now, new cricketing heroes like Dhoni and Kohli are at the receiving end of hero worship.
Symbols give us Strength
Why is Batman such an enduring character for kids and adults alike? Because he stands for something bigger than himself. He’s perceived as the protector, as an example of integrity and honor, as a man of extraordinary strength, and despite the hardest battles, triumphs at the end. We perceive our heroes from Bollywood, cricket, literature, politics in the same way — as symbols. They stand for an idea bigger than themselves and the masses connect with that idea.
Take the case of Salman Khan. He’s powerful and generous. This matters to the regular person in India because people in our country are too used to getting pushed around by those stronger than them. They’re also used to not receiving help in critical times. So the idea of Salman Khan gives them that much-needed hope, as they see someone being the hero they’d love to be in real life.
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You can see the same pattern in the case of other celebrities, too. Rajinikanth, for instance, had a humble beginning. He worked as a carpenter, coolie and bus conductor, struggling massively during this time, before rising to fame as the most successful and revered of South Indian actors. His presence, both on screen and off screen, reminds people that they too can have such a rags-to-riches story. He also makes them feel like he’s one of them. That he’s not had a silver spoon growing up and he’s fought his way up. This inspires people.
The Utter Hopelessness
One cannot discount the fact that India’s massive divide plays a role too. A certain section of the society can afford to live in a posh apartment, drive around town in a luxury car and eat at a fancy restaurant, while the rest — the large majority — can barely afford to pay the rent for their tiny one-room houses. The hopelessness of this situation is clearly felt everywhere across the country.
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In this context, a hero’s good deeds, even if they’re only on screen or on the field, comes across as a wind of inspiration.
It’s for this same reason that a Sachin century has always lifted India’s spirits, why millions of people still wait with bated breath for a Salman Khan film to see him bash up the bad guy and get the girl, and why Jayalalithaa is such a revered figure in Indian politics, more so in the South. In their seemingly hopeless situation they find hope in their hero’s deeds.
Why Hero Worship is a Problem
In an interview with Outlook magazine, Kapil Dev quite accurately assessed the hero worship situation in India.
“Hero worship in India is too big. It is both right and wrong. It is fair to respect people who have done things that others haven’t, but it is not right to treat them as gods.”
The problem with hero worship is that it usually translates to having blind faith in a person and treating them as a superior being. This attitude is regressive, as it discriminates between people and renders the majority less important and hopeless.
If someone thinks they can never be like their hero, why would they even try? This is unfortunate since each and everyone of us can be a hero – but only a few choose to be.
The dangers of hero worship in the political sphere are severe. B.R. Ambedkar possibly realized this back in the day after India received its independence, as he articulated this idea in a speech he gave to the Constituent Assembly of India on November 25, 1949.
“In India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Ambedkar probably realized the kind of blind faith people had in leaders like Gandhi and Nehru and realized that it could hurt the country tremendously; in extreme cases, he said could eventually lead to dictatorship.
Now, 68 years later, we still face this problem. Many political leaders in our country are revered and, therefore, repeatedly voted to power. This is detrimental to society, especially in a democracy, where a handful of votes can make a difference. A more open-minded and critical electorate can help elect better leaders and build a better India. But for that, we would need to have the courage to be heroes themselves.
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Let’s not forget that hero worship also keeps us locked down in a pathetic state, where we expect a hero to save us. This tendency has been observed in Indian cricket for years. For close to 24 years, India expected Sachin to bail them out of every tricky situation. If he happened to fail at critical junctures, the team would find itself in hopeless situations and we would, more often than not, lose the game.
This same idea could be extended to everyday life. We are infuriated at being thrown around in the car because of potholes but always expect someone else to stand up and take action. We see a woman being eve-teased right before our eyes on the road but wait for someone else to get their hands dirty. The need for a hero, rather than be one yourself, is troubling.
So then, why not be a hero yourself?
Instead of worshipping heroes, what if we instead looked at heroes as a source of inspiration and wisdom? What if we thought of them more as role models than as god-like figures? We’d be able to produce so many more heroes that way. You and I could be heroes, and it’s only possible if we start believing more in ourselves rather than sit idly and worship others.
While taking inspiration from heroes like Narendra Modi and Shah Rukh Khan, learning to overcome life’s challenges from their stories, and respecting them for their achievements is essential, putting them on a pedestal and treating them like gods is not just unnecessary – but in many ways detrimental. It distances us from our heroes; when in fact, we should be looking to close the gap and learn to be a hero ourselves.