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Moses, apart from getting Divine Law to his people, united quarrelsome slave bands to a promised land and made them a fighting nation. Jesus not only taught the principles of faith, hope and charity; he lethally challenged the imperial status of Rome by declaring God to be the only true monarch and the eternal kingdom of Heaven to reside in the hearts of the faithful. Mohammed did not only start a new religion; as an astute military commander he conquered the Arabic lands and united barbaric tribes and gave at Mecca a center to their nomadic life, preparing the way for Islamic expansion.

Each of the major religions of the world, including those that today have a reduced populace such as Zoroastrianism, and with the noteworthy exception of Hinduism, has a solitary charismatic prime mover. Doctrinaire rigidity which was often never intended by the progenitor serves to dilute the effectiveness of this religion; this might well be considered a dangerous adverse effect of religious charisma.

Marxists, Darwinians, and acolytes of many other original path breaking thinkers, all have a code of allegiance not unlike Pentecostals and other rigid religious sects.

From Humble Beginnings

In our own country, there was probably no greater charismatic religious leader than Adi Shankara, who sought sanyasa at a very tender age, traversed the country with fervor, looking for enlightenment. After his initiation by a Guru on the banks of the Narmada, he pursued the spread of Advaita philosophy with truly missionary zeal. His charisma was strengthened by his quick-witted linguistic and poetic skills, firmness of faith, and argumentative excellence. The Periyapuranam describes the lives of over 60 ancient Shaivite saints of the Tamil lands, many of them profoundly charismatic.

This became the first source of inspiration for a rather unusual saint of our times, Ramana Mahrshi. Ramana was uncommon, for his charisma like his ascetic practice, was primarily silent! His silence much more than his discourses stilled thousands of troubled minds and converted the doubting visitor, novelist W. Somerset Maugham, to believing in spiritual salvation. Basava's iconoclasm in fighting sectarianism and meaningless ritual, as well as his prudence, gained him a mammoth following. Madhavacharya, Purandara Dasa, Kanaka Dasa, Raghavendraswamy, are other magnetic religious leaders of this land, their charisma reinforced in some instances by a talent for music.

In more recent times there have been many claimant avatars and gurus but a few like Ramana have never sought to draw crowds, but have never turned a seeker, whether of immediate materialistic relief, or of long-term salvation, away. The mendicant Sai Baba of Shirdi, shunned luxury and in many ways emulated his role model, the charismatic Sant Kabir. In contrast, many swamis and gurus of today profess a notable charisma but cater largely to a privileged clientele, basking in the luxury of palaces of marble and glass, limousines and velvet covered thrones.


Some became obsessive collectors of precious stones and designer vehicles! There are hugging saints and unwinding saints, literally breath holding gurus, saviors who are joggers and motorcyclists, each with an impressive following. Mother Theresa lived the life of a true saint, though to this day she has her detractors. Her piety, as much as her courageous bonding with the diseased and downtrodden, her unpretentious commonsense advice to those who sought it, rendered her a unique place in the hearts of millions.

Her story reminds one of a great charismatic, St Damien, patron saint of leprosy, who worked tirelessly among sufferers of this disease. The term charisma itself was largely restricted to the ability to perform miracles by divine intervention, among Christians, especially Roman Catholics, till Weber widened its scope. Most saints are charismatic pacifists.

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More militant saints who were religious zealots, politically driven by a sense of justice, or more appropriately, a need to undo injustice, include the charismatic Ramdas Swami, Shivaji's guru, and the ruthless devout charmer, wielding the sword to defend his faith, to stop the evil of forced conversion, Guru Govind Singh. It is worth noting that early parental demise is a marked turning point in the lives of very many saints. Other traumata, both personal and vicarious have also been known to accentuate or even engender their turning to spirituality.

Political charisma, even in democratic states that separate governance from the church, retains many features of traditional religious charisma.

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The background, inner life, and psychology of many political charismatics resemble those of religious leaders and saints. There are important differences, though. Great religious leaders are believed in long after their deaths; and as Aberbach observes, when the matter of faith enters the comparison, it throws into relief the erosion of charisma in modern political life.

Gauging the impact of such leaders is a daunting task. One approach is to imagine the course of history if the opposite had happened, thereby excluding the leader at a crucial temporal stage. If Robespierre had been executed a half decade earlier in the French revolution; if Hitler's covertly conspiring officers had indeed blown him up.

The Philippine Revolution, by Apolinario Mabini

Many of these leaders have very ordinary lives and circumstances seem to conspire to bring them to the fore: George Washington, a quiet planter was transformed into a continental commander. The most grossly underestimated of modern charismatics, arguably, was Adolf Hitler. Like a prominent minister in our country, now back on the track of fortune, Hitler was once dismissed as a ridiculous clown. The main attribute that drove him to awe inspiring greatness was his fanatical racist conviction.

Perceptions are more important than reality. Great political charismatic leaders have an abiding conviction that destiny has chosen them for a heroic mission. Garibaldi believed in his destiny to triumph, and this firm belief engendered his fearless fighting and power to inspire people. Often the mission begins with a crisis; the charismatic leader rises from the ordinary to determinedly fulfill a destined role. Napoleon might have remained an obscure officer with a limited command but for the crisis that brought him to power.

His adversary remarked that Napoleon's presence on the battleground was worth forty thousand men; but what if there had been no war? Sometimes, aspirant leaders welcome, or even create crisis.

Charisma: The phenomenon and its psychology: A mental health perspective

Indira Gandhi, piqued at being perceived as a puppet prime minister doing the bidding of wizened power hungry men, seized the opportunity to show them the door when the opportunity arose three years into her premiership. It was after this that the charismatic, self-assured, shrewd Indira emerged. Franklin Roosevelt, crippled by polio in at the politically young age of thirty-nine, spent his last twenty-four years without the use of his lower limbs.

His record of service before his illness was not impressive and he was perceived as being, vain self-serving and arrogant. Seldom have the effects of adversity been sweeter. Rising above the defeats of health and reputation, he fought back and was transformed into a man of vast spiritual vigor from an unethical politician.

The climax was his being elected to the White House while the country was forlorn in crises. Today Roosevelt, once dismissed as corrupt and unfit, is rated as the greatest President ever of the USA. The erstwhile seat of the World's widest and most prosperous empire had been reduced to a second-rate power. Criticized for her blatant capitalism and no-nonsense handling of labor precipitated crises, Thatcher remained undaunted, leading the country from strength to strength and remaining in power an unprecedented tenure of eleven years.

Thatcher's charisma was widely respected but she was largely a lonely person, often the price of greatness.

Cuts of Arrival Ceremony for President Marcos of the Philippines in September 16, 1982

In studying charismatic politicians, Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, John Kennedy, Ferdinand Marcos, Gamal Abdel Nasser, all present fascinating lives where the yearning for public approval at least in some measure springs from unrequited love, significant privations or trauma in childhood or adolescence. Ruthlessness is an accompaniment of charisma in most political leaders, all the more so in those from totalitarian states.

Wisdom does not necessarily bestow charisma. Gandhi's political guru, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, was not charismatic though he was brilliant and sagacious. On the other hand, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, senior in age to both Gokhale and Gandhi, and ideologically their opponent within the Congress party, favoring militant nationalism, was an orthodox Brahmin, astute and acerbic writer and editor, and gained charisma across caste barriers, which at that time was unique. A worthy successor of Tilak's kind of charisma was the legendary Subhash Chandra Bose, removed prematurely from the Congress by the ruses of Gandhi, and removed from greater historical glory by fate.

There has recently been a comparison of the two great political charismatics: Gandhi and Churchill. His poor behavior at boarding school may have resulted from the misery of his abandonment of sorts, and the failure of his parents to respond to the young lad's repeated pleas to visit him at school.

Belligerent and hostile, Winston was much admired for his linguistic, military and strategic skills, even his cussed bravery, but liked he was not. There were other facets of his personal life that had shaped young Winston's sense of both frustration and defiance and finally the latter came to his rescue. Mohandas Gandhi was a determined fighter who was also determinedly weaponless in the military sense. Armed with moral righteousness and seeking but equal respect for all humans, he resorted to the enforcement of truth as a stratagem.

In his early fights, Gandhi showed the spirit of Buddha and Christ could be applied in modern times.

Messianic stances of political leaders do render them quasi-religious. This can sometimes be at a grossly physical level. The Russian priest Rasputin, and the Italian Garibaldi may have sought to resemble Jesus Christ physiognomically, consciously or otherwise. Interestingly, Savarkar and his follower Nathuram Godse, ideological opponents of the Mahatma, enjoy a charismatic following even today that we hardly can speak of, which I personally witnessed very recently.

Each became a unique charismatic leader in his own right, not entirely due to this influence of course. There is a phenomenon of the passing of the power baton to chosen family heirs in politics. In a culture of sycophancy and ingratiation, it is common to witness even the charisma being bequeathed to the successors. In India, the story of the Nehru-Gandhis is well known and a continuing saga.

Benazir Bhutto inherited her father's legacy with charisma and aplomb. In the Phillipines, the widows of Ferdinand Marcos and his sore opponent, the assassinated Benito Aquino, could not hold on to power, clearly shorn of charisma. Martyrdom in politics, as in other fields, seems to enhance the lingering charisma of the deceased.

The effects of modern media, especially the electronic, and now the digitalized variety have totally enlarged the possibilities and meanings of charisma. As soon as a medium makes its appearance, it is adapted to become a conveyor of charisma. In the late s, radio and the newsreel, with commercial air travel- all new developments- were used with diabolical effectiveness by Hitler in his election campaign. The effect of television reached a new zenith in the s, the first prominent beneficiaries probably being John Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle.

Though the electronic media are clearly swifter and more easily penetrative, the effect of less sophisticated media should never be underestimated. Charismatic speakers can turn audiences; such was the gift of Gandhi, and even more so of the now often forgotten Savarkar. Justice Khosla who presided over Gandhi's murder trial commented on Nathuram Godse's concluding defense which was a powerhouse of oratory and could have overturned a whole newly liberated country, had it been allowed broadcast.

It bestowed on the authoress a charisma that long endured. Outstanding charismatic artistes share many characteristics of popular religious and political leaders, sometimes to an exaggerated degree. There is a paradoxical co-existence of weakness and strength, apart from the creation of a new identity, and a union with a mass audience. The weakness of charismatics often springs from early family loss or deprivation, leading to lowered self-esteem, despondency and sometimes a blockage of feeling.

Aberbach[ 2 ] cites the lives of Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon to support these observations. The weakness is not allowed to predominate. It gives rise to a restless craving for some unusual strength. This strength flowers in positive conditions following a trauma, and is enhanced by natural gifts which seek a creative outlet.

In the struggle to overcome or master his weakness, the charismatic artist uses the media to recreate himself, to augment his worth in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his society, his constituency as it were. With charisma comes the risk of narcissism, and this is maximally demonstrated among folks of showbiz. On a trip to Salem not too long ago, aware as I was of the star Rajanikant's larger than life image, I was astounded to find this icon's picture adorning just about every billboard and hoarding from slick garment boutiques to hairdressers and even restaurants.