The row over the film of Dera Sacha Sauda head prompted the resignation of the censor board and showed the vice-like grip these so-called religious men with political patronage exert on Indian society
By Bhavdeep Kang
Mass murder, mutilation, abduction, assault, assassination, child abuse, abetment to suicide, land-grab, extortion, rape, terrorism, torture, tax evasion, hoarding illegal weapons. Rap sheet of a master criminal? Nope. These are all crimes which “godmen” have been accused of, but for which they have rarely been brought to book.
Recently, Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim prompted the resignation of the entire Censor Board of India after the appellate tribunal insisted on approving his film, Messenger of God. Considering that the head of the powerful Haryana-based sect recently appeared in court to answer charges in separate cases of murder and sexual exploitation and the Punjab & Haryana High Court directed the CBI to investigate alleged castration of some 400 of his followers, the Censor Board’s reluctance was understandable. Time appears to be running out for the charismatic guru, who entertains viewers on YouTube with such rock gems such as I am your Love Charger.
Jagat Guru Rampalji Maharaj was jailed in November after four women died in a violent confrontation between his followers and the Haryana police at his ashram in Barwala, triggered by his refusal to surrender to the law. Asaram Bapu has been behind bars for 15 months now, on charges of having sexually abused a minor. His son, too, is in jail on charges of rape. Raghaveshwara Bharathi, Shankaracharya of the Ramachandra math, Shimoga, is currently on bail in a case of alleged sexual assault and abetment to suicide. Nithyanand Swami has been in and out of jail after a video of him making love to a female devotee (a film actor) surfaced.
Recently, the courts asked the Haryana and Punjab police to submit reports on the alleged hoarding of arms and training on the premises of Dera Sacha Sauda—presumably to avoid another Barwala. Stockpiling of weaponry may call to mind Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale barricading himself inside the Golden Temple. But Rampal, Ram Rahim and their ilk cannot be compared with Bhindranwale, who had a clear-cut, if misguided, political agenda and led a separatist movement. Nor do they have anything in common with the Ananda Marga group, which allegedly purchased sophisticated arms and air-dropped them in Purulia in 1995 for the purpose of fighting communists. Their agendas are purely personal rather than political or religious. Rampal was simply trying to avoid arrest in a case related to a murder charge against him in 2006.
The cases are not unique, nor is the trend of exploitative godmen confined to India. Back in 1995, Japanese godman Asahara, anticipating arrest, ordered his followers to release deadly Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in order to distract the police. Thirteen people died and 54 were seriously injured. In 1993, American cult leader David Koresh defied the police for 51 days along with his followers, refusing to come out of their enclosure and surrender. The death toll: 75.
Sexual misconduct by godmen is an all-too frequent charge and inevitably, the hardest to prove, consent being a grey area. In the case of Shimoga Swami Raghaveshwara Bharathi, for instance, the lady in question admitted to a relationship that spanned three years, before she cried rape.
The alleged victims claim brainwashing and coercion, all of which comes under the nebulous head of “sexual exploitation”. For the judiciary, it’s a tough call—after all, Ved Vyasa is said to have fathered Dhritrashtra and Pandu on his visibly reluctant sisters-in-law, Amba and Ambika (one closed her eyes and the other turned pale in fear)! In the 21st century, he could well have been charged with sexual abuse and his mother, Satyawati, with abetment.
Whether the acts are consensual or co-erced, the fact remains that holy men being tested for sexual potency is no longer unheard of. In the past, allegations of this nature were not taken seriously, at least not to the point of seeking judicial recourse. Back in the 1990s, Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi faced multiple accusations of sexual abuse of minors but no case was filed. Jeff Young, a senior office-bearer of Sai Baba’s organization in the US, claimed his son Sam was sexually molested by the godman for over 20 years. Another devotee, Hans de Kraker, told The Sunday Age that the godman had offered oral sex. Conny Larssen made a similar char-ge in The Daily Mail. So widespread were stories of Sai Baba’s sexual misconduct that the matter came up in the British parliament.
Likewise, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was accused by no less a personage than Beatle John Lennon of having propositioned Frank Sinatra’s former wife, Mia Farrow. Yogi’s alleged sexual peccadilloes were cited by Lennon as being the main reason why the Beatles quit his ashram at Rishikesh. He was to tell Rolling Stone: “There was a big hullabaloo about him trying to rape Mia Farrow or trying to get off with Mia Farrow and a few other women, things like that.” He then penned the number Sexy Sadie, which originally went: “Maharishi, what have you done, made a fool of everyone.”
Chandra Mohan Jain, whom the world knew as Osho and Bhagwan Rajneesh, achieved fame as a sex guru, attracting foreigners and celebrities in droves. A consummate philosopher, described by the late author Khushwant Singh as India’s most ori-ginal thinker, Osho nonetheless faced a plethora of charges in the US. The most serious of these was a bio-terror attack (using salmonella) on the citizens of Dalles in Oregon, where he had his ashram, apparently to influence local elections. He cut a deal with US attorney general and was deported after a huge fine.
Godman Ram Pal being escorted to the high court after his arrest in Chandigarh in November 2014
Despite controversies, Sathya Sai Baba had a huge following
IT’S ABOUT MONEY, HONEY
Financial fraud and land grab too are accusations often levelled against godmen. Perhaps the most high-profile of the alleged tricksters was Chandraswami. He was incarcerated in 1997 on charges of financial fraud, perhaps the least of the many cases against him. He occupied an entire volume in the Jain Commission Report on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination (the probe continues to this day) and was fined `9 crore in 2011, to settle seven Enforcement Directorate cases against him.
Asaram Bapu, apart from the rape case, has also been charged with a Rs. 700-crore land grab by the Serious Fraud Investigating Office. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, according to a 2011 Tehelka report, was found to have illegally encroached upon government land near Mysore (meant to have been distributed to the poor and landless) but was saved from legal action by the timely intervention of the then chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa.
The plethora of cases against godmen raises three questions. One, how can so-called spiritual leaders defy the law with impunity and behave as if they are above temporal laws? Rampal was allowed to remain at large for eight years after cases of murder and land-grab were filed against him and to stockpile arms at his ashram in Barwala, right under the nose of the Bhu-pinder Singh Hooda government. The present Manohar Lal Khattar government pleaded with the godman to surrender before sending in the police.
Rape accused godman Asaram Bapu being produced in a Jodhpur court in June 2014
Mata Amritanandamayi, the “Hugging Amma”
Two, what magic do they work on their followers that they inspire them to lay down their lives, perform all manner of illegal acts and in the case of women, make them surrender to sexual abuse? Why, for instance, does a pretty, bright, young woman like Shi-kha quit her job in Chandigarh to join Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram in Bangalore? Her description of the first encounter: “On the last day of the (Art of Living) programme, he arrived. He entered the room. All around me, faces lit up with inexpressible joy. They were so in love with him.”
Three, why do we see an increase in religiosity in recent years, with godmen proliferating across India as never before, even though the literacy rate is going up?
Chandraswami exercised tremendous influence over prime ministers Chandrashekhar and PV Narasimha Rao
Mahesh Yogi’s following included physicists and medical practitioners, including a few Nobel laureates
Is globalization responsible, making people assert their religious identity even as they grow more alike economically? “India is not free of the forces of politicized religiosity which expresses itself in a growing sense of Hindu majoritarianism,” says author Meera Nanda in her book, The God Market. She sees “a rising tide of popular Hinduism” going hand in hand with globalization, with the surge in religiosity nurtured by a state-temple-corporate nexus.
Obviously, the godman can flourish, imm-une to the law, only because he enjoys political patronage. This renders him safe from police, revenue and income tax authorities. The politician-guru nexus is mutually advantageous. The politician gets a ready-made vote bank and a network of contacts in the shape of the guru’s followers, while the guru acquires political influence. Baba Ramdev campaigns openly for the BJP, while Sri Sri Ravi Shankar quietly supports the RSS. Both get tickets for their followers in the elections.
Without political clout, Asaram Bapu would not have survived the mysterious dea-ths in his ashram or the charges of sexual abuse and land-grab, for as long as he did. Nor could Shimoga Swami Raghaveshwara Bharathi have managed to turn the tables on a woman, who accused him of molestation, and get her and her entire family arrested. (Rumour has it that only intervention by the Congress High Command prompted Kar-nataka chief minister Siddaramaiah to take belated note of the lady’s complaint against the swami. Although not a devotee himself, he was hamstrung by the “Brahmin lobby” within his MLA fold.)
The politician-guru nexus is dangerous because it is always open to abuse. It is particularly pronounced in India, where many politicians genuinely bel-ieve in the power of the gurus to influence their political fortunes. Chandraswami acquired influence over two Indian prime ministers—Chandrashekhar and PV Narasimha Rao—and a host of world leaders like Margaret Thatcher by predicting that they would rise to the highest position possible. Thus, he fed into their sense of divine purpose, made them believe they had a hotline to higher powers and became an extra-constitutional force.
Dhirendra Brahmachari, a spiritual anchor of Indira Gandhi
Osho too had followers from across the world
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living is very popular among the middle class
The 2014 general elections were boom time for godmen. Poli-ticians rushed off to their favorite gurus to seek their blessings and had complicated yajnas performed to ensure electoral vic-tory. Politics in India is among the riskiest professions. Job security is zero and investments in terms of time, energy and money are huge. It’s this uncertainty that makes politicians seek supernatural assistance.
Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister to give importance to a godman; she was deeply influenced by her yoga teacher, Dhirendra Brahmachari. She wore a rudraksha string as a talisman. The late Arjun Singh was a follower of the late Devraha Baba, whom Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi visited on the eve of the 1989 elections. Former prime minister and Janata Dal (Secular) supremo HD Deve Gowda visits the Kodi Mutt in his home district of Hassan regularly and is also known to consult Chennai-based astrologer Balan Nair.
Uttam Swami, the Rajasthan-based guru who claims Chief Minister Vasundhararaje Scindia as a follower and is close to politicians from Madhya Pradesh, is said to have performed yajnas at 12 of the 51 shakti peeths (dedicated to the female deity Shakti) for various politicians. Scindia is also said to admire Jaggi Vasudev. She and her son Dushyant attended a meditation program conducted by him at the Isha Yoga Centre in Coimbatore. She visited the Pitambara shakti peeth in Datia, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura and Sundari Maa temple in Banswara on the eve of polling.
Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh is a long standing devotee of Swami Swaroo-pananda, Shankaracharya of Dwarka, and proclaims in his blog: “I was given Diksha by His Holiness Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Dwarka and Joshi Math in 1983. I regularly pray every day for half-an-hour and have been doing this since 1969 when I was given Gayatri Mantra after I got my ‘Yagyo Pavit Sanskar’…. I keep fast on all Ekadashis. All night, kirtans are held on every Ekadashi at my residence…. I have been visiting Pandharpur to pray at Vitho Ba’s feet on every Asadi Ekadashi since the last 21 years.”
Baba Ramdev cozies up to Narendra Modi
Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev with actor Anupam Kher at Yogi Sabhagruh in Mumbai
MOVERS & SHAKERS
One the most well-networked godmen in Maharashtra is Uday Deshmukh aka Bhaiyyu Maharaj, spiritual advisor and close friend of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray (and his son, Aditya) and a host of other politicians and Bollywood stars. From time to time, Bhaiyyuji, who was present at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister, has been called on to broker peace between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. His efforts during the post-election crisis, so the rumour goes, were stymied by Aditya’s mother.
Among Jaipur-based Pundit Kedar Shar-ma’s adherents are Rajnath Singh, Scindia, Amar Singh and Sushil Kumar Shinde. The home minister, of course, has his own in-house astrologer in Dr Sudhanshu Trivedi. He also reposes faith in the Kanpur-based Pundit Chaturvedi, a clairvoyant who
predicted way back in 1980 that Singh would become CM of Uttar Pradesh and a cabinet minister.
Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Vir-bhadra Singh goes to Prem Sharma, a retired government servant and well-known soothsayer for a peek into the future and visits Bhima Kali temple before elections.
The most dramatic turnaround from rationalism to credulity is that of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Back in the early 1990s, he adjured his men: “pothi-patra jalao” (burn religious scriptures). Today, he subscribes to a whole range of superstitions. In 2013, he made a pilgrimage to Shirdi in Maharashtra, the “Jyotirlinga” in Nashik and the Shani temple at Shinganapur. He had the swimming pool in his Patna house filled with mud and sand on the advice of a vaastu shastra expert, wears a 108-bead rudraksha string and is a vegetarian. He is a devotee of Vibhuti Nara-yan, better known as Pagla Baba. He believes the Mirzapur-based guru helped him become chief minister in 1995, by performing the “Baglamukhi jaap” at Bindeswari Devi temple in UP.
Not all godmen and religious groups abuse their influence in the manner that Rampal did. Many perform valuable social service and render assistance to the state. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of Coimbatore, Bhaiyyuji Maharaj of Indore, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Bangalore and Mata Amritanandamayi of Kerala support extensive social interventions in agriculture, health and education and many charitable institutions with donations from their followers. Radha Soami Satsang Beas too has done exemplary work.
The trend of going to godmen has also become pronounced among the general population. There could be two reasons for this. One is social change caused by urbanization and migration, which has resulted in community bonds breaking. Many, thus, feel isolated and rootless and cut off from their traditional sources of spiritual solace. The second is growing dissatisfaction with the culture of materialism, which manifests itself in a search for an alternative lifestyle.
Joining a cult or participating in a satsang gives them a sense of identity and even the most educated and wealthy are not immune to it. Two, surrendering one’s will to a higher power, in the form of a guru, is an enormous relief as its takes away the burden of decision-making—whatever the master orders, must be right.
Being a scientist or a rationalist doesn’t make one any less vulnerable. Every godman’s entourage boasts of a number of scientists. Mahesh Yogi commanded the devotion of Buckminster Fuller and at least two Nobel laureates, apart from Harvard-trained physicists and medical practitioners. Perhaps the study of science merely underlines how little we know and thus, reinforces the belief in a higher power. Even Albert Einstein was moved to say: “God does not play dice with the universe”.
Those who approach a guru generally do so at their most vulnerable, which makes them easy prey to hypnotism and brain-washing. Thus, they follow the guru’s instructions like robots, even to the extent of committing suicide or murder. Every godman has some skill. Packaged in the form of siddhis, these skills are seen as divine attributes by followers. Even a dyed-in-wool rationalist like S Jaipal Reddy was flummoxed when, as he says: “Chandraswami read my mind. But I lost interest in him when I found he could guess the questions but had none of the answers”.
Bhaiyyuji Maharaj, himself a godman of repute, has little patience with the majority of those who claim to be spiritual leaders. He says: “Religion has become a way to acquire power and influence. People cheerfully spend Rs. 5 lakh for the privilege of putting a garland around the neck of a godman, Rs. 11 lakh for being allowed to share a meal with him and `21 lakh if he condescends to visit their home for a meal. But for charitable work, we won’t contribute even Rs. 21!”
Uttam Swami, who has performed rituals for several politicians, including Vasundhara Raje Scindia
The most interesting aspect of the modern guru is perhaps his cafetaria approach. Devotees are seen as consumers and are offered a wide variety of spiritual products, which they can pick and choose according to budgets, time constraints, venue, etc. There is something for everyone. And if one guru does not give satisfaction, you can always move to the next. Meera Nanda, in her book, The God Market, identified three types of gurus: miracle workers like Sathya Sai Baba, health and yoga gurus like Ramdev and philosophy gurus who expound vedic wisdom like Dayanand Saraswati (Arya Samaj).
Harish Vettath, who works with Maa Amritanandamayi (“Hugging Amma”), says not everyone touted as a sant or saint is necessarily a spiritual leader. “There are some who teach yoga, so they are yoga teachers. There are others who promote ayurveda so they are vaidyas…. A saint is someone who has achieved self-realization.”
Hinduism is not an organized religion like Christianity, Islam or Judaism. There is no officially recognized clergy or protracted study. Anyone can set himself up as a guru, claiming diksha from some powerful saint and receive knowledge. Hence, it is easy for unscrupulous elements to become highly successful saints.
Having said that, godmen fulfil a genuine social need. In India, the mentally perturbed don’t visit psychologists, but they see no harm in going to a guru. But in a secular country, godmen cannot be allowed to wield influence or assume the powers which are the exclusive preserve of the state. When that happens, Rampals run riot.