In thrall to godmen

For every tale of a fall from grace, there is a corresponding success story boasting of riches, fame and power


With fraudsters posing as godmen, some would call it blind faith. Photo: AFP
With fraudsters posing as godmen, some would call it blind faith. Photo: AFP

In 2006, a Hyderabad-based construction magnate convinced his mother-in-law to donate four-and-a-half acres of land in the suburb of Shamshabad to a trust run by Swami Nithyananda. A temple and ashram would be erected there for the self-styled godman.

Running a temple is never an easy task, but the lady and her son-in-law went a step further and opened a fixed deposit account in the name of the trust for Rs.45 lakh. The family’s close involvement with Nithyananda and his trust came to an abrupt end four years later when rape charges were filed against Nithyananda by a disciple. The allegations came after sex tapes of the Swami with an actor, Ranjitha, were leaked to a news channel.

Nithyananda fled to the Himalayas when the sex tapes were leaked, but even so kept in touch with the businessman, who still believed in his innocence. But then the businessman came across something that opened his eyes, and it incenses him to this day.

These were “sex contracts”—non-disclosure arrangements to experiment with tantric sex—that the Swami had made some of his followers sign, in a locked suitcase left with his family members. “Scoundrel” and “fraud” are just some of the choice words that the businessman hurls today at the once-revered Swami.

This was by no means an isolated case. This week saw the arrest of Baba Rampal in Haryana, and an arms cache was found at his ashram.

Despite making giant strides in science and other modern fields of knowledge, India remains a land that often seems to be in thrall of so-called godmen and godwomen—smooth-talking, greedy fraudsters in spiritual garb.

Swami Nithyananda, Asaram Bapu, Ram Rahim, Osho or Baba Rampal, the names may be different but the stories are depressingly similar.

It begins with a self-styled religious leader, often purporting to be the reincarnation of a deity, amassing a following, a trickle growing into an army of devotees. Soon, ashrams, centres and trusts begin to pop up across the country and abroad. In tandem, honorific title after title is attached to the godman’s name.

Miraculous stories of healing appear from nowhere—they are circulated along with testimonials from grateful devotees of how “guruji” transformed their lives. Money begins to pour in.

And inevitably, the big fall follows. The reasons can vary from sexual abuse, as in the case of Nithyananda and Asaram Bapu, or a refusal to comply with the law, as with Baba Rampal, whose heavily armed private army tried to stop the state from arresting their godman.

However, for every cautionary tale of a guruji falling from grace, there is a corresponding success story boasting of riches, fame and power. Asaram Bapu ran an empire of more than 400 ashrams around the world. Nithyananda had several foundations registered internationally, apart from a number of trusts in India. One of his signature programmes is the “inner awareness camp” organized by his ashram that in 2010 was charging more than Rs.3 lakh per person.

Baba Ramdev, who used to offer free yoga training to villagers, now heads an empire whose worth in 2011 was Rs.1,100 crore. Mata Amritanandamayi, the famous hugging amma from Kerala, runs a hospital, a TV channel and several educational institutions.

India has long had the tradition of a guru—a spiritual guide—who purports to serve as the medium between the individual and the divine, the learned master who helps the individual on the path of higher learning.

“But this was usually in ascetic surroundings where the guru would take you through strenuous stages of meditation, renunciation, yoga before nirvana was achieved,” says Jyotirmaya Sharma, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad. According to him, the godman phenomenon today is a quick-fix solution in the earlier tradition.

“There is no more need to pursue canonical texts, no wrestling with complex ethical questions, no need to meditate beyond a point—in fact, indulge in singing and dancing and voila, enlightenment is yours for the taking.”

To be sure, it is not uncommon in India for some families to have a guru to turn to in moments of crisis—they will advise members over a range of matters, from something as mundane as failing school grades to finding a life partner to even coping with death.

The godman seeks to replicate this function on a grand scale as consumerism, affluence and the rise of cancers and lifestyle-related diseases send thousands looking for immediate solutions.

There are other, more complex, reasons for their rise.

“Once you have earned money, satiated your base desires, then the human mind turns to questioning. What is the meaning of life? What does death mean? You struggle with issues and you seek answers. It was this quest that took me to Nithyananda,” recalls the businessman from Hyderabad, asking not to be named.

One of his fellow-disciples from that time, Bhargavi Thimmage of Mysore, recalls how the group in the initial days of the Bangalore ashram in 2004 consisted of doctors, businessmen, academics who were struggling to overcome complex issues in life: “Some of them were recovering from ailments, but everyone had come looking for some sort of answers.”

“The gurus don’t just talk about life and its existential struggles, but family life, the struggles of a working woman to balance home and work, with men the discourse tends to be about maintaining your position in family as dynamics change,” explains sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi. On the positive side, gurus can help by showing a midway path between consumerism with spiritualism, advising people to acquire riches but not to be consumed by them. “Mata Amritanandamayi states consumerism karma can be negated by performing pujas prescribed by her. It’s a win-win solution for all,” says Meera Nanda, author of The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu.

Some experts think there has been a shift from the miracle-inducing, divine healing saints to modern gurus who talk mainly in terms of yoga and meditation—spiritual, as opposed to religious discourses. “There are different gurus for different classes, some are for the very poor, some are for the Indian diaspora and some for the upwardly mobile middle class,” says Srivastava.

Someone like Baba Ramdev manages to straddle nearly all these worlds, whereas Sri Sri Ravishankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev fall in the last category. To be sure, there is no evidence of wrongdoing or fraud against any of the three.

A follower of Vasudev who has been with him for over a decade says that one point of connection with him is that he preaches in English, a language she thinks in. With English names and discourses in a language a tiny but influential part of urban India speaks and thinks in, there are now, it seems, attempts to create new religions or at least a more sophisticated version of the existing ones.

“(Ravishankar’s) Art of Living is not about religious discourses, but rather finding peace within yourself. We have been going for the courses for over a decade now and feel that it has had a huge impact in our lives,” argues a young lawyer couple from Mumbai. They are not very happy with the clubbing of Sri Sri Ravishankar with controversial gurus as “he is not like them. It is not about building a cult or creating an empire. His teachings are simply about leading a more fulfilling life without any religious overtones”.

Similarly, Sadhguru’s followers put forth the same argument about their guru, citing his commitment to the environment and spirituality. Both the Art of Living Foundation founded by Sri Sri Ravishankar and the Isha Foundation of Sadhguru are also active in the corporate sphere, thus placing the modern guru more firmly in the entrepreneurial world—so much so that lessons of the Bhagvat Gita are even applied in the boardroom. “The contemporary guru is very pro-corporate and very pro-work. It is a combination of ideas of work and spiritual quest,” says Srivastava.

When talking about their gurus, it is not uncommon for devotees to use terms like “attraction” and “love” to explain the bond they feel, meant in a platonic sense. They credit the guru with making them more patient and resilient in dealing with life’s worries.

“I don’t get angry with anything any more. I have deep reserves of patience and I feel that this helped me give more of myself to my vocation also,” says a young doctor about her association with the Dada Bhagwan Foundation. Introduced to a gurumata who used to run the centre in Lucknow when she was 16, the doctor was touched deeply by the discourses, especially as they centred around the teachings of the Gita, culled from the epic Mahabharata and followed by many Hindus. “Her talks would be how we can apply the teachings of the Gita to our daily life, but she would also say that to achieve this feat we have to do satsang (a spiritual discourse) every day.”

Settled in Delhi, she takes a week off every two months to volunteer at the ashram in Lucknow and rejuvenate what she calls her “spiritual energies”.

“The ‘love’ and ‘connection’ that disciples talk about actually has its roots in the (7th century Hindu) Bhakti movement. You are projecting all your needs onto that person,” says anthropologist Katherina Kakkar. “And you show devotion by a complete dedication of not just your time and energies but also your cash... Money is sought for the numerous projects that the guru might have undertaken in order to aid the needy.”

It’s not just the needy that the guru asks money—or land—for. “We would be told that Swamiji needs to raise Rs.9 crore for a building, please help. People would open their wallets willingly,” recalls Thimmage.

There are also tales of coercion and pressure. In a blog post that dates back to 2006, an anonymous man wrote about his experiences at Asaram’s ashram in Ahmedabad. He claims that he was coached to tell new recruits that everyone at the ashram had renounced their families for Asaram Bapu. He alleges that he was forced to all but blackmail his son into giving up his family wealth and property to the trust.

The feeling of complete devotion is also exploited for sex, which is sought to be explained away as yet another means of attaining enlightenment. In a cover story titled “The Sex Lives of Godmen”, Open magazine listed examples of how devotees, especially foreigners, were asked to give sexual favours to gurus as a means of “communing with the divine”. The exploitation involved both men and women who at that point did not think of the experience as wrong, but later believed it to be rape.

Though sexual abuse is an extreme example, devotees often do talk about being mesmerized and hypnotized by gurus. A former disciple of Asaram Bapu credits his electric delivery of sermons with keeping him entranced, while the Hyderabad-based businessman is still astounded by how Nithyananda would seemingly make their minds go blank during a lecture.

“You can enter the hall with doubts you have every intention of raising, and then when he speaks, you go blank.” Devotees also talk about visitations in their dreams and miracles such as flowers falling from the guru’s portrait. “It is the power of faith, that’s what it is,” explains psychologist Dr Harish Shetty.

With fraudsters posing as godmen, some would call it blind faith.

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