The saga of India’s “fake godmen”

Criminal convictions fail to deter followers


November 15, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

The saga of India’s “fake godmen”

Babas like Asaram Bapu (left) and Ram Rahim (right) have been accused of crimes like rape, murder and money laundering

Despite convictions of several “fake Gurus” for violent crimes like murder and rape, many Indians continue to believe in the promises of Nirvana peddled by self-styled godmen across the country.

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Sprung from the Sanskrit root sadh, which means to “reach one’s goal,” a sadhu is a religious ascetic or holy person in Hinduism and Jainism who has renounced worldly life and earthly possessions. Revered for their renunciation and detachment from the world of greed and lust, millions of Indians line up at their doorsteps to seek their blessings and receive teaching from them, offering them anything from simple food, a seat on a bus or train or even millions of rupees.

India’s fascination with godmen goes way back, and even Prime Ministers like Indira Gandhi, who followed Dhirendra Bhramachari and Narasimha Rao, whose spiritual advisor was Chandra Swami, had pledged total support for their gurus, with Gandhi once giving land for an ashram to be built by Chandraswami.

Many politicians consult the godmen to seek their blessings for victory in elections and even finding out the right time or muhurat for all important official and personal activities. But it is not just the politicians who seek godmen. The followers include millions of ordinary Indians like the 32-year-old Shreyansh Khanna’s family, who lives in Kolkata, has followed one guru for several years. Although Khanna does not share the same belief, he accepts the spiritual comfort they provide for followers.

“People on this planet are looking for some solace in understanding god and they often are led to these babas through word of mouth, as they are looking to experience miracles themselves,” Khanna tells Media India Group.

Although many sadhus are undoubtedly sincere in their search for “Nirvana,” these godmen’s controversial teachings are just as historic as the public’s belief in them. Chandraswami, whose influence even reached international waters as he is said to have advised prominent figures like the Sultan of Brunei, actress Elizabeth Taylor and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was also known to be embroiled in several financial scams and in 1996, was arrested on charges of defrauding a London-based businessman of USD 100,000, as well as being accused of alleged involvement as the financer of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Such controversies have plagued the legacy of the godmen even decades later. Perhaps one of the most notorious revelations was in 2017, when the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), the top body of Hindu sadhus, released a list of 14 “fake babas” or self-styled godmen and demanded legislation to crack down on “rootless cult leaders.” The list included sadhus accused of various crimes, from money laundering to being rapists and murderers.

One of the most well-known on the list is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a popular self-appointed guru with a large following in northern states of Punjab and Haryana, who was charged with several offences, including forced castrations, was convicted of rape by a court in 2017, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2019 with three others for the murder of a journalist. At the time, his conviction led to widespread violence and protests from his followers and members of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), which left several dead and injured.

Another self-styled guru, Asaram Bapu, who follows Hindutva-centred ideology and claims to have established 400 ashrams in India and abroad, was visited by political leaders including Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. Asaram was found guilty in 2018 of raping an underage girl, ironically having quipped earlier that calling one’s rapist “bhaiya” (brother) will save women, as well as other charges of illegal encroachment and witness tampering.

Despite the prevalence of such cases, many Indians still follow them. Fugitive self-styled godman Swami Nithyananda, who was noted for using pseudoscience to spread his discourse about Hindu scriptures, was also accused in a rape case as well as the abduction of two underage girls in 2019, then fleeing to Ecuador after missing several court hearings. That December, he declared the had created a new “Hindu nation” called Kailasa, and made preposterous claims of it being the world’s only sovereign Hindu nation, even creating his own currency.

“I have no idea why sadhus have so many followers, even though a lot of them have been caught for bad deeds and are serving prison time. I feel we all have god within ourselves, but some of us are aware and some are disconnected, [and those people] look for babas for spiritual comfort and solace. Other than that, there is no point of questioning someone’s belief,” adds Khanna.

Radhika (name changed) and her family were followers of Sadhguru Jagdish Vasudev, who has been teaching yoga in southern India since 1982 and received the Padma Vibhushan award in 2017 for his contributions to social welfare. “Indians are among the most superstitious people. Babas are peddlers of faith and many take advantage of these superstitious beliefs of people and fool them in the name of [promoting] God’s miracle. We follow babas blindly because of a need to believe in something or someone,” she tells Media India Group.

With such under-the-table deals and large donations from influential followers, many such babas generate immense wealth. Sri Sathya Sai Baba for example, who claimed he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and was famous among normal people as well as dictators, businessmen and politicians for his proclamations of spreading love, peace and humility, passed away in 2011, left behind a legacy estimated to be worth around INR 400 billion. The revelation of the hoard of gold, silver and cash, found secretly buried in temples, caused a bitter fight to break out among his devotees after his death, with cash being desperately smuggled out while police, trustees and relatives dug for the treasure.

This violence sparked by blind faith is not uncommon among communities who support sadhus, but begs the question of whether stringent laws should be put in place to ensure less occurrence. Although conviction rates have seemingly been high, with many investigations leading to arrests and long-term prison time, aided by public uproar, many who have spoken up against this system have also accused sadhus of actually working with the police to evade the law.

In January this year, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a plea against fake godmen when a petition, styled as a public interest litigation (PIL), was filed by Telangana resident Dumpala Ramreddy, who was upset over his daughter being kept in an ashram run by a self-styled godman in Delhi. The ashram where Ramreddy’s daughter was staying, Adhyatmika Vidyalaya, was run by Veerendra Dev Dixit and was included in the list of fake ashrams released by ABAP.

The court reportedly said that it was up to the individual to discern the legitimate babas from the fake ones, and that if such self-styled godmen have already been convicted in criminal cases, it was sufficient reason for people to avoid going to them.

However, the solution may not be as simple, as not all victims are able to make such informed decisions, especially if they are children. In November, self-styled godman Siva Shankar Baba from Tamil Nadu was accused of sexually abusing young girls, some students from his own school, exposing a scary, murky world where these godmen are preying on religious beliefs to exploit their followers. Siva Shankar had already been arrested under charges of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO). In August, earlier this year, Shankar was denied bail by the court which ordered his continued incarceration.

Such cases ring vaguely similar to several reported incidents of young boys being sexually assaulted in Catholic churches in Europe, which have been receiving significant public attention since the 1980s. The patterns of long-term abuse, and the willingness to cover up any wrongdoing, by members of the church and similarly in India by groups like Dera Sacha Sauda set a dangerous precedent, and it may be time to take a firmer stand against such exploitation in the name of religion.



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