In the gurus' closets, the skeletons are rattling
Many of India's holy men are dogged by shady deals and sex crimes
After more than two months of investigation, Indian police last week charged the self-styled Hindu god-man Asaram Bapu and four of his associates with sexually exploiting a 16-year-old girl.
If proven, the charges could earn the 72-year-old a minimum 10 years to a maximum of life behind bars.
Media in the past have carried items about how Asaram used to summon girls from his gurukul - residential school - and assault them sexually. He had adopted a novel selection technique, shining a torchlight on girls he liked, and instructing someone from his entourage to bring them to him.
So this is not the first allegation of sexual offences against Asaram. But it is the first time that a girl and her parents have mustered the courage to bring a criminal case against this influential potentate.
The arrest encouraged two sisters to file a rape case against him and his 42-year-old son Narayan Sai. They claim they were sexually assaulted by the father-son duo repeatedly between 2002 and 2006, while they were working in Asaram’s center for manufacturing Ayurvedic medicines.
The girls, who say they were minors when the alleged assaults began, also claim that Asaram's wife and daughter were part of the conspiracy.
And there is yet more woe for Asaram. Police filed charges in August against seven of his officials, in connection with the mysterious death of two boys at one of his ashrams – religious communes - in 2008. The boys’ mutilated bodies were found with internal organs missing. Their parents say they were murdered in a black magic ritual by the ashram authorities.
Sindh-born Asaram migrated to Ahmadabad with his parents after the partition of India in 1947. It is widely asserted that before he began his spiritual career, he was a bootlegger in Gujarat where liquor sales are prohibited. He set up his first commune in 1971. Since then he is reported to have attracted around 20 million followers, building an empire worth US$800 million and a network of around 400 communes, including some in the US.
He has enjoyed the patronage of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the past 12 years. That association is said to have helped enormously in his hitherto unobstructed rise to wealth and fame.
All in all, there are more than a few dubious aspects to this paragon of virtue. But Asaram is only the latest in a long list of prosperous Hindu god-men accused of various crimes.
In October this year, two former priests of a powerful sect leveled accusations of unnatural sex and sodomy against its head priest and four seniors. In their police complaint, they said the chief priest subjected them to unnatural sex for over 25 years, ever since they were initiated. The spokespersons of the sect have denied the allegations as "baseless."
The court is yet to take up the case.
In April 2010 Swami Nityanand, a guru with close associations with the ultra-nationalist Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was charged with assaulting a woman follower and accused of having sex with a Tamil movie actress.
One of the most revered Hindu religious leaders, Shankaracharya Jeyndra Saraswati, was implicated in the murder of a temple manager in September 2004. Earlier, his auditor had accused the guru of hiring thugs to murder him, after he questioned his part in the misappropriation of 83kg of gold.
One of the most famous of all, Sathya Sai Baba, was also accused of siphoning donations from his own followers, not to mention pedophilia. The guru denied the charges but on his death in April 2011, valuables worth millions of dollars were found in his private rooms.
Sai Baba claimed to perform miracles like producing holy ash and pulling gold rings and chains out of thin air, but these have since been discredited as simple conjuring tricks.
Yet thousands continue to flock to these gurus. It is only natural to ask, why do people still have faith and support them, despite the never ending scandals?
Rajaram, who teaches sociology at the Central University Gujarat, has this response: "Since the god-men provide shortcut solutions by projecting themselves as some sort of superhuman beings, the people who suffer from poverty and inequality look to them as a sort of god and go to them to get solace’’.
And how long can we expect this to continue? "Fraud and deceit in the name of religion will continue,” says Rajaram, “until Indians, including educated ones, develop a scientific disposition and look at the claims of the god-men from a scientific angle.”
Fatima Tanveer is the pen name of a journalist based in Ahamadabad.
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