Picture: Washington Post
Men lay prostrate on the floor in front of the elevated seat of their guru: the man they call Asaram Bapu. Pictures of his avuncular face, with its flowing white beard, hang everywhere in his sprawling 12-hectare ashram in Motera, western India.
But these days the guru’s enclosed wood-carved altar, where millions once worshiped him, is empty. All that’s left is a large photograph, an air purifier, flashy lights and fake red roses.
The guru, real name Asumal Harpalani, 72, is languishing in a Jodhpur jail, arrested last month on charges of sexually assaulting the 16-year-old daughter of two followers.
In recent weeks, the allegations against the mega-guru, who runs a massive network of 20 million devotees in hundreds of ashrams worth an estimated $760 million, have stunned and split India. The scandal has raised questions about the unprecedented boom in spiritual gurus in the world’s largest democracy — and the enormous power and wealth they wield.
Harpalani is not alone in amassing riches or getting in scrapes with the law. One holy man, Sathya Sai Baba, died in 2011 leaving behind a treasure trove of nearly $8 million in gold, silver and cash. In recent years, other gurus have faced charges of murder, sexual abuse, running prostitution rackets and illegal land acquisition.
Yet the guru phenomenon has continued to grow, buoyed by 24-hour religious programming on TV and an increasingly stressed-out Indian middle class seeking easy, prepackaged bliss.
“He has blessed my family all these years. Now it is my turn to pray for him,” said Anjali Chand, 42. “He is like a beautiful lotus and the allegations are like muck and dirty water.”
The ashram, once a place of peace, is now under siege. Devotees look at every newcomer with suspicion. News television crews are chased away by guards. And there is talk of a grand conspiracy to defame their guru.
Source: Washington Post