India's Unholy Godmen
In April, Hindu religious guru Asaram Bapu was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 16-year-old girl in 2013. Ahead of the verdict, the Indian authorities had to brace for violent protests by his followers and supporters. Heavy security arrangements were put in place in the western Indian city of Jodhpur, where the court sentenced him to life in prison.
The victim told the police the godman had raped her when she visited his ashram in Jodhpur with her mother. It was almost impossible for his followers to believe that he could have raped the daughter of one of his decades-old devotees. But according to the court, he did just that, even though three of the witnesses were killed and a number of others threatened during the trial.
The 77-year-old high-profile guru has a huge following and over the years has amassed massive wealth in the form of 400 ashrams across the world. Millions of his followers believe he is being framed.
Asaram Bapu is not the only high-profile Indian guru convicted of a big crime like rape. In August of last year, another popular spiritual guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of raping two female followers. Popularly known as the “Rockstar Baba” for his flashy clothes and flamboyant lifestyle, the millionaire broke down in court when the judge announced the sentence.
But outside the court in India’s Haryana state, around 100,000 of his followers went on a rampage. The violence, arson, and clashes between his followers and the security personnel left 38 people dead and over 200 injured. Some of his followers said they would rather die than to let their guru go to jail.
At the Dera headquarters in Sirsa in the northern Indian state of Haryana banners of the Dera chief in his different avatars are installed in the sprawling campus of over 700 acres which houses colleges, schools, hospitals, sports and IT cities, manufacturing units, factories, resorts. The campus that looks like a kingdom with Dera chief its King. There are movie theatres which screen only films starring the Dera chief.
Another godman, Swami Kaushlendra Prapannachari (also known as Falahari Maharaj) was arrested last year for allegedly raping a 21-year-old girl who was the daughter of his long-time devotee. Baba Parmanand of central India’s Uttar Pradesh state was arrested in 2016. He is accused of sexually abusing childless women on the pretext of curing their infertility. The list of tainted Indian godmen doesn’t end there. It’s a long list, growing every year.
According to government data, an average of four girls are raped every day in India daily - and that's just the reported ones. In a country with a shameful record of rapes and with a renewed public anger against sexual offenses, what explains the support for a convicted rapist-baba? Is it just blind devotion or there is more to it? What explains the rise of the godmen in India, in the first place?
Over the years, the influence of spiritual gurus over Indian society has only increased. Most of their followers are among India’s poorest of classes, who turn to them for material gains, and with health or domestic issues. For a person languishing in poverty and facing social dead-ends, a godman is perhaps godsend. He seems to be the only one listening to their problems. Asaram Bapu’s victim, for instance, was taken to him by her own mother to “cure” her evil spirits.
The babas or religious gurus have filled up the social and spiritual vacuum created by lack of opportunities and facilities in an unevenly developing nation, and in the process building empires for themselves.
Politicians have also used the clout of the gurus for political gains. The sight of a guru endorsing a politician during election time used to be a common sight. In turn, the gurus got benefits too, amassing unaccounted wealth and escaping official scrutiny.
But with the recent string of gurus being prosecuted for sexual crimes, politicians are being cautious. Some opposition parties targeted India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, after Asaram Bapu’s conviction last month as old photographs and videos of the two did rounds on social media.
An Indian court has now suspended the publication and sale of book titled “Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev”. The book reportedly questions the rise of Ramdev, considered prime minister Modi’s close aide, from a yoga guru to the head of Patanjali Group, which became India’s second largest FMCG company in a span of the last few years.