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Gods of bad things

Revered swamis generally know how to handle crowds. But when Shiv Murti Dwivedi aka Sant Swami Bhimanand got mobbed, he sought police help. His co-inmates in Delhi’s Tihar jail didn’t want to touch his feet — they wanted to break his limbs instead. The threat to his life prompted the authorities to put him and his accomplice in a separate cell earlier this week.

Dwivedi, 39, was arrested two weeks ago with his assistant and six women, including two airhostesses, for allegedly running a prostitution ring from his ashram in the Khanpur area of south Delhi.

Devotees used to throng a Sai Baba temple in Badarpur where Dwivedi was based for a sight of the man they thought was holy. Few knew that he was the kingpin of a thriving sex racket that he had been running for 10 years. He used to get in touch with young women, lure them into prostitution, and then connect them with men who wanted sex workers. Primary investigations reveal that his clients included high-profile policemen, politicians and bureaucrats.

The disciples may still be reeling under the shock, but not many people are surprised about Dwivedi’s double life. Godmen in India have often been accused of indulging in criminal activities under the saffron robe that ushers in followers, fame and funds. Dwivedi is just one among many who have taken the masses for a ride.

Most godmen, writer-columnist Khushwant Singh stresses, are charlatans. But devotees maintain that their gurus — often seen and treated as gods by them — don’t just have miraculous powers, but work for the good of humanity.

Former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati never visits temples. He doesn’t meditate or pray before an idol. The only god he believes in is Krishna and he has chosen an indirect path to reach him. It is through godman Sathya Sai Baba that he finds Krishna, he says. “For me, Sai Baba is an embodiment of Krishna. He is divinity personified.”

For many of his devotees, Swami Nithyananda was another word for god too. But earlier this month, when a video showing him in a sexual act with a Tamil actress was aired by television channels, his image got considerably dented. The recording has become a hit on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

“The cases registered against Nithyananda include those relating to cheating, rape, unnatural sex and outraging religious sentiments under various sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” says S.B. Bisanahalli, district superintendent of police, Ramanagram district, Bangalore. The case has now been transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department.

The number of godmen who have been exposed for wrong doing is legion. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says that he is not surprised to know about the plethora of illegal activities run by godmen. “All godmen are frauds. They are nothing but charlatans,” he says.

Yet people continue to repose their faith in men and women who perform miracles. Justice Bhagwati first met Sai Baba in Ahmedabad 40 years ago when he was in the Gujarat High Court. Since then, he has been an ardent devotee of his, along with presidents, judges, ministers and scientists. Though Sai Baba has also been dragged into controversies —in 1993, four armed devotees were killed in his apartment by his security men and in 2005 a German devotee alleged she had been raped in his ashram — his followers believe that their spiritual guru has been needlessly drawn into cases that don’t involve him. “These are all false allegations. I know him very well, I have seen him very closely,” says Justice Bhagwati.

But Sathya Sai Baba — though the most powerful of them all — is only one among the thousands of self-styled Hindu ascetics in India. Many of the gurus in this land of saints and sages have amassed great wealth and property. Quite a few perform miracles, which Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA), describes as the outcome of a sleight of hand.

Retired top judge Bhagwati always carries his guru’s blessings with him — a Rolex watch and a gold ring embedded with an emerald, both of which the Baba had plucked out of the air for him.

Critics such as Khushwant Singh, who wrote a book called Gods and Godmen of India in 2003, believe that most gurus are conmen. “A man who aspires to acquire material gains without putting in any hard work dons the saffron attire. And if he has the power of speech, then he is a big hit,” says Singh. “These godmen have no profound knowledge of Hinduism and they have very little to do with learning.”

But devotees will have none of that. “What Sai Baba does can be done only out of a divine power,” says Justice Bhagwati.

Sociologist Gupta says one of the reasons Hindus keep reposing their trust in godmen is the fact that unlike other religions, they don’t have an organised congregation centre. “Since Hindus don’t have any congregations unlike Christians who have a local priest or Muslims who have the imams, they turn to these godmen for solace. Secondly, in India, undeserving people often get rewarded. So they fall at the feet of these gurus to retain the material gains forever. This category includes even politicians,” says Gupta.

Social and economic divides are another reason godmen continue to draw flocks of people. “Often, people fall prey to these frauds owing to the growing social inequity,” says Edamaruku. People who are deprived of the basic amenities of life often go to godmen, seeking solace, he points out.

Godmen also thrive because of the nexus that they often have with politicians. Since the Seventies, the role of godmen in politics has been visible, ever since Dhirendra Brahmachari, who was a yoga expert, became more and more prominent as a member of Indira Gandhi’s charmed circle. In the Nineties, it was the turn of Chandraswami, who was seen as an immensely powerful godman with high-level political links.

Neither was taintless. Brahmachari ran several ashrams across the country, and the police recovered weapons from his Jammu centre. He was also accused of illegally importing gun parts from Spain for his factory, which had a licence to make guns only with local material.

Chandraswami, it was alleged, had built an empire thanks to his proximity to then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. He was later accused of swindling US$100,000 from an Indian businessman living in the United Kingdom, Lakhubai Patak. He was also an accused in the St Kitts forgery case that involved a sum of more than US$ 21 million. Though he was acquitted in it later, he is still facing nine Foreign Exchange Regulation Act violation charges.

But this has not dissuaded his devotees from visiting him. When this correspondent tried to get in touch with Chandraswami, she was told that he was on a maun vrat — a pledge of silence — for Navratra, a nine-day Hindu holy period. A visit to his ashram in Delhi’s Qutab Institutional area proved futile. The swami was not meeting anybody. The guards whispered that Bollywood actor and Kings Punjab XI owner Preity Zinta had come to visit him. His earlier followers included the Sultan of Brunei and Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor.

Edamaruku believes that spiritual gurus’ links with political bigwigs grew after Nehru’s regime. “Nehru was a rationalist and never went to any spiritual guru for solace. But Indira Gandhi believed in godmen and they started making a fortune out of this,” he says.

Ashok Arora, a senior Supreme Court lawyer, who once donned the holy robes and is now a motivational speaker, believes that the godman-politician nexus benefits both. “Politicians donate huge sum of money to godmen. And these godmen garner vote banks for politicians in return,” says Arora.

Devotees, however, point out that many godmen — and women — plough money back into society. The Sathya Sai Baba Trust, for instance, runs two super-speciality hospitals — one at Whitefield in Bangalore and the other in Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, besides schools and colleges for the poor. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known as the “hugging saint” of Kerala, because she often greets her followers by hugging them, has a huge charitable set-up with educational institutes.

The critics, of course, seek to stress that the charitable work is just a front. “Only a minuscule percentage of the money that they loot from devotees is used for this. The rest goes into their personal bank accounts,” Edamaruku says. Singh adds that the charitable work is to assuage their own guilt feelings. “By doing this (setting up schools and hospitals), they clear their conscience and try to portray themselves as the real spiritual gurus.”

The debate is an endless one. But devotees have just one question. How does one know a real spiritual guru from a fake godman? “A real spiritual person will have nothing to do with politics or power or money,” says Edamaruku. “The common man should understand this well.”

But are the devotees listening?

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