A popular singer of bhajans (religious songs), Rampal Dass resigned from his job as junior engineer in the Haryana irrigation department in 1995, and soon enough his journey as a bona fide 'godman' began on a four-acre plot at Karontha village, 12km from Rohtak.
He has been a polarising figure for most part - even spent 18 months in jail on murder charges -- though his early life brooked no signs of the fervent following and violent reactions that largely define him at the age of 61.
Born on September 8, 1951 at Dhanana village of Sonepat, Rampal's father Nand Lal was a farmer and his mother Indira Devi a housewife. Breaking from the farming tradition, he did a diploma from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in Nilokheri, Karnal.
He is said to have been an ardent devotee of Lord Hanuman initially, but later got initiated into Kabir Panth, a sect that draws its ideology from 13th century reformer-saint Kabir. He grew popular after touring Haryana as a bhajan singer, and then drew on his following within the Kabir sect to graduate to his own Satlok Ashram (religious centre) in 1999.
Rampal lived with his wife and two married sons in Shastri Nagar, Rohtak, at the time of his 'renunciation'. His family now has houses outside, and are also said to put up in the ashram sometimes. His two daughters are married.
WHAT HE SAYS, AND WHO LISTENS
The main attraction is his style of criticising set beliefs, and he is adept at questioning the origin and ancestry of gods and the popular interpretations of Hindu scriptures. His key theory, according to website jagatgururampalji.org, is that "Our race is living being, mankind is our religion, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Christian, there is no separate religion." He glorifies Kabir as the Supreme God, though other Kabir Panthis describe Kabir more as a pragmatic social reformer.
People who have attended his congregations say Rampal uses aggressive language and tenor, claiming that the "real truth" has been hidden from "the people" by gurus and intellectuals who have interpreted scriptures in the past. This draws people from middle-class background as well as the demography that has been persecuted in popular religions. His following is moderate, however, as compared to other such sects active in the region.
CLASH AND RISE
From 2000 to 2005, Rampal courted several controversies for his discourse.
Arya Samaj followers - ones who believe in the traditional Vedic philosophy that Rampal challenges - first objected in 2006 when he raised questions over Satyarth Prakash, written by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj.
A clash in July 2006 claimed the life of 20-year-old Sonu in firing allegedly from the Karontha ashram. Rampal was arrested along with 38 of his followers on murder charges, and was released on bail after 18 months in 2008. Undeterred, he set up another dera in Barwala, Hisar.
Satyaveer Shastri, a senior leader of the Arya Samaj, says, "With time Rampal gained clout as influential people started joining him, and then he started threatening the Arya Samaj leaders for visiting villages that he considers his strongholds."
Today, Satlok Ashram has 71 acres of land in Karontha, his rise fuelled by generous donations, though VIP visits have reduced since the 2006 clash.
His Facebook page was started primarily to clear the air after the 2006 clash. Since then, it has been carrying videos and explanation notes regularly, growing in popularity and giving Rampal a virtual, wider platform.