The death of 24 people in a stampede in Varanasi on Saturday once again highlights the cult-like status enjoyed by self-styled ‘godmen’ and their hold over their followers even after death.
Those who died in the holy city were followers of Jai Gurudev, a charismatic but controversial religious leader who contested elections, went to jail during the Emergency and even dug for mythical gold in a protected archaeological site near Mathura.
That was before he died in 2012 at an unconfirmed age of 116.
Since then, his legacy has passed on to the organisation he floated, the Jai Gurudev Dharm Pracharak Adhyatm Sanstha which has been preaching his ideals.
Typically clad in white robes and turban, the seer had espoused vegetarianism and morality and claimed “to liberate the soul from the rotation of birth and death”, according to a bio on his website.
He is said to have left behind a vast empire worth over Rs 10,000 crore, apart from 250 luxury cars – all supposedly gifted by his devotees. He also left behind a palatial ashram in Mathura and properties in several cities in northern India.
One of his most prominent followers, Ram Vriksh Yadav and a large group had broken away to form a radical organisation and encroached upon a large plot of government land in Mathura. Yadav and more than twenty others were killed in June during clashes with police attempting to evict the group members.
Also known as Tulsidas Maharaj, Jai Gurudev was imprisoned for 20 months during a period of political unrest in 1975 and led the Doordarshi political party in the 1980s and 1990s, unsuccessfully campaigning for election to Parliament.
The sect is now led by his spiritual heir Pankaj Maharaj, who was scheduled to address the gathering on Saturday at Domari village on the banks of the Ganga.
And even as the tragedy unfolded on the Rajghat bridge, people drenched in devotion moved on, chanting ‘Go vegetarian for the cause of nature’.
“I am going to attend the satsang (religious gathering). I have no idea about any incident here,” said Shivpujan Chauhan from Ballia, as he joined a long trail of followers making their way to hear ‘guruji’ speak.
(With agency inputs)