From a public servant to a public swayer, 63-year-old Rampal Das — the self styled godman whose arrest has been sought by the Punjab and Haryana high court in a case of criminal contempt of court — has climbed several ladders of fame as well as notoriety.
Sant Rampal, as he is reverently called by his disciples was an ardent devotee of Lord Hanuman and Lord Krishna for 25 years. However, even after meditating for hours and following religious practices, Rampal could not attain God or peace. This purportedly changed when this former junior engineer with Haryana's irrigation department came in contact with Swami Ramdevanand, a follower of reformer-saint Kabir.
Ramdevanand's radical views on religious practices influenced him greatly, and eventually led to his taking 'naam'. In 1994, he was
reportedly ordered by Ramdevanand to initiate other people into taking 'naam', and he quit his government job in 1995.
His journey as a bona fide 'godman' began on a four-acre plot at Karontha village, 15 km 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 now.
A farmer's son
Born on September 8, 1951, at Dhanana village in Sonepat, Rampal comes from a typical rural family. His father Nand Lal was a farmer and mother Indira Devi, a housewife. Breaking from the farming tradition, he studied for a diploma at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) at Nilokheri, Karnal.
His profile on his official website — jagatgururampalji.org — says he was an ardent devotee of Lord Hanuman initially but later got initiated into Kabir Panth, a sect that draws its ideology from the 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 (name of his religious centre) in 1999.
Rampal lived with his wife and two married sons in Rohtak's Shastri Nagar at the time of his 'renunciation'. His family now has houses
outside, and are also said to put up in the ashram at times. His two daughters are married as well.
Following the 'other' path
Rampal's charm probably lies in the manner in which he criticises set beliefs. He has been adept at questioning and challenging the origin and ancestry of gods and the popular interpretations of Hindu scriptures.
He glorifies Sant Kabir as the Supreme God, even 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 and claims the "real truth" has been hidden from the people by gurus and intellectuals who have interpreted scriptures in the past. This draws people from the middle-class as well as the demography that has been persecuted within popular religions.
"Our race is living being, mankind is our religion, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, there is no separate religion," he says on website.
Conflict with Arya Samaj
From 2000 to 2005, Rampal courted several controversies because of his discourse.
Arya Samaj followers — those who believe in the traditional Vedic philosophy that Rampal challenges — first objected to him in 2006
when he raised questions over Satyarth Prakash, written by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj.
While Satyarth Prakash in a layman's translation would mean the light of truth, Rampal's comment meant it was a book of 'mithya' or myths.
"I have not described Arya Samaj as bad but the knowledge which is pointless. In fact it should be christened as Mithyarth Prakash," said Rampal.
A clash between Arya Samaj followers and Rampal's devotees in July 2006 claimed the life of 20-year-old Sonu in a 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.
Wide and virtual
Today, Satlok Ashram has 71 acres of land in Karontha and his rise has been fuelled by generous donations, though VIP visits have thinned down since the 2006 clash.
His Facebook page was started primarily to clear the air after the clash. Since then, it has been carrying videos and explanation notes
regularly, growing in popularity and giving Rampal a virtual, wider platform.