The world of Indian ‘godmen’: Of gold hunt, rape cases, lurid videos, eye-popping feats
For more than a week, convicted ’godman‘ Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has hogged the national spotlight.
The Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s followers have run riot across five states in clashes that have left 38 dead to protest his conviction for raping two women 15 years ago.
But Singh isn’t the only one. Controversial religious leaders and spiritual figures have thrived across India for decades, commanding massive following in their pockets of influence. HT takes a look at some of them:
Uttar Pradesh: Swami Shobhan Sarkar
Swami Shobhan Sarkar aka Suryabhan Tiwari triggered a treasure hunt unlike any other four years ago.
He sent Archeological Survey of India officials on a hunt for 1,000 tonnes of gold buried at a 19th century fort at Duandia Kheda village in UP’s Unnao district, 100km from Lucknow.
Sarkar had dreamt of the gold and the hidden treasure remained that way — in dreams, never found.
Few have seen Sarkar and even fewer have spoken to him because he chooses to communicate through his disciples. Nobody is allowed to take his photograph. Nearly six feet tall and well-built, he is bald and clean shaved.
“Despite his dream of hidden treasure not coming true, his stock remains high among followers,” the officer added.
Andhra Pradesh: Bala Sai Baba
A part of his name, his hair, dress and demeanour resemble the late Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi and the 57-year-old self-styled godman is building up quite a following across the country and abroad. Bala Sai Baba also dishes out “miracles” — spitting out small Shiv lingams from mouth, producing holy ash, plantains and gold chains out of thin air.
His ashram, Sri Bala Sai Nilayam, in Kurnool also resembles Satya Sai’s Prashanti Nilayam in neighbouring Anantapur district.
His spiritual empire is said to be worth hundreds of crores, with donations pouring in and foreigners queuing up at his ashram.
Bala Sai’s empire grew in the last three decades and controversies followed.
He was accused of encroaching on a land next to a land his trust bought. There was also a cheque bounce case against him, besides recovery of allegedly unaccounted money worth Rs 7 crore from his ashram a couple of years ago.
The allegations have not stuck.
Odisha: Sarathi Baba
Between 2010 and 2015, Santosh Roul, a Class IX dropout who once sold betel leaves, held sway over lakhs of devotees in nondescript Barimul in coastal Odisha’s Kendrapara district as Sarathi Baba.
Roul claimed to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna.
His “miracles” included pulling ash out of thin air, honey dripping from his feet and a cement cow at his ashram giving milk. After he was busted, police found the milk from the cement cow came through a carefully hidden pipe.
In August 2015, an Odia TV channel aired a video claiming to show him drinking whisky and biting into tandoori chicken with a woman MBBS student in a Hyderabad hotel. The ‘exposé’ of the baba, a self-proclaimed vegetarian and teetotaler, triggered violence in Kendrapara town.
The protests spread and chief minister Naveen Patnaik ordered a CID probe. After he was arrested, some women alleged he tried to seduce them.
Trial in one case against Roul has started, while he has been chargesheeted in two other cases. He secured bail in two cases, but remains in jail in connection with one.
Goa: Pastor Domnic D’Souza
He is the founder of Domnic and Jo-an Ministries set up in 1998 at Siolim in North Goa. It is named after him and his wife.
D’Souza is the pastor of his 5 Pillars church in Sodiem-Siolim region and is often in the news. According to his followers, this is due to his feats of exorcism and healing with a touch.
In June 2012, the church and retreat centre at Sodiem-Siolim landed in trouble after a follower fell within minutes of D’Souza blessing him. The man was shifted to hospital, where he died.
A case was registered under Section 304A of IPC (causing death by negligence) and is still being investigated.
The same year, the local court also banned D’Souza from entering Sodiem-Siolim for 60 days following a clash with residents.
Madhya Pradesh: Lal Sai
Lal Bulchandani gained popularity as Lal Sai in Bairagarh, Bhopal. Politicians made a beeline for his ashram, but his world came crashing down after he was accused of raping a teenage follower in October 2008.
He surrendered before the court in June 2009 and got bail two days later. Lal Sai’s advocate, Ajay Gupta, said the court had acquitted his client.
Lal Sai now stays in his ashram, but has lost most of his followers.
Jammu and Kashmir: Gulzar Peer
Self-styled faith healer Gulzar Peer aka Gulzar Ahmad Bhat is currently in jail.
Four girls studying at his religious seminary in his home district of Budgam in central Kashmir accused him of rape and molestation in 2013. A court acquitted him after a 21-month trial.
This triggered a furore in Kashmir, prompting the state government to appeal against it in Jammu and Kashmir high court. The high court dismissed the government’s plea.
Later, he was booked under the Public Safety Act, which allows police to put any person behind bars without trial.
Karnataka: Swami Nithyananda
The high-flying Swami, who runs the Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam in Bidadi on the outskirts of Bengaluru, is fighting a slew of allegations, including rape and cheating, levelled by followers.
In 2010, a video purportedly showing him getting intimate with a woman actor was shown on a local TV news channel, leading to calls for his arrest.
Nithyananda went into hiding but was arrested from Himachal Pradesh. A case was registered and proceedings were in court when the state government and the main complainant moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, which ordered a stay.
(With inputs from Anupam Srivastava, Rohit K Singh, Haidar Naqvi; Srinivasa Rao Apparasu; Debabrata Mohanty; Nida Khan; Punya Priya Mitra; Ashiq Hussain; Vikram Gopal)