In India, the term “godman” refers to a type of charismatic guru. It is worth asking why so many people – numbering in the millions – become followers of these charlatans. Is it the need for guiding light and spiritual healing, or is it a combination of poverty, ignorance, superstition, insecurity and caste hierarchies, all of which are too common in India?
The recent high-profile trial and conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh makes one wonder how people like him manage to get away with what they do for so long. Praised by none other than current Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his social-welfare efforts, this messenger of God has just been given a 20-year sentence by a Central Bureau of Investigation judge for raping two of his followers. Two who have dared to speak up – we don’t know how many have not spoken. The cult leader with reportedly billions of followers is also accused of two murders and 400 forced castrations.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, though, is neither the first nor will he be the last godman to be called out for what they truly are, despite their proximity to top political leaders. Here are 10 other infamous “holy men” – and one woman – who have thrived in India.
- Swami Premananda: Escaping the civil war in Sri Lanka, this controversial godman moved to India in 1984 and set up an ashram for women and orphans in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. But in 1994, Arul Jyothi, a young girl who escaped from the ashram, reported that she had become pregnant after being raped repeatedly by him. In August 1997, Premananda, along with six accomplices, was convicted of raping 13 minor girls. He was also convicted of murdering a disciple who had tried to expose his illicit activities. He died in prison in 2011.
- Asaram Bapu: This extremely popular religious leader was arrested in 2013 after a 16-year-old girl accused him of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Since then, there have been numerous attacks against various witnesses in the case. Amrut Prajapati, one of Asaram Bapu’s personal aides, was killed on May 23, 2014, an another associate, Akhil Gupta, was shot dead on January 11, 2015. Asaram Bapu, along with his son Narayan Sai, has also been accused of being involved in the mysterious deaths of two boys who were studying in his ashram. There are also allegations of illegal land grabs in the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. He reportedly had 400 ashrams in India and abroad at the time of his conviction.
- Sant Rampal: On November 18, 2014, police in Haryana state found the bodies of five women and an 18-month-old child at Sant Rampal’s Satlok ashram in Hisar, where they had gone to arrest him in regard to another case. Thousands of his followers fought a pitched battle with the police, and it took 20,000 security personnel finally to capture him the next day. Sant Rampal had earlier been jailed for 22 months after he was charged with the murder of a man who died when his followers clashed with those of the Arya Samaj on July 12, 2006. He has since been cleared of illegally confining thousands of followers and obstructing officials in 2014 when they stormed his 5-hectare ashram, but the murder charges against him remain.
- Chandraswami: This powerful godman is alleged to have been involved in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. An income-tax raid on Chandraswami’s ashram reportedly uncovered drafts of payments, totaling US$11 million, paid to arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. In 1996, he was arrested on charges of defrauding a London-based businessman of $100,000, and in June 2011, the Indian Supreme Court fined him 900 million rupees ($14 million) for violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. He died on May 23, 2017.
- Paramhamsa Nithyananda: He was arrested and spent 52 days in jail in 2010 after a leaked video showed him engaged in sexual activities with Tamil actress Ranjitha. Both Nithyananda and Ranjitha insisted that the video was morphed, a claim that was later proved by a confession by the ex-chief operating officer of Sun TV. However, in 2012, Indian-born US citizen Arthi Rao claimed that he had raped her for several years.
- Swami Amrita Chaitanya: Santhosh Madhavan alias Swami Amrita Chaitanya was sentenced to 16 years of rigorous imprisonment and a penalty of 210,000 rupees in 2009. A year earlier, he had been charged with the rapes of three under-age girls and a 22-year-old woman, making pornographic videos, financial fraud and possession of narcotics. He had also been arrested by Interpol in March 2008 for duping a non-resident Indian woman of 4.5 million rupees.
- Jayendra Saraswathi: In 2002, the 69th Shankaracharya (head) of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, a Hindu monastic institution in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, was accused of a murderous assault on Radhakrishnan, an auditor who was investigating where 83 kilograms of gold meant for the Kamakshi temple had disappeared to. Two years later, another case was filed against him as the prime accused in the murder of temple manager Sankararaman. But on November 27, 2013, the Shankracharya, along with 22 other accused, was acquitted by the court because all the witnesses failed to identify the accused.
- Swami Bhimanand: This self-styled holy man reportedly ran a sex racket and was arrested twice in Delhi and later in Mumbai. He was backed by around 2,000 followers when investigators tried to enter his ashram. He was finally arrested in 1997 for running a sex racket and in 1998 for receiving stolen property.
- Radhe Maa: One of the most controversial self-proclaimed godwomen, Radhe Maa was recently in the news after a Mumbai woman filed a complaint against her under the Dowry Protection Act. The 32-year-old woman alleged that she had been mentally and physically tortured by her husband’s family at the instance of Radhe Maa. After several pictures of her in a red miniskirt surfaced on social media, cases of obscenity and cheating in the name of religion were also filed against her. Several complaints have been filed against the self-proclaimed godwoman at different places. She has been accused of cheating, spreading superstition, hurting religious sentiments and buying a car with fake documents.
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: The guru of The Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi enthralled the band with his antics and his preaching. The musicians visited India in the 1960s and stayed at his ashram in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, an experience that they later claimed influenced their music for years. They parted ways with him, however, as there were reports that the Yogi engaged in perverse actions and made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow. Their relationship soured, with John Lennon later saying, “There is no guru. You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got to get down to your own god in your own temple. It’s all down to you, mate.” The Yogi died in the Netherlands in 2008.