Saints or frauds? India clashes over 'god-men' as guru Maharaj faces police

Baba Rampal rose from obscurity as a civil engineer to become the guru of millions. Yet police in Haryana decided it was time he answered questions about a murder in 2006 attributed to his private army. 

Kapil Sethi/AP
Controversial religious leader Sant Rampal stands by the door of a police van as he is brought to a court, surrounded by police personnel in Chandigarh, India, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Indian police arrested the 63-year-old self-styled Hindu guru at his sprawling ashram in the northern part of the country, ending a days-long standoff in which six people died and hundreds were injured. He is wanted for questioning in a 2006 murder case, but has repeatedly ignored orders to appear in court.

Baba Rampal Maharaj, one of India's self-styled “god men” has been charged with sedition and waging war against the state following a days-long siege by police on his ashram north of Delhi. It ended with his arrest this week after six people died and hundreds were injured.

More than 400 people have been arrested and detained after the popular guru’s supporters tried to fend off police with homemade bombs, guns, and knives. As of today some 3,000 of his followers who lived on the sprawling ashram complex are still there, but 15,000 residents were evacuated.

Mr. Rampal, often called Maharaj, counts politicians, businessmen, and top security officials among his millions of followers. And to his devotees, the so-called god man, who is in his early 60s, is an incarnation of Kabir, a 15th Century Indian mystical poet and a devoted saint.

To his critics, he is a fraudulent huckster or worse, who has fooled rich and poor alike in a career that includes the expropriation of land and murder allegations. Rampal has avoided more than 40 court orders and police summons in connection with a murder investigation dating to violence by his private army in 2006.

The two views of Rampal clashed this week as authorities decided to raid the ashram and force compliance with the law. Police first cut water and electricity to the compound to force Rampal out. Thousands did leave, even as reports now suggest that armed followers of Rampal first forcibly held back those trying to escape. But Rampal only came out late Wednesday. 

India's many gurus

Rampal himself rose from a relatively obscure job as a civil engineer to become one of India's premier "god-men."

In a majority-Hindu country of more than a billion people, prayer and religious consultation ahead of business or personal decisions remains active and alive as a practice, and god men or gurus remain part of the crucial mixture. Rampal is part of a large network of gurus that preach virtue and often offer advice on achieving  miracles – and whose followers or clients include film and sports stars as well as the powerful and the poor.

The world's best known cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, is a follower of guru Sai Baba, who drew millions of followers around the world with his mystical powers including conjuring objects out of thin air.  

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became a guru to the Beach Boys and the Beatles and played a role in the British Fab Four’s brief “Magical Mystery Tour” to India in the 1960s. He became best known for propagating Transcendental Meditation or TM in the West, a stress reduction technique that, he claimed, can make people levitate.

Rampal had become known for curing a variety of aches and pains and for his vigorous opposition to alcohol and tobacco. Those who smoke tobacco, he said in one of his videotaped addresses, “will be reborn as a dog in the next 70 lives.”

Many of the gurus are successful entrepreneurs and conduct mass mediation camps and yoga classes, and sell audio and video products. Like Rampal, successful gurus build large, often gated ashram communities complete with stores, hospitals, and schools.  

Baba Ramdev, one of India's most popular TV gurus, has a vast yoga empire. His holdings include a small island off the coast of Scotland. Critics have accused him of amassing a fortune in donations and not paying taxes. Ramdev denies such allegations.

Another Indian guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who heads a popular religious sect, also appears on TV and even performs at concerts which he calls "Religious Rock" and has acted in films.

Many of the gurus cultivate relationships with political parties, which call on them to mobilize voters for elections. At least two Indian prime ministers – Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao – had spiritual advisers.

But the enormous power Indian gurus wield has led to scandals and criticisms involving either the spiritual or temporal exploitation of devotees. Recent years have brought charges of sexual offences, shady property deals, tax evasion, money laundering and homicides.

 Last year a self-styled spiritual guru, Asaram Bapu, who boasts 20 million followers, was arrested after a teenage girl accused him of rape on the pretext of cleansing her from evil spirits. Mr. Asaram is currently in prison.

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