Aditya Sinha

All godmen concoct myths about their spiritual gifts being manifest from childhood; but novels and films depict godmen differently.

Sexy Sadie/What have you done?/

You made a fool of everyone… – The Beatles

John Lennon’s song was originally titled “Maharishi”, written after his band visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, in February 1968. During the Beatles’ stay actress Mia Farrow accused the godman of attempted assault (ironically Farrow had recently finished filming Rosemary’s Baby in which she is assaulted by Satan). The Beatles’ quit the ashram in disgust.

Godmen, as Khushwant Singh wrote, are India’s greatest export. They are among India’s richest men – and women, like Mata Amritanandamayi with her trademark embrace-and-whispering-in-the-ear. Godmen are popular because, as historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, of Indians’ “extraordinary religiosity”. Yet Indians are the first to express scepticism about whether a godman is more of a con-man.

Bikram Choudhary (net worth: USD 75 million) fooled many Americans for years, opening 1650 yoga studios around the world and trying to copyright “hot yoga”, which is just yoga with the heating high. He claims to have spent years atop the Himalayas standing on one foot, like in a mythological comic book. Two years ago, however, he was sued by five women for sexual assault (in January he was ordered to shell out USD 7.5 million to one complainant).

Then there’s the godman who materialised gold chains and watches from thin air. His feats were shown to be sleight of hand by both the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and by magician PC Sorcar. When he died five years ago, his bedroom cupboards were opened and gold and silver (worth USD 5 million) and cash (USD 2.8 million) came spilling out. Worse though were disclosures of how his ashram had hushed up allegations that he had serially sexually abused teenaged boys (think of the recent Oscar winner Spotlight). Many Indian notables, including two former prime ministers, defended him, proving that high office is no bar to being fooled.

Other who have recently gripped India’s front pages include Asaram Bapu (net worth: USD one billion), arrested in 2003 for raping a 16-year-old. On Monday, a follower was also arrested for having killed three witnesses in the same case. Asaram was earlier accused on black magic. And then there’s Baba Rampal (net worth: USD 20 million) who liked to be bathed in milk that was then used to make the dessert kheer by delirious devotees. He was arrested in 2014 after a long stand-off at his ashram between police and his followers; the corpses of four women and one infant were later found buried in the premises.

All godmen concoct myths about their spiritual gifts being manifest from childhood; but novels and films depict godmen differently. In RK Laxman’s The Guide, a tour guide named Raju in the fictional Malgudi is one day mistaken for a godman. He’s asked to fast because of a famine; the novel ends ambiguously with his death by a river (we’re not sure if the rains finally arrived). The novel was filmed in 1965 by Goldie Anand, starring his brother Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman; the ending was sunnier and more mysterious (the Anands promised a reward to anyone who could explain the ending, but people turned out more for the foot-tapping numbers).

Similarly, adman Sujoy Dutta recently published Like a Pinprick to the Heart which despite its rom-com title is about a family of psychics. Again, the protagonist is mistaken for a godman when he wakes up, lost and bedraggled, in the north Indian holy town of Haridwar; but in this story, a local businessman holds him captive and earns good money by showing him off to visiting pilgrims. Both novels involve men who are godmen by accident, though the latter novel gives it a capitalist twist.

So is sniffing out a good deal synonymous to communion with God? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (net worth: USD 184 million) held a massive jamboree (with the government’s blessings) on the Yamuna’s riverbanks in Delhi this weekend. SSRS claims to have tens of millions followers in over 80 countries, and says his breathing techniques can solve world problems, even Kashmir. The government is a big fan of SRSS and awarded him one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Vibhushan, in January.

SSRS is based in Bangalore where, five years ago, an up-and-coming godman named Swami Nityananda (net worth: USD 23 million) was rising meteor-like (perhaps due to his looks and long locks). He was drawing upon SSRS’s devotee base but (in 2010) was one day caught on video in a sex scandal and arrested. The video was later found to be fake and the cases dropped, but not before the government began investigating his finances.

The word in Bangalore was that the Swami was being fixed by a senior godman, and you have to wonder if ruthless competition isn’t the norm. Perhaps it’s a case of a conman recognising another conman; or maybe the spiritual world is one of dog-eat-dog. Either way, people will always need godmen, so they’ll never be out-of-style. As Lennon sang, “One sunny day the world was waiting for a lover/She came along to turn on everyone…”