The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian
Politics, cinema and godmen are the three major addictionsfor the people of India. In south India, there is just a hairline which separates all the three. Cine stars have become politicians and even chief ministers, ministers and MLAs. One of them, former chief minister of united Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao (NTR), who used to play the role of Lord Krishna with aplomb in many of his films, was almost worshipped as God, or Devudu in Telugu. He would sit on a deer skin dressed like a sadhu and bless his ministers and others.
While Andhra Pradesh has had the largest number of godmen and spiritual gurus like Sathya Sai Baba who was credited with having miraculous powers, Tamil Nadu is close behind. Karnataka has its own set of seers led by the Tumkur mutt head, Shivakumar Swamiji, who is now 103 years old. But almost all the mutts and their seers in Karnataka have a huge following and mostly they are divided on caste lines.
However, among these there are three godmen who have been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons — Swami Nithyananda, who has an ashram at Bidadi near Mysore in Karnataka; Swami Premananda, who passed away in 2011 while serving a jail term in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu for several cases of rape; and Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation who is a high profile spiritual guru who is close to the powers that be, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who came all the way last year to his ashram near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu to participate in Mahashivrathri celebrations on the inauguration of the 112-feet Adinath statue.
Prem Kumar, better known as Swami Premananda, was a Tamil from Sri Lanka. Kumar had an ashram and orphanage there, in Matale. He moved to India with his followers in 1984 to escape the Sri Lankan Civil War, bringing with him undocumented Sri Lankan orphans.
He initially opened an ashram in a rented building in Tiruchirappalli, then moved to a 150 acre premises in 1989.
He made it a shelter for women and orphan children. About 200 people lived in the ashram, most of Sri Lankan origin. His rise was phenomenal and he opened branches of the ashram in the UK, Switzerland, Belgium and some other European countries.
In 1994, one of the girls living in the ashram, Arul Jyothi, escaped and reported that she had been raped and was pregnant. On November 15 that year, the police started an investigation. There were also reports of the murder of another ashramite, Ravi, for attempting to expose the happenings at the ashram.
The trial proceedings began in a sessions court in Pudukottai, and the star counsel for the Swami was none other than the top criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani. The defence claimed that Premananda had divine powers and was capable of performing miracles, which included materialising vibhuti and regurgitating small Shiva lingams.
Ram Jethmalani argued that the women had consented to sex.
But the court noted that some of the girls had been threatened with dire consequences and that some of the victims were below the age of consent 16 at the time of trial when they were raped.
Jethmalani also said that the trial was unfair because witnesses and the accused had been subjected to police brutality. However, the police went ahead in full steam and dug out the murder victim’s remains which were found buried on the ashram premises.
DNA samples from Arul Jyothi, her aborted foetus, and Premananda were also taken as evidence.
In a remarkable judgement, on August 20, 1997, Premananda was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined 67.3 lakhs rs. for 13 counts of rape, molestation of two girls and a murder. Failure to pay the fine was to carry an additional term of 32 years and 9 months.
Premananda died on 21st February 2011 of acute liver failure, while being held in Cuddalore Central Prison. Until his death, he continued to say he was innocent.
The main allegation against the Jaggi Vasudev is that nearly 1,000 volunteers’ had been forced into slavery to run its daily affairs and activities. Another charge is that it has used its brand name to collect money for non-existent public welfare programmes.
The lid was blown off when one Prof Kamaraj alleged that two of his daughters were kept captive at the ashram. According to Kamaraj they went to the ashram out of curiousity but were brainwashed to stay back and they don’t even recognise their parents now.
When volunteers who are forcibly kept in the ashram show signs of stress and despair, they are ‘counselled’ into remaining there. “But I do not know if I can call it brainwashing. When they feel distressed the volunteers are asked to take a vow of silence for an unspecified period says VRP Senthil, former organiser of Isha Forum, Pollachi and Isha Public Relations Committee member.
Senthil said, Isha Foundation uses its brand name and influence to wriggle out of tight corners. I myself have represented the foundation and committed mistakes.
Sadhguru wife, Vijaykumari, attained Mahasamadhi in the year 1997. In the yogic culture, Mahasamadhi is an act of intentionally and consciously leaving your body.
About seven months after her death, the New Indian Express newspaper reported that a case had been filed in the Bangalore police station against Sadhguru accusing him of causing the death of his wife. The case was transferred to Coimbatore Police. However, eight months later, a news report said the case was closed after investigation by police, who found no wrongdoing.
This raised many eyebrows and political activists raised their voice of protest.
So there are no cases pending in any of the courts, though the media has been gunning for him under one pretext or the other. There are also allegations that he had allowed cutting of nearly a thousand trees in the WesternGhats to set up the ashram.
The only issue which has mysteriously been buried under the carpet is Kamaraj complaint about his daughters. No one knows what happened to them till now. There were photographs of two young women, with a clean shaven heads, walking inside the ashram and Kamaraj had identified them as his daughters. But Jaggi Vasudav has got off the allegations.
After Premananda death the other Ananda who hogged the limelight for almost three years was the controversial self-styled godman Nithyananda Paramahamsa. This tainted godman with a colourful lifestyle has an ashram in Bidari on Bangalore outskirts.
He was first arrested when DV Sadananda Gowda was chief minister of Karnataka after several of his followers appeared on a private Kannada TV channel and accused the godman of exploiting them.
Arathi Rao also a follower of Nithyananda gave a detailed account of her five-year experience with the guru. She alleged that Nithyananda repeatedly raped her and threatened her with dire consequences if she revealed it to anybody. Arathi also claimed that it was she who had secretly filmed Nithyananda sex tapes with a Tamil actress, Ranjitha. Though Arathi refrained from lodging any formal complaint with the police,after she spoke to the media, it was sufficient for the government to order a probe against Nithyananda.
It was also revealed that Nithyananda had forced some of his followers to sign a non-disclosure agreement to experiment with tantric sex.
It was stated that Ranjitha the actress in the scandalous videotape, was practicing Tantra with him. He reportedly taught her the self-control she had to achieve before any intimacy. But she denied any involvement and said the videos were manipulated. Briefly she went abroad to escape the media but now she has returned and is reportedly back in Bidadi ashram
Nithyananda is also lying low now and hardly comes out of his ashram.There are many cases against him both in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu but his ashram continues to attract devotees and for some mysterious reasons, both the state governments have not pursued the cases vigorously. Apart from these three, there is any number of small time gurus in south and take the gullible for a ride. Women are their main targets and many do not come out in the open and explain how they were cheated, fearing social stigma. In such a situation, the show goes on and these fake gurus make merry and go laughing all the way to the banks.
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