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06 August 2008

Agents Of God

Surajit Dasgupta
People, especially apolitical Hindus, have got so used to hearing scandals involving the so-called saints that news of the type does not shock them anymore. To theologians, these scandals are but expected as they can tell a true spiritualist from a fake religious leader. As people drift away from faith, disillusioned with the present crop of evangelists, much as they may need faith in these stressful times, the solution is for commoners to graduate to being theologians

NRI's murder: Five Swadhyay members arrested
The Indian Express| AHMEDABAD, 4 JULY 2006: Five members of the Swadhyay Pariwar, a socio-religious organisation founded by Pandurang Shastri Athavale, were today arrested for allegedly clubbing to death killing non-resident Indian Pankaj Trivedi outside a club here on June 15.
Two years before his death, Trivedi had written to Chief Minister Narendra Modi that he feared for his life at the hands of Parivar members. His family members, too, had said he was under threat. Read more...

Tribal alleges rape in Jodhpur temple
PTI| JODHPUR, 3 October 2005: A Dalit woman was allegedly raped by four men inside a temple complex run by Rajasthan government in Jodhpur, a senior police official said on Sunday.
The victim hails from Bheel community and is living in Haddi-Bheel locality of Basni on the outskirt of Jodhpur city, DSP Rajendra Singh Sisodia said. Read more...

Godman accused in woman's murder case arrested
The Hindu| HYDERABAD, 12 February 2001: The Kukatpally police on Monday claimed to have solved the case relating to the murder of a 34 year-old woman, Sreedevi by arresting a self-styled Godman, B Sreenivas alias Srinivas Bhagavan alias Datta Bhagavan alias Baba (43), and four of his relatives.
It may be recalled that the case created a sensation as the body of the woman was found at the Godman's ashram at DK Enclave in Miyapur on the intervening night of January 20 and 21 this year. Four others who were arrested include Sreenivas' wife Laxmi, sister Anuradha, brother Ravindranath Tagore and a follower, K Mahender Reddy, who gave shelter to the Godman. Read more...

Ashram mahant held for rape
The Tribune| Hoshiarpur, 15 February 2003: On the complaint of a resident of Gali Zaildaran, near Diwankhana, Mahilpur, the police has registered a case under Sections 292A, 293, 376 and 506, IPC, against Mahant Alkha Nand of Sidh Jandi Ashram of the same town for allegedly raping, blackmailing and terrorising her.
Mahant Alkha Nand was arrested last evening.
The complainant has stated that she had been a devotee of Mahant Alkha Nand for 14-15 years and used to go to his ashram for doing voluntary service. She alleged that during a visit to the ashram one day, the mahant raped her and tale of her woe started from that day. He used to allegedly call her at the ashram and rape her regularly for about eight years. Read more...

Premananda gets life sentence
The Indian Express| MADURAI, 20 August 1997: Controversial Swami Premananda of Premananda Ashram in Viralimalai near Pudukottai was today convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 67.30 lakh imposed for various criminal offences including rape and murder.
The much awaited judgement was delivered by Pudukottai District and Sessions Judge Banumathi in a packed courtroom.
Premananda alias Premkumar alias Ravi was charged of raping 13 inmates, molesting two and murdering Ravi, an engineer, in the ashram. The judge also found six others guilty of the conspiracy to commit the rapes and destroy evidences and awarded life imprisonment to five of them.Read more...

AP school headmaster suspended for sex scam
Rediff| Hyderabad, 21 October 2000: The district administration on Friday suspended a headmaster in connection with a sex scandal in a residential ashram school for girls in Vishakapatnam district.
According to reports reaching the state headquarters, the suspension of Sriramulu was ordered following a preliminary probe that revealed sexual abuse of several tribals at the school. Though initial reports indicated that six minors were seduced and made pregnant by the headmaster and teachers, a preliminary enquiry by officials found that a standard VIII girl was three months pregnant. Read more...

Murder-charge cleric denied bail
BBC| Chennai, 8 December 2004: A top Hindu cleric charged with murdering a worker at his temple in India's southern Tamil Nadu state has been refused bail.
Prosecutors told the High Court in Madras (Chennai) that Jayendra Saraswathi might attempt to suppress evidence if released.
The cleric, who heads one of the five seats of Hinduism in India, was detained four weeks ago.
The case has gripped India, with the seer's followers furious at his arrest. Read more...

Swaminarayan temple priest held in sex scandal
Rediff| Junagadh, 15 February 2005: The priest of a Swaminarayan temple was among four people arrested in Junagadh city of Gujarat in connection with an alleged sex scandal involving the sect.
"The priest, Bhaktiswarup, and three touts were arrested by the Crime Branch late last night [Monday night] under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act," Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime) DG Vanzara told reporters in Ahmedabad on Tuesday. Read more...

Ashram deaths: Police release vital proof
NDTV| Chhindwara, 5 August 2008: After bodies of two young boys were recovered from spiritual guru Asaram Bapu's ashram in Chhindwara last week, the Madhya Pradesh police had claimed that a teenager at the ashram had killed the two boys.
After furore over the deaths, the police have released evidence on what led them to the 14-year-old accused.
Exclusive pictures of the teeth marks of the accused found on one of the bodies of the victims may prove to be the clincher. Or so claim the police. Five-year-old Vedant was found dead in a bathroom at the Asaram Bapu ashram in Chhindwara. Read more...

Senator Questioning Ministries on Spending
The New York Times| Washington DC, 7 November 2007: Senator Charles E Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating six prominent evangelistic ministries to determine whether they have illegally used donations to finance opulent lifestyles...
These ministries are being investigated:
  • The Rev Creflo A Dollar Jr and his wife, Taffi, of World Changers Church International, based in College Park, Ga, popular prosperity preachers with churches and homes in New York City and Georgia.
  • Paula and Randy White, a dynamic young couple who started Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries in Tampa, Fla, but who are now divorcing. Mr Grassley wants them to document clothing expenses and any cosmetic surgery from 2004 to the present.
  • Benny Hinn of World Healing Centre Church, a showy faith healer based in Grapevine, Tex, who holds large crusades around the world. Mr Hinn is being asked how he handles cash collected on his overseas crusades and how much he spent on hotels and food for himself and his staff members during layovers on his trips from 2001 to the present.
  • Joyce Meyer, who with her husband, David, runs Joyce Meyer Ministries from Fenton, Mo., and who is popular especially with women for her no-nonsense brand of self-help. Mr Grassley wants her to explain the "tax-exempt purpose" of purchases including a "commode with marble top" bought for $ 23,000 for her headquarters.
  • Bishop Eddie L Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga, a megachurch in the Atlanta suburbs with an active media ministry.
  • Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Tex. Read more...

The problem
Most newspapers and television news channels cited above are ill-famed, despite their established markets, as Hindu baiters. The right wing in India reads or watches them if only to get angry at what they say. Hindu nationalists think of the BBC as still suffering from the hangover of the British colonial days when the Queen's London-based administration would tilt more in favour of Muslims than Hindus under the Divide-and-Rule policy, while broadcasting any report with an undercurrent of communalism. The club further conceives of The Times Of India and The Indian Express as newspapers whose editors think belittling Hinduism is 'cool'. That is why it became necessary to quote Rediff, a web-based resort of many a right wing writer. For, with due respect to the great faith of Hinduism, that the fold has a fair share of black sheep cannot be denied.

The current dispute involving Asaram Bapu's ashram is not the preacher's first brush with controversy. One who was a bicycle mechanic more than 40 years ago, Asumal Thaumal Harpalani should have taken more care to save his skin while increasing his market of faith to a Rs 5,000 crore empire, coming as he does not from any hallowed intellectual or industrial circle. This blog-post need not repeat what has been disclosed by various newspapers and magazines about Asaram already. Rather, it must add to them. But first a quick recall: Asaram and his son Narain Sai are facing lawsuits against them for cases of forgery in Gujarat. Against the 'bapu' there is one case of murder, one of forgery, one of cheating and another of forest land encroachment in Delhi. Asaram is accused of being involved in a land scam in Sayam village near Chandigarh where he allegedly sold some land owned by the government to 450 people by distributing plots of 200 sq mt each. The godman allegedly holds land and property illegally in Patna where he also got a notice for eviction and had to shut shop.

How puerile these godmen are can be understood from the fact that they set stoolies and saboteurs in each other's camp in a bid to shine in contrast to the defamation of the rival. Scores of Delhi-based followers of both Asaram Bapu and Sudhanshu Maharaj openly admit to being instructed to fiddle with the financial accounts of each other after winning the trust as an 'insider' in the rival camp. Like politicians, these godmen are never affected by any scam, though. It's the follower, who obviously couldn't have played foul without being instructed to do so, who faces the music (law). It's quite a sorry state of affairs for this country where people have lost faith in law and are sure that, as in any scam involving politicians, in cases involving godmen too, be it the Surat or Patna land scam, some stooge will be made the scapegoat and Asaram will walk free.

Apart from saying that such allegations are "baseless", followers of these 'holy' preachers never dare confront the charges levelled against their gurus in courts or in print, supported by hard evidence. After Tehelka reported a month ago that Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living fame had entrusted a dodgy aide with the task of quickly multiplying his Rs 4 crore, the man who heads a Rs 400 crore business of faith issued no rebuttal. Curiously, the godman's name was missing in the first section of the story that quoted a "source" from Delhi Police's Economic Offences Wing. When the name did appear in the next section, care was taken by the paper to keep an alibi ready: that the first section was about somebody else. But the insinuation was all too evident.

Since 1993, investigative news reports by television programmes such as "Inside Edition", "Dateline NBC", the Australian edition of "60 Minutes" and several network affiliates in the US have called Benny Hinn's bluff — that of being anointed by God to heal the diseased. In April 2001, HBO aired "A Question of Miracles", a documentary on Hinn and fellow faith healer Reinhard Bonnke. The programme’s director Antony Thomas told CNN's Kyra Phillips that they did not find cases where people were healed by Hinn. In October 1999, Hinn and his church, along with the Orange County Sheriff's Office, agreed to pay $ 610,000 to 10 religious protesters who brought suit after they said they were arrested without cause outside the church of the Orlando-based minister (in June 1996, Pastor Ricky L Johnston and members of his Volusia County congregation were demonstrating in front of Hinn's World Outreach Centre when they encountered the church's security force). Hinn has also been criticised by a number of Christian watchdog groups for not joining the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. In the summer of 2003, after Hinn conducted 'crusades' in St Petersburg (Russia) and Stockholm (Sweden), then departed for a four day whirlwind trip to Italy and London, billing it as a simple layover, he couldn't explain convincingly how he managed

  • $ 5,000 cash given to Pastor Benny Hinn (PBH), no details for the reason, and
  • a gift from Benny Hinn to a 'homeless woman with a baby' of $ 20

In response to none of these cases, the Israeli born Toufik Benedictus Hinn could come out in the open in self-defence. All he managed was trying to scare the atheists of the "wrath of God".

As for corruption cases and other scandals involving Muslims, in July 2004, a Muslim charity in the US was shut down after American federal authorities accused it of being a financial arm of terrorists; Americans still suspect the charity of conspiracy, dealing with terrorists and money laundering. The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, its executive director, its chairman and five other men were named in the 42-count indictment. About $ 4,000,000 of its assets had been frozen by the US government in 2001. The indictment charged that Holy Land provided financial aid to the militant group Hamas as far back as 1988 and that the charity was deeply involved with a group of Muslim organisations that raised money for the "Islamic fundamentalist agenda espoused by Hamas”. If a section of the Muslim population refuses to consider this a case of corruption, and calls it American witch-hunting, read on; there also exist other types of corruption cases involving Muslim clerics.

Closer home, in Bangladesh, anti-corruption authorities began investigations into graft charges against that country's most prominent Muslim cleric and leader Mati-ur-Rahman Nizami. He was arrested in a pre-dawn swoop on his private residence by armed police in the capital Dhaka as recently as May 2008. Nizami, who heads Bangladesh's largest Islamic party the Jamaat-i-Islami, is facing charges of accepting bribes for handing down contracts on government purchases to private companies.

Also to be called into question is how far one can stretch the argument that depravity for a certain culture could be morality for another. Age, or lack thereof, is no hindrance to marriage under Islam, according to Ahmad al Mu’bi, a Saudi cleric who arranges for marriages. Last month he said sex at the age of nine was fine. According to a video of the Saudi official recorded and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, al Mu’bi confirmed that marriage contracts were appropriate for girls as young as one-year old. And he said that the model for marriage continued to be Prophet Mohammed, who married one of his wives when she was all of six. The video comes from a broadcast on LBC Television on June 19, according to the MEMRI report.

Back home, and once again about the corrupt section of Hindu preachers, on 3 May 1998, Gadadharnand, chairman of the powerful trust which controls about 80 Swaminarayan institutions all over the world, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances; it turned out to be a fall-out of a power struggle within the sect. The Vadtal Swaminarayan Temple Trust had to remove Chief Executive Kothari Bhaktikishoredas along with four other godmen named by the CBI in the kidnap and murder case. In November 1998, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) faced a revolt by its devotees over a series of sex-scandals involving its high-flying gurus. The most high profile scandal but unfolded in November 2004 when Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham’s Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati was arrested on charges of the murder of A Sankararaman, a former manager of the mutt. Then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa claimed that the arrest was made on the ground of “solid evidence” in the form of a statement by two of the prime accused in the case confirming his involvement and huge sum of money drawn to pay for the murder and telephone conversations with the killers. To make his case worse, some woman novelist accused the seer of improper behaviour 12 years after some alleged incident. This scandal was followed by one involving Swami Nityananda (Subhash Shetty till 1980 before he was initiated into the Saraswati order of monks) by the Hyderabad police on the charge of amassing volumes of “ill-gotten” wealth. The list of scandals involving religious preachers is endless. Hence, some newspaper columns calling the unfolding of any such incident “shocking” is just making a clichéd overstatement.

This writer was asked by The Statesman to produce a thoroughly researched article on the incident of undue haste shown by the administration in arresting Kanchi's Shankaracharya, whose feared flight out of India stretched the imagination a bit too far, in December 2004. By the time the article was completed, fresh ‘evidence’ (in the form of accusations) surfaced against the 'seer' and the newspaper decided not to embarrass itself by publishing the article, though it wasn't in defence of the accused.

In this context it must be noted that every media house, whether running a newspaper or a television news channel, has a tendency to take a firm, almost non-negotiable editorial stand on issues that have political overtones. Sometimes these events take an unexpected turn, and the paper or the channel concerned is left looking stupid, arguing its case desperately against what is now obvious. This writer wouldn't tread — and wouldn't have trodden — that path. There was no suggestion in that article that claimed the Shankaracharya was innocent, nor did it pronounce him guilty. The piece was just on the politics behind the whole affair.

The solution
Treading as cautiously this time too, while telling the real from the fake, I wouldn't ask readers to follow a particular guru who, you never know, might do something horrid tomorrow to my utter embarrassment. What can, however, be said with absolute surety is that the primary evidence that suggests a guru is genuine is his knowledge of the scriptures, which the fakes don't have much. The latter hasn't got much beyond the gift of the gab.

In all the scandals enumerated in this article and all other scandals of the type, two factors strike us as common: (1) None of the accused come across as a literary genius of the religious order. Even Jayendra Saraswati fades in comparison to his predecessor, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the 68th Shankaracharya of Kanchi. And (2) the class of people these godmen cater to (explained later).

One may recall what was written in an analogy in the account, "Why I Am Not An MBA": "never have I found these crowd-pulling orators say anything that an ordinary person cannot think of independently — without help from a 'guru' — if only he exercises his brain a little". This writer, a self-believer, does not attend satsangs, quite against the fad all over north India. But about a decade ago, it was indeed amusing listening to those who speak from the wyaasa peetham on channels like Aastha, Sanskar, God, etc. A Morari Bapu would narrate incidents from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, judiciously avoiding the more profound Ramayana of Valmiki — my principal objection to the Awadhi version is that it obliterated the fine line of demarcation between the descriptions of a human idealist and God and, thus, killed the spirit of Maryada Purushottam — and ask the front benchers for interpretations of the text. Then, to the utter chagrin of any theologian, he would go "yeh bhI thIk hai", "yeh bhI thIk hai" (this too is right)... in response to every interpretation that different members from the audience would offer! If everything any Tom, Dick or Harry said was "thIk hai" (all right), to serve what purpose was he sitting atop the pedestal? Then there was the now-controversial Asaram Bapu. Most tales he would narrate were fables, many of them concocted ex-tempore; they are not to be confused with the Jataka tales or the Panchatantra. And then he would reach the most banal of conclusions. Once he exhorted the crowd not to "show off", wearing a cross. Why it was showing off, he tried to explain, but couldn't. Some Kirit Maharaj with a heavy Gujarati accent would urge his followers to shun the company of other godmen by telling the people how his contemporaries goof up while using anecdotes. And then, he would himself goof up while narrating his stories. A Digambar Jain muni would, delivering his speech in a shrill voice in the highest octave, make fun of the episode of monkeys making rocks float on the Indian Ocean in the Ramayana. A Buddhist monk would speak so slow that most in the audience would doze off. And the most terrible were the histrionics of catholic evangelists and conmen like Benny Hinn, prancing about a big stage, making gesticulations one associates only with salesmen of low-quality detergents sold in Indian middle-class neighbourhoods.

This is not to demean the necessity to connect to the masses using today's language and bhajans instead of shlokas. But if communication is the objective, the purpose is well served by explaining in Hindi what verses in Sanskrit mean. The gasbags wouldn't do that, for their analogies are a camouflage to hide their lack of intellect. I object to the use of the Puranas instead of the Vedanta also because the former had eventually become the stick for missionary evangelists and tablighis to flog mediaeval Hindus into believing that Hinduism was all about faith in the veracity of cock and bull stories.

Those were the days when I would watch Aastha, Jagaran, Sanskar or God after constantly watching news channels and Discovery Channel got a bit tiring. If there were a counted few on Aastha who could match the thorough knowledge of their religion like Islamic clerics on QTv, I could trace only three. Without naming them, lest I should be called their PR agent, I allude to (a) an oily-faced, long haired man who sits on a golden throne and quotes extensively from the Vedas, (b) a Ramakrishna Paramahansa look-alike with a heavy Tamil accent who explains Shrimadbhagwadgita using the most lucid of quotidian analogies, and (c) a hermit who was once a pilot; I like the third for his repeated, tireless assertion that a guru is a path, not the destination. He has also stunned the scientific community by successfully enduring the toughest of yogic kriyas. As I write this, I hope none of these three preachers ever gets mired in any controversy.

Talking about more recent times, it was very embarrassing for Hindus to see Ravi Shankar come up with acutely lame arguments while debating with Zakir Naik in a congregation of Muslims in October 2007 in Bangalore (now Bengaluru). That Naik is mischievous for quoting the Qur’an, the Hadith and the Shari’at wholesomely and Hindu religious texts selectively to project his religion’s superiority is well known. Yet, Ravi Shankar did not do his homework properly and somehow managed to utter Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s line in his defence: যত মত , তত পথ (jato mat tato path) (all opinions are nothing other than different ways of attaining God). So much for Ravi Shankar’s claim that he has been reciting the Gita (by rote?) since he was all of four (writing about his degree in physics at the age of 17 would be a major digression).

This writer has had some first hand as well as a near-first hand experience of the hollowness of Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living. Readers of this blog may go back to the account, “The Pioneer Of Sham Journalism,” to read my former colleague Gautam Siddharth’s character — a picture in contrast to everything any sensible religion preaches. The second relates to my wife’s experience last year. She happened to be coerced into attending a religious meet at the place of one of her colleagues. Fortunately for she and I being a highly compatible couple, she suffers from none of the stresses that her friends were talking about at the meet while looking for glib-talk as solutions. Nevertheless, after she whiled away the discourse and the assembly dispersed, a middle-aged woman started nudging her to become a member of the society. My wife argued that she didn’t need such help, but the woman was insistent. The evangelist’s sales techniques could well have worked but for a major ‘earsore’. While returning home, in between trying to hard-sell the Art Of Living to my wife, the subject the woman was dealing with in her conversation with others inside the car betrayed a terrible sense of taste. She told others how horrible several of her woman acquaintances were; she cribbed about her husband, cursed her parents in-law and, of course, kept getting back to my wife to rub it in that the Art of Living relieves stress. The conclusion I have reached after meeting several other members of this society from Hauz Khas to Greater Kailash to Preet Vihar is: If you are mean, join the Art Of Living. But I cannot guarantee that will broaden your mind. At best, as I have seen in some cases, the effect of its discourse will stay with you for about an hour or so, after which you are once again your true self — incorrigibly dissatisfied with your environment, scheming and conspiring against everybody in his/her absence. Watch the video at the end of this article to know how Ravi Shankar has been fooling people, passing off a scientific truth as power of some magical potion.

Let's deal with the second common factor now. The overwhelming presence of Gujaratis in the list of preachers above but gives a clear indication: Gujarat is a state of business class people. In business, you are forever insecure of the vicissitudes of fortune. And the more insecure you are, the more you cling on to faith. For, only a businessman can tell how it feels when as a pauper in the morning, one has to figure out how he can shell out a million dollars in the evening, failing which his life is doomed, and succeeding in which he will turn a billionaire the next day! In this terrible state of mind, it is not surprising that Gujaratis (and many Marwaris from Rajasthan) flock to any holy-looking person bearing a semblance of a soothsayer or a healer or at least a religious preacher. On their part, the gurus, who too belong to the same region famous for its business-mindedness, understand this market well and cash in on the mindset, laughing their way to the bank. However, there is no point cocking a snook at such nervous minds. Insecurity will remain and so will the desperate hope for divine intervention. Judiciousness, hence, lies in choosing the right guru. The business class is expected to have this sense of discretion amply, though being herded to preachers with shallow knowledge has so far not done justice to their image of intelligent people.

Finally, there is no gainsaying in exposing godmen. You know they are, in the overall analysis, not trustworthy. Yet, like a drowning man you catch the straw. Followers of religions of the jungle (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc) will be insecure because of lack of discipline. And followers of religions of the desert (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc) will be insecure for exactly the opposite reason — too much of discipline and the instilled fear of a retributive god. Christians who turned atheists or agnostics after World War II are in a no-man’s land. They are people who are not sure of any theory in the world — whether it concerns home, office or neighbourhood. So, there will be insecure people all over the world and there will be those who secure their finances exploiting that insecurity in every country and culture. The good idea is to make oneself the ultimate counsellor.

If you think the world is good, you don’t need to be lectured on how to relieve stress. If you think the world is bad, be happy that you aren’t (that is, at least, what you think of yourself) and enjoy the feeling of being rare, if not unique. No guru can change for good the person you are unless you are your own guru. Once everybody is his/her own guru, there won’t be any more news of scandals involving godmen. Tell the agents of God, God isn’t a prostitute; He does not need pimps.

The writer is a mathematician and linguist, now a corporate communicator and has been a science journalist, a teacher and a marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations

'Sri Sri' Ravi Shankar exposed

Recommended reading: Psychotherapy and Survival in Cancer: The Conflict Between Hope and Evidence by James C Coyne, Abramson Cancer Centre of the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Stefanek, American Cancer Society; Steven C Palmer, Abramson Cancer Centre of the University of Pennsylvania

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.