MUMBAI With two sex scandals and a fatal stampede, it's been a bad week for India's “godmen”, the self-styled Hindu ascetics whose followers range from farmers and housewives to politicians and rock stars.
On Thursday, 63 people — all of them women and children — were crushed to death in a stampede at an ashram run by a popular holy man in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
The day before, angry villagers in the southern state of Karnataka attacked another religious retreat after a television station aired footage purportedly showing its long-haired 30-something guru fondling two women.
And last weekend, police in the capital New Delhi revealed they had arrested a godman for allegedly running a vice ring involving air-hostesses, college students and housewives.
For sceptics, the sex scandals show that many godmen, despite their spiritual air and claims of mystical powers, are nothing more than confidence tricksters craving cash and power.
“Ninety-five per cent of godmen give the remaining five per cent a bad name,” joked Dipankar Gupta, a former sociology professor at Jawarhalal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“Most of them are not (holy). They're charlatans. That's why they crave indulgence from the rich and the gullible. This happens all the time. I don't know why people fall for them.”
But for many Indians, these gurus play an integral role in daily life, taking their place in the country's vast spiritual supermarket to be handpicked as a pathway to enlightenment.
Foreign tourists have flocked to India seeking spiritual awakening and an escape from their hectic lives in the West, ever since the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi captivated The Beatles with his teachings on transcendental meditation.
Today, popular gurus include Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the so-called “hugging saint” of Kerala, and Sathya Sai Baba, a wild-haired south Indian godman who claims to be the reincarnation of a 19th century yogi, Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Both have massive followings and hundreds of spiritual centres and charitable foundations working in areas like health and education around the globe.
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi — known as “Amma” or mother — pledged 23.4 million dollars in aid for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, as well as free education and counselling for children orphaned in the tragedy.
Padmini Sardesai, a 72-year-old part-time shop worker from south Mumbai who also acts in commercials, is wary of modern-day gurus but like many Hindus reveres Sai Baba of Shirdi.
“He's like a god,” she told AFP. “He has done some miracles. I have faith in him because he's the incarnation of Dattatreya (a combination of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva).
“Whatever your wish it will be fulfilled. Praying to someone like Sai Baba is for mental peace. These people won't harm you. They will show you the proper path.”
The latest scandals, however, are further ammunition for critics of modern-day godmen like Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association, which campaigns for scientific reasoning over superstition.
“All godmen are fake,” he said. “All godmen work on the basis of the gullibility of people... they only want power and money.”
He said anyone can don saffron robes and proclaim to be a godman or join the ranks of the saddhus — the unwashed, wandering mystics often found through a fug of marijuana smoke in places like the holy city of Varanasi on the River Ganges.
Shiv Murat Dwivedi, arrested last weekend in New Delhi, “used the guise of spirituality” as well as the offer of money, expensive gifts and cars to lure young women into a prostitution, from which he made millions, police said.
Edamaruku suggested a need for answers in an increasingly complex world explained the cult of godmen.
“It's people who want instant solutions, instant miracles, they need something in front of them,” he said.
Gupta agreed. “People want customised, designer religion and the public is becoming more and more individualistic,” he said. “They can't look for the usual routes to salvation.”
Hinduism — with its many gods, magic and mysticism — leads people to seek out such individuals to fulfil the emotional desire to believe or even a basic human need to congregate, he added.