Reflections on India’s Godman Syndrome

By Dr. Sulekh C. Jain

During the past few weeks nearly all media in India and some in the US carried news of the arrest of the self-styled godman Rampal of Satlok Ashram in Haryana. The 63 year-old Rampal was arrested on November 19 after a two-week tense standoff between his supporters and the police after close to 15,000 of his followers were evacuated from the sprawling premises. The massive operation to locate and arrest the controversial ‘godman’ cost the exchequer over Rs. 26 crore (S4.2m). During the standoff between Rampal’s followers and the police, five women and a child had died, while more than 200 people were injured.

It is hardly surprising then that some of godmen behave like magicians and the followers who visit them are miracle seekers.  People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes. Modern gurus gain mass following through technologies such as the Internet, satellite television and social media. Rampal, a charismatic orator started out with an anti-Arya Samaj treatise and then added on miracle powers to woo the gullible. Like other godmen, he was flush with funds too.

Like Satlok Asharm of Rampal, there are nearly 100 deras (ashrams, cults) that dot rural Haryana and Punjab. The dera leaders are a variation of India’s godmen because they hold their supporters in thrall, mostly confine them to fortified ashrams and like most cults have deviant sexual practices (incest, polygamy, orgies), miracles and a religious mumbo-jumbo which is often a variation of known religious texts. These half-baked philosophies are then sold to the gullible. In all such deras, the magnetism and healing powers of the leader is basic to its success but violence is a cult characteristic. Every deviant cult leader displays a streak of violence. Rampal is no exception. He had an army of highly-trained commandos at his beck and call and used them when the police laid his ashram under siege. The “commandos” used bullets, stones, acid and petrol to send the police scurrying. Over a 100 policemen were injured.

In every country and society there are always many such people like TV Evangelists in the US,  the Jonestown Camp Massacre in 1978 in Guyana, and so many more.

It is not that people are gullible in India only. The aura and attack of some of the godmen from India has reached here in US too.  Last year, one such godman with his oratory and claims of charisma charmed one person in US who wrote a check of one million US dollars after listening to the godman just for 20 minutes. Later the donor found out that the godman was a fraud and fake and sued him. This victim himself told me his story, how he was mesmerized and fooled by the fast talking godman.

In another case this year, the former leader of the now defunct Hindu Temple of Georgia, Swamiji Sri Selvam Siddhar was sent to prison after a jury convicted him of defrauding his followers. He charged his followers fees in exchange for spiritual and related services, but then would run-up unapproved charges, using their credit card numbers, authorities said.  “The Swami Ji traded on his perceived religious authority and spiritual powers to cheat the faithful who believed in him,” said United States Attorney. “The jury saw through his deception. “The money he made through fraudulent charges was used to finance his and his family’s lifestyle, which prosecutors said included luxury vehicles, control of multiple homes and foreign bank accounts in India.  Swami ji once owned a million-dollar home in Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth, GA.

How we remain vigilant and reduce this disease in society is up to us.  It is not entirely possible to completely wipe out fraud and deception by so called godmen. It is a fact that as long as greed, a desire to get  something for nothing,  the increasing richness and  affluence of the people coupled with the effective  use  and power of the media, internet and social sites like Face Book, this disease and menace will spread even more. These self-styled godmen and their exploitation and I hope India will be cleaned to some extent of this filth and disease in the society.

Dr jain in

Dr. Sulekh C. Jain