Finally, it took about 300 police officers in riot gear to arrest him at his ashram in the central city of Indore. Angry devotees blocked rail and road traffic in protest and beat up journalists.
Harpalani has maintained that he is innocent.
“Bigger allegations have been made against me in the past; they didn’t stick,” Harpalani said in an interview with the ABP TV channel. “But this is a dirty allegation, and a baseless one. I am so old, the girl is like my granddaughter.”
A new kind of guru
In the past two decades, spiritual life in the country has undergone a transformation as Indians embrace hectic urban lifestyles and move away from their cultural roots of village-based worship
The result is that many have sought solace by flocking to the ashrams of gurus who offer spiritual truisms, chanting routines, yoga lessons and herbal cures — or by watching them on TV, where they appear on shows like the ones that televangelists have in the United States.
These modern-day mega-
gurus are nothing like the wandering saints of ancient Hindu religious texts, who meditated and lived on alms, renouncing all worldly possessions.
Today’s gurus have built hundreds of ashrams across the globe and run flourishing businesses in everything from herbal medicine to meditation and yoga workshops. They travel in luxury cars, glide past airport security and are guarded by gun-toting police officers and bouncers. Some have criminal pasts.
“There is a mushrooming of these gurus who offer black-and-white spirituality without much depth to people who want short cuts in their fast-paced, urban lives,” said Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, an anthropologist and scholar of comparative religion in Goa, India, who has studied controversial gurus.
Harpalani, 72, is no different, she suggested. He was born in a village that is now part of Pakistan and spent time working in a tea stall and as a bootlegger before founding his ashram in 1971, according to local reports.
His empire eventually grew to millions of followers, including high-profile businessmen and politicians. But for some who grew disenchanted, the allegations of sexual dalliances are not a surprise, even though the best-selling item in his ashram’s bookstore is his booklet on celibacy, “The Secret of Eternal Youth.”
“I saw him with my own eyes in a sexual position with a female disciple. Otherwise, I would not have believed it, either,” said Amrutbhai Prajapati, who was Harpalani’s personal physician for 12 years. “The women are told that they are lucky to be touched by him, that he is an avatar of Lord Krishna and the women were his consorts from a previous birth.”
Other, darker charges dog him.
In 2008, the bodies of two young students at the ashram — cousins, ages 9 and 10 — were discovered lying disemboweled on the banks of a nearby river. The boys’ relatives accused the guru of practicing a black magic ritual; he suggested that the boys had drowned. A judicial report on the deaths has not been made public.
‘Truth is fearless’
In the days since the arrest, worshipers are still flocking to the ashram here, and faith remains high.
Inside the complex, devotees sit with their string of prayer beads and chant, pray to a holy fire with fragrant camphor and flowers, or walk barefoot around the wish-granting tree.
Conversations with these followers are sprinkled with tales of how Harpalani’s teachings and herbal medicines have cured them of a variety of ailments, ranging from indigestion to cancer.
On the recent morning tour, Aravala, the Nashville-based software engineer, said this was a moment of immense pain for the followers.
“I am not stupid,” he said when asked about the charge of sexual assault. “Would I leave everything, give up business contracts worth $200,000 in the United States, for a guru who indulges in all this?”
But for now, text messages from the ashram are about as much communication as Harpalani’s followers can hope to receive on him, except for a note released Friday that was written from jail.
He cautioned his followers not to do anything illegal and asked them to keep chanting, stay peaceful and have faith in the Indian legal system.
“The truth is fearless,” Harpalani wrote, somewhat inscrutably. “Lies are without legs. May God bless you all.”