The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deadly showdown at Indian guru’s compound reveals dubious side of the country’s ‘godmen’

Supporters of Indian guru Sant Rampal display his photographs and chant slogans praising him as they gather to show support at a protest venue near Parliament in New Delhi. (Tsering Topgyal/AP)

Large swathes of a town in northern India lay in virtual lock-down Wednesday after clashes between police and supporters of a spiritual leader named Sant Rampal left six people dead and more than 200 injured, including journalists, according to local police.

Rampal and his supporters had been engaged in a stand-off with police for days after they came to collect him on contempt of court charges earlier this month.  On Tuesday, violence erupted as police tried to storm the ashram, where supporters were holed up inside, allegedly using women and children as human shields. Late Wednesday, Rampal was arrested and taken away in an ambulance.

The spiritual leader has missed more than 40 court appearances in a court case that stems from a clash with another guru’s supporters in 2006 that left one victim dead.

Rampal is one of several “godmen” in India who in recent years have built empires of hundreds of thousands of followers, multimillion-dollar businesses and ashrams around the world. These self-styled spiritual gurus – many of whom got a boost from television and media appearances as televangelists do in the West – travel with huge entourages and machine-gun toting security guards.

(Baba Ramdev, one of the best known, was just awarded “Z category” security by the Narendra Modi government, akin to Secret Service protection in the United States.)

Many, like Rampal, have arrest records, or, at best, dubious pasts. In recent years, India’s holy men have been accused of murder, sexual abuse, running prostitution rackets and illegal land acquisition.

Herewith, a rogue’s gallery of favorites:

 Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh

Singh, called the “luxury baba”  who is known for his colorful wardrobe,  presides over a sect called Dera Sacha Sauda and counts more than 15 million among his followers. He reportedly has more than 700 acres of land in the state of Haryana and ashrams around the world.  He is also a recording artist. You can watch him sing his song “Love Charger” – wearing a glittery vest emblazed with a lion – here.

He is being charged with rape and murder.

Sathya Sai Baba

When Sai Baba died in 2011, his personal rooms at his ashram in the town of Puttaparthi were found to contain nearly $8 million in gold, silver and cash, along with bags of diamond, robes and 500 pairs of shoes.

His supporters claimed he never had a bank account, but police and income tax investigators wanted to know, where did he get all that money?

Asumal Harpalani (a.k.a. Asaram Bapu)

The mega-guru has a network of over 20 million devotees and ashrams worth an estimated $760 million. But he is in a Jodphur jail after he was arrested last fall on charges of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old daughter of two of his followers.

Police had almost as difficult a time arresting him as they have bringing in Rampal. He avoided arrest for days, made police trying to serve him a summons wait while he meditated and avoided interrogation by moving between his more than 400 ashrams. Finally it took more than 300 police officers to arrest him near his headquarter in Indore, where devotees blocked rail traffic and assaulted journalists.

Baba Ramdev

The yoga guru is known for popularizing yoga among the Indian middle class through his television show, which debuted in 2003 and has millions of viewers.

He has a trust worth around $250 million, has a Scottish island and a global business worth billions that makes ayurvedic medicine and herbal products.

Over the years, he’s been dogged with charges of tax evasion, which he has denied.

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