NEW DELHI — On a recent Thursday, an emotional family reunion played out in a Delhi courtroom. A weeping 32-year-old woman embraced the sister she had barely seen in 14 years. The meeting, as recalled by the older sibling, was an emotional high point in an unfolding investigation into a secretive religious sect that has shocked this country.
At least 48 underage girls have been rescued in police raids on the sect's ashrams in New Delhi since Dec. 19, officials say. Officials say they have found women and girls kept in prisonlike conditions, behind barbed wire and multiple locked gates. Authorities say there are hundreds more properties and potentially thousands of women and girls living in them.
The sect, Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya (AVV), preaches that its leader is an incarnation of various Hindu gods and has descended to Earth to unite people of all faiths and transform them into deities. Little is known about the sect's origins or its leader, Virendra Dev Dixit, though followers say it is an offshoot of Brahma Kumaris — a large, international sect with more than three dozen centers in the United States and millions of followers worldwide. Brahma Kumaris distanced itself from Dixit's organization and denounced it decades ago.
AVV came under scrutiny after three families filed a case in Delhi's High Court saying that their female relatives had vanished after joining the sect. The 32-year-old is from one of those families. She told The Washington Post that she was raped by Dixit at the sect's headquarters in June 2000, while taking a summer religion course as a teenager. Then, three years later, she said, her parents "surrendered" her youngest sister to the sect. Since then, the woman has tried repeatedly to contact her sister, now 25, and have her released.
"I would never have told anyone all this if my sister wasn't in there," she said.
The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual assault, and the 32-year-old's identity is also shielded by Indian law protecting rape victims.
The sect issued a statement saying that the investigation is part of a "defamatory campaign" and that "no activity detrimental to female devotees or to any other members of the society is conducted in the Vidyalaya."
Dixit's whereabouts are unknown. It was not possible to further corroborate the woman's story.
Dixit claims to be an incarnation of, among others, the Hindu god Krishna, who according to myth has 16,000 wives. Swati Maliwal, chairwoman of Delhi's government agency for women's affairs, said that investigators found 200 women and girls in miserable conditions.
"The ashram has been running illegal activities," Maliwal said. Investigators, she said, found substances that induce dizziness along with unprescribed medicines, which may have been used to drug and pacify women. She also said religious texts found during a raid instruct women to "surrender" their bodies to Dixit.
Maliwal accompanied police on the Dec. 19 raid on one of AVV's flagship ashrams in a rundown neighborhood in northwest Delhi. She described the main building as a "fortress," with multiple locked gates and barbed wire. She recounted finding a room full of medicines, unlabeled substances and syringes, suitcases full of devotional letters written by the sect's women to Dixit, and books and posters that describe Dixit as a god.
"All the girls appeared to be in a trance," Maliwal said.
Authorities removed 41 minors from the facility. Court documents say that at least 168 adult women remain at the site, and 25 adult men live in an annex.
Investigators said in court documents that the women lived in "animal-like conditions" and that many were in poor health and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics.
Maliwal said ashram workers told investigators that the women had chosen to remain. The court's order to search the premises did not give investigators the authority to remove adults without their consent, she said.
Two days after the initial raid, the sect's lawyer brought the 32-year-old woman's sister to court on the instructions of a judge. It was a highly charged moment.
The sisters had not seen each other since 2007, and their last meeting had been closely supervised by the sect's senior followers, according to the older sibling. She described her joy at seeing her younger sister. "I asked her, 'Can I hug you?' And I stuck to her. I couldn't stop crying," she said.
And then, the younger woman returned to the sect.
The older woman, who took a sabbatical from work to fight for her sister's release, said she believes her 25-year old sibling is suffering from years of emotional trauma and will eventually leave the sect.
"I am a very good counselor," she said. "I can get the fear out of her head. I can give her a lot of love and make her okay."
The AVV case comes months after the rape conviction of another popular guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The sect's long existence, despite at least 10 complaints to police over the years, illustrates the unaccountability of holy men in India, where religious leaders have huge financial and political power.
The inquiry into AVV offers hope to hundreds of families with relatives in the sect. Police across northern India are raiding other ashrams associated with Dixit. In Delhi, Maliwal said, five of at least eight ashrams have been searched by authorities. But many of the sect's ashrams are in unknown locations.
A sign outside the sect's headquarters reads, "God Fatherly Spiritual University," a loose English translation of the sect's name. Neighbors said that they rarely talk to the sect's members, and that truckloads of food and other materials are delivered every week. People inside never appear at the building's windows or balconies, all reinforced with metal grills. Sounds of televised spiritual broadcasts start blaring from the building around 2:30 a.m. every day, the neighbors said.
Sporadically, relatives of the residents come and cry outside the building, demanding that their daughters be released, a neighbor said.
"People come, they shout insults, they cry, they bang on the door, they roam up and down the streets, sometimes they stay for days, and then they leave," said Rajesh Goyal, who lives across the street.