Men lie prostrate on the floor in front of the elevated seat of their guru — the man they call Asaram Bapu. Pictures of his avuncular face, with its flowing white beard, hang everywhere in this sprawling, 30-acre ashram in western India.
But these days, the guru’s enclosed wood-carved altar, where millions once worshiped him, is empty. All that’s left is a large photograph, an air purifier, blingy lights and fake red roses.
The guru, whose real name is Asumal Harpalani, is languishing in a Jodhpur jail, arrested last month on charges of sexually assaulting the 16-year-old daughter of two followers.
In recent weeks, the allegations against the mega-guru — who has a massive network of 20 million devotees and hundreds of ashrams worth an estimated $760 million — have stunned and split India.
The scandal has raised questions about the unprecedented boom in spiritual gurus in the world’s largest democracy — and the enormous power and wealth they wield. Harpalani is not alone among them in amassing riches or getting in scrapes with the law. One holy man, Sathya Sai Baba, died in 2011 and left behind nearly $8 million in gold, silver and cash. In recent years, other gurus have been charged with murder, sexual abuse, running prostitution rackets and illegal land acquisition.
Yet the guru phenomenon has continued to grow in India — buoyed by the 24-hour religious programming on television and an increasingly stressed-out middle class seeking easy, prepackaged bliss.
“He has blessed my family all these years. Now it is my turn to pray for him,” said Anjali Chand, 42, who brought marigolds to the ashram with her children. “He is like a beautiful lotus, and the allegations are like muck and dirty water.”
The ashram, once a place of peace, is now under siege. Devotees look at every newcomer with suspicion. The guards chase away television news crews. And there is talk of a grand conspiracy to defame their guru.
“Devotees are calling all day, asking, ‘What do we do, what do we do?’ We tell them to have faith and chant to get rid of the false allegations,” said Venkat Aravala, an Indian-born software engineer based in Nashville, who was giving a rare tour of the grounds recently. Aravala, 34, a follower of Harpalani’s since his teens, comes from the United States to volunteer at the ashram once a year.
Allegations of sexual abuse of female followers, shady land acquisition and even murder have dogged Harpalani for more than a decade, but he could not escape the most recent allegation. Two of his followers turned up at a police station on Aug. 18 and said he had sexually assaulted their daughter.
The teen, a student in one of the ashram schools, told the police that the “godman” called her into his room late one night to exorcize evil spirits. He gave her a glass of milk, switched off the lights and started molesting her, according to charging documents.
“I kept crying for about one and a half hours,” the girl told police, according to the documents. “He told me not to tell anybody or he would get my father killed.”
Police charged Harpalani with sexual assault of a juvenile, but bringing him in was not easy.
In a telling sign of his clout, Harpalani avoided arrest for days. He made the police trying to serve him with summons wait while he meditated and gave sermons and media interviews. He skipped out on interrogations by hopping between some of his more than 400 ashrams.
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.”
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.
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.”