Sinners and Saints

 The myth around Asaram Bapu is cracking faster than he could imagine

Chhaya Joshi Ahmedabad

Rashmiben Patel was deeply impressed when she first caught a glimpse of ‘young Asaram' in 1973. Her father-in-law Natubhai Patel had invited the young, "promising sant" to his textile mill in Kalol, apparently to seek his blessings. As she saw the young sant, she was attracted by his magnetic personality, what she calls his "hypnotic pull".

"I was absolutely impressed. He looked so elegant in his white robe. I kept wondering why this young handsome man - who looked like a prince - had become a sadhu," recalls Rashmiben, 65, an unwavering devotee of Asaram Bapu. She is aware of the ongoing controversies that Bapu and his Narayan Sai, 35, a self proclaimed avatar of Krishna, are facing. For Rashmiben, however, it was love at first sight, in a divine sort of way. That very day, back in 1973, she says, a "spiritual romance" began. Over the years it blossomed into full-blown unconditional devotion for her guru.

Asaram's ‘spiritual' empire is reportedly estimated to be worth Rs 5,000 crore - 212 ashrams, 1,200 centres. over 300 products (including ayurvedic medicines produced by ashram members) and two magazines with a ‘circulation of 15 lakh'.

It does not matter to Rashmiben that over two dozen ashrams of her guru are involved in land disputes and ashram members stand accused of grabbing government or private land. What is of sole concern to her is the "solace" and peace of mind she gets.

Born into a multi-millionaire family in Surat, Rashmi had seen affluence but something was missing in her life - her life was ruined when she discovered that her husband was an alcoholic. She had no social life and her husband would shout at her children. She had no visitors, nor could she meet her friends. There was plenty of money but no peace of mind. In Ahmedabad, where she moved after her marriage, she kept herself busy for 20 years rearing her two children. She never got a chance to visit an ashram until 1995, but her first impressions had always stayed with her.

An old university friend took her to Asaram Bapu at Motera Ashram in Ahmedabad in 1995. Once again, it was a divine experience. For almost a month, both of them attended Asaram's discourses. "It was like a miracle. I could once again cope with my life," she says. She took diksha three years later in 1998.

Her friend, Sugata Patel, had a similar experience. "Miracles happen when you have faith in Asaram Bapu's healing powers," she says. Almost every devotee who has been introduced to him narrate the same story. Asaramayan, his biography, documents his miraculous powers that every devotee claims to have experienced.

Asaram Bapu's spiritual project was tailored to suit disillusioned people like Rashmiben, those who had no dreams. His prescription - medicine produced in-house, spiritual discourse, chanting of mantra and devotion - has been successfully implanted into the minds of his followers. To his credit, he simplified scriptures. He also does not discriminate. For him, rich and poor are alike.

 Many of Asaram's followers are from disadvantaged sections of society. An added attraction is the free food and other facilities that they get whenever they visit the ashrams to attend discourses. In the tribal areas of Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and western Madhya Pradesh, bhandaras (feasts) are organised in which free food, utensils and cloths are distributed.

After the death of two students in Asaram Bapu's ashram in Motera under mysterious circumstances and the subsequent outrage, and the controversy  involving his son, the number of daily visitors has dwindled. But those who believe in him strongly defend him.

There is a section of devotees who are skeptical about his ambitious son, who, they believe, can resort to anything and stoop to any level. They point out that he wants to become as popular as his father but he lacks the "charisma" and capability to become a cult figure.

The land disputes involving Asaram Bapu's ashram, however, posit a different picture. The BJP, the ruling party in Gujarat, chose to turn a blind eye. His ashram empire and his alleged, rather unverified investments in real estate, shopping complexes and the stock market, make him appear as a hardcore businessman masquerading as a spiritual leader.

Religion and spirituality is a lucrative business in Gujarat, where many ‘saints' have thrived. Most of whom are outside the state. Since the early 1980s, Gujarat has been a fertile ground for those who spoke about Hindu scriptures. Mostly and inevitably, these ‘prophets' and ‘godmen' gradually got aligned with the Hindutva forces and shared the platform of the Sangh Parivar.

So who is the real Asaram Bapu? His secret of success lies in the fact that he understands marketing gimmicks. He sensed how to make effective use of the media. Ashram's publications are sold in 10 countries. He has a slot in a private TV channel. He also cleverly marketed his preaching of celibacy and his ‘tantrik'  ability to make childless women give birth. Sociologist Guarang Jani from Gujarat University says there are instances of his practice of tantrik rituals.

Gujarat has a tradition of preachers. In the 1980s, when Hindutva was on the rise, the state was a fertile ground for people like Asaram Bapu, but he was not the only one. Kerala's Paniwala Bapu, who distributed bottles of water to cure infertility, even had actors like Dilip Kumar and Saira Bano as guests.

Asaram Bapu was a synonym for change, and he soon had the BJP cadre and local policemen under his influence. He also recruited men from UP and Bihar who became lathi-wielding sadhaks, as seen on TV, thrashing journalists.

That is, beyond the cultivated veneer of spirituality, a grey zone has come to haunt this guru. Surprisingly, not only locals who claim to have "seen him through" even sections of his disciples seem to have gone against him. The murders of children have opened up too many layers of the dubious within the divinity.