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Indian Guru Convicted of Rape Revered by Millions

FILE - In this May 17, 2017 file photo, an Indian spiritual guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, attends the premiere of the movie 'Jattu Engineer' in New Delhi, India.

The millions of followers of the flashy Indian guru consider him the embodiment of God on Earth.

So when he was convicted of rape Friday, tens of thousands of supporters responded with fury, setting off riots that left more than two dozen dead and buses, trains and buildings set on fire. Police said calm was restored on Saturday.

When he appears in a "darshan," or audience, once a week at his ashram in Haryana state's Sirsa town, the guru of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, makes his followers weep and clap and flatten themselves to the ground at the sight of him. The sect claims as many as 50 million followers.

Supporters of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect charge their mobile phones as they squat in a public park near an Indian court in Panchkula, India, Aug. 24, 2017.
Supporters of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect charge their mobile phones as they squat in a public park near an Indian court in Panchkula, India, Aug. 24, 2017.

Like many spiritual leaders who find blind devotion in the still largely conservative nation of 1.3 billion, the 50-year-old promotes vegetarianism, campaigns against drug addiction and holds massive blood donation camps.

The burly, bearded Insan, who according to the sect's website was born to a wealthy landowner in Rajathan, became the sect's third guru when he was anointed in 1990 at age 23 as the reincarnation of the previous leader.

But the bling-loving leader — he's fond of red leather jackets, bejeweled hats, bicep-baring T-shirts — has another love: Cinema.

He has started a film franchise in which he stars as the "Messenger of God," or MSG, with divine powers to save the world.

His most recent cinematic offering, "MSG — The Warrior Lion Heart," was released last year, with the guru playing a secret agent armed with a twirled moustache and an assortment of swords to fight aliens and UFOs.

In that film he took credit in 30 categories, including dialogue writer, choreographer, props, stunts, film editor and makeup artist. His Twitter biography describes him thus: Spiritual Saint/Philanthropist/Versatile Singer/Allrounder Sportsperson/Film Director/Actor/Art Director/Music Director/ Writer/Lyricist/Autobiographer/DOP.

In 2014, he released a music album called "Highway Love Charger," where he rapped and sang songs in Hindi and Punjabi. According to the group, it sold 3 million albums within days of its release. The songs themselves seem to address a dizzying array of social evils, drug use, prostitution and the evils of abortion.

At concerts to promote the albums, hundreds of thousands of followers swayed to the music as the guru took to the stage in a series of over-the-top outfits.

Friday's conviction isn't his only brush with the law.

He's facing other criminal investigations as well. There's an ongoing trial over the murder of a journalist. He is also under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation over allegations of forcing several male followers to undergo castrations to bring them closer to God. He has denied the accusations.

His massive following makes him a powerful political asset and leaders across the political spectrum court him. His power has also earned him powerful enemies, and he enjoys the highest level of state security in addition to his own personal bodyguards.

The Dera Sacha Sauda sect controls a sprawling empire of 46 centers across the country. In Sirsa, where the sect is based, it runs schools and colleges and hospitals. The sect describes itself as a "social welfare and spiritual organization that preaches and practices humanitarianism and selfless services to others."

Unlike many other religious cults in India, it doesn't align itself to any one faith but propounds a mishmash of philosophical ideals: uplifting humanity, creating a better world, building spiritual awakening.