NEW DELHI - Quirky spiritualism? Solace? The assurance of food and healthcare? What draws millions of Indians towards gurus whose allure has not dimmed even after some high-profile "godmen" landed behind bars in recent years for crimes ranging from rape to fraud and murder?
The latest guru to be discredited is 50-year-old Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was handed a 20-year prison sentence this week for raping two of his followers. The judge who ruled in the case said he acted "like a wild beast."
At least two more gurus who once had big followings are in jail. Asaram Bapu is accused of raping a 16-year-old girl and Sant Rampal is accused of committing murder.
Scholars say the growing clout of Indian gurus is fueled by poverty, illiteracy and the failure of government to meet such basic needs as education and healthcare.
The power of 'deras'
Rahim Singh's sprawling 75-acre campus in Sirsa town did not offer itself as just a spiritual center. It ran schools, colleges, a hospital and virtually functioned as a parallel administration. The "godman" boasted of ridding thousands of drug and alcohol addiction.
"These 'deras' [facilities] have somehow managed to give this impression that there is a world altogether different," said Sukhdev Singh Sohal, history professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab state.
He said they offer an escape route in a country where blind faith is part of the culture. "They go there, they see that infrastructure and they get infatuated. How they are exploited, they are not aware in the long run."
There are an estimated three thousand big and small "deras" headed by gurus in the northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, where "godmen" are popular. Not all are under a cloud. Many do charitable work and offer spiritual sustenance. And in a country where traditional religion has long marginalized the lower castes, they also offer a sense of community and equality.
But increasingly many gurus are tapping into India's illiterate millions to build a mass following, with some even offering magical powers of healing.
Komal Ghodiwal, who works as a housemaid in Gurugram, has twice traveled with her alcoholic husband to a guru in Rajasthan state. She can barely explain what he does but is convinced that his supernatural powers help her husband get rid of his addiction, at least temporarily.
"He stays away from drinking for a year, but then he starts again," she said.
The illiterate woman, who donates about $25 at a temple where the guru presides during each visit, does not know where else to go. There are no government-run addiction centers close to where she works. She said many in her slum go to him believing he can cure sick people or help childless couples.
"The spiritual component of these "deras" is very wonky and people are looking for some kind of a superman who will solve their problems," said M. Rajivlochan, history professor at Punjab University. "In the case of Baba Rahim, he posed himself as that superman, dressing weirdly, demonstrating that he could do close to everything."
Rahim Singh, who positioned himself as the reincarnation of "the Supreme Creator," acquired rock star popularity because he was not just a cult leader. He made films, he was a singer, he dressed flamboyantly and lived opulently. And although the rape charges against him surfaced 15 years ago, they did little to diminish the faith among his followers.
?The larger-than-life image of gurus like Rahim Singh is reinforced by political leaders cutting across party lines who pay them obeisance and sometimes make donations to these centers hoping to plug into a voter bloc during elections. Several ministers had visited Rahim Singh. Some legislators even defended him after his conviction, saying he had done good work.
The rich are not immune from the culture. Several high profile gurus count the wealthy among their followers.
With their political clout, the gurus also escape close financial scrutiny, making it difficult to assess how some accumulate vast wealth.
Although Singh is now in jail, a number of his devotees continue to believe that he has been framed. Such emotions led his followers to go on a rampage after his conviction. The rioting killed 38 people as government buildings and vehicles were set on fire.
Still, his flock might slowly disperse, given the massive coverage he received on national television, the sealing of his centers, and the swirl of murky stories since his conviction. Among them, stories that he made 400 men undergo castration "to come closer to god."
But the phenomenon of the "godman" is not about to go away. "There is no end," said Professor Sohal. "Such tragic things would happen time and again and they [the devotees] think that God is there to rectify them."