India's 'godmen' face questions about wealth

The Washington Post/July 12, 2011

Puttaparthi, India - For centuries, their image was as barefoot ascetics who spent their lives in solitary Himalayan meditation.

But now India's gurus, "miracle workers" and spiritual leaders, often collectively known as "godmen," have become savvy, powerful figures who control vast philanthropic and business empires, dabble in politics and manipulate the media.

With that power and wealth, however, have come questions about the business of religion, fueled in recent months by the discoveries of hoards of gold, silver, diamonds and cash, the declaration of assets running into hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, and accusations of money laundering.

The godmen range from "miracle-workers" and "living gods," such as Sathya Sai Baba, the diminutive holy man with a black Afro who left behind a secret trove of gold, silver and cash when he died in April, to yoga gurus including Baba Ramdev, a television star who joined a popular campaign against official corruption, only to be investigated for tax evasion.

The rising wealth and prominence of the godmen in the past two decades has accompanied rising incomes in India and the liberalization of the media. To an extent, it also mirrors the rising political popularity of the Hindu nationalist movement, with its assertion of pride in Hindu traditions and values.

But their popularity is more an expression of "the extraordinary religiosity of the Indian people, which has withstood the forces of education and modernization," said historian Ramchandra Guha. "Its manifestation is the offering of money and jewels to a deity, whether living or frozen in stone."

Often their most devoted followers come from the middle classes, and donations also stream in from Indians abroad. The flood of money is partly a function of the huge rise in disposable income that many Indians now enjoy, but some sociologists say it reflects a need to balance newfound wealth with old-fashioned values.

"The Indian middle classes are a very schizophrenic bunch of people," said Meera Nanda, author of "The God Market: How Globalization Is Making India More Hindu," who argues that it is time the religious trusts were properly regulated, audited and taxed. "They look at renunciation, asceticism, a life of simplicity as a higher ideal, but that is an ideal hardly anyone can live up to with this growing wealth. Giving ends up doing the balancing act for them."

And give they certainly have.

When Sai Baba died in April, his personal chambers were found to contain $2.8 million in cash, along with gold and silver worth about $5 million. Cupboards contained cloth bags filled with diamonds, hundreds of robes, more than 500 pairs of shoes and dozens of bottles of perfume and hair spray.

While his followers insist Sai Baba never even had a bank account, the trust in his name is thought to be worth about $10 billion.

Modern celebrity culture

While Sai Baba generated mystique by limiting his private audiences, the black-bearded and bare-chested Ramdev's popularity owes more than a little to modern celebrity culture.

Like television evangelists in the United States, Ramdev is one of a new generation of gurus skilled at manipulating modern media. At least 30 million people tune into his daily TV program, and he said last year that television had made him "a hundred times more powerful."

But when he joined a popular movement against official corruption with a brief fast in June, Ramdev's supporters were beaten and tear-gassed by police and he was forced to declare his assets.

His trust alone was found to be worth $250 million, a figure that probably includes his yoga university but not his Scottish island - renamed Peace Island - or global business interests that include a pharmaceutical company producing ayurvedic medicine and herbal products.

The government, seeing Ramdev as a political rival, first accused him of money laundering and then opened an income-tax investigation.

"The numbers are staggering, but the ideas that fabulous wealth resides in these places is not a surprise," said social commentator and columnist Santosh Desai, who says that followers often take pride in the wealth of their chosen gurus. "It is curious in a way, for something ostensibly about a distance from things material and closeness to things spiritual, the two sit side by side very comfortably."

Spiritual succor

While some of the self-styled godmen are crooks or charlatans, many provide immense spiritual succor to their followers. When Sai Baba died of heart failure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it an "irreparable loss," describing him as a "spiritual leader who inspired millions."

Sai Baba's philosophy of love, social service and the universality of all religions proved both appealing and powerful, with his motto of "Love all, serve all," and his message that more merit could be gained through service to humanity than through religious observance.

Once a tiny, impoverished Indian village, his birthplace of Puttaparthi in southern India is now a small city, boasting an airport, a four-lane highway, a free hospital, a university, a music college, a space theater, a stadium and an "international" sports hall, all painted in pastel shades of yellow, orange, blue and pink.

But with the vast wealth have come, almost inevitably, questions about whether that money was being properly accounted for, and whose pockets it was ending up in. Those questions were fueled when police stopped a car leaving Puttaparthi shortly after the guru's death that contained nearly $1 million in cash.

Police say they and the income tax department are carrying out parallel investigations, and some Puttaparthi residents took to the streets this month to call for more transparency in the way Sai Baba's estate is run.

Yet few of his devotees, who include some of India's leading politicians and industrialists, as well as Goldie Hawn and Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett, seem to care. India's most famous cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, wept openly at Sai Baba's funeral.

"You can see all the buildings and you can go there, so at least part of the money was spent on something good," Michiel Vanaerschot, 24, of Belgium said with a slight shrug. "People who don't believe, they just can't handle it."

At Prashanti Nilayam, or Temple of Peace, the sprawling ashram at the heart of his empire, devotees talk of how Sai Baba appeared in their dreams, of miracles he had performed to heal them or their family members, or, like Marie Duffy, 25, of Ireland, just of the extraordinary "energy" of the place.

But his record was also deeply controversial. Allegations of sexual abuse of teenage boys surfaced repeatedly, although no charges were ever brought; video evidence seemed to show that some of his trademark miracles, regurgitating a golden egg or producing a Rolex watch out of thin air, were merely sleight of hand.

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