India's spiritual underbelly exposed

India's spiritual underbelly exposed
Self-styled god-man Asaram Bapu after his arrest on Sept 1 for sexually assaulting a follower's underage daughter, and (above) indulging in Holi splashing with his followers during the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad in March.

In recent weeks, India has seen the murder of an anti-superstition campaigner, followed by the arrest of a "god-man" on sexual assault charges.

Dr Narendra Dabholkar, 67, who used scientific experiments and reasoning to disprove claims of miracles and superstitious beliefs, was shot dead by two men in broad daylight in the western city of Pune on Aug 20.

He had dedicated his life to travelling extensively to expose god-men and astrologers, aside from fighting animal sacrifice and India's caste system. He had received hate mail from Hindu extremist groups and his killers have not been caught.

On Sept 1, Asaram Bapu, 72, a spiritual guru who runs 425 ashrams, peddles miracle cures and claims god-like qualities, was arrested for sexually assaulting a follower's underage daughter. The self-styled god-man is a controversial yet influential figure with millions of followers, who have been protesting against his arrest.

The god-man, who was born into a poor family and worked his way up from low-paying jobs, now owns properties estimated to be worth millions of rupees, and lives at his ashram in Ahmedabad. He is said to have high political connections. Even as India builds intercontinental rockets and its own nuclear submarines, age-old superstitions hold sway among large swathes of the population, providing a livelihood for thousands of holy men, soothsayers and astrologers.

The murder of Dr Dabholkar and the arrest of Asaram Bapu, although unrelated episodes, have exposed India's spiritual underbelly. "In the name of religion, a lot of these god-men are exploiting people and they have different modus operandi," said Mr Avinash Patil, a member of the Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, founded by Dr Dabholkar.

"One god-man, for instance, claimed he could perform surgery with his hands and nothing else; another went around with a magic sheet he said could cure any disease. We filed cases against them. They just dupe people."

While some god-men and soothsayers travel through villages and towns, making money by selling talismans and stones said to provide protection from evil spirits or to cure disease, others run large-scale enterprises and attract hordes of followers, including members of the middle class.

"In the neo-liberal society we are living in, we have created a lot of uncertainty. When there is too much to bear, some people facing uncertainty look for solace," said Dr T.V. Venkateswaran, a scientist with Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous organisation under the federal government that promotes scientific and rational outlook.

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