Sex scandals and sieges: India's 'godmen'

NEW DELHI - From sex scandals to bloody sieges, India's many self-styled "godmen" - mainly Hindu ascetics with legions of devoted followers - have received a bad rap in recent years.

Spriritual guru Rampal Maharaj was languishing behind bars in the country's north on Thursday after police ended a stand-off with thousands of his followers and a long siege during which six people died.

Rampal, who faces a series of charges including conspiracy to murder, barricaded himself into his ashram guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons after a court issued a warrant for his arrest.

As followers poured out of the ashram and police shifted through the mess, a bizarre picture emerged of life under the guru, who considered himself an incarnation of a 15th-century mystic Indian poet.

Rampal was regularly bathed in milk, which was then used to make kheer (Indian rice pudding). Consuming the kheer could result in miracles such as cured illnesses, according to followers quoted by local media.

"The milk falls on him, while he sits and meditates. The fruit of his meditation is present in the kheer," disciple Krishnan, 29, told the Indian Express newspaper.

But Rampal was hardly alone in his dubious activities - with several gurus coming under the spotlight in recent years, including elderly Asaram Bapu, who was charged last year with sexually assaulting a schoolgirl.

A guru was also arrested in New Delhi in 2010 for allegedly running a vice ring involving air-hostesses, college students and housewives.

For sceptics, the arrests and scandals show that many godmen, despite their spiritual air and claims of mystical powers, are nothing more than confidence tricksters craving cash and power.

But gurus play an integral role in the daily lives of many Indians, who believe their teachings provide a pathway to enlightenment in the deeply spiritual country.

"What is my life now? They have taken away my guru ji (a Hindi honorific), my god," a wailing woman told NDTV network after Rampal was arrested.

Popular gurus include Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the so-called "hugging saint" of southern Kerala, and Sathya Sai Baba who was known for his vast charitable empire.

When Sai Baba died in 2011, he was given a state funeral. Tens of thousands of followers paid their respects along with then prime minister Manmohan Singh and cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar.

After his death, members of his trust found 98kg of gold, 307kg of silver and 115 million rupees (then worth US$2.55 million) in cash in his private quarters.

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev also has millions of followers and a television show. Ramdev, who has a Scottish island and a business empire mainly of health products, has denied allegations of tax evasion.