The paradox in Tamil Nadu

The State, where the self-respect movement was strong, is also home to godmen who run the business of spirituality.

Published : Sep 27, 2017 12:30 IST

Prime Minister  Narendra Modi with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev during the unveiling of the 112-foot iconic statue of Adiyogi Siva at the Isha Foundation in Coimbatore on February 24.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev during the unveiling of the 112-foot iconic statue of Adiyogi Siva at the Isha Foundation in Coimbatore on February 24.

HIS flamboyance would have easily earned him stardom in Bollywood; his articulation and attitude would have made him the first choice for corporate head honcho. The 60-year-old Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev—the tall, dapper mystic with flowing white beard, often dressed in a loose kurta over a dhoti, a custom-made shawl thrown carelessly across the shoulder and a turban tied firmly around his head—skilfully blends spiritualism with business and social activism.

Whether at the multicrore Isha Yoga Centre’s event where he teaches yoga and “inner engineering” or at the various fora where he speaks on economic and social issues, Jaggi Vasudev keeps his audience, who hang on to his every word, in thrall. A hefty fee, euphemistically termed as donation, is charged for the Isha Foundation’s events, whose opulence inspires awe and wonder. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended one such function held at the Isha Yoga Centre at Velliangiri near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

Currently, Jaggi Vasudev is on a mission, a month-long programme on inter-linking rivers, “Rally for Rivers”. He launched it on September 3, driving the fuel-guzzling Mercedes Benz G63 AMG himself, from Kanyakumari to Haridwar. “Rivers are veins to earth,” he said.

There are several spiritual gurus and godmen in Tamil Nadu, a State known for the self-respect movement which strongly advocated rationalism and atheism. What perplexes rationalists is how the people of the Dravidian heartland, where social reformists such as “Periyar” E.V. Ramasamy lived and preached rational thinking, could be home to men who sell spirituality for money with their illogical claims.

Sociologists point out that people’s unflinching religiosity and power-centric politics mix seamlessly in the State. Whenever these godmen appear in public, even powerful people pay their obeisance to them. Ordinary people believe that they can find remedies for illnesses and misfortunes through the “godmen”. “When people experience so much dissonance around them, they deify these godmen, who have no inhibitions in wearing the mantle of divinity. Poverty, ignorance, fear and superstitions help these so-called spiritual leaders to continue their acts of fraud,” says Ramu Manivannan, Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Madras in Chennai. “Instant salvation and eternal bliss are promised here,” he says.

These spiritual gurus do not confine themselves to what constitutes sainthood in the traditional sense. They build hospices, plant saplings, run schools and build temples, among other things and turn their institutions into billion-dollar corporate entities on the way to emerging as alternative power centres. Their larger-than-life images are far removed from institutionalised orthodoxy.

Image construction Ramu Manivannan attributes this trait of image construction to the Tamil people’s inherent love for personality worship. “It is a kind of monism that reduces all phenomena to one principle or that reality is a unitary organic whole. Dravidian parties constructed the idea of charismatic leader and personality through popular mediums and MGR [M.G. Ramachandran] and Jayalalithaa are its products,” he points out.

Nithyananda and the late Premananda belong to a different breed of godmen, having constructed their fiefdoms on the basis of sleaze and “miracles”. They lack the sophistication of a Jaggi Vasudev and they cater to the “spiritual needs” of lesser mortals. There is a third set of spiritual leaders, the pontiffs of centuries-old monastic institutions such as the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt of Kancheepuram headed by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Vaishnavite mutts in Srirangam, Nanguneri and Sriperumbudur, and the Saivite adheenams in Madurai, Tiruvaduthurai and Kundrakudi.

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi was an accused in the Sankararaman murder case. Sankararaman was murdered inside the Varadarajaperumal temple in Kancheepuram on September 3, 2004. The pontiff was arrested on November 11, 2004. After a prolonged trial, a Puducherry court, where the case was transferred from Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu, acquitted the seer in November 2013. The Puducherry government did not prefer an appeal against the verdict. However, the pontiff seems to be in trouble today since the demand for re-opening the case has begun to gain momentum.

D. Ravikumar, writer and senior functionary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), says the Bhakthi cult is the mainstay of these godmen. “In Tamil Nadu, where the anti-Brahmin rhetoric is high, the State and its leaders tacitly promote non-Brahmin godmen, primarily for those living outside the margins of Hindutva’s caste codification, before taking up the administration of the big ‘Vedic’ temples under its control.”

This perhaps explains the rationale behind the presence of a horde of godmen with nomenclatures such as “Beer Samiyar”, “Suruttu [cigar-smoking] Samiyar”, “Vibhuthi [holy ash] Samiyar”, and “Sudukattu [graveyard] Samiyar”. “These men cater to the needs of those who live below the poverty line,” says A. Marx, a social activist-cum-writer.

Ramu Manivannan says atheism propagated by the Dravidian movement has failed because of its high-pitched rhetoric against Brahminism. “But atheism, to promote reason in public domain and social justice, has survived. The Dravidian movement preached atheism but did more to raise political awareness. Its success in relation to Hinduism has to be seen within the specific context of its resistance to Manusmriti’s oppressive social structure,” he says.

Bangaru Adigalar The Adi Parasakthi Siddhar Peedam at Melmaruvathur near Chennai is run by a person belonging to a Backward Caste. Bangaru Adigalar, the head of the peedam, began his career in spirituality in a humble way. Sources in Melmaruvathur told Frontline that he converted a small hut into a temple dedicated to Adi Parasakthi when he was 25 years old. The 76-year-old spiritual leader is considered a “Poorna Avatar” (total reincarnation).

Melmaruvathur, which was a village along the Chennai-Tiruchi Highway, has been transformed into a bustling township with a string of educational institutions, hospitals and charity homes, and the small temple attracting several thousands of devotees every day, all managed by the trust owned by Adigalar, also called ‘Amma’ (mother) by his devotees, and his family. “In fact, his spiritual empire faced controversies, including allegations of financial irregularities and Income Tax department investigations. His son is emerging as the heir apparent,” says a professor who once worked in one of the colleges in Melmaruvathur.

“The trait of showing impeccable loyalty to their leaders has been thoroughly exploited not only in politics but in the realm of faith too,” says Marx. He wonders how the progressive and literate Tamil society could be so irrational. “There is nothing holy about this,” he adds.

Literacy, Ramu Manivannan clarifies, is not an antidote to religion though reasoning. “Religion is not only about beliefs.... All literates are not reason-oriented, they are as superstitious and god-fearing as illiterates. Dravidian ideology may be based on reason but as a movement it had to invent false hopes. People all over the world follow their spirit, and spurious godmen are part of the larger reality,” he says.

The godmen wield enormous clout with politicians and they have emerged as alternative power centres. Whenever rationalists, activists or victims attempt to expose them, the spiritual leaders resort to intimidation. Activists allege violation of environment protection rules by the Isha Yoga Centre situated at the foothills of the Western Ghats and say the centre has grabbed vast tracts of land from tribal people and from reserve forests and encroached upon an elephant corridor. the Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Sethia, who led a fact-finding mission to the site where top educational institutions and private resorts jostle for space, told Frontline that nothing was legal about these mega constructions. “The elephant corridor, through which the elephants from the mountains migrate in search of water and fodder, has been totally blocked,” he says.

M. Siva, one of the conveners of the Velliangiri Hills Tribals Protection Society in Coimbatore, says they have been fighting a war against many of these institutions—spiritual, educational and recreational—which are destroying the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats. “They are creating a concrete jungle in this ecologically sensitive pocket, devouring streams and lakes and destroying the elephant corridor that opens up here,” he says. As per the Elephant Task Force report in 2004, the Coimbatore Forest Division has the maximum number of elephants living in a minimum area of land.

He says that of the 566 square-kilometre Coimbatore Forest Division, 482 sq km has been classified as elephant forests. About 330 elephants use this sector, which has been brought under the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA). “But rules are followed more in the breach here. In the past decade, 120 elephants and 130 people have lost their lives in the Coimbatore Forest Division alone. It has become a man-animal conflict zone,” he says.

The story of Nithyananda A diploma holder from the Industrial Training Institute in Tiruvannamalai, a place renowned for sages such as Ramana Maharishi and Seshadri Swamigal, Nithyananda, born A. Rajasekaran in a non-Brahmin family, chose to follow the path of Swami Premananda, the fallen godman of the 1990s, who died in prison while serving a double life sentence for rape and murder.

Nithyananda’s former disciple K. Lenin says: “He conditions you psychologically and then theologically, slowly brainwashes you and makes you believe that he is the saviour. He ordains himself as the ‘paramahamsa’ [supreme]. He, like any other guru, conducts classes on meditation and delivers discourses. The display of opulence makes you vulnerable and converts you into his vassal and later a victim like me.”

Lenin joined Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam when he was 30 years old, and was given the spiritual name “Sri Nithya Dharmananda”. He went on to emerge as Nithyananda’s trusted disciple. A native of Attur in Salem district, Lenin ran the ashram’s publication section, which raked in crores of rupees.

“He [Nithyananda] identifies his victims, destroys the self in them,” Lenin says. He chooses “his victims” carefully and employs his acts in such a way that by the time the gullible ones realise it, it would be too late to extricate themselves from the intricate web of deceit. He removes refinement from the orthodoxy and instils negativity in the minds of his followers, mostly women and adolescent girls. He makes them sign “non-disclosure agreements” (to discourage sharing of information about the activities in the ashram to outsiders), Lenin alleges. “Even tantric sex is performed there,” he says.

A woman who did not wish to be identified says: “He made us give a part of ourselves to him in our divine pursuit to eternity.” Another woman disciple alleged that Nithyananda had raped her. When Lenin supported her, both of them were expelled from the cult. Subsequently, some video clips showing Nithyananda and a woman actor together were leaked to the media. This shook the very foundation of Nithyananda’s multicrore establishment. Irate mobs damaged his properties located across Tamil Nadu after the sleaze video was beamed by a television channel.

“Cases of sexual abuse, cheating and intimidation were registered against him and are pending before the Supreme Court for which both the woman and I are facing threats.” The Supreme Court, on February 6, 2017, stayed the start of the trial against Nithyananda in the case filed in 2010, which the ashram termed as “a major conspiracy against Swami Nithyananda”. The Karnataka High Court quashed some cases filed against him in 2012. Lenin says that 44 cases have been registered against him at various places, including one in Haridwar.

“We have survived harassment by him because of the strong support we receive from a leading Chennai-based auditor and his legal firm,” he says. Nithyananda and his disciples made an attempt to take over the traditional Madurai Tirugnana Sambandar Adheenam, but local people thwarted it.

Karuppu Karuna, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) functionary and a writer in Tiruvannamalai, who supported the local people in their protest against an attempt by Nithyananda’s disciples to occupy a hillock, says he and his family faced severe intimidation and trolling for this. “We had to retaliate by organising a public protest against them.”

Karuna is not the only one to be targeted. Piyush Sethia, who uploaded a photo of Nithyananda with a woman devotee in his Facebook page, came under vituperative attack from his followers, who used multiple fake IDs to troll Piyush and his family members. “Even my daughter was dragged into it. I requested the Salem City Police to file cases under the provisions of the POSCO [Protection of Children from Sexual Offences] Act, but they refused to oblige. The Police Commissioner refused to meet me, indicating high-level connections the swamy enjoys,” he says.

The Premananda case The story of godmen in Tamil Nadu cannot be complete without a mention of Premananda, alias Premkumar alias Ravi alias “Tiger Swami” who hailed from Sri Lanka. He fled that country during the ethnic violence in the 1980s and set up an ashram near Tiruchi.

Tales of his mystical powers spread far and wide and powerful politicians of the time began to patronise him. His close contacts with the family of Sasikala Natarajan, a close associate of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (she is now in jail in connection with the disproportionate assets case) made him a very important person in 1992. But his perceived divine powers deserted him when an inmate lodged a complaint of rape against him in November 1994. Although the police were reluctant to take up the case initially, they yielded to pressure from activists and the media.

Premananda was charged with raping 13 inmates, molesting two and murdering an engineer in the ashram. Such was his impunity that a woman doctor-disciple was kept in his ashram to terminate the pregnancies of girls Premananda had raped. His victims were all Sri Lankan Tamils. The trial of Premananda ended in conviction with the Pudukottai District and Sessions judge, R. Banumathi, now a judge in the Supreme Court, sentencing him on August 20, 1997, to double life imprisonment and a fine of Rs.67.30 lakh for rape and murder.

The fall of Premananda did not deter other godmen. “Kalki” Bhagwan, born V. Vijay Kumar, in a village near Gudiyatham in Vellore district in 1949, was a clerk in the Life Insurance Corporation before “renouncing worldly comforts” to emerge as a “divine man” in the late 1990s. He established an ashram at Nehamam village in Tiruvallur district with its headquarters at Varadaiapalam in Andhra Pradesh. He started preaching his “Kalki Deeksha Dharma” (Oneness Movement) and at one point reportedly commanded a following of 20 to 30 lakh devotees, in India and abroad. Since the early 2000s, rumours started doing the rounds that the cult had employed hypnosis-prompting devotion. Besides, parents began alleging that their wards were brainwashed to embrace monastic lives. Charges of extortion under the ruse of donations were also levelled. Income Tax investigations and the resultant controversies forced Kalki to retreat to attain “anantha mukthi” (mass enlightenment for humanity). He stopped public sermons and rituals.

Peddlers of spirituality and their salvation are not confined to Hinduism. Christian evangelical theologians give sermons and organise prayer festivals and congregations at which they warn of an apocalypse, “chase away” evil spirits from the possessed, and “absolve” the devotees of their sins. Some of them, like Paul Dhinakaran, who inherited his father’s massive evangelical empire Jesus Calls Ministry of Prayer, have ventured into the field of education. The group established the Karunya University, a Christian minority institution, also at the foothills of the Western Ghats near Coimbatore, which, activists claim, is mired in controversies.

Siva says: “Many institutions, such as the Isha Yoga Centre, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University of the Amritanandamayi Math and Karunya University, are located in the eco-sensitive area. We have been fighting against them. I was even arrested on a false complaint for exposing their irregularities.” He says the harassment continues.

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