Nitin Pujar is a socio-political observer. He understands nine languages and has been a curious researcher all his life.

OMG! The Messy Messiahs

Published Sep 3, 2017, 4:04 am IST
Updated Sep 3, 2017, 8:07 am IST
Controversial charlatans from various religious groups have thrived across India for decades.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim was recently convicted in two rape cases registered against him. There was riot like situation in Haryana.
 Gurmeet Ram Rahim was recently convicted in two rape cases registered against him. There was riot like situation in Haryana.

Controversial charlatans from various religious groups have thrived across India for decades. But what ‘power’ do some of these rogue spiritual leaders have that some of their followers even sacrifice their lives for them!

From Rajneesh to Ramdev, from Radhe Maa to Robin Vaddakumchiryil, from Nithyananda to Asaram, from Cardinal Pell to Zakir Naik — and now Ram Rahim, controversial religious leaders have always been there across the world. The transactional nature of religion, sects and gurudoms has always been out there and in the open, yet we as a society always shy away from admitting the same. All great religions promise a better life and a fantastic afterlife. Period.


Across the world, not just India, whenever there is uncertainty, despair, or when terror stalks the soul, these ‘messiahs’ get an entry into our lives, needless to say, all expenses paid. From the Pope with the institutional clout that transcends national power to the Mormons who borrow from Christianity to the Sufi movements that thrive as nodes of faith that challenge the written word and scriptures with their own benign interpretations of peace and love. From the Buddhist origins in India to the Japanese and Taiwanese cults based on them that are completely unrecognisable by any one of them. From the mutts and deras to the temple towns and trusts that dot Hinduism’s ecosystem. Each form and format is transactional and thus a deal! It is a give and take. This makes it an enforceable contract. Okay, may be not enforceable in a legal sense, but a contract nevertheless.


Godmen (and godwomen) exist in all denominations, religions and forms. From a local parish priest to the pujari to the aamil or maulvi to the dastoor or the granthi, who typically are part of an institutionalised system, to the trans-institutional or para-religious faiths like Sai Baba of Shirdi and the pantheon of new age gurus, maas, babas, swamis, devis, etc.

So what is the deal? The follower comes across a group of followers of a leader who invite, coerce or push her into a socio-religious, prescriptive way of life that has benefits that are tangible as well as experiential. It often is better than the way of life she has experienced thus far and so constitutes a better deal.
For this deal to get better, it has to be better incrementally and thus should grow as per the followers need for more as well as has to add new followers for common gain and good. This is achieved through group rituals and calendars of festivities and celebrations that are often funded by small donations at an individual level that are based on the ability to pay and thus will never hurt the pocket of the follower enough for it to be a disincentive. This starts the corpus of economics and economic transactions that are charitable in intent but economically powerful in content.

radhe maa

As the quantum and scale grows based on the ability of the guru/pir/evangelist and the experience she delivers, the reach and outreach grows. It morphs into a need to provide for ever-larger infrastructure and services (and of late products) and thus becomes a service delivery institution over time.

As with all institutions, the place, services and engagement paraphernalia include books, music, talks and propaganda material and events that are actually and understandably a self-sustaining ecosystem. The economic power of these systems are not lost on society (and more often than not societies and nations are based on these systems) and thus they create legal sanctions and forms of institutionalisation such as charity trusts on a micro level on the one hand and — as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church — a transnational economic entity owning property and assets across the globe on the other. The fact that there is value for society is not debated. But the fact that new deals or abusive deals relating to religious services exist unchallenged is an issue every society has to deal with.

In the great game of religious, spiritual and experiential services, the real deal is always elusive, for the followers and the followed both keep changing with times and seek to maximise their returns.

Followers exist very much like audiences or groups that seek transactions that will help them do better and will leave them with more value. So a follower who has been neglected or excluded by society will gravitate towards a form or leader who will allow him access and will accept him and work with him. If the Guru or Baba does not help through a clear, deliverable and positive experience, the follower moves on.

An anecdote that I must share here is indicative of this behaviour: a Dalit person shared how his grandfather, a night soil worker, was wooed by the church and promised land and a good life and how he took up the offer, got his land papers and promptly gave up his religion when it suited him. His family has gone back to his original identity and now has done well through working hard with no religious baggage to deal with.

Religion and Spiritualism are not a numbing opiate of the masses anymore. They are as much a sane and rational transaction as an avenue to happiness.
This is a sauda (deal) made by all constituents of society. The quicker we accept that, the better deals we will get!

Devil in disguise

  • Swami Nithyananda, is a self-styled godman, who has a huge following in India and abroad. He courted controversy after some TV channels aired a video of him allegedly in a compromising position with a south Indian actress. He has been accused of rape, fraud and financial irregularities. After remaining elusive, he was later arrested from Himachal Pradesh.
  • Asaram Bapu, is accused of raping a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in Rajasthan. Ever since the recording of statements began, three witnesses have been murdered, three have gone missing and one was stabbed inside the court premises.  
  • Radhe Maa, is known for her lavish lifestyle. A woman from Mumbai lodged a complaint against her for dowry harassment and physical abuse for several years. Social media was abuzz with the alleged pictures of her in mini skirts, kissing and hugging her followers. An FIR has been lodged against her for trying to enter an aircraft with her trishul
  • Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher is accused of money laundering, spreading communal enmity and supporting terrorism. He is staying abroad to evade arrest. He has over 16 million followers on Facebook, 150,000 on Twitter and has given more than 4,000 lectures on Islam across the world.

Desi baba black sheep

Ram Rahim
He was recently convicted in two rape cases registered against him. There was riot like situation in Haryana.

Radhe Maa
She is accused of dowry abetment and sexual harassment. She tried to carry a trishul in an aircraft last year.

Sant Rampal
He is accused in cases like assault, rioting and attempt to murder. Recently, he was acquitted in two criminal cases.

Asaram Bapu
He is accused of raping a teenage girl in 2013. Also, three witnesses have been murdered in the trial.

Father Robin Vaddakumchiryil
He was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl and allegedly tried to send the baby to an orphanage.

He was accused of financial irregularities, involvement in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Syed Sha Atef Ali Al Quaderi
He issued a fatwa against Sonu Nigam’s tweet on Azaan. He declared a `10 lakh reward for shaving Nigam’s head.

Swami Nithyananda
He is accused of raping a female disciple. There are seven cases of fraud against his foundation.

Zakir Naik
He is accused of spreading communal hatred via his speeches, funding terrorists and laundering several crores of rupees over the years.