MOTERA, INDIA – Men lay prostrate on the floor in front of the elevated seat of their guru: the man they call Asaram Bapu. Pictures of his avuncular face, with its flowing white beard, hang everywhere in his sprawling 12-hectare ashram in Motera, western India.
But these days the guru’s enclosed wood-carved altar, where millions once worshiped him, is empty. All that’s left is a large photograph, an air purifier, flashy lights and fake red roses.
The guru, real name Asumal Harpalani, 72, is languishing in a Jodhpur jail, arrested last month on charges of sexually assaulting the 16-year-old daughter of two followers.
In recent weeks, the allegations against the mega-guru, who runs a massive network of 20 million devotees in hundreds of ashrams worth an estimated $760 million, have stunned and split India. The scandal has raised questions about the unprecedented boom in spiritual gurus in the world’s largest democracy — and the enormous power and wealth they wield.
Harpalani is not alone in amassing riches or getting in scrapes with the law. One holy man, Sathya Sai Baba, died in 2011 leaving behind a treasure trove of nearly $8 million in gold, silver and cash. In recent years, other gurus have faced charges of murder, sexual abuse, running prostitution rackets and illegal land acquisition.
Yet the guru phenomenon has continued to grow, buoyed by 24-hour religious programming on TV and an increasingly stressed-out Indian middle class seeking easy, prepackaged bliss.
“He has blessed my family all these years. Now it is my turn to pray for him,” said Anjali Chand, 42. “He is like a beautiful lotus and the allegations are like muck and dirty water.”
The ashram, once a place of peace, is now under siege. Devotees look at every newcomer with suspicion. News television crews are chased away by guards. And there is talk of a grand conspiracy to defame their guru.
“Devotees are calling all day, asking, ‘What do we do, what do we do?’ We tell them to have faith and chant to get rid of the false allegations,” said Venkat Aravala, an Indian-born software engineer based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Allegations of sexual abuse of female followers, shady land acquisition deals and even murder have dogged Harpalani for over a decade, but even he could not escape the most recent charge after the two followers turned up at a police station Aug. 18, saying he had sexually assaulted their daughter.
The teen, a student in one of the ashram schools, told police that the “godman” called her into his room late one night to exorcize evil spirits. He gave her a glass of milk, switched off the lights and started molesting her, according to charging documents.
“He told me not to tell anybody or he would get my father killed,” the girl told police.
Police charged Harpalani with sexual assault of a juvenile, but bringing him in was not easy. In a telling sign of his immense clout, Harpalani avoided arrest for days while he meditated and gave sermons and media interviews, and skipped out on interrogations by hopping between some of his more than 400 ashrams.
It finally took about 300 police officers in riot gear to arrest him at one of his ashrams. Angry devotees blocked rail and road traffic in protest and beat up journalists. Harpalani has continued to proclaim his innocence.
“Bigger allegations have been made against me in the past; they didn’t stick,” Harpalani said in an interview with the ABP TV channel. “But this is a dirty allegation, and a baseless one. I am so old, the girl is like my granddaughter.”
In the last two decades, spiritual life in the country has undergone a transformation as Indians embrace hectic urban lifestyles and move away from their cultural roots of village-based worship. The result is that many have sought solace by flocking to the ashrams of gurus who offer self-evident spiritual truisms, chanting routines, yoga lessons and herbal cures — or by watching them on TV.
These modern-day mega-gurus are nothing like the wandering saints of ancient Hindu religious texts, who meditated and lived on alms, renouncing all worldly possessions.
They’ve built hundreds of ashrams across the globe and run flourishing businesses in everything from herbal medicine to meditation and yoga workshops. They travel in luxury cars, glide past airport security and are guarded by gun-toting policemen and bouncers. Some have criminal pasts.
“There is a mushrooming of these gurus who offer black-and-white spirituality without much depth to people who want shortcuts in their fast-paced, urban lives,” said Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, an anthropologist in Goa.
Harpalani is no different, she suggested. He spent time working in a tea stall and as a bootlegger before founding his own ashram in 1971. His empire eventually grew to millions of followers, including high-profile businessmen and politicians.
But for some who grew disenchanted, allegations of sexual dalliances are not a surprise, even though the best-selling item in his ashram’s bookstore is his booklet on celibacy, “The Secret of Eternal Youth.”
“I saw him with my own eyes in a sexual position with a female disciple. Otherwise, I would not have believed it either,” said Amritbhai Prajapati, who was Harpalani’s personal physician for 12 years. “The women are told that they are lucky to be touched by him, that he is an avatar of Lord Krishna and the women were his consorts from a previous birth.”
Other, darker charges dog him. In 2008, the bodies of two young students of the ashram — aged 9 and 10 — were discovered lying disemboweled on the banks of a nearby river. The boys’ relatives accused the guru of practicing a black magic ritual; he suggested the boys had drowned. A judicial report on the tragedy has not yet been made public.
In the days since his arrest, worshippers are still flocking to the ashram, and faith remains high. But for now, text messages from the ashram are about as much communication as his followers can hope to receive on him, except for a note released Friday that was written from jail.
“The truth is fearless,” Harpalani wrote, somewhat inscrutably. “Lies are without legs. May God bless you all.”