Asaram Bapu is no longer on Aastha channel, his sermons on which had become something of a morning ritual for many Indians over the past few years. He is now in jail, accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The term ‘bapu’ is an honorific. It means ‘father’ in Hindi, and in a culture where such an elder gets utmost respect, the irony is not lost on all those who sympathise with the victim of his alleged assault.
While there is no reason to suspect all godmen of depravity, it is alarming how common it is for them to sexually exploit their trusting disciples. This report is based on dozens of FIRs and testimonies of victims, as also the views of sociologists and psychologists who have helped victims and interacted with godmen. The term ‘godmen’ here refers not only to cult leaders like Asaram, but all yogis, maulvis, fakirs, gurus, swamis, pastors and priests who make mystical claims and hold devotees in awe.
The way many of them operate as sexual predators can be generalised. In terms of psychology, they create the paraphernalia to overcome what they suffer from: typically, some form of paraphilia (‘other attraction’ literally) or psychosexual disorder in which they obtain sexual gratification through unusual practices that are harmful or humiliating to others (and socially repugnant). Voyeurism and paedophilia are among the forms it could take.
Many of them try to draw legitimacy from dubious interpretations of ancient beliefs. “There is a whole esoteric tradition of tantra, where spiritual bliss is achieved by sexual union,” says Kiranmayi Bhushi, a Delhi-based sociologist who has a keen interest in religion and tantra, “They exploit this tradition to lure unsuspecting nirvana seekers, especially from the West.”
Typically, the victims of such predators are either foreigners seeking spiritual solace or girls of middle-class families struggling with the pangs of early adulthood. Sometimes the victims are children, sometimes girls and boys with disabilities.
Rape, defined mildly, is sex without consent. A rapist creates an environment or situation where the seeking of consent becomes redundant. This is because the power equation between the perpetrator and the victim is skewed against the latter. For this reason, ashrams are “potentially prime sites of violations”, says Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of Sociology at DelhiUniversity’s Institute of Economic Growth. At an ashram, the presiding guru is supreme. By tradition, he is not to be questioned. He is a spiritual master at whose feet his disciples are required to relinquish their ego. “The disciples are abject in front of the guru,” says Srivastava. The idea of consent, in contrast, is one of equality. It is a modern concept, he says. And in a situation where the very individuality of the disciple is rendered non-existent, consent loses relevance.
Gurus who prey on their disciples often pretend to be spiritual healers who, inspired by a higher purpose, insist on the use of their sexual organs to bestow them with beneficence. They draw strength from superstitions, thrive on the naivete of those who see them as godly, and pose as mediators of divine favour. Their seduction scripts may vary but are always purposive and well-rehearsed with spiritual talk to trap gullible children, women and men.
“I have stopped commenting on people’s sex lives,” says Sudhir Kakar, a leading psychoanalyst and writer, in response to a question on the phenomenon. His refers me to his book Mad and Divine that examines the relationship between religious rituals and healing traditions, both Eastern and Western, and also details the lives of some extraordinary men. The book has chapters on Osho Rajneesh, Satya Sai Baba and the Buddhist seer Drukpa Kunley. Among the points Kakar’s book makes is that godmen often repress their sexuality, denying it vent, very early in their lives. As they age, however, they begin to lose their carnal restraints as their sexuality re-asserts itself forcefully. It is a potent urge that needs to be integrated with their day-to-day selves. And being in positions of power with so many devotees in such abject genuflection to their larger-than-life images, they find easy opportunities to indulge that urge.
Sex at such ashrams is marketed as a healing tool. Take the case of this working couple in their early thirties, married for five years and living in south Delhi: the Sharmas. Their basic problem, as they explained to a cult leader they had faith in, was that they had no problem big enough to challenge them anymore. They had lost the magic in their relationship and lives.
The cult leader, a prominent figure on television, gave them a close hearing and asked them to stay over at his ashram located in the Himalayan foothills. Within two days of their arrival there, they were huddled into a dimly lit hall with about 50 other people—singles, couples, even groups, most of them approaching middle-age—to be treated to a rhythmic recital of musical mantras.
After a brief sermon on the merit of ‘letting go’, the session started. As it went on, the lights grew dimmer and the music deafening till the point that the Sharmas could neither see nor talk to each other. Like everyone else, they were swaying with the rhythm, and were soon separated in a maze of dancing silhouettes. It was now a hallful of warm bodies, a sort of single organic mass with all identities blurred, as everyone began hugging, patting and kissing someone or the other. The Sharmas did, too—who, they did not know.
“This way, they destroy all previous bondings,” says J, a 45-year-old British woman who was sexually exploited by a yoga guru with whom she was staying. She speaks of her experiences here over Skype. She loves India, J says, but loves to hate godmen. They destroy all bonds that people may have had before they reach the ashram, as if everything one did till that point was futile. She chafes as she recollects her time in Pune, where she was reduced to a sex worker for a guru she does not want to name. “I was like his dasi (slave),” says J, “I was made to believe his sexually exploitation of me was a gift to cherish.”
It is usually about the forging of new bonds, the most potent being the one with the godman himself. This is the bond that defines everything else. It is an unequal one, in that it is taboo even to think of asking the godman a question. Disciples must commit themselves to unconditional faith in him. The godman works his charm through a skillful modulation of voice, which has a “hypnotic quality to it”, says J. “I would feel that the voice is coming from distant place when he spoke to me.”
After their dim hall session, the Sharmas had sexual liaisons— individually—with many others. They felt elated by the experience. It was what their dull lives had been missing, it seemed. Their guilt in the extramarital romps subsided as the evening proceeded and euphoria rose. There was a hum in the air as they subsumed their selves in the larger whole. It was all about selfless devotion. Sexual devotion to the guru usually follow such communes. “[Godmen] have in them an insatiable need to have sex because they practice yoga, which activates their kundalis—the centres of their consciousness,” says one of the Sharmas.
One-on-one sessions are held in the privacy of the guru’s chamber, and disciples are informed of the schedule in advance. These invitations are issued with words that portray it as an honour, a profound event that would uplift and change their lives forever. Disciples are often given some reading material which they may not share with anyone else. In a few cases, a private date with the godman is announced all of a sudden, taking the victims and their families by surprise. Asaram Bapu was known for such instant turns of whim. Sharma, the wife, remembers the private ‘blessings’ they received at the ashram only faintly, in disjoint flashes of memory. Her husband was asked to spend that night meditating. She has vague recollections of being touched, embraced, of a damp floor in a smoky room with a flickering red lamp, and of an abdomen stirred with sensations. After that, she remembers nothing. She woke up when two women shook her. “You have been blessed by the Guruji,” she was told.
Victims rarely speak out, but do disclose how godmen seek to combine yoga with sex. In many cases, the chosen person is asked to sit in lotus position in front of the godman amid elaborate preparations for a ritual: fire, incense, fruits and so on. The guru maintains a meditative pose with eyes shut, as if in direct communion with divinity, and then makes a short sermon that involves touch as a means to get the message across.
A Russian girl who was raped in Rishikesh multiple times told a psychologist that when her rapist godman would touch her forehead, she would feel his energy transfer into her. “It was so soothing,” she recounts of her first time. The touch turned into an embrace, and she remembers the security of the warmth she had felt. He then asked her to take her clothes off for an unimpeded transfer of energy, had her sit on his lap, and went ahead.
Some brazenly sexual acts are accorded the status of divine rituals. According to a 27-year-old girl, a software engineer based in Bangalore, she was made to perform rudrabhishek on a guru in Pune who she had trusted. This ritual required her to pour milk and honey on his penis and fellate him.
In another case, a cult leader who was once hailed as one of India’s biggest individual earners of foreign exchange, asked a Frenchman who was 35 at the time to lie flat and naked on the floor. After applying sandalwood paste on his chest and forehead, the guru placed a foot on his abdomen as if he was a doormat, and then bent forward and held his penis in his fist for half an hour as a conduit of energy.
“This is not spiritualism,” objected the Frenchman as the godman began a session of oral conduction. But so taken was he with the “enormously gracious” presence of his guru, he gave in to his will without further protest. “His fingers had an electric charge,” he says, recalling how the guru ran his hands through his hair as he performed oral sex. “He made perfect sense to me about what I was experiencing in my life at that point,” he says.
Today, the Frenchman has mixed feelings about that experience. He hadn’t felt violated, but was left puzzled. “It is the undigested part of my spiritual appetite,” he says, in recognition now of the farce that it was. His fascination with spiritualism in India, however, has not diminished. He is camping in Dharamshala these days.
While some have vivid memories, many of those exploited have only foggy details of it, a result of the hynoactive methods these godmen use—often along with sedatives and psychoactive drugs. “Godmen redefine reality for them,” says Rajat Mitra, a psychologist who has dealt with godmen and their victims, “They shake their core identity traits. They convince what they did so far was all in vain. They have a powerful pull.”
It is not uncommon for those who believe they need healing to have their bodies respond receptively to sexual stimuli. An orgasm, in such a paradigm, is a form of spiritual awakening.
A psychologist who has studied cases of rape was hired by a renowned church in north India to monitor a preacher who was transferred from Europe, where he was found indulging in acts of paedophilia. He was in Delhi for a year and the psychologist would hold regular psychoanalytical sessions with him. Later, the preacher was found to have established liaisons with young boys even in India. “They just can’t control themselves,” says the psychologist, who doesn’t want to be named. The higher authorities of the Church were informed of the preacher’s inclinations, and he was transferred to a country in Africa.
The following incident is bizarre. A 15-year-old girl was raped on the first floor of her own family house in West Delhi by a tantric. Her family members heard her cry out, but did not intervene because they assumed it was part of an occult ritual. The tantric had promised the family a change in their fortunes if they let him perform this hours-long exercise in isolation except for the company of a ‘pure soul’, which he convinced them resides in the bodies of adolescent virgin girls. The family volunteered their own 15-year-old daughter. The tantric left with assurances of a turn in the family’s luck. The girl was too dazed to say anything. Later, when she told them what had happened, the family refused to believe her. By the time they realised the enormity of the crime, it was too late to haul up the tantric. He had gone missing.
In another shocking case, the Gurbani lessons of a teenager turned to horror. The girl, the daughter of a university professor in Delhi, always sang well and so her parents arranged for a granthi (learned in the Guru Granth Sahib), a man in his late twenties, to visit their home twice a week to give her lessons in religious singing. She found his pats of encouragement inappropriate, and so she complained to her parents of discomfort with the teacher’s touch. They did not see anything amiss and asked her to carry on taking classes. And then one day, when the girl’s parents were away, he sexually assaulted her.
The case of K Ramesh, a priest at a church in Gosavedu village in Gampalagudem mandal is another example of such a sickening violation of trust. Ramesh was arrested on charges of raping a 16-year-old Scheduled Tribe girl who he had taken to Hyderabad with her parents’ permission on the assurance that he would take care of her education. He raped her several times over the next few days, returned with her to Gosavedu, and assaulted her again. The girl’s father reported the matter to the police.
“Sex is the only way they get a high,” observes Mitra, who has a close understanding of the phenomenon.Victims do resist the advances of godmen, but they often do not even realise when a red line of violation has been crossed.No consent is either sought or obtained, since rape is packaged as a healing process or some other form of blessing. The Briton who was raped about seven times over a span of ten days by a yoga guru in Haridwar smelt a rat when he told her that she would have to sleep with other preachers at the ashram for the upliftment of her soul.
According to Mitra, ill-intended commune activities tend to dismantle those aspects of victims’ personalities by which they invoke individual choices. This blurs their instinct of self-preservation, leaving them vulnerable and emotionally dependent on the godman. “The collective sessions are hypnotic in nature,” says Mitra, “and they make your previous self dissolve in the collective… This gives [victims] a sense of liberty because they are detached from their past—a cause of stress and indignation in their lives. But this liberty is laced with vulnerability.”
Having observed godmen, Mitra points out some common aspects of their behaviour and psyche. For example, by raising their arms and spreading them wide while facing their followers, they adopt a posture that gives them a sense of power. They have usually had difficult childhoods, been exposed to scriptures and spirituality early in life (impressing onlookers), and are typically rebellious attention-seekers as a personality type.
The sad part is how often they get away with their exploitation of devotees. Many victims do not lodge complaints, says Mitra, as they are ashamed of how they allowed it to happen in the first place. In the broader social context, Srivastava speaks of a need for people to anchor themselves firmly against insecurities caused by rapid changes in the environment and economy. Godmen sometimes give followers a moral blanket of security that helps restrain their consumerist streak. It is a notional shelter that need not be as safe as they suppose. Srivastava also says that Indian and Western nirvana seekers differ in their attitudes to sexuality. In India, he says, the faculties that “question hierarchies” remain stunted. Also, rape here is seen as defilement of a woman’s body. In the West, ever since the alternative movements of the 1960s, rebels against the strict sexual norms of Christianity have looked towards India as a relaxed place where sex is seen as ennobling, as part of a spiritual quest.
“In Goa, they do it openly: sex, drugs and spiritualism is one wholesome package,” says a 43-year-old Russian painter who spends three months in Goa every year and has visited dozens of ashrams and retreats in India. “Many ashrams in Varanasi do the same,” she says, bemused, “but never acknowledge it as carnal.”
Such godmen thrive on cult support, of which they have found plenty overseas, says J. The Western youth of the 1960s and 70s were experimental, she says, and since they were rebellious and did not know what they wanted, they saw deviant lifestyles as profound. This demand drew legions of godmen of all descriptions, all of them holding aloft the prospect of a better life by blurring the line between carnal and spiritual pursuits. “These two worlds merge,” says J. One day, she promises, she will write a book about how ungodly these godmen are.