Not too long ago, Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, told Hindustan Times that he thinks the slow weakening of organised religion has left a vacuum that wily god-men with their ‘magic potions’ and bizarre ‘solutions’ are rushing in to fill. No revelation there, really.
Over the years, sadhus, yogis, Hindu saints, sanyasis (or whatever other synonym floats your boat) in the country have racked up quite the reputation for themselves, some more notorious than others. And what really makes these religious figures so intriguing has less to do with their sizeable followings than the countless absurd ways they choose to wield and dispense their power. Some have been venerated for their social service and upliftment of course, but others have chosen stranger ways to dispense their ‘kripa.’ Others merrily puff away at street corners, as mothers try to discretely turn their children’s heads in the opposite direction.
If there’s one thing we can’t deny them though, it’s their ability to weave amazing stories around their mere existence. Homegrown put together a list of the most interesting baba stories India has to offer. Make no mistake, it was no mean feat to shortlist these.
[Note to readers--Please try not to let your religious sentiments be offended by this article. We are well-versed with the charitable work of several cultural figureheads throughout India’s history who also share this proclamation/labelling of being called ‘Babas,’ and we have nothing but respect and admiration for them. However, for the purpose of this piece we have chosen to only feature those whose stories have a twist of sorts. Whether it’s their affiliation with things you would never expect of a Baba or alleged supernatural abilities our chosen ones make great protagonists in the stories of their own life. Now enjoy.]
I. Dhirendra Brahmachari
And his connection to Indian politics in the ‘80s.
Touted as the ‘Indian Rasputin’, Dhirendra Brahmachari’s initial life is shrouded in mystery and his age has been the source of much speculation. The other thing that has been speculated upon considerably is the nature of his relationship with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to whom he taught yoga. Apparently, he was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to do so in the interest of his daughter’s health. He is said to have executed certain top-level political tasks on her behalf, especially during the Emergency period.
Additionally, he set up ashrams in Delhi, Jammu, Katra and Mantalai (Jammu and Kashmir) and has written several books on yoga. He was inspired to become a yogi by a quote in the Bhagvad Gita at the age of 12, when Krishna says to Arjun, “The Yogin is verily superior to the Tapasvins (those observing austerities), Jnanins (the knowledge-ables) and Karmakandins (those who perform the ceremonial rites). Therefore you should try to become a Yogin!”
He then went on to predict his own death at the beginning of June, 1994. On the 9th of the same month, his private plane crashed near Mantalai, Jammu.
II. Amar Bharati
And his self-renounced arm.
Sadhu Amar Bharati will really make you rethink the simple gesture of raising your hand to speak (not to mention classic party-instruction to ‘put your hands in the air’). He has supposedly kept his right hand raised for 38 years, as a sign of devotion to Hindu deity Shiva. Bharati got up one day in 1970, and left his job, wife, and three children in a bid to abandon all materialistic pursuits and to pursue his devotion to Shiva. A couple of years later, he felt like he was still too bound by the trappings of a mortal life and decided to raise his arm and keep it there to discard the luxuries of mortal life.
Said arm, as can be seen in the photograph, has atrophied and has become much more deformed than the other, now unusable to him even if he tried. The initial few months had him deal with immense pain, but it subsided eventually and his hand is now stuck in its current position.
Bharati has gone on to inspire other sadhus to raise their arms as well, some of whom have succeeded in keeping it airborne for 7, 13, and even 25 years.
III. Asaram Bapu
And his never-ending line of sexual controversies.
This is arguably one of the most controversial faces of godmen in India. He began his religious journey by the name of Asaram Bapu, preaching the cause of ‘One Supreme Conscious’ in 1970 with an ashram spanning 4 hectares (10 acres) of land in Gujarat. Today, he has 425 major and minor ashrams all over the world, a tremendous following, and thousands of acres of land to boot.
He has been caught in a range of controversies, from sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl that he apparently regarded as his ‘daughter’ to his comments on the December 16 Delhi gang-rape case, in which he suggested that the girl could have called the aggressors her brothers and thus, prevented the rape. There have also been complaints against him and his son in an alleged 700-acre land-grabbing case and serious fraud.
Asaram Bapu is currently preaching to the supreme consciousness from jail.
IV. Swami Agnivesh
And his penchant for Indian reality-television.
Swami Agnivesh is a former member of Legislative Assembly in Haryana, who is also an Arya Samaj scholar and social activist. He spent three days inside the Bigg Boss house as a guest in 2011, to ‘promote and create awareness on social issues including corruption’.
He was a part of ‘Team Anna Hazare’ in the anti-corruption protests in August of the same year, but later broke away with complaints of other protesters conspiring against him. The controversy escalated quickly from here, with him coming under attack over a questionable YouTube video where he is telling a person, allegedly a Union Minister, to make sure the government acts tough with the fasting Anna Hazare. Agnivesh claimed that it was all a part of a smear campaign against him, declaring the footage ‘doctored and concocted’.
He has also drawn the wrath of several Hindu priests by releasing a statement saying that he supported the entry of non-Hindus into the Jagannath Temple at Puri. The Supreme Court, too, had a bone to pick with him, condemning him for hurting people’s sentiments by allegedly remarking that he ‘does not understand why people go for the Amarnath Yatra and other such pilgrimages.
V. Osho Rajneesh
And his connections to bio-terrorism, presidential assassinations, Rolls Royce and Bollywood.
This one’s quite the legend. Again, one of the most controversial spiritual leaders to have risen to fame/notoriety in the 20th century, he has often been referred to as the ‘sex guru’ and is evidently rather whimsical.
Osho has been very outspoken about his criticism of Mahatma Gandhi, institutionalised religion, socialism, marriage and having children. He regards families as an institution that is prone to dysfunction, and his travels in Oregon and England have displayed a wide acceptance of contraception, sterilisation and abortion.
In the controversial bare-all memoir ‘Don’t Kill Him!’ by his former personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela, she recalls how he once, out of the blue, demanded 30 new Rolls-Royce within one month in spite of already possessing 96 brand-new Rolls-Royce.
“Osho Rajneesh disregarded all laws, ethics and legalities as he wanted to create a society of his own vision with its own laws and rules,” the memoir also states. In 1984, Rajneeshism was also embroiled in a bio-terrorist attack, the first of its kind in the United States. As a result, 751 were poisoned with salmonella through the deliberate contamination of salad bars at ten restaurants in Oregon. This was all for the purpose of rigging the election in their own favour in the 1984 Wasco County elections. Investigations into these also unearthed the hatching of a conspiracy to assassinate a United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, Charles Turner.
Incidentally, several popular Bollywood personalities who joined the Rajneesh movement include Parveen Babi, who joined the movement in mid-1970s along with her boyfriend, producer Mahesh Bhatt. Vinod Khanna, too, became a sanyasi around the same time; he took on the name Swami Vinod Bharti and was Osho’s gardener at Rajneeshpuram.
VI. Khareshwari Babas
And their vow to never sit down again.
Standing babas, also known as Khareshwari, are Hindu saints who have taken a vow never to sit, or even lie down to sleep.
These have, interestingly, appeared in Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram, where the protagonist goes to the place where they live and worship, selling hashish to support themselves, which they also smoke constantly. A form of a Hindu tapa, this corporal punishment is self-inflicted to help them attain spiritual enlightenment. Causing ulcerated feet and swollen legs, these babas sleep with the help of a swing-like device that allows them to rest their arms during the day. During the night, a Khareshwari will support his torso on the swing as he sleeps.
VII. Swami Nithyananda
And his penchant for Tamilian actresses?
Founder of Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam headquartered in Bangalore, Swami Nithyananda’s teachings span advaita vedanta, bhakti, yoga, meditation and kriyas, and he has written several books but where’s the fun in that?
He has also been at the midst of several controversies, the biggest one being purported video footage showing him in a compromising position with a Tamil film actress, telecast by local TV channel Sun News. Nithyananda refuted the video, deeming it morphed and defamatory. This footage was filmed by a former follower of Nithyananda, Arathi Rao, who was allegedly raped several times over the course of her five-year experience at the ashram. He has also been accused of serving holy water laced with drugs.
VIII. Baba Ramdev
And the fact that he needs no introduction.
Everyone’s heard of Baba Ramdev. Highly vocal about political issues, and known for offering ‘yoga’ as an antidote to absolutely everything, he was a household name at some point, for one reason or another. He infamously tried to trick, and escape, from the police by wearing a salwar kameez and dupatta at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, when the Delhi government was cracking down on his agitational fast against corruption, in June 2011.
The range of controversies that surround him are exceedingly inventive.
Ramdev’s trusts have been accused of financial irregularities and tax evasion, according to Tehelka reports, as well as forceful land grab from farmers and stealing of electricity by using agricultural connection for commercial use. The Divya Pharmacy, owned by Ramdev’s Divya Yog Mandir Trust, has also been accused of using human and animal bones in their medicines.
Baba Ramdev believes that homosexuality is like any other disease, and claims that yoga, pranayama and meditation can cure it, along with other diseases like cancer of the breast, liver, prostate, uterus, pituitary gland, brain, and AIDS. He has promised to prove this through clinical tests ‘shortly’.
“Sex education in schools need to be replaced by yoga education,” Ramdev has also told reporters. “The government should stop polluting the minds of innocent young children with sex education. Society’s morality cannot improve with teaching sex education in schools. And AIDS cannot be prevented by talking free sex and by using condoms.”
IX. Devraha Baba
‘The ageless Yogi with a secular image.’
Devraha Baba was an Indian Siddha Yogi saint who lived on a 12-feet high wooden platform, beside the Yamuna river, in Mathura. Known as the “ageless Yogi with a secular image”, he preached harmony between religious communities. Rural people and celebrities both waited hours to get his darshan or blessings and he was widely considered a “spiritual guide to everyone from a pauper to the most powerful ... above narrow confines of caste and community”. A hermit from Vrindavan, he was also approached by several politicians for his blessings during the elections, like Buta Singh, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi during the 1989 elections. He blessed all his followers with his feet.
X. Meher Baba...
And his 44-year-long vow of silence.
Born Merwan Sheriar Irani to Zoroastrian parents in Pune, Meher baba was an Indian spiritual master who claimed he was a human manifestation or ‘avatar’ of God.
For seven years, from the age of 19, he contacted five spiritual masters to begin his own spiritual transformation and began taking on his own disciples at the age of 27, in 1922.
From 1925 until the end of his life in 1969, Meher Baba maintained a vow of silence, communicating through the use of an alphabet board or by unique hand gestures. He also travelled widely and engaged in works of charity with lepers, the poor and the mentally ill, gathering a remarkable following both in India, as well as abroad.
XI. Aghori Babas
And their ‘hunger’ for death.
These ascetic Shiva sadhus belong to the most feared and well-respected rung of sadhus in India. Generally clad in a skimpy jute loin cloth, or in the nude, they are notorious for their grisly religious rituals that have evoked equal parts awe and revulsion amongst people who come across them in Varanasi, where they reside alongside the banks of the Ganga. The clan is said to be over 1000 years old, and they are in reverence of the phenomenon of death.
Their diet – said to kill ego and deviate from the trappings of the human concept of beauty – allegedly includes rotten foods, foods from dump site, animal faeces and putrefying human corpses which are generally eaten in a cup made out of human skulls.
And his affiliation with international politicians of high pedigree.
Chandraswami developed an interest in tantra at an early age and went on to live in the forests of Bihar, where he spent time in meditation. He claims to have obtained extraordinary powers called siddhis, after four years of this.
His first foray into national prominence was down to his association with former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, to whom he was a spiritual adviser. He is also said to have dispensed spiritual guidance to the Sultan of Brunei, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain, British PM Margaret Thatcher and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
He was arrested in 1996, on charges of defrauding a London-based businessman of $100,000. The CBI has also been investigating his suspected role as financier in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
XIII. Baba Mangalanand
And his lifelong devotion to trance music.
And last but not the least, we have the Baba you probably witnessed behind the decks at a Goa Rave in the late ‘90s. If you were into that sort of thing, that is, and no, this is not a joke. Baba Mangalanand AKA Goa Gil started out as just Gil in California in the ‘50s where his early exposure to the birth of the hippie movement and traveling gypsy culture catalysed the beginning of his incredible journey.
Unable to find solace in San Francisco’s music culture anymore, he took off in 1969 to visit Amsterdam and then India, where he was first introduced to wandering Sadhus whom he became transfixed by. Enough to get into the order of the Juna Akhara under a Guru named Mahant Nirmalanand Saraswati post which he became a bonafide Sadhu. But this is hardly the most interesting thing about him. He simultaneously became fascinated and involved with early electronic music, which eventually evolved into trance along with many other Goa hippies ultimately becoming one of the most renowned DJs at trance parties in the early days. In fact, the rare crossover that seemed to make Gil also came to define psy-trance parties of that generation and he’s gone on record to spout his belief that “dance is an active form of meditation and the use of trance music is a way to redefine the ancient tribal ritual for the 21st century.” Sound like a tall tale to you? Just check out his interview in the 2001 documentary Last Hippie Standing or ask anybody who used to go to trance parties in Goa during his time. Till then, Boom Bholenath seems an appropriate sign off right about here.