Sex and the Swami: Why India’s Gurus Can’t Keep It In Their Loincloths
India has a great tradition of enlightened Hindu holy men, ascetics and mystics: men with long beards and little clothing who wander the country bringing enlightenment to the masses. Some of these “godmen” — as they are popularly known in the Indian press — have millions of followers. And a good number of them — not unlike their televangelists counterparts back in the U.S. — have also become millionaires, which can be, um, slightly at odds with their image as people who eschew the material world. And, like their Bible-thumping colleagues on the other side of the globe, they seem particularly prone to, well, shall we say, lapses of the flesh. Or maybe we should just say that for some of these swamis, their knowledge of the Mahabharat and the Bhagvad Gita is matched by their practice of the Kama Sutra.
Last week saw dueling sex scandals involving Hindu holy men. First, a television channel ran a sting operation in which it filmed Swami Nithyananda, an extremely popular godman who runs a major ashram just outside the IT hub of Bangalore, getting it on with a woman believed to be (her face is a bit blurry in the video) a well known Tamil film star (although there is some debate about whether it is Ragasudha or Ranjitha.)
Following airing of the tape, the swamis enraged followers – feeling betrayed by Nithyananda’s seeming hypocrisy — attacked his ashrams in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The police also filed charges against him for “cheating” and “enraging people’s religious sentiments.” (If only that were a crime in America too!) The swami was forced to release a statement assuring his followers that he had done “nothing illegal” — not exactly the strongest denial ever.
Then, in an even bigger scandal, a popular mystic named Shiv Murat Dwivedi was arrested by Delhi police and charge with running a prostitution ring involving up to 100 of his female devotees, including many “respectable” girls — college students and airline stewardesses — with middle class backgrounds or, at least, middle-class aspirations, as well as some “society women,” according to a report in The Straits Times. The report also said that “Dwivedi, who worked as a security guard at a five-star hole and at a massage parlour before taking to religion, was said to have amassed more than 600 million rupees ($10 million) over a period of 10 years [through prostitution and other illegal activities.]” There are other reports that Dwivedi had a criminal record for prostitution previously and that he remade himself following his release from prison as a holy man. He may have lured the women into his prostitution ring with promises of access to the rich and powerful and then blackmailed them to get them in the game. According to another report, while some of the women volunteered to work in the guru’s sex business, others were coerced, perhaps because the swami had loaned them money to pay for schools or training courses.
It is always remarkable that more people don’t see these phony gurus for what they are: con artists. Belief in swamis and gurus seems particularly widespread in India, again even among classes of people who, in the West, would not be the sorts to fall for the acts of televangelists. For an interesting discussion of this phenomenon, I recommend the tail end of a chapter called “The Imaginary Horse,” in Edward Luce’s great survey of contemporary India, In Spite of The Gods.
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