BANGALORE, India — The Roman Catholic Church isn't alone when it comes to scandal lately.
As the debate rages in the West about the ungodly behavior of godly men, a series of sex scandals involving India’s assortment of god men — called sadhu, baba or swami — is making skeptics out of many Indians.
“Most god men are self-proclaimed, and they are being increasingly outed as hypocrites and fakes,” said Ravi Ghatge, a retired banker in Bangalore. “Then everybody finds out that there is not an iota of spirituality in any of them,” he added.
India has long held a thrall in the Western mind as a land of wandering fakirs and saffron-robed holy men with matted hair. In this birthplace of several leading religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, magic and mysticism still rule.
But rapid urbanization is making the holy men of the old all but disappear from the landscapes of cities and towns.
In their place, a new breed of modern charismatic god men are holding sway, some of them saffron-robed, some of them bejeweled and others sporting wild hair-dos.
Many of them command cult following, run huge ashrams on large expanses of land, own luxury cars, television channels and lavish homes. They flourish as their supporters make large donations in cash and kind. The god men jet set around the country and the world serving their flock of devotees.
But here's the problem. The god men aren't, exactly, godly.
In recent weeks, in New Delhi a holy man called Swami Bhimanand Ji Maharaj Chitrakootwale was exposed for running a huge call girl racket with over a 1,000 girls that serviced, among others, politicians and influential people.
In Bangalore, Swami Nithyananda — whose ashram had several branches in the United States and all over the world — was caught on camera having sex with an actor. Even as his shell-shocked devotees called for action, Nithyananda first said he was being framed by a digitally altered video. When a second tape with yet another actor surfaced, he admitted to the incident and fled the ashram with police hot on his tail.
Other swamis have been charged with cheating, rape and child sexual abuse. The wave of scandals involving holy men had one leading newspaper headlining, “baba black sheep, have you any scruples?”
Now middle class India’s mindset is dramatically turning against India’s godmen, says Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalists Association. “The so-called god men don’t want to wear saffron robes anymore because they fear they will be attacked on the streets,” said Edamaruku who has long campaigned against swamis and babas.
His network of over 200 branches Indiawide has exposed many a fraudster swami and fake sadhu. “They are nothing but common thieves and scamsters who exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor and the illiterate,” said Edamaruku. He says he has more viewers for his rationalist exposes on television than all the viewers of India’s 32 religious television channels put together.
On the other side, however, are devotees such as Jayeshwari (who wanted to be identified by a single appellation, her spiritual name), who says she continues to be a staunch follower of Nithyananda.
Jayeshwari, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, says she saw no conflict in her guru’s preachings and his personal sexual life. “He talked about transforming society, he never promised to make it an asexual society,” she said.
She and other supporters are now rallying around the beleaguered Nithyananda on a Facebook support group.
But the majority of educated India is irate over the recent incidents. Sharmila Abdulpurkar, a businesswoman in Bangalore, says the scandals have left her angry and upset. “I am a skeptic myself but what about thousands of people who had unshakable faith in these god men, who depended on them to sort out their life’s problems?” she asked.
But educated, urban Indians are often doubters when it comes to such matters. The recent spate of incidents has only made them more cynical, says Edamaruku of the rationalists association. “This swami thing is not for new India."