MOTERA, India — Men lay prostrate on the floor in front of the elevated seat of their guru — the man they they call Asaram Bapu. Pictures of his avuncular face, with its flowing white beard, hang everywhere in this sprawling 30-acre ashram in 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, blingy lights and fake red roses.
The guru, whose real name is Asumal Harpalani, is 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.
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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 among them in amassing riches or getting into trouble with the law. One holy man, Sathya Sai Baba, died in 2011 leaving behind 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 television and an increasingly stressed-out middle-class.
“He has blessed my family all these years. Now it is my turn to pray for him,” said Anjali Chand, 42, who with her children brought marigolds to the ashram. “He is like a beautiful lotus and the allegations are like muck and dirty water.”
The Motera ashram, once a place of peace, is now under siege. Devotees look at every newcomer with suspicion. News television crews are chased away by the 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 now based in Nashville, who was giving a rare tour of the grounds recently. Aravala, 34, comes from the United States to volunteer at the ashram once a year.
Allegations of sexual abuse of female followers, shady land acquisition and even murder have dogged Harpalani for over a decade, but even he could not escape the most recent allegation, when two of his followers turned up at a police station on Aug. 18, saying he had sexually assaulted their daughter.
The teen, a student in one of the ashram schools, told the police that the “godman” called her into his room late one night to exorcise evil spirits. He gave her a glass of milk, switched off the lights and started molesting her, according to charging documents.
“I kept crying for about one and a half hours,” the girl told police, according to the documents. “He told me not to tell anybody or he would get my father killed.”
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. He skipped out on interrogations by hopping between some of his more than 400 ashrams.
Finally it took about 300 policemen in riot gear to arrest him at one of his ashrams in the central city of Indore. 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 to 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 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 spiritual truisms, chanting routines, yoga lessons and herbal cures — or by watching them on TV, where they appear on shows like the ones televangelists have in the United States.
These modern-day mega-gurus are nothing like the wandering saints of ancient Hindu religious texts, who lived on alms, renouncing all worldly possessions. These have 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 short cuts in their fast-paced, urban lives,” said Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, an anthropologist in Goa, India, who studies comparative religion and has studied controversial gurus.
Harpalani, 72, is no different, she suggested. He spent time working in a tea stall and as a bootlegger before founding his own ashram in 1971, according to local reports.
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.
“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.”
In the days since the arrest, worshippers are still flocking to the ashram here, and faith remains high.
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 Sept. 20 that was written from jail.
He cautioned his followers not to do anything illegal and tasked them to keep chanting, stay peaceful and to have faith in Indian legal system.
“The truth is fearless,” Harpalani wrote. “Lies are without legs. May God bless you all.”