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THE HUB
Holy ghost! Unholy fathers

Three godmen in one month, charged for raping, killing. Gullible victims, a society steeped in spirituality. The gory trail.

By Chinmayee Manjunath

God Game: (top) Gnyanachaitanya and Premananda (below) Chandraswami, Sai Baba
In the past month, two godmen have been charged of sexual molestation. Swami Premananda in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu has been accorded life imprisonment and Swami Gnyanachaitanya in Kottakal, Kerala was arrested and is now on bail. These are just additions to a list of famous names, accused of similar charges. Chandraswami. Sathya Sai Baba. Yet, in a society steeped in the spiritual, no amount of sordid cases seems to taint the lure of ochre.

In early April, the Supreme Court accorded 57-year-old Swami Premananda a double life sentence. He was convicted of 13 rapes and a murder in his ashram in Tiruchi. Premananda moved to India in 1984 from Matale in Jaffna. He claims to have discovered his “spiritual powers” at 18 when “a great spiritual vibration entered the prayer room and my white robes slowly turned to orange.”

With his uncanny resemblance to the Sathya Sai Baba, Premananda’s popularity grew in Tiruchy and by 1989 his ashram was sprawled across 150 acres, had branches in 15 countries, and an international youth wing.

Like the Sai Baba, Premananda’s repertoire included creating vibhuti but his speciality was producing lingams from his abdomen. Vasuki, of the Chennai wing of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (aidwa), says, “He was very popular, the ashram continues to be so.” But in 1997, the aidwa was approached by two disciples, Sureshkumari and Lata, who complained of being raped and reported the murder of Ravi, an ashram inmate who had threatened to expose him.

Medical tests confirmed the habitual rape of 13 girls. One of them, Aruljothi, was pregnant and a dna test established Premananda’s paternity. Ravi’s body, which had been buried in the ashram, was also found. Premananda and his secretary, Kamalananda, were jailed; the latter also given a double life sentence.

Doris, a European, now manages the ashram. “Swamiji is a great innocent master,” she says. “He has been painted as a black devil by the media. He never raped anyone.” Then why has he been convicted? “Because no one will listen to our truth,” she snaps.

The truth, in most cases, seems to stay buried out of fear. Amanda Williams stayed quiet for a whole year before she complained about her “husband”, Swami Gnyanachaitanya, of the Shiva Shringam ashram in Kotakkal, Kerala. The 24-year-old British citizen and her family were devotees of Lord Shiva. When her father, AR Williams began to face trouble in his shipbroking business, they were referred to Gnyanachaitanya by an nri in London.

Women visited Gnyanachaitanya
with offerings and money at the
Rajarajeshwari Temple to have
their breasts massaged

A former armyman who spent 14 years in jail for committing three murders, Gnyanachaitanya’s real name is PM Sudhakaran. When the Williamses approached him early last year, he claimed Amanda had been his wife in a previous birth. In a written statement Amanda says, “…if I did not marry him immediately, (he said) our family would have to face the wrath of Lord Shiva.” When Gnyanachaitanya ‘married’ Amanda, his wife Mini was also present at the Mookambika Temple in Karnataka; the couple have six children. Amanda’s complaint to the Malappuram police states that her father paid Rs 15 lakh to the swami, apart from giving him a Tata Safari and several household appliances. She was “sexually abused and tortured, mentally and physically.” She was not allowed to correspond with her family in England. When Gnyanachaitanya was in Mumbai on April 12, she escaped and emailed her father. A few days later, Gnyanachaitanya was arrested and the Williamses left for England. “They just want Amanda to be safe and don’t plan any further action,” says Rajeev Lakshmanan, their lawyer. Out on bail, the swami has threatened them with black magic, he adds. “There is no spirit of critical inquiry in our society,” says Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalists Association in New Delhi. “People want to surrender their problems to godmen and believe them to be supernatural. They don’t question them. There is an element of fear also.” Dr Mathew Chandrankunnel, Centre for Study of World Religions, Bangalore adds, “It’s the fatalistic attitude. People might be disturbed by what these swamis do but accept it as part of their fate.”

Such attitudes are an impetus for godmen like Kuchumardhana Swami in Parkal, a village in Warangal. A primary school teacher whose real name is Gottumukala Babu Rao, he was dismissed from service in Karimnagar for misbehaving with girls. In 2002, he moved to Parkal as Kuchumardhana Swami and claimed to have Lord Shiva’s blessings to treat childless women. Ironically, his wife had left the 58-year-old because they could not have children. Kuchumardhana’s modus operandi? Women had to visit him on Mondays and Saturdays to have their breasts massaged. They also had to bring him material offerings. “It’s surprising the temple allowed him there,” says N Innaiah, a rationalist in Hyderabad who led protests against Kuchumardhana when he heard of him through colleagues in Warangal. “But the women did not complain. Some did not even want him arrested.” After a year in jail, Kuchumardhana is out on bail. These are the small-time operators without the political clout that more popular godmen wield. Edamaruku cites Swami Sadachari, who mingled with prime ministers and presidents, before being arrested some years ago in Delhi for running a brothel. The Sathya Sai Baba, despite sordid allegations of sexual abuse and a boycott by unesco, continues to have the powerful falling at his feet.

“When people need solace, they believe anything associated with spirituality,” says Edamaruku. This is, perhaps, linked with the mirage of instant gratification. Rising trp ratings of religious shows on TV are indicative of this. Praying to an unseen, silent god pales when compared to talking to a swami who can do something immediately.

Last week, Senthil Kumar was arrested in Erode for stripping a girl, lighting camphor on her body and breaking coconuts over her head. He claimed to be a swami capable of exorcising women. It so appears that as long as swamis, genuine or fake, accused or venerated, continue to pontificate on TV, travel the world and mingle with kings and the common man, they will continue to spawn wannabes. And the dubious will continue to lurk in ochre, trusted and unexamined.

May 14 , 2005
 

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