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Mata Amritanandmayi (top left), Osho (top right), Bikram Choudhury (bottom left), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (bottom right).
The verdict came in on August 28: Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 10 years in jail following his conviction in a case in which he was accused of raping two women devotees. CBI judge Jagdeep Singh, who delivered the sentence, arrived in a government helicopter to the town of Rohtak. The army was on standby on the perimeters of the town and soldiers are guarding Ram Rahim’s prison cell. On August 25, Ram Rahim’s followers created mayhem after his conviction in the rape cases, leading to death of 38 people and injuries to over 200.
While the world is wondering about the mesmeric power that the self-styled guru held over his followers, this is, of course, not the first time that spiritual leaders have got mired in controversies, sometimes even at international levels.
Here is a look at some gurus with massive global following who have been embroiled in controversies:
Born as Chandra Mohan Jain on December 11, 1931, Osho — as he later came to be known — was a spiritual leader who gained a large international following. As an outspoken critic of socialism and religion and an advocate of a more open attitude towards human sexuality, he also gained some notoriety in the 1970s. Also known as Acharya Rajneesh, Osho had a facility called Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon, which was constructed after a series of legal battles with the state government and county residents. In 1985, he was caught up in a controversy surrounding a bioterror attack that took place in Dallas in 1984.
Osho’s followers had sought election to two of the three seats in Wasco County that were up for election in November 1984. Since they feared they would not gain enough votes, Osho’s followers incapacitated the voting population in Dallas through a biological agent, Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, in salad bars and salad dressing. Over 750 people contracted salmonellosis, and 45 were hospitalised. While Osho accused his followers in a press conference, he was eventually deported from the United States. After his deportation, 21 countries denied him visa, and he returned to India.
2. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Born as Mahesh Prasad Varma on January 12, 1918, Mahesh Yogi became known for developing the ‘transcendental meditation technique’. Known as the ‘Giggling Guru’ because of his high pitched laughter in TV interviews, Mahesh Yogi had over 5 million followers worldwide, all seeking to learn ‘transcendental meditation’.
His teachings even attracted the Beatles to his ashram in Rishikesh in the late 1970s. However, their stint in the ashram ended abruptly following allegations reported in the media that he made sexual advances on the actress Mia Farrow. According to a report in the Mirror, John Lennon was quoted to have said: “There was a hullabaloo about him trying to rape Mia and a few other women. The whole gang charged down to his hut and I said: ‘We’re leaving!’ He asked why and I said: ‘If you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.’ The Maharishi gave me a look that said: ‘I’ll kill you, you b******!'”
The allegations of sexual impropriety by Mahesh Yogi have been questioned, including by some of the Beatles. But John Lennon went on to write in the lyrics of Sexy Sadie in the White Album: “Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.”
3. Mata Amritanandamayi
Born on September 27, 1953 at Parayakadavu in Kollam, Kerala, Mata Amritanandamayi, also known simply as “Amma”, is a spiritual leader with a huge international following. She is also known as the “hugging saint” — as hugging is the form of darshana she gives her devotees.
She, however, invited public scrutiny when a former close aide Gail Tredwell came out with a book Holy Hell, A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness. The book describes how she was sexually abused at the ashram by a colleague and how the repeated abuse eroded her faith. She went on to write in the book: “I was indeed uniquely privileged to witness Amma’s human side and her array of emotions — pretty standard ones, most of them, for non-gurus — that were highly contradictory to what she taught and displayed in public.’’
She added: “Those who dared to speak out were immediately blacklisted, deemed a traitor, and looked upon as a threat to the preservation of faith among her disciples. This life was more than just grueling.”
Amritanandamayi spoke about Gail in an April 2014 interview to a Malayalam publication, Grihalakshmi: “Even now, Amma is only filled with love for that daughter. I am praying that virtue and goodness come. Time will shine forth the truth.”
4. Bikram Choudhury
Born on February 10,1944 in Kolkata, Bikram Choudhury is the founder of Bikram Yoga, which involves a series of 26 hatha yoga postures performed in temperatures hovering at 40 degrees Celsius. The temperature specification came in to “mimic the climate of India”. His brand of yoga, on which he claims copyright (which a court overruled), got him fans ranging from tennis star Serena Williams to football sensation David Beckham.
In 2013, the first of series of sexual assault allegations came in — made by former students Sarah Baughn, Jill Lawler and Maggie Genthner. When his legal counsel Minakshi Jafa Bodden sued him for sexual harassment and non-payment of wages, the court ruled in her favour and handed her the control of Bikram Inc, according to Daily Mail report. Bikram is on the run.