Chennai -- Blind faith and superstition have caused many "spiritual" mishaps in Tamil Nadu with its mushrooming ashrams, spiritual orders and controversial cult figures. Despite the dominance of rationalist theorists on the political horizon, the state has more than its share of godmen, some of whom have provided fodder to the media with their sordid tales of rape and murder and spicy scandals.
The much-venerated Sankara Mutt in Kancheepuram, in the spotlight now after the Sankaracharya, Shri Jayendra Saraswathi's arrest in connection with a murder case, has a massive following across the globe. Considering the pontiff's powerful clout with the powers that be, even whiffs of controversies in the past had been swept under the Mutt's well-worn cement floor. That is until the Seer's dramatic arrest on 12 November night.
In Tamil Nadu, many high profile swamijis have come under the legal axe on charges of rape, murder and intrigues. Notable among them is the case of the fake sanyasi with the kinky hairdo, Swami Premananda, and his secretary, Kamalananda. In December 2002, Madras High Court confirmed a lower court's order sentencing the two to double life imprisonment. The charge against Premananda was that while he put up a front of spirituality and dispensed bhakti in his ashram near Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, he raped young girls and forced those who became pregnant to go for abortions. He also murdered an engineer, Ravi, who attempted to expose him.
Yet another self-styled godman, "Kalki Bhagwan", hailing from Tamil Nadu, was in the news some months ago when Madras High Court took up a public interest litigation alleging misuse of public funds by the various Kalki trusts. The petition brought to public notice the unaccounted wealth of the Bhagwan and his family members and their massive financial empire. The litigant, a social activist, Mr Vishwanath Swami, alleged that the godman and his family siphoned off huge amounts of money from public charitable trusts to open private accounts.
Meanwhile, V Vijayakumar, the LIC clerk-turned-godman, claiming he was god incarnate, continued to draw devotees who were mesmerised by his "miracles". At one point he reportedly had as many as six million Indian and one million foreign devotees, who made handsome donations.
In another incident of spirituality turning murderous, the junior "Adheenam", Kasiwanatha Pandara Sannithi, of the Thiruvavaduthurai Mutt in Mayiladuhturai in Tamil Nadu, was arrested in 2002 for his suspected involvement in a plot to murder the senior Adheenam, Sivaprakasa Desikar. The junior Adheenam, who tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, was arrested by the Mayiladuturai police soon after he was discharged from hospital.
A godman, Prasanna Venkatacharya Chaturveda Swamy, was arrested on 8 November on charges of abduction. The Central Crime Branch charged him with harassment and abduction after a complaint by a senior executive, who alleged that the Swamy had taken his wife and daughter on a trip to Nepal against their will.
"The Centre has no role in the arrest of Jayendra Saraswathi. It is not correct to say that we were involved," he said at a press conference when asked about the issue. "To say the least it is not our concern," he added.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu police have filed an application before the Judicial Magistrate-I, Kancheepuram, seeking 10 days' police custody to enable them to question the Seer in custody and also to search the Mutt premises and his personal belongings in his presence. However, the Seer's bail application is coming up for hearing on 17 November and the application for police custody is not likely to be taken up before disposal of the bail petition. In their counter-affidavit to the bail petition, the police said "custodial interrogation" was necessary in this case and that they had sought his remand in police custody.
Meanwhile, DMK president Mr M Karunanidhi has urged the Jayalalitha government "to take all steps to protect the mutt from extinction" following the Sankara charya's arrest.
He said Hindu religious and charitable endowments department, which administers the temples in the state should ensure that the mutt is "protected" and run "to safeguard the interests of the downtrodden."