Universal

Is India’s Fallen ‘God-Man’ So Different From a Megachurch Pastor?

The guru Rampal is in custody after a deadly battle at his ruined ashram. But how different is he from American charismatic leaders?

Hindustan Times/Getty

For a while yesterday, #Rampal was one of the top trending topics on Twitter. Not Jean-Pierre Rampal, the genius flautist who died in 2000—but Rampal, a guru largely unknown to Westerners but notorious in his native India. How is it that a figure we’ve never heard of dominated social media for a day?

In fact, Rampal’s recent arrest shines a fascinating light on a guru culture that’s easy for Americans to stereotype, but difficult to truly comprehend—maybe because it’s less foreign than it seems.

Let’s start with a few of the facts. Born in 1951, Rampal—né Rampal Singh Jatin—is a former engineer who in 1999 established an ashram dedicated to his own highly personalized, iconoclastic spirituality. Rejecting Hindu particularism (and indeed, prohibiting many Hindu observances), he advocated a universalism with New Age overtones—but which in India is associated with the 15th-century saint Kabir—insisting that the Vedas, Bible, Quran, and other scriptures are “nearly same.”

Because of these unorthodox views—the guru at one point criticized a revered Hindu sage—Rampal’s followers violently clashed with traditional religionists in 2006, and the guru relocated his ashram that year. In the clashes, one person died from bullet wounds, and Rampal himself was charged with murder. He has been dodging those charges ever since—most recently ignoring a summons for contempt of court that had required him to appear this past Monday.

On Tuesday, police raided Rampal’s compound in Hisar, about 100 miles from Delhi. Guess how the story ends. Water cannons on one side, rock-throwing on the other, and, when it was all over, five dead devotees—although police have not revealed the cause of death, they insist that they did not die in the raid, and say the bodies did not “bear any injuries.” Rampal is now in jail, along with at least 270 followers.

Predictably, media coverage has focused on Rampal’s (somewhat) lavish 12-acre estate, complete with indoor swimming pool, and on his cult-like authority over his devotees. There are also some truly bizarre stories, my personal favorite being that Rampal would bathe in milk, and the milk would then be used to make kheer, a type of rice pudding.

But while Western observers might label Rampal’s sect a cult, it’s really more like a megachurch.

First, there are plenty of would-be gurus out there, especially in India. Rampal is a uniquely populist one. As one follower told the BBC, “[Rampal] says everyone is a good person and everyone is equal and we should respect all. That’s something I liked about his teachings.” Such teaching is revolutionary in still-caste-divided India. It also resembles those of a 1st-century sect leader in Palestine who was also popular with the poor. (See Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20) One reason Rampal’s followers are so rambunctious is that they come from the “lower” classes of Indian society.

Nor was Rampal’s compound a place of sexual and pharmaceutical liberty, as was that of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon, for example. (The Bhagwan later returned to India, cut out most of the sexual shenanigans, and renamed himself Osho shortly before his death—his teachings are still popular today.) In fact, Rampal preached against adultery and “vulgar singing and dancing.”

Nor, finally, are Rampal’s self-aggrandizing pronouncements unusual in the Indian context. Yes, he has declared himself to be a reincarnation of Kabir. Yes, he has demanded absolute loyalty from his followers. And yes, that authoritarian, patriarchal guru-power structure, invariably, always leads to abuses.

But none of this is unusual. India is full of gurus, from the recently deceased (or is he?) Sai Baba to Indira Gandhi’s personal guru, Dhirendra Brahmachari. And while guru literally means “teacher,” in Hindu and Buddhist contexts, it often means much more. Disciples must surrender totally to the external guru (the teacher) and the internal guru (one’s own “higher power”) in order to break the ego and progress. Buddhist and Hindu literature is rich with stories of disciples finally learning to surrender in this way.

The phrase of choice to describe Rampal is “self-styled god-man,” which has been repeated ad nauseam in the press. But as Indian-American author Rajiv Malhotra tweeted, “All Hindu gurus r self appointed bcause there is no Vatican like central authority.”

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And as for “god-man,” this, too, is traditional in nature. The divine/human line is not as clear in Hinduism as it is in, say, Christianity (with the exception of Jesus, of course). Fully enlightened beings may be avatars, incarnations of various deities. Rampal may or may not be one of them (I would guess not), but the claim is not, itself, that unusual when seen in cultural context. The miracles attributed to him are also par for the course.

Clearly, Rampal is a charismatic leader who has used his power in weird, possibly criminal ways. But every tradition has this: mana, shaktipat, ruach hakodesh; “charisma” itself comes from the Greek word χάρισμα, roughly meaning divinely conferred grace. Anyone who has been in the presence of a charismatic leader, sacred or secular, can confirm that there is some mysterious personality trait that such individuals possess. It may be woo to call it energy, or grace, or the Holy Spirit; it may just be some weird social trait. But I’ve met many such people (Bill Clinton, an assortment of gurus, rock stars), and it’s definitely a thing.

So, is Rampal really that different from a corrupt, charismatic megachurch leader felled by scandal? The theology is different. So are the clothes. The level of devotion is more intense than one might find in Lake Forest, California.

But in a country struggling with modernization, and with 27 percent of its population living in poverty, the miracles and messages of gurus like Rampal remain highly attractive, just like those of charismatic religious leaders here. We might look at what happened this week and think of David Koresh or Jim Jones. Maybe we might look a little closer.