Friday, Dec 02, 2022

Niche Faiths

Dera Sacha Sauda was a little-known religious group till the recent controversy. Beyond the headlines, there are other similar sects with big followings across the country. The Sunday Express profiles some of them

Radha Soami, Beas
After travelling 45 km from Amritsar on National Highway 1, the road that leads to the Radha Soami’s Dera Beas is a smooth, leafy one. Then comes the well-lit railway station. “The Dera’s management looks after this station. Hundreds of devotees coming to the Dera get down here,” says Devinder Singh Bhangu, a regular at the Dera.
The well-guarded Dera complex, spread over 2,000 acres, bears a similarly tidy look. “The media is kept at bay. Even the special prayers organised by the Guru don’t get into newspapers,” says a Dera staff.
The sect, with its headquarters in Beas, was established in 1891 by Baba Sawan Singh but it was under his son Baba Jaimal Singh that the Dera’s influence spread to other parts of the country.
The head: Present head, Baba Gurwinder Singh, is an engineer by profession who once worked in Switzerland.
The philosophy:M Faith based on the teachings of mystics from all religions. Members can follow any religion but have to stick to certain rules, like no meat and liquor and daily meditations.
The numbers: Over 2,000 branches called Satsang Ghars across the country, over 70 per cent of them in north India. Branches in Pakistan, Nepal, US, UK and Canada. Claimed membership of over 2 crore.
The influence: Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Ministers, Union ministers and state politicians have visited the Dera. Visits are kept secret and VVIP guests land on the Dera’s own helipad.
The assets: Assets run into crores of rupees, administered by secretaries and managers, often retired defence officers or retired bureaucrats. Has its own low-priced markets, community kitchens, hospitals for devotees. Also three big hospitals in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Owns 4,000 acres of farmland and runs power house, engineering and construction companies.
The controversies: Cases registered against Dera staff in the past, especially for land grabbing in the villages of Sathiala, Bal Sarai and Budha Theh. In many instances, villagers formed committees to oppose land acquisition but Dera managed to settle most cases.
— Dharmendra Rataul

The Brahmakumaris chose to make their headquarters at Mt Abu in Rajasthan. The Madhuban Retreat lends itself to spiritualism with its Meditation Hut, Tower of Peace, Om Shanti Bhawan where 3,000 people can meditate together, and a large kitchen that can cater to 4,000 people at a time. The visitor turnout everyday at the Om Shanti Bhawan is approximately 8,000.
Madhuban hosts at least 35,000 residential guests and is home to 500 permanent residents, who operate 42 departments, including lodging, laundry, maintenance and audio-visual, required to meet the needs of the constant flow of visitors and students from across the world.
The head: Organisation heads called Dadis. Current head is Dadi Prakashmani. Recipient of UN Peace Medal for her efforts to spread across the message of peace and goodwill.
The philosophy: The 70-year-old organisation emphasises practical meditation, Raja Yoga. Despite teachings being largely based on Hinduism, Brahma Kumaris declare themselves an independent religion. But members can retain original faith.
The numbers: Over 8 lakh followers—described as students by members of the Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya—and 8,000 branches and a strong presence in 129 countries.
The influence: Associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information as an NGO since 1980, while enjoying consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and UNICEF.
The assets: Does not accept fees for its courses but accepts donations in cash or kind, even land or gold. Owns the property at Mt Abu. Has other land holdings estimated at hundreds of crores. Also associated with Global Hospital at Mt Abu as well as a school there. Properties also in Australia, USA, Aruba, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece and Spain.
The controversies: There have been allegations of widows and unmarried women being pressurised into donating their property and also questions over where the funds come from.
— Palak Nandi

Set up by Purushottam Thakur Anukulchandra in Pabna, now in Bangladesh, in 1910, the headquarters of this sect is in Deoghar in Jharkhand. It has members all over the country, particularly in Assam, Orissa and West Bengal.
The head: Presided over by Acharya Shri Ashok Chakrabarty, Anukulchandra’s grandson.
The philosophy: Primary tenet: Bancho and Bado (Live and grow and help others to live). Equal importance given to all religions in belief that a person should be known not by his religion but by his human qualities. Every Satsangi is expected to be vegetarian and offer prayers twice a day.
The numbers: Claims adherents totalling 20 crore across country. Satsang has about 2,000 temples all over the world and 14,000 Ritwiks (people entitled to confer diksha on others).
The assets: Satsang Nagar at Deoghar, with its hospitals and schools, spread over 50 acres. Each Satsangi expected to save some money, even a paisa, every day and send the amount to Deoghar every month.
—Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay

Sahib Bandagi
Sahib Bandagi, which started in Jammu in the 1980s, has won over many people not just in Jammu but also in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The headquarters of the sect is at Ranjri village near Raya, 25 km from Jammu.
The head: In his fifties now, Swami Madhu Paramhans retired as JCO from the Indian Army and set up an ashram at Ranjri. Propagated the teachings of Kabir. A regular on religious channels on TV now.
The philosophy: Teachings are amalgamation of Hindu teachings and Kabir’s tenets. The sect has carried out sustained campaigns against rampant exorcism in the region.
The numbers: Nearly 4 lakh disciples and 103 branches, of which 70 are in Jammu. Both Hindus and Sikhs are disciples as are many Kashmiri Pandit families that have migrated from the Valley.
The assets: Paramhans Sant Ashram at Ranjri spread over a hectare of land. Additional fields surrounding the complex.
— S. Chander Sharma

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Sant Mat
In rural Uttar Pradesh people often greet each other with “Jai Guru Deo”. For 55 years now Param Sant Tulsi Dasji Maharaj, popularly known as Baba Jai Guru Deo, preaches from his ashram, run under the banner of Jai Guru Deo Dharam Pracharak Sanstha, near Mathura. He became a cult figure among the backwards and Dalits of UP in the ’60s and ’70s. His core followers are the rural poor of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar and a sprinkling of adherents in the US
The head: Now claiming to be 104 years old, Babar Jai Guru Deo has not named a successor.
The philosophy: Practical self-realisation and detachment from worldly associations and pleasures. Worship as per Sanatan principles. Vegetarians. Liquor not permitted.
The numbers: Devotees number in crores (1983 count showed 1.2 crore members), claims Mat spokesperson RK Srivastva. Ashram sprawled over 60 acres. Runs a school for poor and needy children and a small hospital.
The controversies: Guru Deo sent to jail during the Emergency for criticising Indira Gandhi. In 1978 he declared Subhas Chandra Bose was alive and organised a rally in Kanpur at which he claimed Netaji would participate. At the rally, announced he himself was Bose and faced the wrath of the public. Floated a political party in 1980 and fought elections till 1989. In the recent Assembly polls, supported Samajwadi Party.
— Siddharth Kalhans
The Swaminarayan sect started as a social reform movement in Gujarat, working among the backward classes in the early 19th century. But, over three centuries the sect has split into five sub-sects.
Before his death, the sect’s founder Sahjanand Swami had set up two gaddi or seats, one at Ahmedabad and another at Vadtal in central Gujarat. At present, there are more than five important sub sections of the sect, often competing with each other for expansion of their networks.
Bochasanvasi Askhar Purushottam Sanstha:
The first split in the sect occurred in 1907 when some saints challenged the supremacy of Acharya, broke away from Vadtal and set up a temple in village Bochasan in central Gujarat. This group is now known as Bochasanvasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS) headed by Pramukh Swami Maharaj. BAPS is one of the richest sects in India. It has a presence in 45 countries and has over 600 temples and 9,090 centres there. BAPS Temple in London, spread over 1.5 acres, is one of the most visited places in the city.
Guru Pramukh Swami is often credited with obtaining the patronage of the British Royal Family and it is believed Queen Elizabeth II sought the Swami’s help in sorting out differences between Prince Charles and Diana. It runs over 29 educational institutes and nine major charitable hospitals and medical centres across the country.
Rajkot Gurukul:
Shastri Dharmajivandas set up the first educational Gurukul in Rajkot in 1948. Today, Rajkot Gurukul has spread its wings across the country.
Vadtal Gaddi and Ahmedabad Gaddi.
Two original gaddis were set up by Sahjanand Swami. Vadtal temple is regarded as one of the richest temples in Gujarat.
The influence: All factions have a cumulative 2 crore followers. Patels, the most powerful community in Gujarat, form core of Swaminarayan following. According to insiders, NRI Patels are the main donors. Sect has enjoyed the patronage of state governments, prominent businessmen, industry and corporate houses.
The controversies:
Swami Gadhadhranand, chairman of the Vadtal temple committee, was kidnapped by four sadhus and a disciple belonging to a rival faction in May 1998. Before the power struggle began, the root cause of the friction of sale of land worth crores of rupees by a faction.
Sharing of the temple spoils had led to two other murders at Vadtal. Manubhai Patel, a supervisor, was murdered in the late 1970s. In 1986, Nattu Swami was murdered in his hostel room at Vadtal by rivals.
In 2004, some saints made a CD of other saints from the same temple having sex with women. The rival group came up with another CD with similar contents. According to one estimate, there are around 15 cases registered against Swaminarayan saints in Gujarat for sodomy.
Mahesh Langa

First published on: 26-05-2007 at 04:53:38 pm
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