Followers to the death

Followers to the death

Before he died in February,Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj urged his disciples to join him.

Before he died in February,Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj urged his disciples to join him. On Monday,three of them set themselves on fire so that they could ‘join Guruji in heaven’. From the seer’s mutt in Bidar,SREENIVAS JANYALA reports

Pranav Kumar Swami,16,was the only one among the three who could read or write,so the burden of taking a decision and going through with it fell on him. That he was unsure,even afraid,was evident in his eyes as he spoke into a video camera minutes before he and the other two set themselves on fire in the early hours of Monday.

“We have decided to go to our Guruji,who is in heaven,” Pranab said in his last message,recorded in the Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot mutt at Chowli village of Bidar in Karnataka. “The only way there is through agni pravesha dwaram,and we have decided to go through it. We are not under any pressure to do this. We have neither friends nor enemies.”

The young disciple left the video in a camera in the main room of the temple. It was found by police hours after he,along with Veera Reddy Swami,52,and Jagannath Swami,28,had sat on a pyre,poured 60 litres of kerosene on themselves and lit the pyre.


The three disciples had been very close to Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj,the chief seer at the mutt for over 22 years,and been distraught since his death on February 28,an apparent suicide which in itself was shrouded in mystery and mysticism. The leadership vacuum that this left is believed to have contributed to their decision to commit the premeditated,ritualistic suicide.

Ganeshwar Maharaj,55,had apparently tried to play the pied piper early this year,exhorting his disciples to join him in a mass suicide with an assurance that they would go to heaven,but failed — until the three,out of a total of 16,decided to “follow” him.

Of the three,Veera Reddy Swami was a farm labourer with a weakness for alcohol. His daughter,Lalita Reddy,says he told her one day that Ganeshwar Maharaj was leaving this world and had asked all 16 disciples to follow him by immolating themselves.

“When the seer asked them to follow him to heaven,most hesitated. There was a debate and 13 finally said no,” says Siddha Reddy,brother of Veera Reddy Swami. “After the maharaj died,11 left the mutt and went to Srisailam. The other five remained.”

The two who remain after the suicides are Subhash Swami and Mahadev Swami. The number of followers visting the mutt has dropped,as have donations.

The maharaj,55,was found dead in his room. He had apparently poisoned himself,according to police,and the room was sealed without a postmortem being conducted. Dr K Tyagarajan,SP of Bidar,says they did not want to offend his large following by removing the body for a postmortem. “We believe he committed suicide,” the SP said.

Before his death had come another mysterious episode,one possibly linked to the other. A senior seer,Maruti Rao Swami,had been attacked and stabbed near the mutt by persons as yet unidentified. On January 31,he went missing.

This disturbed Ganeshwar Maharaj,says Mahadev Swami of Belgaum,one of the two disciples remaining at the mutt,and who had been living there for 12 years. “Maruti Swami did not name anyone,” said Mahadev Swami. “He did not file a complaint either. No one knows who stabbed him. A few days later,he disappeared.”

Deputy SP A M Jyoti,who is investigating that case,said they have not been able to crack it. “We don’t know whether he left the mutt voluntarily or was kidnapped,or whether he is dead or alive,” Jyoti said. “He spoke to his mother for 58 minutes the day before he disappeared. He told her that should he die,the family should collect his life insurance and pay off their debts.”

Larger than life

The mutt spans six acres of land just outside the village. The land had been donated by villagers and Ganeshwar Maharaj,who had no dearth of followers or funds,set up a large campus. He preached the scriptures once in a while,gave devotees a darshan once a week,and left signs of a self-obsessed spiritual leader who wanted to create a cult that would live and die with him. He had a 50-foot-high statue of himself installed at the centre of the mutt,one that dwarfs the idols of gods nearby.

Former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa reportedly visited the mutt a couple of times and police officials say that after one of the visits,he promised more funds. “Ganeshwar Maharaj was planning to use those funds to get an even larger statue of himself installed at the entrance. The foundation was dug but some disciples resented this grandiosity and questioned how such huge statues of a mortal were being installed,” a police official says.

“This caused a division. Pranav Swami,Veera Reddy Swami and Jagannath Swami remained close to him,but others drifted away.”

The other 13 disciples stayed in rooms built just outside the main entrance. Since the maharaj died,the three closest to him stayed inside the temple. Due to tension created by the mysterious circumstances of his death,police were posted outside the gates.

Police say the 16 disciples had tried to resolve among themselves the issues of leadership and succession but could not reach a consensus. “Nearly all the disciples are illiterate; none knows the scriptures. They just followed what the chief seer said. Without him,they didn’t know what to do with this huge mutt,” says SP Tyagarajan.

“About a fortnight ago,they met and one suggestion was to hand the mutt over to the district administration or to a religious group. They failed to take a decision,” he added. “It appears a premeditated suicide pact. There is no foul play. The video is genuine.”

The pact

The three disciples planned everything within their closed group. To avoid arousing the suspicions of the others,they organised the wood for the pyre by ordering two tractor loads for a feast the disciples were planning on Ugadi,the new year day on April 11. This they stored near an inner gate,by the statue.

Early on Monday,they picked up two cans with 60 litres of kerosene,meant for the generator set,doused both the wood and themselves,and carried out the pact.

The two disciples sleeping outside heard the roar from the flames and alerted the police. “When we went into the mutt and failed to locate the three disciples,we knew something was wrong. Their charred bodies were recovered from below the pyre,” a policemen posted there said.


SP Tyagarajan says that once the investigation is over,the district administration will take a decision on what to do with the mutt.