From meditating in a small hut on the banks of the Sabarmati River to commanding a sprawling Rs 10,000-crore business empire, self-styled guru Bapu Asaram soared high — only to plunge into ignominy after his conviction today for raping a teenaged minor.
School dropout Asaram, once called Asumal Sirumalani, is believed to own 400 ashrams spread across India and abroad and has a legion of followers, many of whom still revere the controversial preacher, sentenced to life by a Jodhpur court.
When he was arrested in 2013, investigators had said the 77-year-old guru owed his immense wealth to buildings, stocks and shares, a lucrative money-lending practice and by selling Ayurvedic products and religious booklets.
Documents seized by the police from Asaram’s ashram in Motera area here had revealed that he also owned vast tracts of land.
The grey-haired and bearded guru, who studied till Class 4, started attracting attention when he began meditating by a modest hut near the Sabarmati River back in the Seventies.
Soon, people were flocking to his hut and he had begun gaining popularity as Sant Asaramji Bapu.
His official website states that he was born in 1941 in Berani village of the Sindh province in Pakistan.
After the partition of India in 1947, he came to Ahmedabad with his parents and studied in a school in the Maninagar area, but dropped out when he was 10 after the death of his father, Thaumal.
He did odd jobs in his early youth, including a reported stint as a tongawallah in Ajmer, and then, the website states, went towards the Himalayas on a spiritual quest, where he met his Guru, Lilashah Bapu.
It was Lilashah Bapu who apparently gave him the name ‘Asaram’ in 1964 and “commanded him to carve his own path and guide people”.
Asaram came to Ahmedabad in the early 70s and set up ‘Moksha Kutir’, a small hut on the banks of river, in 1972.
It wasn’t long before the hut had spawned into a full-fledged ashram. Soon, new ashrams had come up in various parts of the country, including a sprawling complex in Delhi’s protected Ridge area.
Even today, many of his disciples believe that he was jailed and convicted on false charges.
“Even if Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh come and tell me that Bapu was wrong, I will still say, ‘No, No, No’,” a young disciple in Delhi told PTI.
Asaram is married to Laxmi Devi and they have two children – son Narayan Sai, who is also behind bars, and daughter Bharti Devi.
The guru first ran into trouble in 2008, when two pre-teenagers — cousins Dipesh and Abhishek Vaghela who lived in Asaram’s gurukul in Motera — were found dead on the riverbed near his ashram.
The two cousins’ parents had alleged that they were killed in Asaram’s ashram where they claimed black magic was practised.
The state CID had in 2009 booked seven followers of Asaram in the death case.
But Asaram fell from public grace in 2013, after he was arrested for a minor teenager’s rape in Rajasthan.
After that, two Surat-based sisters also accused him and his son of sexual exploitation.
The police on October 6, 2013, registered complaints filed by the two sisters – one against Asaram and another against Narayan Sai – of rape, sexual assault, illegal confinement and other charges.
The case is being tried in the Gandhinagar court.
He was also accused of grabbing land for building his ashrams in Surat and Ahmedabad.
His followers were held for threatening and assaulting witnesses in rape cases against him and his son after they were arrested.
Asaram has also courted controversy in recent years with his outspoken — and debatable views — on issues such as Valentine’s Day and the Nirbhaya killing.
Valentine’s Day should be marked as the day for worshipping parents, he had said a few years ago.