Friday , March 24 2023

Indian Guru making headlines over ‘miracle’ cures


Bureau Report + BBC

NEW DELHI/ CHHATTISGARH: India is home to thousands of religious gurus, but a controversial new “godman” has been making headlines for the past fortnight.

Supporters of Dhirendra Krishna Shastri, popularly known as Bageshwar Dham Sarkar, claim that he has divine powers and that he can heal the sick, cure people possessed by ghosts and help people tide over business and financial problems.

The 26-year-old chief priest of the Bageshwar Dham temple, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, dresses in colorful clothes, sports hats similar to those worn by 18th-Century Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra, and counts powerful government ministers and politicians among his followers. He has become a TV and social media sensation.

In recent weeks, India’s Hindi-language news channels have devoted hundreds of hours to the guru and his professed powers. And his utterances on controversial topics such as religious conversions and inter-faith marriages are now being reported as “breaking news”. His social media following has risen rapidly to reach 7.5 million with 3.4 million followers on Facebook, 3.9 million YouTube subscribers, 300,000 followers on Instagram and 72,000 on Twitter. Some of his most popular videos have been watched between three and 10 million times.

Shastri burst into the national limelight in January, after a well-known rationalist questioned his claims that he had healing powers and could read people’s minds.

Shyam Manav, who runs an anti-superstition movement through his organization Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, offered to pay 3m rupees ($36,500; £30,000) if Shastri correctly read the minds of 10 people chosen by him.

The challenge was made when Shastri was holding a camp in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra – the state where Manav is based.

When Shastri left the city without taking the challenge, some said he’d run away.

Since then, he’s given a number of TV interviews where he’s denied running away and said that he was willing to take the challenge, but not in Maharashtra. Instead, he proposed the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh, a “neutral” venue but Manav says that since he made the claims about his superpowers in Maharashtra, he must prove them there. Since the controversy began, reports say Manav has received death threats and police have tightened his security. A few days ago, Shastri also filed a complaint with the police saying that he too had received a death threat over the phone.

The controversy and the breathless media coverage – with one mainstream reporter kneeling at his feet and promoting his claims of healing the sick and ability to read people’s minds have only added to his popularity.

In YouTube videos put out by the Bageshwar Dham temple, he is seen addressing large gatherings attended by thousands of people. At one rally he claims that “there are 400,000 people in attendance”.

On stage and the TV screen he is often very animated punctuating his sentences with claps, he giggles as if laughing at some private joke. At times he bobs up and down on his seat, points a finger at the camera, mutters to himself and speaks in different voices.

At one gathering, he summons “a man called Mukesh, who is dressed in a vest and is not wearing a shirt” from the crowd.

When such a man appears on the stage, he writes down on a sheet of paper what ails Mukesh and his family without talking to him. Mukesh readily agrees when he hears his troubles read out from this sheet.

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