The curious case of the Indian spiritual guru residing in the freezer

Indian gurus are no strangers to controversy. But the rumours around Guru Ashutosh Maharaj, said to be in his 70s, are particularly unusual: is he dead, or just meditating?

Those who have seen him, including the doctors who declared him clinically dead on 29 January this year, are in no doubt. But members of his “socio-spiritual-cultural, not-for-profit organisation”, Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan (DJJS), believe he will return from the deep meditative state of ‘samadhi’ when he chooses.

He currently resides in a freezer in his ashram (spiritual retreat) in the Punjab village of Nurmahal, says Timothy McGrath on NBC News. It’s a climate apparently familiar to him from years spent meditating in “sub-zero temperatures in the Himalayas”.

This state of affairs might have continued quietly, particularly as local political interests are said to be ready to protect the DJJS, says Andrew Buncombe in The Independent. But the issue is now before India’s courts. Puran Singh, who claims to be Ashutosh’s former chauffeur, believes the guru was poisoned. He has filed a petition seeking a post-mortem. The guru’s alleged son, Dilip Jha, also wants an investigation, and for the courts to order the body released, so it can be cremated according to Hindu tradition.

Ashutosh Maharaj founded the DJJS in 1983 during the insurgency in Punjab. He made Nurmahal the base from which he sought to carry out his mission of peace and distribute “divine medicine” to its misguided youth. The DJJS website says its mission is to create a “one-world-family” where “compassion and empathy are the rule of thumb”.

But its history has been chequered with violent clashes with Sikhs and it has been dismissed as a cult in which followers “poke their eyes until they see stars”, according to Sikh.24.com.

Ashutosh Maharaj’s early career is sketchy. In 1970, after a marital tiff, he left his village in Bihar as Mahesh Jha, leaving his wife, Anandi Devi, and a one-month-old baby boy, says Akash Deep Ashok in India Today. He became a disciple of another guru, Satpal Maharaj, and changed his name to Ved Parvakta Nand before being “sacked” for reasons that are unclear. He became Ashutosh Maharaj and started his own ashram, going on to become extremely successful.

The billion-dollar enlightenment business

The DJJS has attracted a disproportionate number of educated followers and young people, says Babushahi.com. It has 36 centres in Punjab, more than 100 across India and around 20 in other countries, and it owns “dozens of large properties throughout India, the US, South America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe, including its British headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex”, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The Hindustan Times suggests that a succession row lies behind the drama – sources in the DJJS said that three different factions are jostling for control of the guru’s £100m empire. Ashutosh Maharaj’s extended stay in the freezer suits them just fine.

For centuries, the image of India’s miracle workers and spiritual leaders was as “barefoot ascetics who spent their lives in solitary Himalayan meditation”, says Simon Denyer in The Washington Post.

Now these gurus, often known as ‘godmen’, have become “savvy powerful figures who control vast philanthropic and business empires, dabble in politics and manipulate the media”.Donations to these holy men (and occasionally women) come from the prosperous Indian middle classes and diaspora, who see donating as a way to reconcile their wealth with the higher ideal of renunciation, asceticism and a life of simplicity.

“And give they certainly have.” For example, when Sathya Sai Baba died in 2011, his personal chambers held $2.8m in cash, and gold and silver worth around $5m. His Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust was worth £5.5bn and he had a worldwide following of 50 million, says Gethin Chamberlain in The Daily Telegraph.

Before him came Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual adviser to The Beatles. He founded the Transcendental Meditation-Sidhi programme, claiming to offer practitioners the ability to levitate and to “create” world peace, says India Today. When he died in 2008, his empire was valued at $7bn-$10bn.

It’s not just the fortunes amassed that raise eyebrows. Rumours of illegal and sinister activities are rife. The Dera Sacha Sauda sect was originally established, in 1948, as a centre for spiritual learning. Today it has 250 branches around the world and is best-known for its notorious chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who has faced charges of murder, rape and sexual harassment.

The richest godwoman in India is probably Kerala’s Mata Amritanandamayi, who presides over the Mata Amritanandamayi Trust. In 2012 a book by Gail Tredwell, an Australian who spent 20 years at the ashram, made damaging allegations about the sex, violence and greed she encountered.

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