On July 31, 2012, the Juna akhara, a major Shaiva militant ascetic order, appeared on the verge of implosion as one of its sections bestowed the title of Mahamandaleshwar (high priest) on a woman known as Radhe Maa. Three years later, as the so-called godwoman finds herself weighed down by controversy, several other Mahamandaleshwars and prominent ascetics of the Juna akhara are up in arms once again.

On Wednesday, a woman filed a police complaint against Radhe Maa in Mumbai, saying that her husband's family had tortured her on the advice of the spiritual leader. Radhe Maa's followers immediately took to Facebook to dismiss the news reports as being "full of inaccuracies, unsubstantiated allegations, and rumors that have no basis in fact".

As if this wasn't enough, Rahul Mahajan, the controversial son of slain Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan, tweeted a photograph of Radhe Maa in a miniskirt. When she meets her followers, the spiritual leader is usually seen in glittering red bridal wear, heavy jewellery and layers of make-up, with thick garlands and a tiara. So this photograph provoked some comment and eventually led to intense coverage in some sections of the media.

The back story

Some members of the Juna akhara, which helped her along her path, are not amused. “There is not even an ounce of asceticism in Radhe Maa,” said Yatindranand Giri, a prominent Juna akhara Mahamandaleshwar who was in the forefront of opposing the spiritual leader's elevation in 2012. "She must be expelled immediately."

Added Divyanand Saraswati, a prominent Juna akhara ascetic in Haridwar, “This is the kind of embarrassment you will have to face if you make someone Mahamandaleshwar simply because that person offers you huge money."

Juna is the largest of the seven Shaiva akharas in the 13-member All India Akhara Parishad. Of the other members, three are Vaishnav akharas and three are associated partly with Shaivism and partly with Sikhism. It is the Shaiva akharas that grant the coveted title of Mahamandaleshwar to prominent ascetics. Once the title is granted, Mahamandaleshwars are allowed to participate in the royal procession (or shaahi juluus) of their akharas during the Kumbha Mela.

The indignation over the decision to grant the title to Radhe Maa was so acute, the controversy has not stopped simmering three years later.

The debate has been bubbling since Radhe Maa was anointed Mahamandaleshwar in 2012, largely at the behest of the Juna akhara's most powerful ascetic, Hari Giri. The strong interest that he had shown in the appointment caused some suspicion, but his strong grip over the Juna akhara and his status as the general secretary of All India Akhara Parishad allowed him to have his way.

Anger over appointment

Despite Hari Giri's widespread influence, there were strong allegations that huge amounts of cash had changed hands. As a result of the rumblings, Radhe Maa was consecrated as Mahamandaleshwar in a hush-hush manner in the middle of the night of July 31.

It wasn't just the charges of corruption that had sparked the ire. Some ascetics were horrified by what they had heard about Radhe Maa’s lavish life style. There were also allegations that the title had been bestowed on her even before her proper initiation to sanyas.

In fact, the outcry was so intense that the day after the ceremony, the Juna akhara announced that Radhe Maa’s title would remain suspended until a five-member enquiry committee looked into all the charges.

However, it soon became clear that most members in the panel were loyalists of Hari Giri. At the same time, a representative of Radhe Maa told the media that she had all the qualifications to become a Mahamandaleshwar and that she was prepared to face any kind of investigation.

Controversy erupts again

The controversy went quiet for a few months but erupted again when the Allahabad Kumbha Mela got underway on January 14, 2013. Rumours spread that Radhe Maa would join the contingent of  Juna akhara  Mahamandaleshwars for the second shaahi snaan (or royal bath), due on February 9. This led to a ruckus and forced the akhara’s office-bearers to issue a statement declaring that the controversial godwoman would not be allowed to participate in any of the shaahi snaans at Allahabad Kumbha. It added that her title would remain suspended till the panel submitted its final report.

A few months later, Hari Giri launched a covert operation to clear Radhe Maa's name. He persuaded the akhara’s office-bearers to fall in line but ensured that the decision remained a secret for months until he chose to reveal it to the media.

On September 1, 2013, a report in the Haridwar edition of the Dainik Jagaran quoted Hari Giri as saying that Radhe Maa’s suspension had been revoked because the akhara committee could not find any truth in the charges against her. He said that her title of Mahamandaleshwar would soon be reinstated.

The latest controversy seems to have emboldened Hari Giri’s detractors in the Juna akhara. This time, the clamour for her expulsion appears unstoppable.