religious matters

Two years on, followers of Punjab Dera chief 'sleeping in a freezer' await his second coming

Followers of Ashutosh Maharaj insist he is in a deep state of meditation, in conditions that approximate a Himalayan cave.

Last month, Ashutosh Maharaj, the head of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan, completed two years in a freezer.

Doctors declared Maharaj clinically dead after he collapsed following complaints of severe chest pains on January 28, 2014. But Maharaj’s followers insist that he is actually in a deep state of meditation in a freezer set up to simulate Himalayan conditions, and will wake up soon.

With its headquarters in a large ashram in Nurmahal village in Jalandhar district, the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan is one of Punjab's biggest Deras, or religious sects. It is perhaps the fourth-most popular sect in the state, after the Dera Sacha Sauda, the Dera Beas and the Nirankaris. The Sanstha runs 36 centres in Punjab and 109 elsewhere, including some abroad.

In December 2014, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the state government to cremate Ashutosh Maharaj’s body within 15 days. But last September, it decided that the courts should not interfere in religious issues and left it to the Dera management to decide how it wanted to dispose of the body. The management has not yet filed a reply. The case comes up for hearing again on February 24.

Deras a touchy subject

There are some 300-odd Deras in Punjab and adjoining Haryana, each with lakhs of followers, crores of rupees in assets and leaders who project themselves as being larger than life. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the flamboyant head of the Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, is one of the better-known gurus, thanks to his starring role in two self-produced films.

Conservative Sikhs believe that Deras violate the tenets of Sikhism laid down by the religion's ten gurus. They believe that the last guru, Gobind Singh, passed on the mantle to the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which now serves as the Sikh community’s permanent spiritual guide.

Deras are seen as controversial because they revolve around living gurus and because they interpret the Guru Granth Sahib differently, or even add to it.

The majority of Dera followers belong to the Dalit community, which constitutes 32% of Punjab’s population and wields considerable influence.

It is no wonder then the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party state government in Punjab has tiptoed around the Ashutosh Maharaj case and other controversies related to Deras.

In fact, after the chief of the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan was declared clinically dead, the state government strengthened security around the Dera, allowing his followers decide who was to be granted access. The media was banned and only those cleared by a control room set up by Dera staff were permitted to enter.

Counter claims

Set up in 1983 by Ashutosh Maharaj, the Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sansthan runs spiritual programmes and several social welfare projects, including programmes for the blind and physically disabled, for convicts and drug addicts.

Since many Sikhs objected to the idea of living guru, Maharaj had to be provided with heavy security. After militants issued death threats against him, he was banned from holding public programmes.

Weeks after Maharaj died, a resident of Bihar, Dalip Kumar Jha, claimed he was the Dera chief’s son and said he should be allowed to perform Maharaj’s last rites. He claimed that Maharaj was a resident of Bihar who had deserted his family before founding the Dera. The court is yet to take a decision on his plea which is being hotly contested by the Dera management. At stake is property worth crores of rupees.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.