After the All India Akhara Parishad, the apex body of sadhus, released a list of 14 “fake babas” on Sunday and called for them to be boycotted, one missing name has evoked animated discussion – Swami Nithyanand.
Nithyanand is facing a rape case in Karnataka, filed in 2009. He also faces seven cases of fraud against his foundation, which bears his name, in India and the United States.
“Nithyanand’s name was raised by Hari Giri but the proposal was fiercely opposed by representatives of Mahanirvani Akhara,” said Dharam Das, the chief abbot of Nirvani Akhara, who attended the meeting in Allahabad where the list was drawn up. Hari Giri leads Juna Akhara.
The All India Akhara Parishad is a conglomerate of 13 akharas, or militant ascetic orders – seven of Shaiva persuasion, three each of Vaishnavism’s Ramanandi sect and Sikhism.
The Parishad’s “fake babas” list is aimed at restoring the credibility of sadhus after the arrest of several self-styled godmen on criminal charges, most recently Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Sacha Sauda. Singh is on the blacklist, along with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member Aseemanand, Asaram and his son Narayan Sai, Radhe Ma, Sachidanand Giri and Nirmal Baba.
Nithyanand, though, escaped sanction. “Despite Mahanirvani’s objection, the case of Nithyanand was discussed in detail at the meeting,” Dharam Das said. “But since Mahanirvani’s representatives were not ready to listen to any argument we decided not to put his name on the list of fake babas.”
Nithyanand was anointed Mahamandaleshwar, or high priest, by Mahanirvani Akhara at the Allahabad Kumbh in 2013. The decision had drawn severe criticism from other akharas, which alleged that he had bought the title with “secret guru dakshina donations” to the akhara. Such was their indignation that the Niranjani and Juna akharas organised an open meeting of sadhus and devotees attending the Kumbh to denounce the grant of the coveted title to Nithyananda, who is believed to be one of the world’s richest sadhus.
His omission from the blacklist has not gone down well with many sadhus.
“The Akhara Parishad’s decision to exclude Nithyanand from the list of fake babas signifies that it is not serious about taking concrete steps to salvage the image of the ascetic community,” said Baba Hathyogi, a prominent sadhu from Haridwar who belongs to the Digambari Akhara.
Satyendra Das, a member of the Nirvani Akhara and chief priest of the Ramjanmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya complained: “Akharas tie their hands the moment they take money for granting titles. The practice is so widespread that they are simply not in a position to launch a rectification drive.”
Satyendra Das went so far as to question the credibility of the Parishad’s leaders: “Many are themselves sadhus only in name. How can they cleanse the system?”
His allegations are not unfounded. The Parishad’s president Narendra Giri of the Niranjani Akhara was instrumental in getting Sachidanand Giri, a realtor who owned a bar in Noida, anointed as the chief priest in 2015, while the Juna Akhara’s Hari Giri went out of his way to consecrate Radhe Ma as the high priestess of his akhara in 2012.
Although both Sachidanand Giri and Radhe Ma feature in the “fake babas” list, the support that led to their rise has put a question mark on the Akhara Parishad’s ability to restore the credibility of Hindu ascetics.