Bhaiyyuji Maharaj was an influential political figure, with a large following in Bollywood too

An excerpt from a profile, published in 2016, of the religious leader who committed suicide on June 12 at the age of 50.

Buffed, polished, tinted to pink and white sleekness, absurdly young and matinee-idolish, Bhaiyyuji Maharaj appears more top-grade Tollywood fodder than spiritual preceptor to the rich and powerful of western and central India. His conspicuous presence in May 2014 at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in came as no surprise. He had already gained entry to the exclusive club of invitees who had witnessed Modi take oath as chief minister of Gujarat for a historic fourth term in December 2012.

How does a relatively unknown godman, from a tier two city called Indore in Madhya Pradesh, rate a place among the movers and shakers of government? The who’s who of contemporary politics stuck on the walls of his ashram, look like the standard collection of promotional photo-ops. But by all accounts, he is the real thing, an intimate of many of the mechanically- smiling big leaguers on display. He may not rule over a global empire in patented spiritual products, peddle Ayurvedic concoctions or maintain a prominent media profile, but he wields an influence all out of proportion with the size of his following.

As ashrams go, his is postage-stamp sized, set in the middle of a busy locality in Indore. It is a rabbit warren of haphazardly put-together rooms leading into each other, with walls festooned in religious and patriotic iconography. Bhaiyyuji has little use for real estate. “Every home is an ashram,” he philosophises.

His disdain for architectural opulence may lead one to presume a commitment to asceticism. No such thing.

His everyday turnout may comprise a simple kurta-pyjama of a whiteness matching his perfect teeth, free of the embellishment de rigueur in these Bollywood-inspired times, but the material is hand-spun khadi with a thread count to die for. For transport, he prefers high-end SUVs, often self-driven. While holding court at home, he is perfectly at ease on a Bal Thackeray-inspired throne-and-footstool, with devotees clustering around him adoringly.

He balks at the idea of anyone diving for his feet. “If you wish to honour me, plant a tree and worship it,” he tells his devotees, who satisfy their need to display love and humility by prostrating themselves instead, at a discreet distance from his buttery-soft leather sandals. You meet him on a first-come-first-served basis; there are no VIP lines. He explains why.

“As a kid, I used to go to temples and notice two separate lines there. One for people like us (the well off) and one for the poor. This distinction between the so-called VIPs and the general public made me uncomfortable. I used to wonder why, in the house of god, people weren’t equal, that there was this kind of discrimination. Just as all children are equal in the eyes of their parents, so should they be in the eyes of god.”

A noble sentiment, but one which sits a shade awkwardly on a guru who gives darshan on an opulent chair reminiscent of a prop from the Mahabharata set.

The annoyance with VIP culture at god’s doorstep segued into a concern for social justice. “From childhood up, I have had a problem with social inequity. I’ve been against an exploitative caste and class-based society. Those who have not benefitted from Independence, those who have not come into the mainstream or gotten justice, should. Freedom means the right of equality and when faith too talks of equality, why should I not use faith or dhamma as an instrument to achieve it?”

Bhaiyyuji doesn’t care to visit temples.

Religion, in his book, is for making society better and not for deriving individual satisfaction through rituals. The ground floor of his ashram, however, houses his favourite deities: Kalka Mata, Surya Bhagwan and Dattatreya, worshipped by members of the Nath community, to which he belongs.

Every night, after 10 pm, he adjourns to his unpretentious home, where he lives with his ailing mother (his father died in April 2014). His wife, Madhavi Nimbalkar and daughter, Kuhoo, lived in Pune until the former passed away in 2015. Through most of his adult life, he has been simultaneously a grihastha (householder) and a sanyasi. A peculiar circumstance, owing perhaps to the fact that Bhaiyyuji was married off at a very early age, a seer having told his mother that if he did not tie the knot as soon as he came of age, he would remain single all his life. Besides, the constant influx of visitors and his own erratic schedule made it hard to run a normal household.

But was it a normal marriage? “Initially, she (Bhaiyyuji’s wife) did not like all this santgiri (preoccupation with sainthood),” confided one of the guru’s associates. And is he a good father or indifferent considering he has a large brood to care for? Bhaiyyuji is like any other father, and proud of his little girl. “She works at orphanages and old age homes, attends community marriages.”

Cluttered with the usual middle-class kitsch, his home is generic marble and distemper, unremarkable but for the throne and footstool in the living room.

The usual gaggle of businessmen, journalists and hangers-on occupy every available seating space. Among them is a tall, hefty, dark, bearded man with smouldering good looks and a curiously gentle aspect. He introduces himself as Milind Gunaji, actor. Not quite an A-lister in Bollywood, Gunaji made news when he was paired with Playboy girl Sherlyn Chopra in the film Kamasutra 3D.

Gunaji is a die-hard devotee and doesn’t care who knows it. “I met him (Bhaiyyuji) through Uddhav Thackeray and he made an immediate impression. Shortly after that, I saw him again at the wedding of Ravi Pawar (nephew of Sharad Pawar, former chief minister of Maharashtra and now chief of Nationalist Congress Party or NCP). I looked at him and all at once, I knew that my search for a guru had ended. He called me to Indore. It was as if he had read my mind. He was aware that I had hungered for a guru and very matter-of-factly told me, ‘I am he!’”

In the Bollywood world of make-believe and extreme insecurities, Bhaiyyuji keeps him stable and grounded. “He is nurturing, like a mother. When I am with him, I feel a surge of inner peace. He reads me like a book and knows all the stuff I thought only I knew. He has a knack for knowing what’s going on with you,” says Gunaji. “Surrender to the guru means always being on call,” – regardless of his busy schedule, the actor invariably responds to summons.

Bhaiyyuji has hosted many other members of the film industry, according to his crew: Madhur Bhandarkar, Sameera Reddy, Hrishita Bhatt, Vivek Oberoi, Anuradha Paudwal, Anil Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana and Sunil Shetty.

Lata Mangeshkar is a regular visitor to his ashram and supports many of his social initiatives. And there are politicians, sportsmen and others who need advise and comforting from time to time, age notwithstanding: Anna Hazare; the late Vilasrao Deshmukh who is said to have stayed over for a couple of days and helped set up a memorial for Kargil martyrs; Irfan Pathan and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

At one time, it was acknowledged that Bhaiyyuji was extremely close to leaders of the Congress party like former President Pratibha Patil, RR Patil and former Maharashtra PCC chief Ranjit Deshmukh. Senior leader of the Congress party and the scion of the erstwhile principality of Gwalior, Madhav Rao Scindia was believed to have visited Bhaiyyuji Maharaj six months before he passed away in a plane crash.

Bhaiyyuji’s followers have it that he had predicted the elevation of Pratibha Patil as President of India and that of Nitin Gadkari as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, at which point it became evident that the godman had moved closer to the party, which was then in the opposition. In 2012, with Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial bid still a good two years away, a standoff between him and the then BJP president Nitin Gadkari was reportedly resolved after the former visited Bhaiyyuji’s ashram in Indore. Gadkari then reached out to Modi, acquiesced and the rest, as they say, is history.

Behind Bhaiyyuji’s spiritual persona, it would appear, lay a master negotiator very much at home in the world of politics.

He is said to have used his influence with Uddhav Thackeray to sort out Shiv Sena’s differences with the BJP and advised Narendra Modi during a protracted meeting in Ahmedabad in 2011, to initiate a dialogue with leaders of other parties in the National Democratic Alliance or NDA. When Narendra Modi sat on his three-day “Sadbhavna” fast that year, it was Bhaiyyuji who offered him the traditional nimbu paani (lemon juice) to end the hunger strike. The godman’s proximity to Modi was further established when the former received a condolence letter after the passing of his father in April 2014.

Like most godmen of stature, Bhaiyyuji doesn’t lean overtly towards a particular political party, which doubtless makes him an able negotiator. Despite his proximity to Uddhav, he is in touch with his cousin and bête noire, Raj Thackeray and once even suggested that he could play mediator between the two. Likewise, his closeness to Nitin Gadkari did not prevent him from cultivating a relationship with his arch-rival, the late Gopinath Munde. He also has a line to the NCP leadership, namely Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel. Rumour has it that he tried to persuade Gadkari to stop hammering away at NCP’s Sunil Tatkare, who was then under fire for allegedly siphoning off funds meant for irrigation (a subsequent probe into the scam indicted officials of the irrigation department, but let politicians off the hook).

Bhaiyyuji Maharaj first emerged on the national political stage in 2010, during Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in Delhi. The primary bone of contention between Anna and the Central government at the time was the drafting of the Jan Lokpal Bill; the social activist from Ralegaon Siddhi had rejected the government’s version and his protest at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan had garnered unprecedented support leaving the government nervous and desirous of a quick resolution to the deadlock.

Meanwhile, some reports in the media said Bhaiyyuji Maharaj had been approached by a senior Cabinet minister to mediate between the two warring factions. The godman’s tactical skills came into play as Union Ministers Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal worked on a draft resolution for the government to adopt in Parliament. In Anna Hazare’s camp, there were murmurs of a sellout even as Bhaiyyuji kept the moderate elements in good humour, while keeping BJP president Nitin Gadkari and veteran leader L K Advani from “politicising” the issue. In an interview to Tehelka magazine, Bhaiyyuji said that he had not only studied both the drafts but also secured a rapprochement between the two groups in a meeting between Kapil Sibal and Maharashtra additional chief secretary, Umesh Chandra Sarangi.

Given his pathological disdain for VIP culture, isn’t schmoozing with politicos a touch dissonant, I asked Bhaiyyuji.

He promptly dismissed his role in the negotiations, saying he merely acted as a responsible citizen. Anyhow, Indian mythology is replete with examples of gurus acting as mediators between kings and political factions and on occasion, kings and gods.

Excerpted with permission from Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas, Bhavdeep Kang, Westland.

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