Ever since classical times, India has been known as the land of the miraculous and still today reports keep coming in of those popularly known as “godmen”, who possess a blend of divinity and stardom that infers an ability to play fast and loose with the laws of time and space. One such power is an extraordinary depth of meditation, a holy hibernation that puts the body into a deep state of physical and psychic suspension.

That such “living-deaths” are still alive in the popular imagination is borne out by the strange case of His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj, founder of the wealthy Divya Jyoti religious order in the Punjab. In January 2014, this particular godman died. Or did he? His followers claimed that although the hospital tests showed him to be clinically dead, the flatline was a false reading; in fact, he was really in deepest samadhi and would return to the surface only as and when it was appropriate.

All attempts to cremate him were blocked as his disciples, spurning fire in favour of ice, placed the body in a commercial freezer until such time as its owner decided to wake up. Just how Ashutosh, who had apparently spent many years meditating in sub-zero temperatures in the Himalayas, would indicate his desire to resurrect from the frozen cabinet was not made clear.

The Punjab police initially confirmed the death, but the state’s High Court later dismissed their findings, opining that this was definitely a spiritual matter and that the guru’s followers had every right to believe he had temporarily transcended mortality, to return when he deemed fit.

The godman’s immediate family, however, was not convinced. Suspecting that the disciples were only interested in retaining control over the master’s $100 million property empire, freezing their assets as it were, his wife and son demanded the body be released, and the law directed the Punjab government to cremate the body. Several hundred defiant supporters blockaded the ashram in protest; scuffles and a legal appeal followed. Then, almost three years later, the court finally allowed the godman’s followers to keep his body in a freezer, although it wisely withheld an opinion on whether he was still alive. And there, for the moment, it remains...

Though Ashutosh got his fair share of headlines, the godman most persistently occupying the front pages in recent years was one Pilot Baba. His story began one day during the 1962 border war with China, when Wing Commander Kapil Singh, as he then was, underwent a spiritual conversion at 20,000 feet. High above the snowy peaks of the sacred Himalayas his aircraft had lost control, contact with the base vanished, and the immediate future looked grim.

Suddenly, a meditating figure appeared cruising serenely alongside the plane. It was no less than Goraknath, a famous fifteenth-century guru of the Nath sect of hatha yogis... The sage entered the cockpit and promptly guided the plane safely to land. Ten years after this startling aerial intervention, Singh retired from armed service and took up the religious life, reasonably enough taking the name Pilot Baba.

He soon established several ashrams in India and Japan. At one time he had the ear of many important politicians and even worked with prime minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay on various rather vague projects for world peace.

As time passed, the Baba began to claim he could control the elements – divert a river, walk on water, dissipate threatening storm clouds, that sort of thing. But his specialisation was to stage spectacular public demonstrations of yogic endurance which allowed him to shut down all bodily functions to the point of clinical death, only to return at a pre-specified time.

He would bury himself underground encased in an airtight glass box or submerge himself under water for days, or even weeks, on end. The result of these antics was public awe and monetary donations in about equal measure, but they soon invited controversy. In 1980, the Baba sponsored one of his disciples to be buried underground for ten days in his stead.

Hundreds of thousands of rupees were collected from devotees and admirers, and the man was duly lowered into a small pit. When it was opened ten days later, a foul stench announced the bad news. Calculations soon showed that without fresh air being somehow smuggled into the pit, the longest he could have survived there was a mere twenty-four hours. In the middle of the scandal, Pilot Baba dematerialised; so did the cash.

Reappearing in 1992, he was soon on stage again. A huge swimming pool in a Delhi public park was dug, and in front of a crowd of 5,000 paid-up devotees, the Baba clambered down into it, ordered water to be pumped in and disappeared under the flow. When he reappeared after five days however, sceptical investigators discovered the tarpaulin-covered pit contained a concealed cubicle that had enabled the sub-aquatic yogi to enjoy a relatively comfortable five-day sojourn, insulated on dry ground. The same trick was exposed again four years later in a five-day earth-burial.

Baba’s final performance was less glamorous, when, as one of a number of godmen busted by a well-organised TV sting operation, he was caught on camera volunteering to turn “black” money into “white”. The holy man’s offer of transubstantiation was not based on magical power, however, just the sluicing of £1,200,000 through his ashram accounts in return for a 30 per cent commission.

Exposed, he hastily retired to set up an ashram in the Himalayan foothills that is today much patronised by Russians. As money-laundering scandals are two-a-penny in the new India, the Baba’s case is presently just one of many patiently waiting their turn in the bulging in-trays currently blocking up the arteries of the country’s sclerotic legal system. No doubt he is hoping it will remain buried far deeper, and for far longer, than he himself ever managed.

The Story Of Yoga

Excerpted with permission from The Story Of Yoga: From Ancient India To The Modern West, Alistair Shearer, Penguin Viking.