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While we were laughing at his videos, how Nithyananda’s dangerous cult kept growing

A scrawny man, all of 22, sits atop a deerskin mat in a nondescript hill somewhere in northern Tamil Nadu. Vibhuti (holy ash) is smeared across his forehead, as a photo is being taken of him in meditative posture. The image, one of seemingly harmless religiosity, is that of Nithyananda, the man who is in the news today for reportedly having ‘bought’ his own Hindu kingdom. But the photos one sees of the self-styled godman today – sitting on a large throne, adorned with gold jewellery and preaching to audiences with an outer-space backdrop – is a far cry from his days in Thiruvannamalai district as an aspiring ascetic. 

Over the years, Nithyananda has been embroiled in many controversies. In March 2010, news channels published an investigative sting of the godman in an intimate relationship with a Tamil film actor. Nithyananda, who was known to preach a life of celibacy and abstinence, was suddenly facing protests from disillusioned devotees and others. Two days after the tape was broadcast, a woman devotee filed a complaint of alleged rape against him and all hell broke loose. Nithyananda, whose ashrams were already under attack, fled. In April 2010, he was arrested from Himachal Pradesh and brought to Bengaluru.

Yet today, he’s an influential ‘godman’, with a following across countries. His YouTube channel simply titled ‘Nithyananda’ has nearly 2 lakh subscribers. His devotees run two Facebook pages – one titled HDH Nithyananda Paramashivam, with the official ‘verified’ sign from Facebook; the other is called The Avatar Clicks. The second channel, which posts short clips of his speeches, is wildly popular, not just among his devotees but also his detractors, who share the videos ridiculing him. Not many are aware that his devotees ultimately benefit from the page views accruing to the page, even if it is to diss them.

So what explains the steady growth and continuity of his cult despite serious crimes he is yet to answer for, and questionable, illegal practices reported at his ashrams?

The rise of Nithyananda

It was in the year 2000 that Nithyananda set up his first ashram in Tamil Nadu. After spreading to a few districts in the state, the Nityananda Peetham opened its first big ashram in Bidadi in the outskirts of Bengaluru in 2003.

The arrest in 2010, made him go under the radar for a while, but Nithyananda made a powerful comeback. Positioning himself as a victim of religious persecution – a ‘Hindu guru being targeted’ – he launched a multi-pronged attack against his detractors. While the case was delayed in courts using many tactics, various complaints ranging from fund misappropriation to assault were filed on other whistleblowers. 

In 2015, a woman devotee died inside the ashram leading to another controversy. The mother of a young man who had tried to kill himself in the ashram in 2008 also gave a statement to the Karnataka CID around this time.

But nothing stopped the Nithyananda empire from growing. From ashrams in almost every district of Tamil Nadu and in Bidadi, he slowly started owning and operating properties across the country – in Telangana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Puducherry. While initially Nithyananda ran one gurukul out of the Bidadi ashram, another one was started in Ahmedabad a few years ago.

He has adheenams, or major ashrams in Madurai, Chennai and Hyderabad too. Hyderabad has been one of the biggest emerging destinations for the cult, with many business families in the city becoming followers. His operations in the United States too has spread to many cities in the past few years with ashrams set up in Ohio, San Jose, Seattle, Phoenix and a few other places. Nithyananda has been popular amongst a section of young people in America and over the years, many of them have been given administrative positions in the dhyanapeetham.

While controversies took a backseat, the last one-and-half years have seen Nithyananda becoming a social media sensation. 

Money power

“There are two ways in which he manages to grow,” says a former member of the ashram who was with Nithyananda’s cult for seven years, “One is foreign funding from NRIs, and the second is domestic donations from large Hindu business families. His devotees come from middle and upper classes. The money keeps him afloat.” These donations are either money given upfront, or ‘gifts’ of acres of land to set up new ashrams. He was even touted to start an ashram next to the iconic Madurai Meenakshi Temple.

Reports of Nithyananda fleeing the country have not stopped operations at his ashrams which continue to be thronged by devotees. These ashrams are also residences for many who are part of Nithyananda’s cult. They require significant amount of financial resources to feed and shelter his devotees, even though the labour may come from the volunteers. 

His notoriety for his alleged crimes including rape and child abuse charges, unscientific claims and calls for a Hindu theocracy have, shockingly, had little effect on his cult. 

The godman is currently on the run from the law but his devotees continue to ‘attend’ his ‘spiritual discourses’ with a cardboard cut-out of him placed on a plastic chair. 

However, groups that support him are already making noises about an innocent man being persecuted, and the cult hopes that this wave too will make Nithyananda grow further.

Source: The News Minute