Indian guru digs deep to find meaning of life and death

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The Independent Online
FIVE smouldering Bristol cigarettes outside a mound plastered with cement mark the spot where Vilji Bhagat breathed his last.

On 3 March, on the boundary between two remote villages in Gujarat, north- west India, Mr Bhagat climbed down into the hole he and his followers had dug here and he sat in meditation with a coconut balanced on his head. Then his wife and disciples shovelled earth on him until he was buried alive.

Overnight the spot became a place of pilgrimage: green flags honouring Mr Bhagat's patron saint were raised and hundreds of people made the trek by bus and autorickshaw to worship at the grave.

But there were dissenters. A local scientific association, the Saurashtra Science Committee, said the incident was "deplorable, since it encourages superstition in a scientific age". On Wednesday, some 80 volunteers from this and other rationalist groups turned up at the grave, planning to dig up the body. They wanted, they said, to persuade Mr Bhagat's admirers that his suicide had been "a freak and an irresponsible action" to which no religious significance should be ascribed.

There were 2,000 believers at the scene, however, who were in no mood to chop logic, and an ugly clash was averted only when police waded in with bamboo staves.

This corner of India has something of a name for memorable suicides. It was in neighbouring Rajasthan 11 years ago that a woman called Roop Kanwar shocked the nation by committing suttee, allowing herself to be burned alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Suttee has long been illegal, but although the woman's father-in-law and 31 other people were charged with criminal offences, all were acquitted after a 10-year delay.

Three years ago, another man in Gujarat is said to have performed an equally arresting act, "cutting off his head", according to The Pioneer, "and offering it to the gods".

An air of mystery surrounds the subject of the latest samadhi, as such religiously motivated acts of terminal self-effacement are called. He arrived in Deri Pipaliya five years ago, people say. In his years in the village, he did nothing but carry out "pujas" - religious ceremonies - acquiring a circle of devotees as well as a wife and two sons. He was only 37 at the time of his death.

Police, possibly goaded by the rationalists, have begun proceedings against Mr Bhagat's widow, Vimlaben, and five followers, for aiding and abetting suicide. Mrs Bhagat reacted angrily. "Why are they doing this to us?" she told the Indian Express. "We didn't do anything. It was his wish and the whole village accompanied him on his last journey.

"We were there when it all happened - myself, our two sons. There were nearly 300 others." She had learned of her husband's death-wish nearly three years ago. "He knew when he had to die. He used to say he would not live on this earth a moment longer than had been divinely ordained. 'I will know the time when I will be asked to leave this earthly vehicle,' he would say. On his last journey, people were singing. They had come in lorries, on foot. We don't have any sadness or guilt in our hearts. We are happy."

Then she lit five more Bristols (the incense of choice in these parts) and sprayed the mound with room freshener. "Only Bristols and the most expensive perfume are good enough," she breathed piously.