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Guru or fraud? The holy man who fell from grace

Nirmal Baba’s outlandish teachings have spawned a multi-million pound business – and claims that he is a charlatan
  • @AndrewBuncombe

Nirmaljit Singh Narula is a godman with his back to the wall.

Not long ago, the man known as Nirmal Baba was broadcasting every day to hundreds of thousands of television viewers, hosting crowds at mass meetings and sitting atop a business with an annual turnover of at least 25m GBP. His devotees said they admired his simplicity and the way he could draw lessons from seemingly trivial, everyday occurrences such as eating snacks or consuming soft drinks.

But recently not everything has been going his way. A flurry of legal complaints seizing on his more outlandish teachings have accused the 60-year-old of fraud while a court directed the government to stop broadcasts of his programme, The Third Eye of Nirmal Baba. More recently another court went as far as to suggest that gurus such as he had slowed the development of India and ordered him to stop offering "absurd or illogical solutions" to his disciples.

Yet the self-described guru is not backing down. In a rare interview, he claimed those out to get him represented powerful interests who either felt threatened or were jealous. "There are many groups that do not like that I have reached the heights I have achieved," he said.

India is no stranger to godmen and its recent history is strewn with gurus who have attracted millions of supporters, both domestically and abroad. Some have been admired for their humanitarian messages while others have been exposed as self-serving cheats.

Nirmal Baba claimed he started to develop special powers of perception around 15 years ago. Previously he had run a series of off-and-on businesses and had a stake in a garment factory and a mining operation in the eastern state of Jharkhand. Asked whether there was a break-through moment, he appeared hazy but he said people started coming to him for "treatment" for either their health or problems at work. He said he was different to other gurus in that he didn't recommend "mantras or tantras" and told people to continue following their own faith. "I didn't give medicine. It's a blessing. People are getting the blessing," he said.

The guru is best known for his "samaagams", or congregations, for which audiences of up to 3,000 people pay 2,000 rupees (24GBD) to hear him speak and to ask questions. At these meetings, he said, he is able to offer insights into the experiences of people "who have never met me".

The media is usually denied access to the meetings, but yesterday The Independent joined hundreds of supporters from across India who had travelled to see the guru at the Talkatora indoor sports stadium in Delhi. Anand Singh, a 20-year-old business student who was sitting on a front-row seat, had spent 26 hours on a train from Pune and was returning the same night. "My relatives watched Baba on TV and that is how I got to know about him. At the time I was trying for admission to college and could not get it, but after I started following him I got my admission," he said, as the crowd waited for the guru.

The godman, dressed in cream robes and surrounded by security guards, arrived to a swirl of devotional music played by a live band and took up a position on a gold-painted seat on raised dais. At once the crowd leapt to its feet, arms in the air or else palms pushed together in prayer. "Praise the house of Nirmal Baba," they chanted.

The event began with people "sharing" their positive experiences of the guru or else outlining problems for which they needed his help.

There was a rush for the microphones. One woman was in tears as she told how her father had been forced to take out a loan for her mother's medical treatment. "Please help us to pay it off," she said.

Many people focused on getting a better job, making more money or other aspirational issues. The most disturbing was a woman who wailed into the microphone that she was possessed by a demon who was preventing her from having a child. "Please help me to get rid of this," she cried.

The guru sat largely motionless, holding up his right hand when he had heard enough of anyone and occasionally offering a few words. Every now and then he glanced at his watch. He later gave a short address, saying bad publicity had affected his level of support and repeating his claim that vested interests were behind the attacks.

The most popular part of the meetings is when he speaks with attendees and offers them advice. Many claim he reveals personal insights he could not possibly know if he did not possess special powers.

But to the casual listener, at least, it appeared much of the advice offered yesterday centred on information he easily learned from his brief conversations with people. One man got to his feet and asked the guru for help with his business. "Do you own a briefcase," the man was asked. He said he did but that it was 15 years old. Nirmal Baba smirked at him. "15 years? Then how can you hope to keep God's grace," he snapped. "Go and buy another one."

He often told people to visit temples or shrines and share food or treats with the poor. To a woman from Chhattisgarh whose daughter was having unspecified problems, he enquired if she ever ate spinach. She had last eaten some six months ago, she said. "Well try and eat it twice a month. Have it with some cottage cheese and chapattis. Give some to the poor people as well," he replied.

Many supporters are convinced of his insights. Sandeep Chandok, who is 43 and works in the corporate sector, first met the guru seven years ago. At the time he was struggling financially. The guru asked him if he had a red credit card in his cupboard. Mr Chandok, from Delhi, replied he could not afford such an item but when he questioned his family he discovered there was indeed such a card belonging to his sister. The guru told him to get rid of it and Mr Chandok said his life started to turn around. "How could he know I have a credit card?" said Mr Chandok, who was yesterday serving as a volunteer helper. "My faith is unshakeable."

Before the meeting ended with the supporters making a snaking line towards the stage to leave donations and receive a photograph, the guru asked people to take out their wallets and purses and open them so that they could better receive his blessing that they all become wealthier. "What, you don't want those notes?" he said.

Among the guru's supporters is Dr Jayanti Dutta, a professor of psychology at Delhi University's Lady Irwin College. She was initially skeptical of his claims but has since become convinced he has genuine insights. In an interview on the college's well-tended lawns, she said she believed he had some sort of extra-sensory perception. Moreover, she said she believed he was performing a positive mental health role.

"The people who go to him have distress. He is different. He is doing something different," she added.

But not everyone is so happy. In April, a former devotee from the city of Meerut, Harish Veer Singh, filed a complaint before the courts claiming that he got ill after repeatedly eating sweetened rice pudding at the guru's suggestion. [The guru's family said their father never told the man to eat it every day.]

This summer, a court in Madhya Pradesh heard a complaint from another follower who claimed he heard the guru advise people to place "2,000 rupees inside a black purse" to improve their finances. Surendra Vishwakarma, who had watched the guru on TV, said his finances had actually worsened and that his diabetic father had become ill after following the godman's dietary advice. The court ordered the government to halt the broadcasts of the guru's paid-for television show.

Annie Joseph, secretary general of India's National Broadcasters' Association, said its members had received two advisories requiring them to heed the government's call to stop carrying the guru's programmes. "The order is still in place," she said.

Perhaps the most damaging comments about Nirmal Baba were contained within a ruling from the Delhi high court last month. While the judgment ordered a website to stop writing defamatory material about the guru, it claimed he had not helped himself. In addition to ordering that the guru halt making "illogical" statements, it noted:

"Our country was perceived as the land of the sadhus and saints since time immemorial…Though we have come a long way…the mystical sadhus and the god-men have not left the picture, the difference may be that some of the sadhus travel by a private jet and have a turnover worth [tens of millions.]"

During the interview at a south Delhi hotel he recently bought for use as an office facility, Nirmal Baba said at one point his shows were being broadcast on up to 40 channels and that he was spending around 6mGBD a year to get his message out to ordinary people who could not afford to attend his meetings. He said he had this year "pre-paid" a similar amount in taxes to the government. A spokesperson for the income tax department of the ministry of finance failed to respond to queries.

Dressed in a checked shirt and grey trousers, he claimed a handful of channels were still broadcasting his shows and that others were keen to do so. He said sections of the media had turned against him after he had refused to pay to broadcast on their channels. He said his audience figures were far greater than their news broadcasts.

As to his seemingly peculiar advice to followers, he claimed he was drawing lessons from incidents of every day. "I don't preach, I just say what is coming in front of me," he said.

He added: "I will get a call from the US and I will see cheese that has gone bad. The message is that food does not have to spoil. God has provided you food, you should not spoil it. This is why people are attracted to me. How can I know these things - [about] people I have never met?"

Asked how he saw the future, Nirmal Baba said that in two years from now his business would be bigger than ever. He said he also believed he could help the world of science. "They may spend all this on research, but maybe I can figure out in one second what that is," he said. "I can do an x-ray of a person without a machine."