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film, image, art, sound, and beyond

Author: Koonal Duggal

On the Afterlives of the Osho Mala

Guest Post by Henriette Hanky

My ethnographic research into contemporary Osho-related centres and events started in 2019. It has taken me to the Norwegian mountains and Danish countryside, to a stylish Berlin backyard studio and a vibrant neighbourhood in Cologne, as well as to the outskirts of Delhi and bustling Koregaon Park in Pune. All these sites have a connection to Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1931–1990), but the role that the late guru plays in those individual sites differs significantly. These differences can be illustrated by the role that the iconic Osho mala, a string of 108 wooden beads (traditionally used for mantra recitation and meditation) and a locket with Osho’s portrait, plays.

In this blog post, I will explore the multiple afterlives of the mala, which from 1970 onwards came to materialize membership in Osho’s neo-sannyas movement. Like many of Osho’s tongue-in-cheek adoption of elements from established religions, the mala developed a life of its own and has survived even rejection by the guru himself. As it travelled into new contexts after Osho’s death, it has taken on surprising forms that can tell us about contemporary transformations of the movement itself.

Figure 1.  The Osho mala (photo taken by the author)

In the 1970s and 80s, you would have recognized an Osho sannyasin right away. With their bright orange and red clothes and the wooden mala carrying a locket with Osho’s portrait, their affiliation was hard to miss. For Osho and his sannyasins, this form of self-emblematizing served several purposes (see Soeffner 2015, pp. 174–175). On the one hand, its enormous visibility caused a stir and gave the sannyas movement attention from the outside. Calling his hippie-minded followers “(neo-)sannyasins” and making them wear saffron robes was a huge provocation, ridiculing traditional Hindu sannyasins and the renunciate tradition in India. Western audiences were particularly agitated by the fact that these youth followed a suspect Indian guru whose portrait they carried around their necks and whom they called “God” (Bhagwan). With their visible identity markers, the sannyasins made waves in their home countries and gave the movement the publicity it needed to grow. On the other hand, the orange clothes and mala were important for the movement internally as they symbolized initiation into the “love affair” of neo-sannyas. It meant surrendering into a master-disciple relationship and the path of relentless self-exploration. In the early period of the movement, it was Osho himself who put the mala around the new sannyasin’s neck during the initiation into sannyas. But even when the movement grew and senior sannyasins took over, the mala still had its ritual significance in marking the change of status and imparting Osho’s energy materialized in the mala to the initiate.

Figure 2.  Osho with sannyasins in Pune, 1977. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The mala is a prime example of how Osho played with religion (see Stausberg 2020). Hugh Urban has called Osho a “unique postmodern character, with a remarkably fluid, protean, and shifting identity” (Urban 2015, p. 14), and his teaching and method were as iridescent as his guru identity. While the borrowing of aesthetic and ritual elements from traditional religions served as provocation, Osho also reflexively made use of the powerful techniques that the world’s religions had to offer. Osho knew about the power of ritual, how aesthetic factors enhance transcendent experiences, and how a material object such as a wooden necklace can become a carrier of meaning.

However, it is also typical of Osho’s guruhood that his iconoclasm even applied to his own institutions. After the collapse of the movement’s Oregon commune in 1986, which is well documented in the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” (Way and Way 2018) he blamed his secretary Ma Anand Sheela as well as the commune as a whole for turning the movement into a religion. He declared the religion of “Rajneeshism” dead and abandoned the need to wear orange clothes and the mala. From now on, sannyas was to be an inner affair only:

[T]o begin with and with a world which is too much obsessed with outer things, I had to start sannyas also with outer things. Change your clothes into orange, wear a mala, meditate, but the emphasis was only on meditation. […] I don’t want my people to be lost into non-essentials. In the beginning it was necessary. Now years [sic] of listening to me, understanding me, you are in a position to be freed from all outer bondage. And you can for the first time be really a sannyasin only if you are moving inwards. (OSHO 1986)

Figure 3.  Osho, formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931­–1990). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After Osho’s death in 1990, the OSHO International Foundation (OIF), which mainly consists of Western sannyasins, has continued this path of inwardness. Today, over thirty years after the guru’s death, the malas have completely disappeared from the former main ashram in Pune. When I visited the resort in 2019, I was surprised that, apart from the daily video discourse, Osho’s face is as good as absent within the resort’s walls. Osho portraits have been swapped for Osho’s artwork. Chuang Tzu, Osho’s former bedroom, where his ashes are kept and which had initially served as a samadhi (a shrine commemorating a deceased guru or saint), is now used as a regular meditation hall, much to the dismay of many Indian devotees. In the entry area of Chuang Tzu, an Osho quote on the wall reminds the visitor to look at the moon and not at the finger pointing to the moon. It is Osho quotes like these that undergird the OIF’s individualistic orientation and their devaluation of Osho’s personal authority.

Sociologist of religion Marion Goldman attributes the continuation of the Osho movement to this strategy. Rather than trying to become an institutionalized religion, she argues, the Osho movement has survived by redirecting their focus to becoming a “global cultural influence” rather than remaining a guru movement. The Pune leadership rebranded and popularized Osho’s message by turning him from an “embodied master” to a kind of “avatar” and the ashram into a “hub for worldwide centers and individual clients with varying degrees of commitment” (Goldman 2014, p. 191). In Pune, you can no longer take sannyas. You can however celebrate it as an individual – without guru, without movement, and without mala.

Figure 4. The OSHO International Meditation Resort in Pune, India. Photo from 2008. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When I took a stroll in the streets around the resort, however, I found out that the malas have in fact not disappeared. They have only moved outside the resort’s walls and been turned into a commodity. You can now buy Osho malas from street vendors and jewellery shops around the former ashram. The OIF’s devaluation of the mala as a ritual object has opened the possibility for locals to make it an economic object and sell it as a trinket to tourists. I remember being torn between wanting to buy one as a curious souvenir and at the same time feeling how potent its ritual significance still was, even for me as a non-sannyasin: buying an Osho mala felt as wrong as buying a driving license.

If even I experience a kind of inertia when it comes to the disenchantment of the mala, how must it be for long-time sannyasins who are emotionally attached to their malas? In fact, during my research and travels, I have come across many Osho places that do not seem impressed by the OIF’s precepts concerning the mala and guru devotion in general.

In Oshodham, an Indian Osho ashram on the outskirts of Delhi, almost everyone, Indians and non-Indians alike, wore their mala. Osho might have discounted the mala, but in Delhi, its presence was overwhelming. In general, Osho’s face was everywhere. The huge Osho portrait in the Osho Dhyan Mandir always had fresh flowers in front of it, and sannyasins paid their tribute to the master by bowing down in front of it when entering and leaving the mandir. I slept in a dorm where every sleeping cubicle had its own Osho portrait, some with sparkling hearts and “Love you, Osho” lettering. In Oshodham, image, video and sound were used to make the absent master present. While this is not at all surprising for an ashram devoted to a guru in general, it makes the contrast to the OSHO International Meditation Resort in Pune even starker. It shows that rituals and ritual objects such as the mala develop a life of their own that cannot simply be overwritten by institutional power.

Oshodham is by no means the only centre that sticks to the old rituals. The Nepali centre Tapoban, for example, regularly uploads videos of their sannyas ceremonies that are closely oriented toward how Osho initiated disciples back in the day.

Figure 5. Swami Anand Arun initiates sannyasins at Tapoban, Kathmandu. (Source: YouTube)

The remaining Osho centres and communes in Europe are often still run by sannyasins who have met Osho and serve as meeting places for the scattered sannyas scene. But they also cater to new audiences, younger spiritual seekers who have not met Osho and many of whom are not that interested in having a guru either. These places, of which Osho UTA in Germany and OSHO Risk in Denmark are examples, tend to be pluralistic and welcome the nostalgic Osho devotee as well as the autonomous self-explorer. While the different Osho centres formally adhere to the OIF’s guidelines, they are often pragmatic in adapting the official directions to their local conditions. At OSHO Risk, malas are not a common sight in everyday life, but they are still given to new sannyasins during their sannyas celebrations. While they still symbolize the status change of becoming a sannyasin, they have become private reminders rather than outer membership markers.

Figure 6. At the Danish centre OSHO Risk, some sannyasins wear their malas for special occasions or in private. (Source: Instagram)

A particularly interesting case of a contemporary transformation of the Osho mala met me at the meditation centre Dharma Mountain in Norway. Here, I was surrounded by sannyasins, many of whom wore a necklace with their guru’s portrait around their necks. However, the necklace was not a mala, and the guru was not Osho. These were sannyasins initiated by the Norwegian spiritual teacher Vasant Swaha, and it was his portrait the sannyasins wore. The necklaces came in many forms, some were beads reminiscent of a mala, but most were simple silver chains. The pendants also varied, some were round silver lockets enclosing Swaha’s face, others had Swaha’s portrait on the back while the frontside showed an engraved lotus flower or an Om symbol.

Figure 7. Norwegian guru Vasant Swaha and his community at the Brazilian centre Mevlana Garden. (Source: Instagram)

The sangha around Swaha is one of several communities that have formed around former Osho sannyasins who claim to have reached enlightenment themselves. In the varied Satsang network that Liselotte Frisk has referred to as a “post-Osho phenomenon” (Frisk 2002), many of the teachers sharing their spiritual insights with their audiences learnt the ropes as Osho sannyasins in Pune and Oregon. Swaha has taken over many of the ideas and rituals of his own master, most importantly the sannyas initiation. While this ritual closely resembles Osho’s way of initiating disciples, the necklace is not part of the initiation. Instead, anyone can buy necklaces and pendants at the centre’s little “Babaji Shop”.

For Swaha’s sannyasins, their necklace can become as meaningful as the mala for Osho sannyasins when their guru was still alive. However, it is not “self-emblematizing” in the same way. As it can freely be bought in the shop, it does not mark an initiation and thus does not differentiate visually between insiders and outsiders. In addition, the Swaha necklace has shed its Hindu religious connotation and instead blends in with other kinds of costume jewellery. For Swaha and his sannyasins, the necklace is not a device to ridicule established religion or shock mainstream society. It still symbolizes the master-disciple relationship but in a form that easily fits in with popular aesthetics.

As the post-Osho scene has become fragmented and diversified, so has the role that the iconic Osho mala plays. As it has disappeared from the former Pune ashram, street vendors can sell it for a profit to cult enthusiasts. At the same time, sannyasins in other places make an effort to retain the mala’s significance or to negotiate between old attachments and new times. In emergent communities such as the sangha around Vasant Swaha, the charisma of the old times lives on, but the mala has been transformed to the extent that even Osho’s face has been swapped for a new one.


Henriette Hanky is a PhD candidate in the Study of Religions at the University of Bergen.

Actor, writer, director, producer, guru:  Dr Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan as film star

Post by Jacob Copeman and Koonal Duggal

In 2015 the feature film called MSG: The Messenger of God was released in India (Figure 1). It starred the now-imprisoned Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim playing himself. It was also written and co-directed by him. Marking the guru’s entry into feature films, three further films were released prior to his imprisonment in 2017.

Figure 1. The MSG: The Messenger of God film poster

This development, taken together with his fashion shoots and pop music videos (Figure 2), tells a story of the translation of the guru’s charismatic and performative appeal from printed to moving image, from small to big screen, from saint/baba/guru to ‘Love Charger Baba’, ‘Rockstar Saint’ and ‘Dr MSG’ (Figure 3). It is well known that certain film stars, particularly in south India, are worshipped – often in the cinema hall itself. Here we find the reversal of this – i.e. one who is already worshipped turning film star. Indeed, his transformation from ‘Saint’ into ‘Star’, whose daredevil stunts drew comparisons with major south Indian film star Rajnikanth, inverts standard narratives about fan bhakti (devotion) in which film stars typically become semi-mythological figures and fans turn bhakt (devotee). Moreover, MSG embodied a shift from depiction of gurus in film to the guru as film star playing himself. Why did the guru who already performed live congregational events across various televisual and digital platforms also require the cinematic medium? The answer lies at least in part in cinema’s mass appeal and the DSS’s aspirations to expand its base. The extraordinary reach and significance of cinema in India has been much noted: it establishes a mass public independent of literacy. For the DSS, part of the promise of the enterprise lay in the attempt to harness this reach in order to nurture a mass public of devotees beyond its established constituencies in the north — in addition to the expected Hindi and English it was also released in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. As the movement – always subject to a temporality of rush – sought to accelerate a shift from a provincial to a national identity, it is not difficult to see how cinema’s technology of dubbing – self-mythologization in different regional languages – allowed it to retain its expansionist hopes in challenging linguistic circumstances.

Figure 2. Dera Sacha Sauda guru as ‘Rockstar Saint’ and fashion icon on the cover of photo magazine named Spiritual Fusion

The films raise many issues. Restricting ourselves to the first instalment, our focus in this blog is on the guru’s performance in the film of an abundance of special effect-produced miracles, for instance bringing bullets to a halt like in The Matrix, which he then turns into a tiara that crowns his head (Figure 4). He also turns swords into flowers (Figure 5), he flies like superman, though sometimes on the back of a lion; and, uncannily reminiscent of the Modi mask wearing phenomenon, he turns his attackers into visual likenesses of himself (Figure 6).

Figure 3. Still from Love Charger music video

What interests us about the DSS guru’s performance of special effect miracles is how an ostensibly social reformist guru who previously debunked the signature miracles of other spiritual personalities, and to have called – at least rhetorically, and perhaps as an alibi – for his devotees to ‘Please think!’ about such feats, has latterly sought to project his own miraculous capabilities with such fervor. We earlier developed a conception of the DSS’s ‘new order of the miraculous’: a ‘secular-compatible’ order of miracles in which, instead of infringing the laws governing the universe, miracles consist of feats of remarkable speed and quantity — most blood collected in a single day, most bodies pledged for donation, fastest ever construction of a cricket stadium etc. The temporality of rush, time compression and as if spontaneity (but in fact meticulously planned nature) of these feats is ‘inspired by the guru’.

Consider the case of ‘A miraculously huge “Ajooba” [miraculous or wonderful] washing machine,’ described in a DSS publication under the heading “What a wonder it is!”: ‘The washermen [in a Sacha Sauda students hostel] urged [DSS guru] Hazoor Maharaj Ji, and He gave instructions about this wonderful washing machine [which] has the capacity of simultaneously washing 1,000 clothes within half an hour only’. The repeated use of variants of the English word ‘wonder’ is apt in that it is wonderment inside the bounds of natural law that is the hoped-for foundation of such miracles. They are not miracles, but equally they are not-not miracles; apparently compatible with the movement’s professed social reformism – indeed, feats such as most hand sanitizations, most blood donations etc. are precisely enacted in order to combat ‘social evils’ and ‘contribute to society’ – they also evoke a narrative and atmosphere of the miraculous. As one doctor told us of the extraordinary blood donation exploits of the DSS: ‘Baba Ji created a miracle. He made 16,000 people donate blood in one day—it’s definitely a miracle. Nowhere in the world could anyone make 16,000 people give blood in one day. Jesus and other spiritual masters did miracles in their own times based on the needs of society at the time. Jesus had hungry devotees—all of them needed to be fed, and the food multiplied. Similarly, [DSS guru] Hazoor Maharaj created a miracle based on the needs of society’. The doctor’s argument reflects the guru’s emphasis on social utility: unlike the ‘useless’ materializations of ash or rings (characteristic of gurus such as Sathya Sai Baba) that he criticizes so acerbically, the DSS guru’s miracles are miracles that ‘contribute to society’. The labour of such miracles is performed, of course, by devotees. The guru inspires the labour. That is to say, DSS followers are responsible for the miracles they attribute to him. The participatory production of such miracles is ideologically denied by both the movement’s literature and by devotees themselves. The guru’s followers fetishize the energy they have produced together as a power inherent to the guru.

Large-scale follower participation for the achievement of world records is obviously critical. A DSS website advertises world records such as most ever birthday greeting videos (2017); largest ever vegetable mosaic (2014); largest human droplet (2013); and most people tossing coins (2011). In 2012 alone the DSS reportedly created six world records. Under the guru’s guidance, we learn, ‘more than 115 humanitarian works are being conducted and also 55 world records are registered on his name’. In light of this, ‘world record university London has decided to grant Him [a doctorate] degree’. Therefore, ‘from [25th January 2016] onwards Revered Saint Ji will be addressed as Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan’, says the guru’s fittingly named personal website:

Figure 4. Dera Sacha Sauda guru turns bullets into a tiara. Stills from MSG: The Messenger of God

What is striking is that it is the guru who is credited for the world record miracles his devotees perform. Partaking of the miracle-records for which they praise their guru, devotees are awestruck by their own ability to be mobilized. Numbers are key: DSS numbers no longer simply represent devotional-humanitarian achievements but are now constitutive of the order itself; the DSS and its guru, a kind of composite of cumulated numbers. Numbers both carry and hide human endeavors. The work, the human devotional labour that generates these numbers becomes invisible as unrecorded background story: they are the guru’s numbers. Numbers make more seamless the conflation of a project whose stated purpose is to provide resources for the stricken and needy with a project of aggrandising and extending the influence and gain of a single person.

But this is not some simplistic story of one-sided appropriation of devotional labour. These are miracles which, in a way, are perfectly in tune with bhakti-devotion: they are participatory. The bhakt is a participant in – co-generator of – miracles. The plaudits received by the guru – the world records writ large in the Guinness Book; the doctorates, acceleration and magnification of personality – they receive, too. They both produce and consume the effects of wonder generated by the DSS. (Compare with the Ford Motor Company’s production in the 1910s of the Model T, the world’s first affordable automobile. A production landmark – with assembly line production instead of individual hand crafting – it was also ground-breaking from a consumer perspective, with workers now paid a wage proportionate to the cost of the car, so providing a ready-made market). Thus, DSS miracles – not miracles, not-not miracles – embody a certain plausible deniability that allows the guru to bridge the anti-miracle social reformism of the movement’s heritage and his own projection of miraculous capabilities (in which devotees participate). The full-palette guru occupies every subject position; here, both social reformer and miracle man: the schismatic guru.

At least, this was the state of miraculous affairs prior to the release of MSG in 2015, which saw the guru’s entry into the domain of special effect miracles – a move that brought his miracles under the purview of the censor board. His adoption of them seemed to signal a step-change: where previously atmospheres of the miraculous were achieved through exaggeration, exorbitance, and mass appropriation of devotional labor, they now were generated through digital manipulation. We would question this understanding however. Certainly, their digital production was novel (for him at least), facilitating all sorts of previously unimaginable incarnations and extraordinary feats. Yet there remained key similarities with the prior order of miracles: in their digital production at least, if not in terms of the feats they depict, they do not infringe the laws governing the universe: they are simply special effects. If previously the miracle was reduced to time compression coupled with bigness, it was now reduced to the digital knowhow of the production team. Indeed, the lengthy disclaimer at the film’s opening plays into DSS hands, allowing it to retain the same plausible deniability characteristic of the DSS’s prior order of the miraculous (‘Of course they are not miracles!’), while continuing to cultivate miraculous atmospheres. Similarly, the new miracles tend to be in the service of ‘good causes’ — combatting the drug mafia etc. — and so retain some legitimizing suggestion of social commitment, even as they augment the guru’s hyperbolic personality.

Figure 5. Dera Sacha Sauda guru turns swords into flower petals. Stills from MSG: The Messenger of God

The previous mode of miraculous production, as we have seen, excised devotees even as they themselves generated the exorbitant feats that produced in them effects of wonder. But does not the digital mode of production disavow devotee labour even more fully than in the prior order? In fact the simultaneous erasure of devotees even as their participation is crucial to delivering the film is again not dissimilar to that which came before. Not just devotees but everyone involved in creating the film is subordinated to the totalizing figure of the guru. Publicity seemed to deny almost any participatory sense of its production, instead again fetishizing the energies and capacities of the many as a singular property of the magnetizer-guru. MSG reportedly was written and produced by the DSS guru. But not only that. ‘He is also its co-director, co-costumer designer, co-choreographer, co-editor, co-action director, stuntman, lyricist, singer, music director and of course, the lead actor’; and yet devotees, necessarily, are ever present, too (Figure 7). They are the indispensable constituency that the superhero ‘saves’, they form the exorbitant crowds in the many crowd scenes, they are the necessary primary witnesses of his special effect miracles; indeed, MSG holds the world record for most ever – in excess of a million – film extras, a further ‘proof of wonder’. They were necessary, too, if one is to believe the reports, in order for MSG to attain the feat of highest grossing opening week in Indian cinematic history – yet another record and proof of wonder. So the simultaneous erasure of devotees and critical participation of and dependency on them is in fact maintained in this modified digital order of the miraculous.

Figure 6. Enactment of Modi mask wearing phenomenon as Dera Sacha Sauda guru turns his attackers into visual likenesses of himself. Still from MSG: The Messenger of God

How were devotee understandings affected when his miracles began to be conveyed cinematically? Devotees’ online comments, and our own interactions with devotees, suggest that while they remain fully aware that the miracles depicted are not real, the film nonetheless augments the atmosphere of miracles and wonder. The guru, as we have noted, has railed in his discourses against showy miracles: ‘Saints [such as he] hold satsangs in which they don’t put on any spectacle (tamasha) where they touch a thing and it becomes a ring (anguthi), where rice will come, or ashes (rakh) materialize. This is the work of a magician, not of a saint. “I’ll make you live. I’ll kill you.” The saints can do it, but they don’t do it’. Devotees see in MSG what the guru can or could do but holds back from doing in ‘real life’ contexts of devotion, even as a process of ‘image transference, from screen-to-street’ takes place, such that the digital miracle comes to augment the atmosphere of miracles in ‘extra-cinematic space’. Above and beyond even the flamboyance of his singing and modelling, it is MSG that is the guru’s id – no holds barred miraculous spectacularism. More pertinent still is the sense that obviously machine-made miracles are incapable of lying. MSG is a presentation of what the guru otherwise holds back or keeps hidden; a demonstration of all that he keeps in reserve.

Figure 7. Self-proclamation as The Most Versatile Person in the History of World Cinema. Still from MSG- Lion Heart official trailer

A final point concerning the devotee-crowd and the power of the guru. The devotee-crowd – whose mass body is put to performative work in the form of collective blood donor, hygienic exemplar or film extra – is controlled by the guru ‘for now’ but potentially uncontrollable; facts that the film vividly discloses. This is particularly pertinent in respect of the criminal charges that the guru faced at the time; for his arrest and conviction in 2017 were indeed followed by multiple casualties as devotees directed their violent anger against authorities. As Piyush Roy wrote shortly afterwards, the film features the guru ‘playing a larger-than-life version of himself, as the satguru, saviour and “father” of a million plus people on-screen, and another 5 crore [50 million] hinted to be constantly lurking in the background. In an ominous forecast of the post-conviction mayhem in Panchkula, his followers in the film frequently hint at thwarting any challenge coming their pitaji’s way, though violence, if necessary’. The film thus also served as a demonstration of power – evidence, once more, of all that the guru keeps in reserve, of unexploited potentiality (at least, in the sense of an armed force; devotees’ potentiality is harnessed in other ways of course). A peculiarity of the film is the literal place of its audience within it; the susceptibilities of the censor board’s non-deliberative public, at once ‘passive and hyperactive: easily duped by any passing demagogue and constantly on the brink of violence’, are on display in the film itself. Police entering the dera after the guru’s imprisonment found an arsenal of weapons. If the devotee-crowd of the film largely took the form of a spectator spectating itself – benignly wondering at its own generation of wonder effects (arrogated to the figure of the guru), its potentiality remaining mediated (contained) by him – we are also shown that were he to be taken from it the result would likely be this potentiality’s devastating uncontainment. Apart from anything else, then, the devotee-crowd formed a demonstration of power and warning to state authorities: stay back from the fiefdom.


Jacob Copeman is Research Professor, University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and Distinguished Researcher (Oportunius), Galician Innovation Agency (GAIN).

Koonal Duggal, Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

The Barred Baba of Bling

Guest Post by Piyush Roy

I had always thought that the most elaborate and outlandish entry of a film character in Indian cinema, was the introduction scene of Madam X in the 1990s’ Rekha-starrer about a diabolique Mafia boss with a zany fascination for ostentatious gender bending costumes. This had remained, until I saw MSG: The Messenger (2015), featuring another unusual character, Saint Guru Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Ji Singh Insan, playing a larger-than-life version of himself, as the sat-guru, saviour andfatherof a million plus people on-screen, and another five-crore hinted to be constantly lurking in the background. In an ominous forecast of the post-conviction mayhem in Panchkula, his followers in the film, frequently hint at thwarting any challenge coming their pitajis way, through physical violence, if necessary.Still from MSG: The Messenger (2015)

MSG was an uncommon narcissistic extravaganza in self-promotion that was unanimously discounted as anything but cinema by critics, while the Censor Board refused to even acknowledge it as a film. Little wonder, its beginning is prefixed by the longest staying on-screen disclaimer about the ‘fictitious nature of its spiritual super hero’s supernatural feats’.But, once in, you are treated to such a never-before-seen roller-coaster of wooden acting, whiny diction and cringing parade of crazy costumes that it’s tad difficult to look away. Mounted on a massive scale of real human extras that great epics from Hollywood would be envious of, MSG with its curious hook of ‘what next and how much bigger…’ had the B-Movie fan in you glued to the end. It’s one of those unintended movies that attract cult viewing ‘for being too bad to miss’! MSG is a unique aspiration exercise in India’s most prolific desi super-hero franchise (five films in two years – MSG 1 & 2, MSG: The Warrior Lion Heart 1 & 2, and Jattu Engineer), written and produced by Ram Rahim. He also is its co-director, co-costume designer, co-choreographer, co-art director, co-cinematographer, co-editor, co-action director, stuntman, lyricist, singer, music director and of course, the lead actor. Ram Rahim thus broke Bollywood’s long-standing record of a multi-tasking Manoj Kumar, who used to write-direct-edit-produce-and-act in most of his later home productions.Breaking records, incidentally, seem to be a fascination for Ram Rahim, with each of MSG’s song and dance extravaganzas unfolding on an auditorium size-stage with a million plus extras. The Google credits Ram Rahim and his Dera with multiple world records from planting most trees in a single session to organising camps with record blood donors, most blood pressure readings and diabetes screenings (in a day), the largest display of oil lamps (1,50,009 lamps), the largest finger painting (3,900 m²), the largest vegetable mosaic (1,858.07 m²) to even the most number of people sanitising their hands simultaneously (7,675).At heart, MSG is meant to be a patriotic film with a reformist heart that celebrates a range of Indian political ideologies from Gandhi’s message of winning one’s opponent through non-violence to PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Clean India’ campaign. Ram Rahim’s on-screen entry is preceded by a collage of leaders from India’s Independence movement like Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Madan Mohan Malviya, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, even Lord Mountbatten, (though there is no sighting of Jinnah).

And then the dichotomy begins…Ram Rahim addresses himself as a fakir, but is seen in elaborate never-repeating costumes that feature some heady imaginations with bling that you would ever see. He rides fancy vehicles, from cycle and tractors to a lion with wings, i.e. when he is not himself flying with his hands as wings and legs as parachute. He endorses multiple religious icons – Ram, Allah, Waheguru; and insists on fighting against every social evil – corruption, drug abuse, prostitution, etc. – albeit, as a single-handed miracle worker.Interestingly, he takes the idea of being comfortable with one’s self, to an altogether different level of dare in our chiselled times, by not batting an eyelid before baring his hairy-bear self or his love handles through outfits un-flattering hugging his corpulence.

In these, is reflected the tremendous self-fascination of an insecure man, who not only hogs every frame of the film, but in the few rare moments of absence, he makes sure to have a portrait or two making his presence felt in the background. He also introduces in narration media-interviews to tackle some of the allegations in circulation against him, while achieving a grand recruitment video for the Dera that he used to head.No one discounts that MSG and the subsequent Ram Rahim helmed films had an agenda. None can now deny that a lot was hunky-dory under his publicised ‘reign of bliss’ at the Dera. But anyone with an iota of filmmaking experience can also not deny that to assemble such a humongous cast of real people as happy extras and then getting the best out of them isn’t the outcome of faith and fear alone. What made so many see a spiritual guide in someone with such an unabashed lust for material possessions in a culture that used to associate simplicity and renunciation with saintliness, warrants introspection. If religion, as Marx said could be ‘the opium of the masses’, Ram Rahim for sure served a recipe of relief, even if momentary, for at least some in our compromised times of compromising idols.The memory of his crime’s long distance from punishment may have made the Baba of Bling gravitate with a new-found lure towards the tinsel world like a rejuvenating attraction of a parallel career happening mid-life. With an assured fan base of politicians across ideologies, just when Ram Rahim was all set to become Bollywood’s latest B-Movie star in superhero spectacles with a Marvel-comic like proliferation, the Master-Writer up there, introduced a blast from the past twist to script a dramatic anti-climax far memorable than any of His imposter namesake’s films.

The circle of life, indeed, can be a great climax close!The article was first published as a column piece in Sunday Talkies column of Orissa Post, Sept. 3 2017.

Dr Piyush Roy, is an author, curator, critic and filmmaker. He is director of Pleasures Prejudice Pride: An Indian Way of Filmmaking (2019) and author of Bollywood FAQ – All That’s Left to Know About the Greatest Film Story Never Told (2019).

Performance in guru-devotee identity in Hinduism

Guest post by Dhruv Ramnath

I am a Sai Baba devotee questioning devotional identity.[1] I met Prema Sai Baba[2]—the third reincarnation of the 19th century guru Sai Baba—on 29 July 2007 in his Bengaluru ashram. It was raining. I was drenched under a shamiana (an Indian marquee). When I went for darshan He told me three things. First, give happiness to your parents. Second, give happiness to others. Third, spread My message like ‘a little Swamiji’. I refrain from a hagiographical-cum-autobiographical discussion on personalism and glorification—which I am very good at—as it would convert you. Unlike Maya Warrier (d. 2021), I do not apostrophise divinity.[3] Instead, I venture into academic experiences to make sense of devotional identity post-Sathya Sai Baba’s death in the context of spirituality, India, culture, anthropology and the Internet within a double-bind of creativity and reflexivity, the latter of which is enmeshed in a discursive tangle where privilege (a middle-class Brahmin) and power (writing for an estimable blog) acknowledge guilt (is there an ‘innocent discourse’?). I too am power.

Prema Sai (aka Sharavana Baba) with former Sovietologist Ramnath Narayanswamy (the author’s father). Courtesy Dhruv Ramnath.

Pictures inside Prema Sai’s family’s shrine in Sreekrishnapuram, Kerala, south India, in 2017. Courtesy Dhruv Ramnath.

Notice the background with Shirdi Sai Baba, Prema Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba. Courtesy Dhruv Ramnath.

Nobody talks of Shirdi Sai’s death. We say samadhi (holy tomb) to connote where His body is buried. I capitalise my pronouns to signify devotion biblically. ‘He’, ‘She’ and ‘It’ justify the spectacular creation of God as Guru. Why not Goddess, you ask? ‘Her’ feminist articulation, bound to linguistic boundaries situated like identity on Instagram (she/her), is key when fixing Western historical understandings of knowledge in modern Indian thought, although Vedanta asks, Who am I? The concerns are legitimate: we need to know why ‘it’ has ever been ‘man’, not ‘woman’. However, if we were to debate this, we may end up questioning language rather than devotional identity as transcendental with demonic, human and angelic features. I am alluding to the instability of devotion online (devotees claiming to be devotees of Gurus but not practising godly teachings in reality) and anti-devotion offline (communists and left-wing intellectuals who support democratic freedom but who resist Hindu guru activity due to concerns about Hindutva). To boot, the cross-disciplinary nature of pronoun formation in gender studies, coupled with a socio-political lens through which devotion is problematised, lead to a new discovery: the body is gender while the soul is genderless. Shirdi Sai’s death in 1918 marks the moment in Sai Baba history when the body leaves while the soul stays, leaving behind a question: Was he a Muslim or Hindu?

From the author’s film where he depicts an allegorical Shirdi Sai

Next, what is identity? In my fieldwork with the Prema Sai movement I notice shifting changes in devotional identity. Not all who claim to be ‘devotees’ are fixated on Sai Baba in the sense with which the media highlight the ‘devotee’ (a devotee is known by the guru he keeps) and the ‘guru’ (not all gurus are genuine but those who are will inevitably be fraudulent as the nature of guru-faith is borne from the superstitiousness of Marx’s ‘oppressed creature’ and like the Sikhs, since some guru groups “do good work”, they are OK). That there can be a genuine Sai Baba is compounded by mediated discourse and the internal politics of ‘guru versus Guru’ in the Kali Yuga[4] cinched by caste, class and gender creations of an already existing divided Indian society gone global and which seeks plurality with the rise—or fall—of Modi. Prema Sai’s claim to Prema Sai status humbly (“I am not Muruga”), and the secret revelation of His divinity to chosen ones, evokes Amma’s declaration that a Guru is an example of identity in reverse:‘From Amma’s Heart’, page 29: ‘No Claims’

Then, I ask: What are the political implications of guru identity? Amma attending a meet of the Hindu right-wing outfit called the RSS[5] is juxtaposed with Hindu Vivek Kendra’s publication of an Indian Express article calling Sathya Sai a “godman”—whose meaning is replete with complexity—followed by south Indian politician Karunanidhi’s espousal of Baba’s teachings. Between these webs of net spillage lie the anthropologist’s patient refusal to identify as a devotee due to critical distancing (social distancing was not introduced pre-Covid). Maya Warrier, Amanda Lucia, Lawrence Babb and Tulasi Srinivas have contributed astounding scholarship to the field, yet their virtual disbelief or creative obfuscation of identifying as devotees is interesting; Smriti Srinivas too writes from distance—not devotion. Hence I key in in the start: I am a Sai Baba devotee questioning devotional identity as ‘I’ am in the suspension of disbelief while explicating how social groups tethered to faith’s scrum compete and contest for “proxemic desire” (Srinivas 2010). Srinivas’ term denotes the push for being physically close to Sai Baba as a competitive play between devotees. Here is the paradox: Shashi Tharoor’s mother is a Sathya Sai devotee, when Congressman Rashmikant says (see 29:10), “I got this ring from Sai Baba but I am a follower not because of this” and when T.M. Krishna sings for Sathya Sai; however if Taslima Nasreen wonders why Tharoor tweets about Amma,

I wonder why I do not.

Last comes ‘rationality’ and ‘faith’, a binary logic which has overshadowed academic perspectives in the media due to scandal, sex, death and pelf caught in films portraying these with legitimate deliberation and concern for all types of people—the layman, sceptic, rationalist, anti-guru activist, atheist, terrorist and worldly, rendering the spiritual as an object of investigation that makes the guru literally omnipresent—on our screens he appears Machiavellian. Osho, Nithyananda, Jaggi Vasudev, Gurmeet Singh and Sri Sri have presented themselves as gurus talking to Gurus. Osho said Sathya Sai was “a fraud, and… has chosen the name Satya Sai Baba to deceive people that he is the reincarnation of Sai Baba”; Nithyananda is pooh-poohed by right-winger Rajiv Malhotra though my namesake does not get the joke that Rajiv is making; Jaggi Vasudev charges money to teach meditation as his followers cry (see 1:46); Gurmeet Singh is a rockstar beyond the pale of fraudulence; and Sri Sri, whom Shobhaa De (whose daughter Radhika De is a Sri Sri bhakt) called ‘the bearded lady’, had said Prema Sai will be born in 2017 post-Sathya Sai’s death. Such is the way in which gurus are depicted in the media—they become tendentious places from where identity is imposed with an array of texts sabotaging God.

The transmissibility of charisma and debates on who is God and who is not are as equally delicious to analyse as the people who flock to holy/unholy zones to work out their karmas. More fascinating than the bhava (emotion) of Bharatanatyam is Devi’s image in Sai Baba and Amma’s representation. Gender is constructed sacredly. Sexuality is disconnected from spirituality in this scheme of things: gender forms a blest backdrop to invoke the inner as an abstract realm detached from bodily identity to bolster godly remembrance. I thus see Jan Kounen’s remarkable documentary ‘Darshan’ as an act of remembering, an offering of the arts at the threshold of such images.

Picture of Sai Baba courtesy here; Picture of Amma courtesy here

A public site of contestation is the nature of the media today. Ditto with my article’s methods. Are emails public or private? What about WhatsApp messages? Anyone can publish an image and bastardise it. A fool can create fake social media accounts. None know the truth as it eludes even the devout (as they seek self-revelation they themselves know they are on the illusory journey of worldly life) who act in locales to further hidden agendas and tendencies dormant in the human mind (petty and major politics play out in ashrams). A perusal of Prema Sai’s Facebook page shows how bhakti appears in the modern world in this context. Now, if you google Prema Sai, you will find a gamut of information interspersed with its concomitant interpretations; you will ask who is Prema Sai? He is an unannounced enigma; ‘His’ hagiography sanctioned by institutions may lead to controversy in Sai Baba culture (in a conflictual state presently). Goddess Raja Rajeshwari Amma sarcastically calls Madhusudan, a man claiming godhood, a “divine personality”. Sly Baba?

To me devotional identity is underscored by anonymity. Nomenclature is produced by lexicons that are produced by people who end up with “bullshit jobs” (Graeber 2018). So is the guru phenomenon (a catchy term culled from the media) and their devotees. No guru is the same like no devotee is the same; they are unfixed and mobile entities ascribing value to intangible spheres of identity depending on time, place and circumstance. “I am a Sai Baba devotee questioning devotional identity” is a ruse to avoid falling into an abyss of identification. I am guilty of concealing the enigma where language ends for I am caught in the cycle of birth and death. Poor me!

On 29 July 2007 I met Murali Krishna Swami. Shirdi Sai was dead; Sathya Sai was alive. Did it matter? In 2009 His name changed to Sharavana Baba. On 18 January 2022, I note the progress of not only my habits of mind but also the habits of academe that have changed from the seeker to the anthropologist to the anthropologist and seeker. Having been aware that devotees are speaking in and through academe, I confess the ambiguity with which I opine. I therefore do not know the real Prema Sai as I do not know who I am. That’s the rub. As I type these words, I recall Maya Warrier, a scholar whom I never met but whose work compelled me to think critically as our two Skype conversations and email exchanges led me to believe in the necessity of secular knowledge. As a wimpy filmmaker, I dream of more interdisciplinary scholarship (currently hanging under a cloud). This is for her.


Dhruv Ramnath graduated with a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.


Babb, Lawrence. 1986. Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lucia, Amanda. 2014. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Srinivas, Smriti. 2008. In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Srinivas, Tulasi. 2010. Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Warrier, Maya. 2005. Hindu Selves in a Modern World. London and New York: Routledge Curzon.


[1] Gayatri Spivak once said she is intellectually insecure. I admit to the same. I fear my objectivity as a student may be squashed by advertently positioning myself as a representative of the self-realised Prema Sai Baba. This cowardly act of accepting complicity while exploring from a non-dual lens explains my lies and truths. It is like Priyanka Chopra speaking against racism in America after Modi attends her wedding reception in India, but I say like = like and social media creates such two-sided sides. Also, while talking of guilt it seems to me that the holier-than-thou scholar’s hypocrisy needs questioning as much as devotional identity does. I am referring to the so-called controversy surrounding Saiba Verma’s book on Kashmir. Funnily, Saiba and Sai Babas share similarities—both are part of institutions riven with politics. The claim to non-partisanship undercuts our work as intellectuals if we do not accept the truth that power is an example of itself. Think of Pradip Krishen, Arundhati Roy’s husband, who will be paid to landscape the new Parliament building in New Delhi. He was once opposed to the Central Vista Project and now he is benefitting from it!

[2] There are three Sai Babas in Indian guru tradition. The first was Shirdi Sai Baba, the second was Sathya Sai Baba and the third is Prema Sai Baba. Prema Sai literature is sparse.

[3]Warrier inserted apostrophes whenever explaining the Indian female saint Mata Amritanandamayi’s divine status. In her book Hindu Selves in a Modern World she apostrophised words like divine, surrender and experience, not explaining why she purported not to accept wholeheartedly the devotees’ claim of these states to which she as an anthropologist was unattached and simply ‘observing’ (see page 29).

[4] In Hinduism, there are four epochs in human history, the last is Kali Yuga. In 1968, Sathya Sai said it would last 5320 years and can be known as “the age of quarrels [and] pollution”. See here.

[5] Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Beloved and Betrayed: Mediated Love in a Guru Movement

Guest post by Tulasi Srinivas

On 27th April, 1997, I stood on the dusty verge of the main street of the provincial town of Puttaparthi in south India, about 100 miles from my hometown of Bangalore. In front of me was the ornate pastel-hued gateway of the Prasanthi Nilayam ashram, the spiritual home of the international Sathya Sai movement, named after its founder, the charismatic guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba. The gateway bore the insignia of Sathya Sai Baba – a lamp with the rising sun behind it, the symbols of the five major world religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism – resting on an open lotus. Etched on the rear of the gate, in gold, was the motto of the movement, “Love all, Serve All”.

This exhortation – to love and to serve – etched on the gates to the ashram, I had seen repeatedly stamped on postcards and on flyers in Australia, on butter and yogurt containers in the US, on cassette covers, cards and DVD holders in Singapore, on pens, posters and key rings in Europe, and appearing on all variety of Sai media including YouTube video, television, statues, calendars and voice recordings, all over the world offerings to devotees and to spiritual seekers, as Warrierhas termed them, as part of Sathya Sai Baba’s guru “brand”.

This essay marks the first pass at thinking about the provocation offered by the saying on the gate, to love and to serve the guru. While this inquiry passes over and through different kinds of gurus and guruship in general, it does not attempt to make the claim that all gurus are variations of a single historical type, or emerge from some common understanding. Rather it asks; What might we learn of the practices of devotion to the guru if one is expected to love him or her as god, regardless of their human fallibility?

This inspirational saying was instantly recognized by Sai devotees worldwide as evidence of devotion and service to the charismatic guru godman, Sathya Sai Baba himself, who, as Copeman and Ikegame (2012) have suggested in their study of guruship, overflowed contained categories. Devotees saw Sai Baba as uncontained and uncontainable love.

Such devotees spoke adoringly of Sai Baba’s daily darshan at Prasanthi Nilayam where he offered viewings of himself to the assembled crowd of devotees as evidence of his love and service.

During these darshan services Sai Baba often gave rambling and seeming impromptu sermons on love. He urged his followers to be loving towards one another, to “be the wave on this ocean of love”. In a speech in 1986 he exhorted them, “to see god in everything, to love everything as manifestations of god, and to offer everything to god as an offering of love” (Santhana Sarathy 1986). For devotees there was a conjunct between life and love. They often talked about loving god, being loving, and overflowing with love. For they believed Sai Baba when he stated in his sermons that “life itself is love” (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI:222).

Devotees complied his many sayings on love and filmed Sai Baba on Sai television and later on YouTube videos, encouraging a slippage between devotion and love, a deep cultural theme in religion of the subcontinent. In Hindu myth and theology, and through the Bhakti movement extended to subcontinental Islam, the devotee and god are seen as estranged lovers waiting to be reunited, where eros or erotic love was blurred with philia or affection and devotion. Or as Sai scripture puts it, cultivating love was essential to truthful devotion, “Winning Love through Love is the vital aspect of devotion”. The exchange of love between Sai Baba and his followers gave them certitude in his love for them. The question of uncertainty in that corner of life where we most long for security and grounding was banished and devotees revelled in the joy of loving and being loved.

But what can this transformative love of the guru teach us about the guru, him or herself?

With his distinctive orange robe and halo of hair made Sai Baba unusual, watchable, charismatic, beloved, overflowing with what the Greeks would term ‘agape’, the kind of unexplainable love that initiates a fellowship with god. Sai Baba himself encouraged this view stating that his “form was love”. And devotees read this form as lovable and they wanted to be close to him, physically and emotionally. Devotees spoke of feeling his love for them, and they returned it multifold. He called them “Bangaru”, the Golden Ones, and told them that after he “left his body” he would be reincarnated as Prema or complete love. For them, he suggested, he would be reborn as a young boy known as “Prema Sai.”

For many decades while Sai Baba was alive, devotees understood the exhortation to love and to serve as openings to the possibility of a proxemic closeness to Sai Baba himself, which Lucia (2014) has argued has a certain aspiration to touch him as an avatar of god, a “haptic logic” of touching the divine. And the possibility of touch existed as a reality for devotees as Sai Baba would parade along the aisles between the closely packed bodies during a darshan, offering himself to be viewed, sometimes engaging with “lucky” devotees, speaking to them, pressing the flesh, offering solace and magical gifts. His touch was thought to be magically healing, to be revelatory and devotees yearned for it, pressing close to him as he passed by them. Indeed, devotees were so crazed for his touch that he had to have a security detail follow him during the darshan to prevent the crowd rushing him and doing him harm.

According to the devotee grapevine Sai Baba’s picking of certain individuals for private darshan, for his complete attention, was to reward them for their service to the Sai community. That love came at the cost of service. Devotees understood their own lives as one of endless love and service where unquestioning love of Sai Baba and service to the community might allow them into his divine presence. And they saw Sai Baba’s life through that trope as well, and stories of his love for his devotees and his service to the community and the world were always on their lips.

In my book, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai movement (Columbia University press 2010) which I wrote after a decade-long ethnographic study of the Sathya Sai movement, I said that Puttaparthi was a city that resonated with such spiritual conversations and stories about love.

But is the form of the guru, as Cohen so brilliantly suggests, a doubled site of both critical transformation and danger, as well as a copy of “all too human” forms of instruction on desire (Cohen in Copeman and Ikegame 2012: 108)?

Indeed there was a darker hidden side to love that it was forbidden to speak about at the ashram. Sexual love, particularly for unmarried devotees, was deemed inappropriate and sinful. This love was kept hidden, unmediatized, and unspoken about except in terms of punishment. Sai Baba urged his unmarried devotees to be celibate and insisted they live only in gender specific dormitories in the ashram. They felt they were suspect, watched and made to feel guilty, and if found in forbidden sexual activity, they were cast out and shamed. Devotees were frightened of being found to have broken dormitory rules by Sai volunteers, and being exiled from Sai Baba’s presence. Rumours abounded at the ashram of Sai Baba’s strict rules on this matter and his displeasure at devotees who broke the rules. These oscillation of certitudes and uncertainties of love were disorienting for many devotees and in secret they expressed their fear and unease.

Unfortunately, the dormitory was not the only space where sex and love went awry, even to the point of criminality. Despite his strictures on love, Sai Baba himself was accused of groping and of touching underage boys in his rooms during what was termed “private darshan”. Former devotees discussed his sexual proclivities, his sexual harassment and assault of young men, documenting allegations and instances of assault on webpages and in legal suits, and calling for legal and political action. Former followers felt betrayed that Sai Baba stayed in place as a revered godman, whilst devotees felt betrayed by the allegations made against their chosen god. And this was complicated by the fact that, for devotees, the guru’s touch was divine, and being touched by him, however inappropriately, was seen as a precious and much valued gift of love.

The accusations of sexual assault and groping received global attention in 2004 when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired The Secret Swami, a documentary featuring interviews with American male devotees who claimed that Sai Baba had coerced them as young men into sexual relationships. They described how he initiated them into such relationships by touching them, by massaging their genitals, and then demanding sexual favours, in some cases for many years.

Sai devotees instantly rushed to his defence claiming that this was a cultural misunderstanding and that this was god initiating these young devotees into divine tantric love and devotion. They suggested that his touch should be interpreted not as human sexual groping but as the highest form of divine love. Former devotees scoffed at their seeming gullibility.

Tracing this warped “love”, lust and betrayal backwards in time, former devotees claimed that it boiled over on the night of 6th June 1993 when four young men broke into Sai Baba’s bedroom with knives, and attempted to assassinate him. Sai Baba escaped unharmed by locking his bedroom door and escaping via a ladder. Newspapers reported at the time the bald fact that six people died in this attempt; two Sai devotees killed by the assailants, and the four assailants who were gunned down by Sai Baba’s security forces and local police. As the inquiry was quickly quashed and the assailants’ motives remained a mystery. Some newspapers speculated it was a coup attempt since Sai Baba’s spiritual empire was worth several million dollars. But others saw it as a desperate attempt by the victims of assault to get even, having suffered a betrayal of their devotion and their love.

“I always teach you love, love and love alone,” Sai Baba is recorded as saying on 15th April, 2004. But it would seem that in thinking about gurus and other charismatic leaders, love is speculative, returning to us in what we do and do not know.

Tulasi Srinivas, Professor of Anthropology, Religion and Transnational Studies, Emerson College.


Copeman, Jacob and Aye Ikegame.  2012. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, Lawrence (2012)  “The Gay Guru: Fallibility, unworldliness, and the scene of instruction.” in Copeman, Jacob and Aye Ikegame.  2012. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucia, Amanda. 2014. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley: University of California Press

Srinivas, Tulasi. 2010. Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Warrier, Meera. 2003. Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India. International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 (1-3):31-54 (2003)




Dera Sacha Sauda Guru Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan

Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan is the present Guru of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS). The word Dera, also sometimes called Dehra, means ‘Encampment’, or the dwelling place of a sant (saint). Sacha Sauda literally means ‘true business’ and gets its name from an event in the (first) Sikh Guru Nanak’s life. DSS calls itself a “Confluence of Religions” as reflected in its present Guru’s name where ‘Ram’ indicates Hinduism, ‘Rahim’ refers to Islam and ‘Singh’ to Sikhism. The symbol of the Dera represents the number 1 with the combination of religious symbols from Sikhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. DSS calls itself as an inter-caste, inter-religious spiritual organisation founded in postcolonial, post-partitioned, Punjab in 1948 by Shah Mastana Balochistani (Shah Mastana is said to be from Balochistan) at Sirsa in Haryana (located on Punjab-Haryana border). It is also said that DSS is an offshoot of Radhasoami religious organisation. After Shah Mastana, Shah Satnam Ji succeeded as the second Guru from 1963-1990, followed by Dr Saint Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh Ji Insan as, the present, third Guru.

On 25th August 2017 the special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court convicted Ram Rahim Singh of the rape of two sadhvis in his Dera and he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. In addition to this, on 17th January 2019, he was also convicted of the murder of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati and sentenced to life imprisonment. And most recently, on 18th October 2021 he was given a life sentence for the murder of his manager Ranjit Singh. The conviction in 2017 led to widespread protests, in the form of vandalism and damage to public property by DSS followers, which was countered by the state with a violent response, leaving more than thirty people dead and several injured. This also raised several questions in the mainstream media regarding the future of the DSS and its Guru. In this uncertainty, due to DSS Guru’s imprisonment, his Dehdhari (living) physical presence becomes absent, or on hold, without any assurance to his followers, called premis (lovers), of its return. In this context, the existence of the Guru becomes virtual, taking the form of an archive consisting in videos of his Satsangs (congregations), his music videos and audio DVDs, and most importantly his MSG: Messenger of God films that are present on YouTube channels, DVDs, and other platforms of social and virtual media. Edited clips from these videos were played on giant screens during DSS’s Satsangs to assure followers of the Guru’s presence.

Image of Guru projected on giant screen at a DSS congregation in Punjab on October 2021, Photo: author

Therefore, irrespective of DSS Guru’s imprisonment, his existence remains formative in the everyday religiosity of DSS followers through exchanging images of him, and previous gurus, and sharing his video clips and other media on numerous WhatsApp groups. Through these interactions the divine wonder enshrined in the Guru’s presence will continue to mesmerize followers by keeping the politics of attraction intact through multifarious engagements.  The exhibited images below are shared by followers of DSS after Guru’s imprisonment in platforms such as WhatsApp groups.










































Koonal Duggal, Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

Guru Gobind Singh on Rohley Baan magazine cover 1973

In Punjab, on the covers of various Naxalite periodicals, we can see the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Over other Sikh Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh is seen as the main icon of resistance, opposing the force of oppression represented by the icons of present revolutionaries. These intersections of revolutionary figures from different contexts have been represented by juxtaposing images of Sikh religiosity and history with contemporary struggles, creating overlaps of past and present, symbolically combining the modes of resilience from history with those of the present day. This combining of images could be seen on the cover of the Naxalite magazine, Rohle Baan (Raging Arrows), 1973 issue with the photo of Dr. George Habash, a Palestinian Christian politician who founded the left-wing secular nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Also described as a leader of guerrilla war against Israeli occupation, Habash is pictured with Guru Gobind Singh writing a script. It has been suggested that Guru is writing the Persian verse, Zafarnama (Epistle of Victory), which was historically addressed to the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, with the famous lines Chirion se main baaz turaun, Tabe Gobind Singh naam kahaun (It is when I make sparrows fight hawks that I am called Gobind Singh).

Rohle Baan; Issue: December 1973; Editor: Ajmer Singh

Photo: author, courtesy: Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation and Asia Art Archive

Koonal Duggal, Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

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