Russian lawyers, American bankers and models flock to rustic Indian guru

by Uttara Choudhury

GADAIPUR, India, Feb 19 (AFP) – Thousands of devotees are flocking to the northern Indian farmlands of Gadaipur on the outskirts of New Delhi for spiritual fulfillment at the feet of a rustic Punjabi-speaking Indian “saint” who dispenses tea and wisdom.

Baba Virsa Singh, 70 — known to his followers as Maharaj (king) or Babaji — is hosting a conference on “The spiritual approach to peace and resolving terrorism” at his sprawling ashram, or spiritual home, to mark his birthday on Sunday.

Russian opposition leader Sergei Glaziev is among those attending the event, which began Thursday. Organisers believe that in the coming days about 15,000 people will join the celebrations.

Religious leaders, teachers, government officials, students and business people from all over the world including Bhai Mohan Singh, the founder of India’s top drugs company Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals, are scheduled to attend.

Among those already here are Indian parliamentarian and Kashmir royal Karan Singh, Hindu firebrand leader Ashok Singhal and Saudi Arabia-based Muslim leader Mohammed Rafiq Shariq Warsi.

“Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians live and work together in this ashram under Babaji’s inspiration,” said American author Mary Pat Fisher, who wrote the popular book “Living Religions”.

“He has no pretensions of being a guru. He comes from a poor Indian farming family, talks to his plants and is a brilliant farmer. He draws on examples of everyday life but with such humorous and surprising twists that his anecdotes are revelatory.”

Charismatic religious leaders, who call themselves “godmen” and claim to have supernatural powers, have long flourished in India. They usually attract hordes of disciples and preside over astonishing riches, land, fleets of luxury cars and even thoroughbred horses.

Some of them are so powerful that some Indian leaders, such as former prime minister Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao, had close ties to them. They are often invited by the government and local authorities to mediate in raging disputes.

Singh was born to a poor family in the northern Indian farming state of Punjab. He refused school and then marriage, preferring to meditate. He found devotees at a young age.

In the 1960s Singh founded an ashram or spiritual home in Gadaipur to receive followers.

“In April 1966, a disciple gifted him seven acres (three hectares) of land. There was this massive wilderness over which we trekked with boulders and bricks building outhouses and halls,” said Promilla Chand, a philosophy lecturer.

“Babaji fed us dry chapattis (bread) and love while we built the ashram with our own hands. Today, we have added 70 acres of land to the original piece and look at what a paradise it is with wheat fields, a dairy and orchards,” she added.

Singh now presides over thousands of acres of farmland on the outskirts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh which sustains the commune.

“Babaji’s crops grow very tall. He talks to his plants and finds out what they need. Once he found out that the soil was deficient in zinc so he gave them zinc and they thrived,” said disciple Churchill S. Chaddha, a Delhi-based exporter.

The Russians, meanwhile, are convinced that not only plants reveal their mysteries to him but so does the universe.

“In 1989, he visited Russia and predicted the break-up of the Soviet Union on national television. That is exactly what happened in 1991. I am lucky to be here to learn about Indian spirituality from this grand old man,” said Yuriy Ageshin, president of the Russian Chamber of Law.

Some Americans, too, have become enamoured by the man with “strange powers”.

“I was sitting with a friend in my apartment in New York sipping tea and suddenly I saw the vision of a magnificent, white-turbaned man standing in front of me,” said American Ralf Singh, who has dropped his Jewish surname after becoming a disciple.

“I left New York and came out to India to look for this man who had appeared as a vision. After months of travel I found him right here. When I met Babaji he drew me out with his eyes and made me feel that as role model he was all I could aspire to be.”

Another American, model Kelly Johnson, said, “I was going nuts, competing from morning to night, trying to be a supermodel … I finally found peace out here living for others. Life is all about showing love. Once you meet him, it calms you down.”

Singh himself said he only knew of one miracle.

“Don’t you think it is a miracle that all these wise men and women have come to listen to an illiterate country bumpkin?” he said laughing.

“Life is a mystery to me. But as a farmer I like to turn “bekar” (useless) land productive, if I can help people be more productive then that is good too.”

Some 400 Indian and foreign disciples live in the ashram. However, during the May to July period hundreds of others come to meditate and take part in special summer religious camps.

They do not have to pay for their stay but are expected to do odd jobs around the ashram such as farming, looking after the dairy or watering the trees in the orchards.

They also takes shifts in pouring “ghee” (butter) into a religious fire that was lit in 1968 to ensure the flames never die down.