Bhaiyyuji Maharaj who died today, went from being an unknown godman to walking the power corridors of India. This is an excerpt from Bhavdeep Kang’s book, ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s leading Babas’.
Buffed, polished, tinted to pink and white sleekness, absurdly young and matinee-idolish, Bhaiyyuji Maharaj appears more top-grade Tollywood fodder than spiritual preceptor to the rich and powerful of western and central India. His conspicuous presence in May 2014 at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in came as no surprise. He had already gained entry to the exclusive club of invitees who had witnessed Modi take oath as chief minister of Gujarat for a historic fourth term in December 2012.
How does a relatively unknown godman, from a tier two city called Indore in Madhya Pradesh, rate a place among the movers and shakers of government? The who’s who of contemporary politics stuck on the walls of his ashram, look like the standard collection of promotional photo-ops. But by all accounts, he is the real thing, an intimate of many of the mechanicallysmiling big leaguers on display. He may not rule over a global empire in patented spiritual products, peddle Ayurvedic concoctions or maintain a prominent media profile, but he wields an influence all out of proportion with the size of his following.
As ashrams go, his is postage-stamp sized, set in the middle of a busy locality in Indore. It is a rabbit warren of haphazardly put-together rooms leading into each other, with walls festooned in religious and patriotic iconography. Bhaiyyuji has little use for real estate. ‘Every home is an ashram,’ he philosophises.
His disdain for architectural opulence may lead one to presume a commitment to asceticism. No such thing. His everyday turnout may comprise a simple kurta-pyjama of a whiteness matching his perfect teeth, free of the embellishment de rigueur in these Bollywood-inspired times, but the material is hand-spun khadi with a thread count to die for. For transport, he prefers high-end SUVs, often self-driven. While holding court at home, he is perfectly at ease on a Bal Thackeray inspired throne-and-footstool, with devotees clustering around him adoringly.
He balks at the idea of anyone diving for his feet. ‘If you wish to honour me, plant a tree and worship it,’ he tells his devotees, who satisfy their need to display love and humility by prostrating themselves instead, at a discreet distance from his buttery-soft leather sandals. You meet him on a first-come-first-served basis; there are no VIP lines. He explains why.
‘As a kid, I used to go to temples and notice two separate lines there. One for people like us (the well off) and one for the poor. This distinction between the so-called VIPs and the general public made me uncomfortable. I used to wonder why, in the house of god, people weren’t equal, that there was this kind of discrimination. Just as all children are equal in the eyes of their parents, so should they be in the eyes of god.’
A noble sentiment, but one which sits a shade awkwardly on a guru who gives darshan on an opulent chair reminiscent of a prop from the Mahabharata set (a popular TV series based on the epic).
The annoyance with VIP culture at god’s doorstep segued into a concern for social justice. ‘From childhood up, I have had a problem with social inequity. I’ve been against an exploitative caste and class-based society. Those who have not benefitted from Independence, those who have not come into the mainstream or gotten justice, should. Freedom means the right of equality and when faith too talks of equality, why should I not use faith or dhamma as an instrument to achieve it?’
Bhaiyyuji doesn’t care to visit temples. Religion, in his book, is for making society better and not for deriving individual satisfaction through rituals. The ground floor of his ashram, however, houses his favourite deities: Kalka Mata, Surya Bhagwan and Dattatreya, worshipped by members of the Nath community, to which he belongs.
Bhaiyyuji’s little ashram was established in 1999. Until then, he had something of a chequered career. Officially, he was born on 29 April 1968 but isn’t quite sure if the date is accurate. ‘You know how it was in rural areas,’ he said. His father, Vishwas Rao Deshmukh and his mother, Kumudini Devi, lived in Shujalpur village near Indore and their son, named Uday, studied at the village school. Growing up in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, the child picked up a smattering of languages: Hindi, Marathi, Malwi and English.
‘After obtaining my BSc degree, I worked for a while in a series of small jobs. I managed the Mahindra cement plant as project engineer. I modelled part-time to supplement my income (among others, for Siyaram Suitings)!’ That, perhaps, accounts for the metrosexual look… But none of this was satisfying; Uday Singh Deshmukh, BSc, knew he was meant for the elusive something else— whether bigger or better, he didn’t know… spiritualism was clearly not a childhood calling. He arrived at it by degrees, after having tried other career paths.
The possibilities were many. He was an accomplished cricketer, wrestler and a fine actor. His chocolate-box good looks, perfect diction and muscular physique toned by horse-riding and sword play, justified a shot at Bollywood. He was smart and his people skills argued success in the corporate world. His mother, on the other hand, had no doubt that he would fulfil her dream by clearing the civil services examination.
Biographies of godmen often depict them as having been “spiritually precocious” in childhood. Bhaiyyuji is no exception. His mother speaks of a compassionate, sweet-natured and generous youth, with a good scholastic record aided by an excellent memory. He would speed-read through the books his parents bought him and then teach the other kids. He was mischievous, never malicious and learnt early on to stand up for himself. ‘He once came to me, crying because someone had hit him. I told him to give two slaps for every single one that he got.’ Not quite a Gandhian approach, but one can empathise with a mother who wanted her child to be self-sufficient and street smart.
In the eleventh grade, Uday began to dream of a holy man, who would stand next to his bed, smiling and raising his hand in a gesture of blessing. He also began having prescient visions. It was then that Uday’s mother recalled a tall, dark sadhu of fearsome aspect visiting their house shortly after the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, when she was pregnant with him. The sadhu had predicted that she would give birth to an extraordinary son and instructed her to scatter seven types of grain for pigeons on auspicious days, so as to ensure a safe delivery. She complied.
As a child, Uday had a disconcerting habit of sneaking into the forest all by himself, seeking the company of ghosts. According to his mother, he even encountered a couple of the benign variety. An old woman who mysteriously appeared to help him cross a stream in spate; another who insisted he stand proxy for her dead son and partake of the meal she had cooked, so that his spirit could depart and so on. Uday’s brush with the preternatural both thrilled and disturbed his mother. On the one hand, he was clearly special, on the other, close encounters of the paranormal kind did not point to a career in the civil services.
He never fulfilled that hope, but in retrospect, Kumudini Devi has no regrets, understandably so. ‘I ran into one of his teachers, who told me, “I used to scold your boy, now I touch his feet.”’ If she worries about anything, it is that he is a soft touch. ‘He never holds a grudge, even when people take advantage of him. He says he is like a train; passengers get on and off.’
Meanwhile, Uday couldn’t see himself in a dreary government office any more than on a film set or a sleek corporate suite. Although there was no single moment of revelation, he somehow knew he wanted to change things. He often found himself seized with questions that had nothing to do with a career-oriented future— what made people tick? To what extent were attitudes shaped by money, fame and power, the conventional yardsticks of success? By ordinary standards, what if he embraced failure? Would his family and friends abandon him?
‘So I left my farm and came to Indore in 1995. I struggled a lot, as people do. I wanted to see how many relatives a humble man has,’ he said, flashing a Rhett Butler smile. ‘My life has been an experiment. I have interacted with all kinds of people, both as an unsuccessful “failure” and then as a successful person.’
Subsequently, he sold a part of his ancestral land in Shujalpur village and used the proceeds to purchase a 2,400 square foot plot in Indore. The ashram came into being; its doors and the kitchen were always kept open.
‘Gurus: Stories of India’s leading Babas by Bhavdeep Kang’ has been published by Westland (June 2016).