India’s courts are accustomed to hearing strange legal cases. In one particularly odd example, a Calcutta man was acquitted of murder because he believed in ghosts. But a case set to reconvene in the High Court this September after two years of appeals is raising the bar. What began as a ruling to decide whether a wealthy and politically influential Hindu guru, Ashutosh Maharaj-ji, was dead or merely in a deep, sleep-like meditative state now involves deciding which eager claimant is to be awarded possession of his frozen body.
The tale is ripe for the Hollywood treatment, especially given the convoluted narrative and oddball cast of characters. So far the bizarre story includes the aforementioned frozen guru; the controversial founder of India’s Divya Jyoti Jagriti Sanstahn (Divine Light Awakening Mission, abbreviated DJJS) which seeks to bring down India’s social caste system; throngs of acolytes who are awaiting the miracle of his awakening; a mother and son claiming to be the guru’s long-lost heirs; a former chauffeur who has raised the issue of conspiracy, accusing a faction of the guru’s own flock of murder; and some extremely frustrated judges who just want everyone to get along. Then there’s the matter of the guru’s dangling estate, a fortune that, according to court documents, is estimated at $170 million.
Any film director worthy of his chair would open this movie at the end — Ashutosh’s end, which occurred on January 29, 2014, at the sect’s posh 100-acre headquarters in the Punjab city of Jalandhar. That’s the pivotal point of the story — the film’s “Rosebud” moment that sets curious events in motion. It’s when devotees of the 72-year-old spiritual leader discovered his motionless body and frantically called in doctors from nearby Satgur Partap Singh Apollo Hospital who declared his holiness dead as the result of a heart attack. Initial on-site examinations by Punjab police and government officials confirmed this diagnosis in detail, but mission elders almost immediately insisted that he was still alive and merely meditating.
That’s how it had to be. There was no succession plan and this was Ashutosh Maharaj-ji, the once dirt-poor “godman,” as he was called, who founded a religious empire on a simple message of personal enlightenment and equality. This was the guru who waged a war of words against the Sikhs that spilled into India’s streets and resulted in fifteen injuries and at least one death. This was the man who claimed no political affiliation, but somehow managed to influence politicians from every party who sought his endorsement for the millions of potential votes he could deliver with a single word to his followers.
Who would wield that power and control now? And what would become of the $170 million in properties Ashutosh owned throughout India, South America, Australia, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.?
Those were the questions presumably being asked behind closed doors in the hours after doctors had declared Ashutosh dead. And so, just a day after leaks about the beloved guru’s death had begun panicking followers, DJJS representatives made the shocking announcement that the he was still very much alive.
They explained that, contrary to the initial report, he had simply entered a kind of hibernation or “samadhi,” a state of deep meditation that represents oneness with the universe. No doubt this could make it appear as if his body had expired, they said. And to affirm the point, the group’s website assured followers that “His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj-ji has been in deep meditative state (Samadhi) since 29 January, 2014.”
But six days later DJJS elders placed Ashutosh in a commercial freezer on the grounds of the ashram where he has remained throughout the court hearings under heavy guard. The purpose for this, they continue to allege, is to simulate Himalayan sub-zero temperatures that are conducive to samadhi.
“There is nothing unusual in it,” an insider told The Telegraph in the days that followed the icy internment. “He will return to life as soon as he feels, and we will ensure his body is preserved until then.”
“He is not dead. Medical science does not understand things like yogic science. We will wait and watch. We are confident that he will come back,” DJJS spokesman Swami Vishalanand told the BBC while assuring followers that “Mahara-ji is still sending messages through followers in their meditative stage to protect his body till he returns.”
“The body did not decompose before we put it in the freezer. It was a spiritual experience,” Vishalanand added. But that report seems to conflict with a statement another DJJS insider, Sadhwi Jaya Bharti, made shortly before those frenzied closed-door meetings occurred. At that point he stated the body had been “turning greenish.”
Even still, DJJS officials did not have a difficult time convincing true believers that Ashutosh was still alive. This was India after all, the place where modernity meets the mystical on a daily basis. Besides, there was precedent for the tale. As India Today reported, in 1993 it took 55 days, a court order and 430 policemen to wrest the decaying body of Balak Brahmachari from his followers. They too refused cremation, believing Brahmachari was merely meditating and would eventually return to a conscious state.
Belief in the supernatural abilities of gurus goes back hundreds of years. In order to impress followers and gain tactical advantage on the battlefield, gurus courted the belief that they had the power to levitate, walk through walls, endure fire, become invisible, go without air, food and water and even stop their own hearts.
None but the last of these claims has ever been verified scientifically. In fact, there is real medical evidence to demonstrate that experienced mediators, such as gurus and yogis, can slow their heartbeats and breathing to a near death state — but only for extremely short durations. As early as 1935, French physician Therese Brosse used ECG to prove guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s claim that he could stop his heart for several seconds. And in the early 1960s curious physicians from the Rockefeller Foundation located four additional holy men who could do the same.
Skeptics of the Rockefeller study have insisted that the participants were merely flexing their “abdominal and thorax muscles… to intervene and restrict blood flow to slow heart rate, or to weaken or eliminate sounds from the heart and pulse.” Still, they were forced to concede that, “one subject could be said to have markedly “stopped” or significantly slowed the heart for a few seconds.”
Not long after Ashutosh’s body was placed in the freezer, various DJJS members began to claim that he had entered a state of samadhi on several previous occasions but for far shorter durations. When the court proceedings resume in September Ashutosh will have been dead or meditating and subsequently frozen for two and a half years.
It is the Hindu custom to be cremated upon death, and the decision to place Ashutosh’s body in deep freeze may have been too repulsive a notion for Puran Singh, a one-time ashram insider who also served as the guru’s chauffer for many years.
On February 11, 2014, he filed a writ of habeas corpus (a petition of unlawful detention) with the court to free Ashutosh. At just about the same time Singh was filing this brief, a woman named Anandi Devi and a man named Dilip Jha entered the picture, claiming to be Ashutosh’s long-lost wife and son, respectively. Jha filed court papers on behalf of he and his mother, calling for an investigation into the guru’s death and for the body to be released to his custody for last rites and a traditional cremation.
But the court took issue with both petitions. In December of 2014, the Punjab High Court ruled that Singh’s request was unwarranted. Ashutosh was not being unduly imprisoned, they said, because he was “clinically dead.” More importantly, the High Court stated that despite these definitive medical findings, the entire matter amounted to a spiritual consideration. Simply put, it had no power to force DJJS members to believe Ashutosh was dead and therefore in need of cremation.
In effect, the court was having it both ways, some say at the behest of politicians seeking the status quo in terms of continued support from the ashram’s influential elders and flock. And in a move that resulted in this last year of flurried appeals, the court ultimately decided that it would be up to the DJJS to determine the fate of the body — unless Jha could prove his claim that he was Ashutosh’s son.
So far, however, he has not been able to. The few papers he produced proved insufficient evidence, and there were numerous DJJS witnesses who stated Ashutosh had always insisted he had never married or had a child, as is the custom with holy men in India.
Even still, there is some evidence to support Jha’s assertions. Long-time residents of Lakhnoor village in the Darbanga district of Bihar state that the beloved guru, Ashutosh Mahara-ji, was born there under the name Mahesh Kumar Jha in 1946. They also say he married Anandi Devi somewhere in the late 1960s, and that she gave birth to their son Dilip Jha in 1970.
“My father left the village in July 1970 and never returned. In 1999, when I met him in New Delhi, he seemed displeased,” Jha told the Tribune of India. “He told me he did not want to keep ties with us, and that he had devoted his life to serving humanity as dera head.”
Jha continues to allege that the DJJS simply wants the body as a means to seize the guru’s vast estate, which will help to maintain the sect’s power among India’s political elite. His detractors have made similar accusations against him. Some have even threatened his life, forcing the government to issue bodyguards. For his part, Singh has now filed a petition in support of Jha, but it goes further in alleging a conspiracy. He claims ambitious elders from any one of the DJJS’s three factions poisoned the holy man.
Jha is insisting on undergoing a DNA test, but that means obtaining a tissue sample from the guru’s frozen body. And with so much at stake for the DJJS, he doesn’t seem to have a prayer its members will grant his request without a court granted order in September.
In the meantime, the guru will remain in the freezer, either in a state of decay or sleep-like meditation, depending on what one chooses to believe. Recent reports from court monitors state that his body has shrunk considerably and darkened like an Egyptian mummy. But that’s no matter to the thousands of pilgrims who flock each day to his ashram in the hopes that they might be present when the master awakens. Sure, they may be alone in their belief in the miracle of his specific resurrection, but the concept in general has been at the center of most world religions for thousands of years. It's also one that billions still wholeheartedly embrace. All of that bodes well for the movie if it ever gets made. Ashutosh’s miraculous emergence from his icy chamber will make for a blockbuster ending.