Until the 1980s, all through the heyday of the spiritual organisation he founded, Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar’s impressive convoy of cars regularly charged through the streets of Calcutta in a show of godman power. Then there were the infamous skull marches by his followers, dressed in saffron robes and matching headgear, and carrying swords, sticks and, allegedly, human skulls. Sarkar was the founder of the Ananda Marg sect and an exemplar of the popular image of cultic behaviour with an edge of violence.
In the wake of Ram Rahim’s rape conviction, a few followers told Outlook that it would be wrong to draw any comparison between the rape convict and the founder of Ananda Marg. However, Sarkar, one of the most controversial gurus in India, had not just been accused of being a megalomaniacal and dictatorial leader to his devotees. He had also been charged with the murder of six of his former disciples. How he went from being a railway clerk who dabbled in amateur astrology to being a proclaimed reincarnation of god, with supporters across the globe, is a tale that is mired in heavy doses of criminality, many conspiracies and several close ties with influential people who made his meteoric rise a possibility.
Sarkar was born on May 21, 1921 in Jamalpur town of Bihar. His family was originally from Bamunpara in West Bengal’s Burdwan district and had migrated to Jamalpur. In 1939, he was admitted to Vidyasagar College in Calcutta, but his studies were cut short by his father’s death. He took up a job as a railway accountant to support his family.
Those mundane horizons didn’t confine him for long as he soon realised palm-reading and spiritual counselling had a huge draw. He decided to learn and start teaching various meditation techniques to small groups. When his following started to grow, he took up the name Ananda Murti (embodiment of bliss) and established Ananda Marg, or the Path to Bliss. Indeed, he claimed it was his philosophy to show humankind the path to bliss.
By the 1950s and ’60s, many from among the wealthy and the influential had been lured by the new path. One of them was the Raja of Garh, Rajasthan, who donated 500 acres of land in Bengal’s Purulia district. That was how Anandanagar, the headquarters of the sect, came into being. What transpired in the confines of this ‘town of bliss’ generated a great deal of suspicion, with frequent allegations that the spiritual society was really a front for criminal activities. Indeed, the Ananda Marg’s enormous wealth has long been attributed to alleged arms smuggling. A fair sprinkling of western converts added to the air of intrigue.
In 1971, Sarkar, along with four other Ananda Margis, was charged with the murder of six of his followers. While Sarkar was lodged in jail, three other Ananda Margis were tried and sentenced to 17 years of rigorous imprisonment for attempting to murder the then Chief Justice of India A.N. Ray. The court found them guilty of having thrown bombs at the car Roy was travelling in, though the explosives did not go off. The murder of Indira Gandhi’s railway minister L.N. Mishra in 1975, in a bomb blast at Samastipur, Bihar, produced another conviction as late as 2014—all tied up with rumours of dalliances with global intelligence agencies.
A ban was clamped on the sect during the Emergency, but its end was the harbinger of another conflict. For, the elements were just right for a natural antipathy with the Left Front government that had come into power in 1977. Clashes between party cadres and Margis were frequent, and dated back to the 1960s.
Things came to a head again with the grisly Bijon Setu massacre of 1982, where 17 Ananda Margis, including two women, were lynched and then set on fire. Ananda Marg blamed CPI(M) goons—and Jyoti Basu cried conspiracy. Other theories included mob fury at rumours of child abduction, though the Margis claim they were only on their way to an educational conference in Tiljala, then a remote marshland. The whiff of global espionage endured with the infamous Purulia Arms Drops case of the ’90s that too was linked to the Ananda Margis.
Sarkar’s philosophy, ‘PROUT’ or Progressive Utilisation theory, rejected both capitalism and communism in favour of a more spiritual Vedic and Tantric approach to living. But Sarkar and other Ananda Margis were believed to nurture ambitions of gaining political control and had specifically wooed members of the administration, the bureaucracy and even the police. But the taint of corruption, crime and even targeted killing of defectors led to a dimming of the aura, culminating in Sarkar’s wife Uma quitting the ashram and declaring to the world that the organisation was a den of illegal activities. Though Sarkar survived his trial—he was not convicted and was released from prison in 1978—the stigma stuck to the godman till his death in 1990.
Today his followers are scattered across the country and abroad. Incensed by all the allegations, Ananda Margis say Sarkar was a victim of persecution by the Communist government. “Not a shred of evidence could be found against our guru,” Acharya Madhuratananda, sectorial secretary of the Marga’s Delhi centre, told Outlook. “It was all proven to be a conspiracy against him,” says a devotee. The Margis say they continue the philanthropic work initiated by Sarkar. “We are also present in Bengal but we have faced a great deal of intimidation and torture here in the past.” The Tiljala office is empty now, but the Acharya says that’s because the workers are all away in flood-relief work across the states.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta