Did Jayaprakash Narayan, counted among the most reverential politicians, write a personal letter to his friends to introduce Chandraswami, who eventually turned out to be India’s most dubious godman?
Yes, says a recent book — Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas (Westland Books) — penned by veteran journalist Bhavdeep Kang.
In the chapter, titled The Shaman-Shyster: Chandraswami, Kang scripts how in 1975, a few months before the imposition of the Emergency, Narayan met up at his quarters in the Gandhi Peace Foundation with Chandraswami, then a frail figure known as Nemi Chandra Jain, a young sadhu in white, with bushy hair, a frizzy beard and heavy gold amulet around his neck.
The Lok Nayak (People’s Hero, a reverential term of address for JP) couldn’t have imagined that the youth he described as “an eminent spiritual seeker and devotee of Bhagawati” would, in a matter of two decades, become the most infamous godman of all time: Chandraswami.
He would be suspected of a hand in the murder of a prime minister and in the most controversial arms deal ever, the Iran-Contra affair, writes Kang in her brilliantly researched tome that tracks the life of Indian godmen.
Kang, who met up with Chandraswami at his south Delhi residence, says the godman is ageing, having lost all the riches he owned many years ago. Then, famously pretty and accomplished women would flutter around him like exotic butterflies. So would international wheeler dealers and political fixers. Scandal, through the 1980s and 1990s, had another name: Chandraswami. He would wield influence with heads of state like Margaret Thatcher, the Sultan of Brunei, Muda Hassanal Bolkia Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, Sheikh Isa Khalifa of Bahrain, Sese Seko Mobutu of Zaire and two Indian PMs. His birthday would be celebrated with pomp and politicians of all hues would fight to be seen with the godman.
His fall would be as abrupt as his rise and in 1996, Tihar jail would receive its most famous prisoner till date: Chandraswami.
King says the word “godman” would forever take on a dubious meaning, as newspapers across the world lifted the veil on his caliginous world of sex, arms, drugs, money and power-broking. For an entire generation, he came to symbolise the seamy side of spiritualism. Gurus before him took meditation, yoga and Ayurveda to the West; the worst that could be said of them was that they were charlatans. Chandraswami was seen as an unmitigated villain.
The ashram in Delhi’s Qutub Institutional Area, where he broke bread with prime ministers and hosted Delhi’s power elite, is now sparse of company. The godman spends his days ensconced in a Lazy Boy on the third floor of the edifice, meeting the odd visitor or sallying forth to public functions, generally hosted and where his presence as chief guest is still solicited.
The building, like its owner, has clearly seen better days. The elaborately carved stone facades are desperately in need of a brush and detergent and the dining hall is frankly grubby. The furniture is grimy, the furnishings frayed. The rooms are crammed with massive, heavily embellished furniture that hasn’t seen a touch of polish for a while. Every available surface is hidden under felicitatory mementos, testimony to his fan following in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
“The big-bellied godman himself looked weary, a far cry from the burly, imposing swami with the laser drill gaze who held the movers and shakers of the world in thrall. One eyelid drooped, giving him a permanent wink. He spoke slowly, with a palpable effort. Stripped of power, he appeared leached of vitality,” writes Kang.
He doesn’t care what is said and written about him, he told me categorically. He stands vindicated by courts of law, which have given the lie to all the conspiracies against him. Nor does he care for the trappings of power.
He is a sadhu and it is all the same for him. Luxury or austerity, company or the lack of it, jail or ashram. Detachment from all things material is the mark of a true sadhu, but it’s not a trait I’d associate with Chandraswami, son of a money lender (Dharma Chand Gandhi Jain) who spent a lifetime cosying up to the rich and powerful. His evolution from a bal sant (child saint) from Behror in Rajasthan to Rajguru (royal preceptor), was astonishingly rapid. He learnt tantric practices, his first spiritual mentor was Mahaupadhyay Amar Muni, a Jain saint who later directed the 23-year-old Nemi to Kaviraj Mahaupadhyay Gopinath of Benaras. However, Chandraswami also acknowledged Anandamayi Maa and Kanchi Shankaracharya as his gurus. Four years of continuous sadhana in the forests granted him extraordinary powers as an astrologer and mind-reader, an impressive cocktail which helped him gain access into the homes of those who mattered.
He could read up all those who came to him for favours. In Adnan Khashoggi (the Saudi Arabian businessman-turned-arms dealer), his inner eye saw past the love of luxury, women and money.
Sudini Jaipal Reddy, a senior member of the Congress party, met Chandraswami in 1972 and was impressed to know that the sadhu knew everything Reddy wanted to ask. The next step was to meet Andhra CM PV Narasimha Rao.
Chandraswami then travelled to London with a note from Yashpal Kapur of Congress to meet up with K Natwar Singh, now an ex-diplomat, politician and author. Natwar and his wife dined with Chandraswami, after which he demonstrated his powers, repeating the trick that had intrigued Jaipal Reddy. He asked Ms Singh to write down three questions on separate strips of paper, fold them and put them on a chessboard. The questions were in English, but he recalled each one of them accurately. Natwar was impressed.
Singh — with a further push from the then Indian foreign minister YB Chavan — helped Swami meet Margaret Thatcher. She asked him what she could do for him. He replied that he wanted nothing from her. The swami then performed his oft-repeated trick, asking Thatcher to write down five questions on separate strips of paper and ball them up. As always, he then told her what the questions were. Intrigued and overwhelmed, the lady asked to meet him again, but this time, in Singh’s home. There, Chandraswami scooped out a taweez (amulet) from his bag and advised Margaret Thatcher to wear red when she came to see him. She obliged. He later told her that she would become prime minister of UK in 3-4 years and remain in office for nine, 11 or even 13 years. And the rest, as they say, is history — replete with examples of Chandra Swami’s brilliant network. He seemed to know everyone — Khashoggi, Saddam Hussein, the al Fayed brothers, who he introduced to the Sultan of Brunei. When al Fayed purchased Harrods, the swami was said to have been involved in the deal. Eminent citizens, including heads of state of many
countries, were deeply influenced by the globe-trotting Swami, who was not a sophisticated man but had a talent for entering the heads of others, reading weakness, particularly someone in a position of authority who had the loneliness and anticipation of betrayal that comes with an excess of power and money. In Mobutu, the King of Zaire’s case for instance, Chandraswami would hide behind a curtain when people came to meet him and later tell his buddy whether they were to be trusted or not.
This chapter is, arguably, the best in the book.