By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
Religion and conmen are inextricably linked world over. It is easy for the latter to feed off the blind trust in the former. Claiming to be manifestations of divinity and pioneers of novel assured paths to salvation, such figures generate a mix of curiosity and credibility, in turn leading to the spread of myths about them.
People struggling to cope with the puzzling complexity and pain of life are ever ready to seek relief from whoever is around to lead them through the dark shadows of the Valley of Death. A psychological need for dependence among the gullible leaves them especially susceptible to the magical charms of con men and women. Any spiritual gain or physical and mental relief believers may experience from such encounters, however, are meager compared to the rich material gains that fall to the conmen and women masquerading as gurus.
With its legacy of religious eclecticism, India is fertile ground for inauthentic representations of divinity that quickly gain iconic cult status. Even lacking access to speedy communication modes, it was always easy for religious pretenders in India to generate a mass following by word of mouth. Building follower-ship now is greatly facilitated by social media whose instant messaging and video clip sharing capability enable a few to quickly gain the confidence of many. A touch of divine can now accrue not from decades of ‘tapasyaa’ or penance and self-abnegation but through instant messaging and volume of “Like” clicks on the internet!
The uniqueness of this particular latest con act is its perpetrator’s success in getting trusting Americans to accept his legitimacy and that of the new nation he claims to have founded. Nithyananda Swami, who describes himself as a Hindu religious guru but is reported in the media as a fugitive who fled from India after being charged with the horrendous crime of rape, asserts that he set up the new nation designated as the United States of Kailasa (USK) in 2019 in an island off the coast of Ecuador which he bought from Ecuador Government.
Named after Mount Kailash in Tibet deeply revered by Hindus as Lord Shiva’s holy abode, the name reflects the founder’s desire to reclaim Hindu legacy and use the timeless association with one of Hinduism’s cherished key symbols to gain legitimacy for both his person and nation.
Serving as his right arm is Vijayapriya Nithyananda – an exotically dressed sari-clad and bejeweled matahari-like dazzling woman who is the designated permanent ambassador of USK. Along with her team, she recently managed to appear at a United Nations session for non-governmental organizations in Geneva representing USK – a country of which very little is either known or so far acknowledged as legitimate.
Noting that “Kailasa has been implementing the ancient Hindu policies and indigenous solutions that are in alignment with the time-tested Hindu principles for sustainable development,” the Ambassador lamented her Guru’s “intense persecution and human rights violation for reviving the indigenous traditions and lifestyle of Hinduism”.
Conveniently keeping silent on the fact that the Guru is wanted by the Indian police on sex assault charges, she noted only how Nithyananda has vowed that his country for Hindus will fight global warming, offer free healthcare, and promote gender equality and vegetarianism, all buzz words that can win instant validation among global elites.
Her attendance reflects how easily one can break into UN deliberations without proper whetting. Following media exposure and recognizing its error in admitting USK’s delegation, the UN sheepishly announced that USK’s inputs will not be reflected in the session’s report.
Those in charge of the city of Newark in New Jersey showed similar gullibility and incompetence when they accepted USK’s credentials to enter into a sister city protocol with it. On Jan 12, Newark Mayor appeared before cameras in City Hall for a signing ceremony to establish a new sister city. With a banner welcoming the ‘Sovereign State of Shrikailasa’ as backdrop, he said he hoped cultural exchange between Newark and Shrikailasa would help improve “the lives of everybody in both places.”
Newark officials were only too eager and happy to sign that arrangement buying into the unverified nation status of USK. As critics have suggested, a simple Google search may have alerted them that no such nation exists – at least none that is recognized as such by the United Nations.
Recent reporting affirms a major hole in the Swami’s claim to USK’s nationhood noting that Shrikailasa is non-existent as an actual city or a country. The name merely defines the “great cosmic borderless” nation for a group known as Kailasa, who are followers of the Swami who presents himself as Shiva’s living embodiment and claims miraculous powers, including delaying sunrise and teaching cattle to speak Tamil. Ironically, even the title of ‘Supreme Pontiff of Hinduism’ Nithyananda uses seems suspect since unlike Christianity which has a Pope as Pontiff, no such designation or post exists in the Hindu religion and tradition.
The Indian Government of course, has an entirely different assessment of the Swami whom it considers a wily fugitive avoiding serious criminal charges of sexual abuse and exploitative conduct.
Once the media exposed their unjustified haste and folly in signing the agreement, the Newark officials had to bite dust and rescind the agreement. Ironically, Newark is not the only city to be scammed. For nearly 20 years, Kailasa reportedly has seduced several local, state, and national governments into signing sister-city programs and other proclamations. The sister-city fiasco has made little difference to the zeal of the Kailasa Nation venture. Even after the sister-city farce was exposed in America, USK succeeded in signing a cultural agreement on March 14 with Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown.
Denying wrongdoing, a USK spokesperson states, “Kailasa and its representatives have not deceived anyone, nor are we fake.” Calling itself the “home and refuge for the international Hindu diaspora”, it describes USK as the “greatest Hindu nation on earth”, further noting that “the nation of Kailasa is dedicated to the restoration, preservation and propagation of authentic Hindu culture and civilization, after centuries of oppression and subjugation”.
The ‘Hindu nation’ continues to claim legitimacy by noting it has the essentials of nationhood including a flag, a constitution, an economic system, a passport, even an emblem. The Twitter handle for USK even calls for applications for e-visa for e-citizenship!
Whatever their self-confidence and self-aggrandizement, or the authenticity of their claims, one can only wonder how Lord Shiva must view this adventurous take off on conventional faith and religious wisdom. But to believers who have faith in the new age guru and the Hindu nation, one must respectfully acknowledge they have every right to their belief.
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author based in California. A Ph.D. in Economics from Pune University, she was an affiliated research scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times