Underage girls found in ashrams of Indian ‘godman’ were in ‘trance-like state’
An emotional family reunion played out in a Delhi courtroom last month. A weeping 32-year-old woman finally embraced the sister she had barely seen in 14 years. The meeting, as recalled by the older sibling, was an emotional high point in an unfolding investigation into a secretive religious sect that has shocked India.
At least 48 underage girls have been rescued in police raids on the sect’s ashrams in the city since December 19, officials say. They found the women and girls kept in jail-like conditions, behind barbed wire and several locked gates. Authorities said there are hundreds more properties and potentially thousands of women and girls living in them.
The sect, Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya (AVV) preaches that its leader is an incarnation of various Hindu gods and has descended to Earth to unite people of all faiths and transform them into deities. Little is known about the sect’s origins or its leader Virendra Dev Dikshit, though followers say it is an offshoot of Brahma Kumaris – a large, international sect with over three dozen centres in the United States and millions of followers worldwide. Brahma Kumaris distanced itself and denounced Dikshit’s organisation decades ago.
AVV came under scrutiny after three families filed a case in Delhi’s High Court saying that their female relatives had vanished after joining the sect. The 32-year-old is from one of those families. She said she was raped by Dikshit at the sect’s headquarters in June 2000, while taking a summer religion course as a teenager. Then, three years later, she said, her parents “surrendered” her youngest sister to the sect. Since then, the woman has tried repeatedly to contact her sister, now 25, and have her released.
“I would never have told anyone all this if my sister wasn’t in there,” she said.
The sect issued a statement saying the investigation was part of a “defamatory campaign”. It said “no activity detrimental to female devotees or to any other members of the society is conducted in the Vidyalaya”.
Dikshit’s whereabouts are currently unknown. It was not possible to further corroborate the woman’s story.
Dikshit claims to be an incarnation of, among others, the Hindu god Krishna, who according to myth has 16,000 wives. Swati Maliwal, chairwoman of Delhi’s government agency for women’s affairs, said investigators found 200 women and girls in miserable conditions.
“The ashram has been running illegal activities,” said Maliwal. She said investigators found dizziness-inducing substances and unprescribed medicines which may have been used to drug and pacify women. She also said religious texts found during a raid instruct women to “surrender” their bodies to Dikshit.
Maliwal accompanied police on the December 19 raid on one of AVV’s flagship ashrams in a rundown northwest Delhi neighbourhood. She described the main building as a “fortress”, with several locked gates and barbed wire enclosing residents. She recounted finding a room full of medicines, unlabelled substances and syringes, suitcases full of devotional letters written by the sect’s women to Dikshit, as well as books and posters that describe Dikshit as a god.
“All the girls appeared to be in a trance,” Maliwal said.
Authorities removed 41 minors from the facility. Court documents say that at least 168 adult women remain at the site, and 25 adult men live in an annex.
Investigators said in court documents that the women lived in “animal-like conditions” and many were in poor health and appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
Maliwal said ashram workers told investigators that the adult women had chosen to stay on the sect’s properties. The court’s order to search the premises did not give investigators the authority to remove adults without their consent, she said.
Two days after the initial raid, the sect’s lawyer brought the 32-year-old woman’s sister to court on the instructions of a judge. It was a highly charged moment.
The sisters had not seen each other since 2007, and their last meeting had been closely supervised by the sect’s senior followers, according to the older sibling. She described her joy at seeing her younger sister. “I asked her, can I hug you? And I stuck to her. I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.
And then, the younger woman returned to the sect.
Her sister, who took a sabbatical from work to fight for her release, said she believes her 25-year old sibling is suffering from years of emotional trauma and will eventually leave the sect.
“I am a very good counsellor,” she said. “I can get the fear out of her head. I can give her a lot of love and make her OK.”
The inquiry into AVV offers hope to hundreds of families whose relatives are currently in the sect. Police all over northern India are raiding other ashrams associated with Dikshit. In Delhi, Maliwal said, five of at least eight ashrams have been searched by authorities. But many of the sect’s ashrams are in still unknown locations.
A sign outside the sect’s headquarters reads, “God Fatherly Spiritual University,” a loose English translation of the sect’s name. Neighbours said they rarely talk to the sect’s members, that truckloads of food and other materials are delivered every week. People inside never appear at the building’s windows or balconies, all reinforced with metal grills. Sounds of televised spiritual broadcasts start blaring from the building around 2.30am every day, the neighbours said.
Sporadically, relatives of the residents come and cry outside the building, demanding that their daughters be released, a neighbour said.
“People come, they shout insults, they cry, they bang on the door, they roam up and down the streets, sometimes they stay for days, and then they leave,” said Rajesh Goyal, who lives across the street.