CHANDIGARH (AFP) - An Indian guru declared dead has been in a deep freezer in his ashram for nearly six weeks with followers confident he will return to life to lead them, his spokesman said.
Devotees placed Ashutosh Maharaj, whom authorities declared clinically dead on Jan 29, in the freezer and have been watching over his body in the sprawling ashram in a small town in northern Punjab state.
Maharaj, reportedly in his 70s, is one of India's many gurus or god-men who headed the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan (Divine Light Awakening Mission) and claims to have millions of followers around the world.
Mission spokesman Swami Vishalanand insisted their leader was not dead but was in fact in a state of samadhi, the highest level of meditation, and was therefore still conscious.
Vishalanand told AFP that followers were now waiting for him to end his meditation. Until then, the ashram in Nurmahal town would stay open with followers performing their own mediations and spiritual sessions.
"Mahara-ji (a Hindi term of respect) is still sending messages through followers in their meditative stage to protect his body till he returns," he said earlier this week.
The decision to place him in the freezer was challenged in court by a man claiming to be his former driver, who alleged several followers were not releasing the body as they were seeking a share of the guru's properties, local media reports said.
But the court rejected the man's petition after receiving information from authorities confirming his death, reportedly from a heart attack, said Reeta Kohli, additional advocate general of Punjab state.
"The court rejected his pleas after the Punjab government said that the man is clinically dead and that it is up to his followers to decide what they want to do with the body," Kohli told AFP.
Senior district police officer Gurinder Singh Dhillon said police "cannot interfere" now that the court has made its ruling.
Maharaj's website, which says the mission was founded in 1983 and has spiritual centres around the world, has thanked its followers for standing by the mission while the guru undertakes his meditation.
Vishalanand said scores of spiritual leaders throughout history have traveled to the Himalayas for months of samadhi in freezing temperatures, before returning to life.
Another spokesman, who heads a nearby village where many of Maharaj's followers are living, has told local media that they will simply wait.
"When we close our eyes, we can talk to the Maharaj, who has assured us he will come back," Lakhwinder Singh told the Indian Express newspaper.