NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Days before his conviction for rape, Indian spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh launched a month of lavish birthday celebrations, waiting on a stage at his cult's vast compound to be greeted by politicians donating tens of thousands of dollars to his organisation.
Singh, whose conviction on Aug 25 for raping two women sparked riots by his followers that killed 38 people, exemplifies the power - and controversy - of a band of so-called "godmen" whose stature is growing in modern-day India.
A movie star, singer and cult leader with a penchant for all things bling, Singh commands the support of large numbers of mostly poorer people in northern India.
Spiritual gurus are believed to possess unique healing powers, and are popular among those whose economic insecurities are outpacing the state's ability to deliver. As India becomes wealthier and increasing numbers of people feel left behind, they turn to gurus for spiritual and material sustenance.
"Baba blessings have changed my life. I used to drink daily, fight with my wife and spend a lot of money on health," said a local farmer and follower of Singh. He declined to be named as he feared police action after the guru was handed two 10-year jail sentences on Monday (Aug 28).
"My family says now I am a changed man and there is a peace in our lives," the farmer said, adding he would continue to follow Singh and his Dera Sacha Sauda group from its base in Sirsa, 240 kms from New Delhi in the state of Haryana.
At his sprawling 700-odd acre compound, Singh offers free medical treatment and schooling, showcases his latest films and churns out organic food products under his MSG, or "Messenger of God", branding.
National cricket heroes come to pay their respects; journalists wait for him to emerge from his underground living quarters; his sermons attract tens of thousands.
"Poorer people want an escape route and the deras are considered an escape route. They give people solace, hope," said Professor Sukhdev Singh Sohal at Guru Nanak Dev University. He estimates that close to 2.5 million people follow gurus, or deras, in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.
Gurus have long existed in India, where the majority religion, Hinduism, lacks formal organised structures that would limit the emergence of self-ordained men claiming to embody god. They are also popular in areas populated by Sikhs, including in Punjab and Haryana where Singh's devotees largely live.
Many gurus also play a positive role in the lives of their followers: delivering charity to the needy, and providing ostracised lower-castes with the hope that they need not be trapped by rigid caste hierarchies.
The new generation of guru is, however, less the wandering ascetic, and more a powerful, flamboyant personality, often rich, and with the means to summon supporters on to the streets.
Some of Singh's followers said they were ready to die for him. He faces separate allegations that he encouraged up to 400 of his followers to undergo castration, a charge he denies, but which critics say demonstrates his ability to brainwash.
Other gurus, while less controversial, are hugely influential.
Baba Ramdev, a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, runs the Patanjali consumer goods brand that has boomed in recent years. Another, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, is popular among wealthier members of society and has a large following in North America.
Their power has been left unchecked by politicians who prefer to woo the godmen to deliver their armies of supporters as votes. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enjoyed support from Singh in recent elections.
"There is part fear and part reverence of these gurus among politicians. That's why they have an enormous amount of informal power," said Santosh Desai, an Indian social commentator.
"The gurus are more visible today, they have more money. There is a more consumerist sheen to them. They are brands," he said, adding that men like Singh had successfully combined religious tradition with materialism to appeal to a more aspirational population.
At the start of Singh's 50th birthday celebrations on Aug 15, several ministers from Haryana's ruling BJP greeted Singh. One gifted his organisation 5.1 million rupees ($108,035) for developing sports facilities, according to a video of the celebrations released by one of Singh's TV networks and local media reports.
Ronki Ram, a political scientist who has studied gurus extensively, said Singh's imprisonment - his lawyer said on Monday he would appeal - would undermine his support base, and followers would gradually drift away.
But it would not mean the end of the godmen. "Politicians come to seek votes, people come to find answers to their social and psychological problems. Then more people come because they think if the politician is coming, he (the guru) must be important," he told Reuters. "It's a vicious circle."