Sandeep Karnik saw his two young sisters staring at an empty carton, chanting mantras for hours. "We are transferring our negative energies into the box," the women told Karnik.
That was five years ago. Karnik's sisters, then 22 and 26, left home to be part of the Sanatan Sanstha, a 'Hindu spiritual organisation', in 2014 and never returned.
Kapil Kupekar witnessed a similar mind-boggling scene 19 years ago. His doctor sister walked up to the family altar in their Pune home, collected the ashes of incense sticks, added them to water and drank the mix. "It will protect me from evil powers," then-24-year-old Neha told him. Kupekar, also a doctor, says the strange rituals started after Neha began attending discourses of the Sanstha. She was sucked so deep into its ideology that "she could have killed in the name of religion", says Kupekar, who found a dagger in Neha's belongings.
In their dimly lit home in Satara, a middle-aged couple's wait for their daughter and son continues. The two left home in 2012 to join the Sanstha and went incommunicado. They only got back in touch with their parents last year " brief phone calls twice a month. "The Sanatan people are everywhere. If they see you here, they will tell our children and the phone calls will stop," their mother Rita Takle told Firstpost, her husband Sachin seated next to her.
There are several such families across Maharashtra, where the young and bright have cut off all ties to turn footsoldiers of the Sanstha and to 'revive' Hinduism. It is hard to say how many sadhaks, or followers, the Sanstha has, but a rough figure would be 450 devotees who live in its two ashrams in Maharashtra's Thane and Panvel, and another one in Ponda, Goa. More than 2,000 full-time sadhaks live outside the ashrams, says Sanjiv Punalekar, advocate and secretary of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad (HVP), a lawyers' body that works with the Sanstha. Besides, there are people who give occasional service. "It's a flexible number," says Punalekar.
This secretive and shadowy outfit, which hides behind a maze of affiliates, is accused of serious crimes, including links to the murder of four rationalists and several low-intensity bomb blasts. But its popularity remains intact, as do its methods to reach out to the young. In the five districts Firstpost visited, families said that Sanstha's stalls can still be seen at religious fairs, its in-house daily Sanatan Prabhat is dropped off at doorsteps, and satsangs are held every week. Word of mouth, though, remains the most effective tool.
The Sanstha Registered as a charitable trust, the Sanatan Sanstha was set up in 1999 by hypnotherapist Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale and his wife Dr Kunda Athavale, to propagate spirituality. Nine years of rallies and public meetings across Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa have gone into the making of the Sanstha.
The outfit gained notoriety for allegedly disrupting public speeches in Maharashtra in the early 2000s but was never named in any case. Its first link with serious crime surfaced in 2008 when two sadhaks were sentenced to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment for a blast in Thane and planting a bomb in Vashi. They were also fined for their role in a blast in Panvel. In 2009, the Sanstha was in the news again: two sadhaks were killed, allegedly when a bomb they were carrying in a scooter went off in Goa's Margao, the police say.
The Sanstha is careful in picking recruits. For the first few months, recruits are reintroduced to Hindu traditions such as the meaning of folding hands and reason for wearing a tilak, which strike a chord, says Karnik.
On its website, the Sanstha projects itself as a religious and spiritual organisation, listing 16 chants for tasks as varied as eating, climbing a mountain or even waging a war. The tasks are linked to the larger good of Hindu religion and society.
"People are looking beyond their routine life to find meaning," says Hamid Dabholkar, a psychiatrist and son of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who was gunned down in 2013, allegedly by people with links to the Sanstha. Based in Satara, Dabholkar has seen the influence that the Sanstha has come to wield on middle-class Hindu families. It offers them identity and purpose"they feel they are doing something for the Hindu society. "This is a justified psychological need for everybody," he says.
And the Sanstha knows it.
Jobs or education define the life of most such families. The Karnik sisters were graduates, but their lives revolved around household chores and helping their mother with her shop. As part of the Sanstha, they travelled to different states for social service. Similarly, Rita's daughter was upset because she didn't make it to the merit list of her ayurvedic medicine exams. She saw the Sanstha as the only route out of the depression, Rita read in her daughter's journal. When her son moved to a different city to study engineering, outside the classroom, satsangs became his social life. Neha had started chanting to beat anxiety after a girl in her hostel introduced her to satsangs.
The Sanstha, Dabholkar explains, identifies such vulnerable, lonely individuals and families. Association with fringe religious organisations aligns an individual's identity with a group identity, granting greater self-esteem and empowerment, Farhaan Wahi of the University of Wales writes in a paper studying how Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic group in the UK, indoctrinates and radicalises the youth.
The new perspective offered by such religious outfits may contradict the established culture, arousing a sense of conflict with it, says Wahi. The families in Maharashtra experienced something similar. Their children, they say, started associating with their new Hindu identities and felt that Western ideas had weakened Hinduism. They saw it as their duty, as Hindus, to revive forgotten rituals and practices, and chanting was a weapon against a common enemy"the evil powers that reside in all those who oppose or question Hinduism.
The indoctrination is subtle. Once the new sadhaks become regulars, they are absorbed in a closed group where they are told about atrocities against the Hindus, says Rita, who attended a few satsangs with her children. Sachin noticed that soon after joining the Sanstha, his son started talking along communal lines. Sadhaks are told that communal riots, terrorism, spread of disease and natural and man-made calamities are signs of apocalypse, Karnik says. "They instil fear in people. They tell them that religious war is going to begin. God is going to come to earth in the form of a human avatar to protect; that avatar is (Jayant) Athavale," he says.
When the world didn't end in 2008 or in 2012, as predicted, the sadhaks were told that Guruji (Athavale) had prevented the catastrophe, say the families.
But the Sanstha rubbishes these claims. Sanstha's spokesperson Chetan Rajhans says Athavale has never claimed to be God. "He (Athavale) tells people that he is getting old; he is a patient. How can he be God? He has even published this in Sanatan Prabhat," he says.
The hypnotic grip
"There is a complete mental breakdown. The sadhaks are told that the only one who can save them is Guruji. So, they should come to the ashram," says Kupekar. At a loss to understand their abandonment by their loved ones, families are convinced that their children have been hypnotised. In 2011, Lonavala-based scientist Vijay Rokde, whose wife was a Sanstha sadhika, filed a public interest litigation in Bombay High Court with three other families, saying the Sanstha was using the science of hypnotherapy to control people. He read up on hypnosis and found that those in deep hallucinatory state could be manipulated into committing crimes. Athavale is manipulating hypnosis techniques and applying them on the sadhaks, his plea says.
Rajhans dismisses the allegations as baseless. Hypnotherapy, he says, can only be done with a person's consent. It cannot be done on a group and Athavale stopped practising when he set up the Sanstha.
Professor Shyam Manav, a hypnotherapist who was close to Athavale before the Sanstha was launched, explains that giving suggestion during meditation can put people into deep trance. He claims that is what the Sanstha is practising. "Athavale knows the science of this really well," he says. Devotees share spiritual experiences with sadhaks, who then zero in on people who go into deep trance. "People who go into deep trance are then asked to do more so that they attain nirvana. Then you can feed anything to these people," says Manav. They are then told it is okay to kill in the name of religion, he alleges. "It's God's work."
Dabholkar doesn't buy the hypnosis or the brainwashing theory. "They have used principles of hypnosis and religious fundamentalism and made a deadly concoction"which is the Sanstha," he alleges. "It amounts to abuse of mental health knowledge." The Sanstha is careful. Anyone who has an inquisitive mind and believes in questioning is screened out, Dabholkar claims. Is there no getting away from the Sanstha? In the West, there are de-radicalisation programmes but the results are doubtful, he says.
What lies ahead
4Will its alleged crimes bring down the Sanstha? Since 2008"the first time it was linked to serious crime"the Sanstha has not been named in even a single chargesheet. So, where does the question of banning it arise? Rajhans asks. In the rationalists' murders, 700 sadhaks were questioned; not one was named in any FIR. "It is an intellectual war," Rajhans says. "Those who are opposing the Sanstha are anti-Hindu; they are communist party people."
The families have gone to the police, pleaded with sadhaks and hurled stones at the ashrams, only to be handed out legal documents signed by their children saying they had chosen to be sadhaks. HVP has sued many families for defamation. Unable to take on the Sanstha's legal might, many have given up.
For years, Kupekar tried to bring Neha out of the Sanstha's practices even when his parents wanted to give up. But he won't tell Firstpost where she is. She has had long spells of psychiatric treatment, and reminding her of the past could act as a trigger and she may go back to being a sadhika, he fears. All he is willing to share is that Neha is out of the ashram, goes to work and practises meditation at home.
Others aren't that lucky. Sachin is pinning his hopes on a ban on the Sanstha. "Even if it is banned, we don't know whether our children will come back to us," he says, resignedly.
The names of some individuals have been changed to protect their identities