NEW DELHI (AFP) – It reads like an exotic mystery thriller but it is playing out in real life.
The arrest of India’s most revered Hindu leader, accused of masterminding the murder of a former aide, has astonished the country and stirred outrage among his millions of devotees who consider him a divine incarnation.
Ever since the detention Thursday of Jayendra Saraswati, known popularly as the “Seer of Kanchi” or the Kanchi Shankaracharya, supporters have been staging protests and hunger strikes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
“It’s as if you had arrested the Pope — he’s the biggest Hindu leader,” Renuka Narayanan, religion editor of The Indian Express and author of several books on Hinduism, told AFP.
“Holy Seer, Unholy Mess,” ran a banner headline in a weekend edition of The Hindustan Times over a report detailing allegations against the 71-year-old Saraswati, referred to in India as the “pontiff”.
Formal charges have not yet been laid against Saraswati and his lawyers have described the accusations as false.
Just last year, political leaders feted Saraswati in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of his nomination as head of the hugely wealthy Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt — Mutt means spiritual institution — the leading seat of Hinduism.
Now he is in Vellore Central Prison in the holy town of Kanchipuram, accused of murder, conspiracy and suppressing evidence over the death of his ex-aide and former accountant Thiru Sankararaman, 52.
Media reports say there was a long history of friction between the spiritual leader and the dead man, who resented Saraswati’s efforts to turn the Kanchi Mutt from a purely religious establishment into a social institution that helped the needy.
“He was very proactive. He has wanted to change the role of the Hindu pontiff. The previous Shankaracharya was very orthodox,” said Narayanan. “The new Shankaracharya was the first person to do ‘walkabouts’ in the slums.”
Sankararaman had also alleged financial irregularities at the temple. The 2,500-year-old Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt in the temple town controls assets worth over 50 billion rupees (1.14 billion dollars), newspaper reports say.
Media reports say Sankararaman wrote to a Tamil daily on August 30, vowing to remove Saraswati from the leadership of the Kanchi Mutt and alleging he was misusing his authority.
Four days later Sankararaman was found dead from multiple stab wounds after being attacked by five hitmen in another temple that he managed.
Police say they have records of phone conversations with the attackers as well as banknotes seized from the alleged killers that had been withdrawn by the Kanchi Mutt. Fourteen other people have been arrested in the case.
Prosecutors told the court at a weekend hearing there was “sufficient evidence” that Saraswati would flee to Nepal if released on bail.
Nepal’s royal family are among his followers and he has often visited the world’s only Hindu kingdom.
The prosecution petition opposing bail accused him of committing a “heinous, calculated, well-designed and gruesome murder through rowdy elements on payment of money.”
Defence lawyers said Saraswati was framed and the phone calls could have been clandestinely made by someone else. His request for bail comes up again Wednesday.
Keywords: Jayendra Saraswathi