Once in a while, the smile slips off and a hint of irritation creases his face. But then it is back in a flash. In his chosen vocation, Bhayyu Maharaj cannot afford to look less than pleasant, and looks have anyway been an important part of his rise from a model to a godman who has just about every Maharashtra politician you can name paying ritual obeisance.
Over the past two weeks, six-feet-tall, fair, brown-eyed, ever-smiling 42-year-old Udaysinh Desh- mukh, ‘Bhayyu Maharaj’ for his legions of devotees, has burst onto the national stage for his starring role as the mediator who got Anna Hazare to call off his fast. Bhayyu’s presence at the Ramlila Maidan surprised many, but he was really not venturing into alien territory. “People know me. Politicians know me. Since it was felt that I could help out, I was there,” says Bhayyu.
Bhayyu and Anna don’t know each other. They have never met. But as Anna’s strike progressed and negotiations with the Government appeared deadlocked, there arose a feeling among Anna’s Maharashtrian aides, partly fuelled by Marathi news channels, that the movement had been hijacked by north Indians. Sources close to Hazare who have managed his fasts in Maharashtra over the past decade, say that Hazare too felt the need for mediators from his home state. That’s how Medha Patkar was first roped in. Bhayyu, who is only too familiar to Hazare’s aides, was the next one to be asked; with ‘disciples’ in all parties, he was a great consensus candidate.
Being the in-between man is what he does all the time in Maharashtra. Before the 2009 Assembly elections, the BJP was haggling with the Sena for the Guhagar seat in the Konkan belt. Ramdas Kadam, the Sena’s leader of the Opposition in the erstwhile Assembly, was a keen contender for the seat. Kadam, an Uddhav Thackeray loyalist, is considered a firebrand but neither his oratory nor his organisational skills were enough to convince the BJP to give up the seat. Then Kadam dialled Bhayyu’s number. I happened to be there when the two spoke and can confirm that the conversation did take place. Kadam got the seat—Bhayyu had delivered, after parleys with BJP leaders Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari. Kadam’s is not a standalone example either; some say that sweeping changes were made to the lists of all parties on Bhayyu’s ‘advice’.
Clearly intending it as a rare tribute, one of his followers, a businessman from Pune, says Bhayyu’s social networking skills are “as good as Facebook”. Well-known politicians, businessmen, Bollywood stars and celebrities of all persuasions are on his speed dial, so to speak. An estimated 200 of the 288 MLAs (of the present Maharashtra Assembly), 60 of the 78 MLCs and a sizeable group of MPs are Bhayyu disciples. Union ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Manikrao Thakre, BJP national vice president Gopinath Munde, the thirteenth direct descendant of Shivaji, Chhatrapati Udayanraje Maharaj, Lata Mangeshkar and many others count themselves among his followers.
The story of how he became a godman is farfetched to a rational mind and not unlike the many myths that surround godmen. Talking of his past life, he says he had modelled for Siyaram Suitings and Duke’s T-shirts in the early 1980s. But for a man of the fabled memory that stores every minute detail about his celebrity disciples, it is odd that he does not remember much about his own modelling days. What he does remember is that there was money to spare, and a certain “casualness” to those years, memories of which he’d rather forget.
“I had all the photographs, but after my spiritual journey, I did not find any relevance for them. They got washed away in the floods some years ago.” He says he was paid between Rs 25,000 and Rs 40,000 per assignment, but the “flashiness” of the job did not appeal to him. “I was attracted to spiritualism from childhood. I was and am greatly influenced by my mother. During my modelling days, I realised that I was slowly getting detached from all worldly goods. I did not know what I was seeking.”
Born on 29 April 1968 at Shujalpur near Indore, he holds a BSc degree. Thus far the story goes down easy, the rest is the stuff of television serials. “My parents had been told before my birth that their child would be famous. From the age of 5 to 22, I had visions of Nath Yogi. I felt rays as bright as the sun emanating from the Yogi’s open palm and entering my body.” Finally at 23, he says, the Yogi entered his body, and he took this as his cue to embark on a new journey. Unusually for a godman, he is married with children. Wife Madhavi Nimbalkar came into his life when he was 22, a year before his ‘spiritual awakening’.
The early days of being God’s chosen one were spent in Indore, his hometown, dress-rehearsing for the larger stage. “I started giving discourses. The people who came to me realised that I did not sell dreams. I spoke of development, national integration and humanity. They liked what they heard and kept coming back,” he says.
Word spread, and so also the numbers of his supplicants. “When a large gathering goes to a guru, it is natural for local politicians and elected representatives of the area to visit him. They always go where the wind blows. I have never advertised my services. Politicians started coming to me as word spread,” he says.
He concedes that his looks worked to his advantage. “It helps,” he smiles. His followers agree.
“He is so handsome, you want to keep looking at him,” says Ranjeet Deshmukh, a former Maharashtra minister.
What also helped him gain ground with politicians was the fact that the paternal side of his own family was connected to politics. Since most of them belonged to the Congress, Bhayyu was initially guru mainly to Congressmen. After 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power in Maharashtra, his stock grew among politicians from the saffron fold. Says a disciple, “Having tasted power, Sena-BJP politicians wanted more. Their friends in the Congress introduced them to Gurudev. It became a big chain of followers.”
Bhayyu says he is popular among politicians because he is consistent. “When they are no one, I am with them. When they are big, I am with them. When they are down and out, I am still with them. The difference is that people only see me with them when they have become someone. At other times, I am not in the public eye because the focus is not on those politicians. When Uddhavji meets me, I am not a Maharaj; I am like his brother. We talk about so many things and we have many common interests. His son Aditya calls me Kaka (uncle).”
As his following grew, Bhayyu needed an ashram, and he set one up at Indore in 1996. The ashram, with its closed-circuit cameras and electronic security systems, befits a modern-day guru, but the story goes that all this bandobast followed a certain controversy. In 2005, a female disciple, Seema Wankhede, claimed she was his wife and that he had fathered a four-year-old son with her. The issue later died a quiet death.
As we sit talking (the interview took place much before his newfound fame in Delhi), his six-year old daughter Kuhu runs into the room. She pulls his ear and demands to know if he remembered to get her the promised DVDs. Then proceeds to plonk herself on his lap, fidgets awhile, and then makes him chase her around the room before leaving. Not before extracting a promise that he would accompany her to a relative’s house. “Papa, we have to go to their house early. Don’t get late. Stop talking,” she says before scampering off.
I can’t help noticing the number of objects on his person to ward off evil—a ruby-and-diamond ring set in gold, a panchadhatu (five-metal) bracelet embellished with precious stones and words from holy scriptures, and a rakshasutra (a red thread tied for protection) on his right wrist. But maybe this is the paraphernalia of his public life.
The white kurtas and panchadhatu bracelets nothwithstanding, this is not your archetypal godman in robes. He owns a Ford Endeavour and he loves to race it. His racing partner is close friend Chhatrapati Udayanraje Bhosale. “Udayan and I meet quiet often and we race,” he says. But Bhosale likes his alcohol and seafood; Bhayyu is a professed teetotaller and vegetarian.
As we chat about food, his wife walks into the room. “I don’t know how he survives. He does not eat at all. I have to force-feed him. We have been married for 19 years, and I still don’t know what his likes and dislikes are. If you find out, let me know,” she says, sounding perfectly earnest.
He is almost always attired in a white churidar-kurta, though he confesses he owns an array of T-shirts, shirts, jeans, chinos and non-white kurtas too. He designs his own clothes and wears these when he is out with the family. He also possesses a spectacular collection of over a hundred high-end watches and some 400 sunglasses. “I have Prada’s full range, Mont Blanc, Cartier, Mercedes, Porsche and many others,” he says.
All through our conversation, people sit around him on the floor, heads bowed in programmed reverence, listening to the guru. “My house and ashram are open to everyone. Everyone is equal here,” he says. Maybe it’s the vantage from where he sees it. It occurs to me that your equals don’t sit at your feet. But that’s in my world.