The Sanatan Sanstha: Of Spirituality and Pseudo-Science

All you need to know about possibly the most mysterious, hardline right-wing Hindu organisation in India. 

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The Sanatan Sanstha: Of Spirituality and Pseudo-Science
Snapshot

The Sanatan Sanstha is likely the most mysterious, hardline right-wing Hindu organisation that exists in India today. Headquartered in Ramnathi, Goa, the organisation has offices in Panvel, Pune, Mumbai, Sangli and other parts of Maharashtra. It claims to have ‘thousands of devotees’ across the world, though no definite figure is available of its general strength.

The Sanatan Sanstha is known for it’s hardline, often violent stance on Hinduism. Ironically, much like some of the Islamic State’s paranoia, most of this group’s superstitions are about the impending kalyug (doomsday) and how only ‘sattva-Hindus will survive’.

From separating the ‘pure’ and the ‘impure’ who ‘attack Dharma’, to Goans applying for Portuguese citizenship, environmentalists asking people to immerse Ganesh idols in water tanks and not rivers, the ever-looming ‘threat’ of Pakistan, or Tehelka magazine which calls Bal Thackeray a terrorist, the Kashmiri youth, the Congress and even... bikinis — the Sanatan Sanstha has a long and varied list of interests

But apart from this absurd mixture of nationalist Hindutva, doomsday panic and even theories of a mass cult in formation, the Sanatan Sanstha has also been accused of having blood on their hands for three bomb blasts in Goa and Mumbai and cold-blooded murders of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dhabolkar, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh — all rationalists and activists who didn’t agree to their point of view.

What is going on? Here is all you need to know.

The Sanatan Sanstha: Of Spirituality and Pseudo-Science

  1. 1. What is Sanatan Sanstha?

    Founded in 1990 by Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale and Bhaktaraj Maharaj, Sanatan Sanstha is a non-profit trust registered as a ‘charitable organisation’. On its very perplexing website, it declares its aims to “present spirituality in a scientific language to those curious about spirituality and to guide seekers” and “to inculcate religious behaviour in the masses”.

    The motto of the organisation is the “reinstatement of the Divine Kingdom” as in the time of Lord Ram or a “Dharmadhisthit Hindu Rasthra”.

    Other gems from its website, which do more to obfuscate its true aim than reveal, the fringe right-wing group aims to “provide education in dharma in scientific technology for the benefit of Hindus.” Elsewhere it says it seeks to establish the divine kingdom in India by 2023. According to its print daily, Sanatan Prabhat, the intervening years will be a time of psychological and physical battles against ‘evil forces’ that will prepare people for the advent of the holy kingdom.

    When asked to define the evil forces, Sanatan Sanstha’s spokesperson explained to LA Times that these were people who develop “increased egos and personality defects and can't lead a normal life.” But the (heated) rhetoric is more often than not about how even as a nation of Hindus in majority, Hindu Gods are being insulted, western way of life is taking the place of our traditions and the sattvik Hindu way of life is under threat by non-Hindus and secularists who deny that India is first and foremost a Hindu Rashtra.

    Sanatan's official text says, “violence against evil is not violence” and the outfit claims only to teach self-defense, but not the use of dangerous weapons. However, for instance, in 2008, a Sanatan worker informed the police of a meeting where an explosives demonstration was going to be held.

    The Sanatan Sanstha has continuously denied all allegations, and insist they’re a straightforward place for spirituality and science.

    For instance, the Sanatan Sanstha is headquartered in Ramnathi in north Goa since March 1999 and its sprawling ashram hosts several thousand people at once, including celebrities and politicians. Other ashrams, like those in Panvel and Miraj in Maharashtra, are registered as separate trusts, as are organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Dharamashakti Sena.

    Who runs the show inside today, no one knows, as a reticent Athavale lives out his late seventies and stopped making public appearances since 2004.

    Who was Athalve?

    Athavale was a consultant clinical hypnotherapist first in Mumbai and then in the UK for almost two decades, when he realised that his success rate of treatment was only 70%. A steady margin of patients would not recover through his usual treatments, but seemed suddenly cured after having gone on a pilgrimage or having followed the advice of a saint.

    Despite being an atheist up until this point, Athavale was intrigued by this trend and decided to spend his time studying the reason behind this spiritual healing. And thus, the Sanatan Sanstha was born. Almost 30 years later, the outfit has become one of the most controversial, hardline Hindutva groups in the country.

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  2. 2. What are the 'Scientific' Teachings of the Sanstha?

    Sanatan Sanstha’s website discusses an odd mixture of issues, all with the goal of rekindling dharma within our society. But the bulk of it seems to be random instructions on how to live, bathe, pray and even urinate in a ‘spiritually scientific’ way.

    The crux of their theories is this: The universe is made up of three particles or the triguna: The sattva, raja, and tama. The sattvik man leads an honest life with no expectations of a reward. The rajasik man lives only for his own gain, while an tamasik man will push other people down to rise up himself. The goal, according to the Sanstha, is to minimise our exposure to raja-tama waves and lead as much of our lives with good sattvik energy as we can.

    How does one do that? They’ll tell you exactly that.

    Wedding cards are sattvik when they’re cheap and printed in our mother tongues with pictures of deities. Marriages performed as per Hindu traditions are more sattvik than registered marriages.

    Covering your head while urinating or defecating is crucial because apparently it is imperative to shield one’s Brahma chamber (opening in the spiritual energy system) from the raja-tama waves around the bathroom.

    Stressing on the science of it all, the Sanstha goes on to quote an unnamed French scientist who allegedly discovered the that “Hindu” way of urinating or defecating – that is, crouching – is the sattvik way to do this because standing and peeing increased one’s chances of coming in contact with the dreaded raja-tama waves. Sorry, boys.

    The Sanatan Sanstha: Of Spirituality and Pseudo-Science
    (Screenshot from Sanatan Sanstha’s website)
    The unnamed white male scientist “said” on the issue, as reported diligently (and without any source) on the website: “Urinating in the standing posture causes urine droplets to fall on the feet and scatter on the floor as well. The genitals should be washed after urinating. If not washed, subtle crystals of urine will form after drying of the urine and will be responsible for diseases.”

    It is bad for men to grow their hair, because of raja-tama, but it is the opposite for an ascetic. Why? Because ascetics emit enough radiant waves to form a “spherical sheath of radiant waves in the environment”, thus “denoting a reduction in body awareness”.

    Women also have a natural “protective sheath”, which is why they can have long hair and look “more humble” and “polite”.

    Also, it’s acceptable for Sikhs to have long hair: The hair, along with the raja waves, help create a “kshatravrutti (combating attitude)” and a “warrior community”, the original goal of the Sikhs.

    Their website also has a few general rules for an ideal life. “One who aspires to live long should not climb on the back of a cow or a bull, should not allow the smoke from a funeral pyre to touch his body, should not sit on the bank of a river (other than the Ganga) at dusk, should not allow the rays of the rising sun to touch his body and should not sleep during the day.” There’s more about how and where you should bathe, what men and women should wear on their weddings — the verging-on-absurd list goes on. 

    Rana Ayyub, an investigative reporter, encountered a surreal site on her visit to the Sanatan Sanstha’s sprawling headquarters in Goa in 2009. Writing for The Hindu, she says:

    “On display in the complex are burnt and stained clothes (results of spiritual magic by the gurus, we are told), placards exhorting Hindus to fight their enemies and a painting that has an image of India surrounded by four villains — including ‘people who oppose black magic’ and Mayawati’s BSP, an anti-Hindu party for the Sanstha.”

    She further writes: “As I walk on, I bump into a worker who has laminated pieces of paper stuck over the upper half of his body, including the forehead, nape and back. The pieces of paper have mantras inscribed on them. Asked what it’s all about, the worker – or sevak as he calls himself – says it’s like an amulet to ward off evil powers.”

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  3. 3. What is the Sanstha's History of Violence?

    Over the years, the Sanatan Sanstha has come to be known more for its entanglements in bomb blasts and murder cases than its contribution towards scientific spirituality.

    In 2011, Ramesh Hanumant Gadkari and Vikram Vinay Bhave, both alleged members of the Sanstha, were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment in connection to bomb blasts at a Panvel cinema screening Jodhaa Akbar and another at a Thane auditorium staging the Marathi play Aamhi Pachpute, which allegedly showed Hindu Gods and Goddesses in poor light. Additionally, low-intensity explosives were recovered pre-blast from a Vashi auditorium that was also staging the same play.

    The duo was released on bail two years later. The appeals against this are still pending in court. This was when the base of the Sanstha’s operations was Mumbai; soon after the outfit shifted to Goa, and the blasts followed.

    In 2009, the Sanstha’s members, Vinayak Talekar, Vinayak Ashtekar, Dilip Mangainkar, Dhananjay Ashtekar, Prashant Juvekar and Vinay Patil were arrested for being responsible for bomb blasts in Goa’s Margao on 16 October 2009. The IED detonated prematurely, killing two persons (also Sanstha members), Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik, who were ferrying the explosive. In December 2013, the six accused were acquitted by a special court for the lack of evidence.

    The NIA received a major setback as a special court at Mapusa, Goa, acquitted all the six Sanatan Sanstha members in December 2013.
    The NIA received a major setback as a special court at Mapusa, Goa, acquitted all the six Sanatan Sanstha members in December 2013.
    (Photo: PTI) 

    An appeal was filed against this acquittal in the Bombay High Court in 2014. The case was admitted but no hearing has taken place in the case except one when the court issued notices to concerned parties.

    In December 2011, social activists from Raigad filed a PIL against the Sanstha, accusing it of indulging in terrorist activities and practicing Ericksonian Hypnosis to induct people into the ‘cult’ and execute orders given to them by a hypnotist. The court dismissed the PIL, again on the lack of evidence to support the claim.

    What is Eriksonian Hypnosis?
    It is a method of indirect hypnosis named after Dr Milton Erickson, who is widely regarded as the “father of hypnotherapy”. This style of hypnosis uses indirect cues such as metaphors, contradictions, symbols, and antidotes to influence people’s behavior and introduce a trance-like state, rather than direct orders.
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  4. 4. Have any Sanstha Members Been Accused of Murder?

    In 2013, the Sanstha came into the limelight in the worst way, when they were linked to the assassination of rationalist and author Dr Narendra Dhabolkar, who was a Gandhian crusader against superstition.

    Days after the murder of Dabholkar, the Sanatan Prabhat (the Sanstha’s daily) published, “Everybody gets the fruit of his karma. Instead of dying of illness in a bedridden state or dying a painful death after an operation, the death Dabholkar met with was a grace of God.”

    In 2015, two more high-profile murders took place: one of communist leader Govind Pansare and the other of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi.

    Indian authorities in June 2016 arrested Sameer Gaikwad, a Sanatan member since 1998, in connection with the 2013 assassination of activist Narendra Dabholkar based on CCTV footgae. In September, another Sanatan member was arrested for the 2015 killing of Pansare and the search for one Ravindra Patil, also from the Sanstha, who is wanted by the National Investigation Agency in the 2009 case bomb blasts, is on till today.

    The Central Bureau of Investigation has said the weapons used in the cases of Dhabolkar and Pansare killings matched those used in the 2015 deadly attack against Kalburgi. In all three slayings, the killers accosted their victims on motorbikes, killed them, and left.

    Just last year, journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered at her doorstep, and the current SIT probe is looking at five members of Sanatan Sanstha as the suspects, two of whom have also been named in the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. The gun used to shoot her was also the same as the other three people who dared to oppose the Sanstha.

    The four rationalists, anti-superstition activists allegedly murdered by the Sanatan Sanstha. 
    The four rationalists, anti-superstition activists allegedly murdered by the Sanatan Sanstha. 
    (Photo: Twitter/PTI)
    All the victims had come into conflict with orthodox Hindus. Dabholkar, had led a campaign in Maharashtra to pass an anti-superstition bill aimed at reducing the influence of gurus and so-called godmen. Pansare wrote a biography of Shivaji, that emphasized his secularism. Kalburgi spoke out against religious superstition and blind faith before being shot in September at his home in Karnataka state. Gauri Lankesh also received several threats; she was a journalist-activist who spoke against extreme right-wing Hindu terrorism.

    Investigators say they found incriminating emails on a laptop belonging to one of the suspects, Virendra Tawde, the alleged mastermind of the Dabholkar assassination.

    CBI officials said the emails suggest that Sanatan was attempting to organise an army of 15,000 people against “anti-Hindu forces.” One former Sanatan member has told the CBI and investigators from Maharashtra's state police that Tawde approached him asking for two revolvers and had dispatched men to track Dabholkar and Pansare.

    The day after Dabholkar was shot, Sanatan Sanstha's newsletter ran a front-page statement saying that his death was a blessing. Pansare later received an anonymous letter that read, "You will meet Dabholkar's fate."

    This is all a conspiracy. None of the cases against us have been proven and false allegations are made against us. We practise spirituality and nothing else.
    Abhay Vartak, Sanatan Sanstha speaking to One India
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  5. 5. What is the Politics around the Sanstha?

    After the 2008 bomb blasts around Mumbai, when the time came to shift the Sanstha’s base outside Maharashtra, Ramnathi in Goa seemed like a natural choice, given how the area is home to some of the biggest and best known temples in the state.

    It is also the political base of the controversial Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s (MGP) politicians Sudin and Deepak Dhavlikar. They are the biggest benefactors of the outfit in Goa; in fact, both the brothers’ wives, Jyoti and Lata, are sadhaks at the Sanstha, something they talk about openly.

    Deepak Dhavilkar is a two-term MLA in Goa’s state Assembly and the President of the MGP. Sudin Dhavlikar currently serves as a minister in the BJP-led government with the portfolios of PWD and transport, among others.

    But shouldn’t the presence of two Goa ministers attending prayer functions in the Sanatan ashram – the premises of an organisation linked to the murders of at least three people – raise questions in Goa?

    In 2012, after the BJP won a majority on its own in Goa in the elections, the Sanatan Sanstha and its offshoot/front, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), put together the first All Indian Hindu Convention “for establishment of Hindu Rashtra”. The convention took place in Ramnathi in June that year.

    The second Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Adhiveshan in June 2013 saw Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat’s chief minister, sending a message to the audience with the organisers. The event is still held every year.

    Though at various points, several other political parties have spoken against the Sanstha: The Congress, AAP, CPI and CPI (M) and NCP have asked for a ban on the organisation due to their involvement in terror activities on more than one occasion. Even Maharashtra’s CM Devendra Fadnavis has stated that he would not hesitate to ban Sanatan Sanstha if any evidence was found against the organisation.

    While the Congress was in power, then Home Minister P Chidambaram turned down the suggestion by the Maharashtra State government because “none of the three [state governments] have addressed the real issue and they may be asked to indicate whether the organisation be banned or members of the organisation be prohibited from undertaking any activity under section 153 (b) IPC [imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration].”

    Narendra Modi’s message to the Second All India Hindu Convention, 2013.
    Narendra Modi’s message to the Second All India Hindu Convention, 2013.

    In September 2015, one Goa BJP MLA, Vishnu Wagh, demanded that Sanatan Sanstha be banned for its involvement in the Pansare and Karburgi murders. However, Chief Minister of Goa, Laxmikant Parsekar – also from the BJP – dismissed any possibility of it.

    However, between the soft political patronage given to it by Goa’s politicians and the subtle endorsement by the Prime Minister himself, the Sanatan Sanstha has continued to expand to several states across India and publish lakhs of copies of propaganda material for making India a Hindu Rashtra, successfully evading arrest and prohibition.

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  6. 6. Is it an Organisation or a Cult? How do You Become a Member?

    Almost two decades after the Sanatan Sanstha moved its base to Goa – it was registered in the state in March 1999 – very little is known of organisational structure of the Sanatan Sanstha’s ‘ashram’ in Ramnathi, or how it runs. The founder, Jayant Balaji Athawale, has become a recluse now at 75+ years of age, and has has not made a public appearance at the ashram since 2004. Very little is known about who calls the shots inside now, with the common understanding being that it is a shared responsibility among all trustees.

    So who’s running the show? And how do you get in and become a member? The website of the Sanatan lists several volunteering opportunities, but how do you become a ‘seeker’ as they call it, a member of the inner group? Unfortunately, there is no precise information since not even the locals in the area around the ashram are allowed: only members of the Sanatan can enter the premises.

    There also exist reports and case studies which suggest that the Sanatan Sanstha may in fact just be a cult made of people whose minds are controlled by Athavale by using Eriksonian Hypnosis, a method of indirect hypnosis which directs the subconscious mind.

    A PIL filed in the Bombay High Court in 2011 asked for a ban on the organisation for its use of hypnosis to lure the petitioners’ wives, sons, daughters and other kin to suddenly leave their home to join the organisation. The petitioners claim that the Sanstha uses the “principles of Ericksonian hypnosis”. By this “technique”, the petition reads, “individual members... as well as masses in the society can be hypnotised” and “any person under the impression of this technique loses his prudent wisdom and work(s) only according to the direction of hypnotist.... As a result of practising this system, it is very easy to plan and commit... destructive activity.”

    In February 2017, the Centre filed a reply to the court saying there is not enough material evidence to ban the organisation. However, in September 2016, during the investigation of the murder of rationalist Govind Pansare, the police allegedly found a huge stock of narcotic drugs inside the ashram, which are used for hypnosis in order to influence minds. The people in the ashram told police that the drugs were bought after being prescribed by a doctor!

    Did You Know? 
    In 2008, villagers around Ramnathi woke up to a strange smell coming from their fields while it was raining. As the water receded, it left behind over 2,000 used condoms. When the police enquired into the incident, it came to light that the Sanatan Sanstha had ordered approximately 3,000 condoms from the Goa government and one thousand of them were rotting in the locals’ rice fields. Since that year, rumours of the Sanstha being a sex cult have been rife!

    In 2010, activist Suresh Khairnar visited the headquarters of the Sanatan only to have his worst fears come true, as documented in Sabrang India, a news platform edited by journalists Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad to combat religious intolerance and communal violence. This is what Khairnar had to say:

    Based on my understanding of what fascism is, I have not the least doubt that this is a fascist outfit. The mind control at work, the trance-like state of the people I saw or met in Goa, the body language, the look in their eyes, their highly charged state, all these remind me of Hitler’s SS at work in Germany. I have met people from many Hindu and Muslim communal organisations; the youth always seem so charged up. But there’s something far more ominous here. I would say that I did not see normal mortals at Ramnathi. Instead, they all seemed to me to be malleable clay there to be shaped according to some grand design.

    One of the biggest hurdles in convicting members of the Sanatan Sanstha or its front Hindu Jagriti Samiti is should the law enforcement punish the organisation, or the individuals who are a part of the organisation? Can the outfit – the Sanatan Sanstha – as a whole be implicated in what all evidence points to without any proper organisational structure in the first place? The SIT investigating the various murders and the courts seem to still be figuring that out.

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What is Sanatan Sanstha?

Founded in 1990 by Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale and Bhaktaraj Maharaj, Sanatan Sanstha is a non-profit trust registered as a ‘charitable organisation’. On its very perplexing website, it declares its aims to “present spirituality in a scientific language to those curious about spirituality and to guide seekers” and “to inculcate religious behaviour in the masses”.

The motto of the organisation is the “reinstatement of the Divine Kingdom” as in the time of Lord Ram or a “Dharmadhisthit Hindu Rasthra”.

Other gems from its website, which do more to obfuscate its true aim than reveal, the fringe right-wing group aims to “provide education in dharma in scientific technology for the benefit of Hindus.” Elsewhere it says it seeks to establish the divine kingdom in India by 2023. According to its print daily, Sanatan Prabhat, the intervening years will be a time of psychological and physical battles against ‘evil forces’ that will prepare people for the advent of the holy kingdom.

When asked to define the evil forces, Sanatan Sanstha’s spokesperson explained to LA Times that these were people who develop “increased egos and personality defects and can't lead a normal life.” But the (heated) rhetoric is more often than not about how even as a nation of Hindus in majority, Hindu Gods are being insulted, western way of life is taking the place of our traditions and the sattvik Hindu way of life is under threat by non-Hindus and secularists who deny that India is first and foremost a Hindu Rashtra.

Sanatan's official text says, “violence against evil is not violence” and the outfit claims only to teach self-defense, but not the use of dangerous weapons. However, for instance, in 2008, a Sanatan worker informed the police of a meeting where an explosives demonstration was going to be held.

The Sanatan Sanstha has continuously denied all allegations, and insist they’re a straightforward place for spirituality and science.

For instance, the Sanatan Sanstha is headquartered in Ramnathi in north Goa since March 1999 and its sprawling ashram hosts several thousand people at once, including celebrities and politicians. Other ashrams, like those in Panvel and Miraj in Maharashtra, are registered as separate trusts, as are organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Dharamashakti Sena.

Who runs the show inside today, no one knows, as a reticent Athavale lives out his late seventies and stopped making public appearances since 2004.

Who was Athalve?

Athavale was a consultant clinical hypnotherapist first in Mumbai and then in the UK for almost two decades, when he realised that his success rate of treatment was only 70%. A steady margin of patients would not recover through his usual treatments, but seemed suddenly cured after having gone on a pilgrimage or having followed the advice of a saint.

Despite being an atheist up until this point, Athavale was intrigued by this trend and decided to spend his time studying the reason behind this spiritual healing. And thus, the Sanatan Sanstha was born. Almost 30 years later, the outfit has become one of the most controversial, hardline Hindutva groups in the country.

What are the 'Scientific' Teachings of the Sanstha?

Sanatan Sanstha’s website discusses an odd mixture of issues, all with the goal of rekindling dharma within our society. But the bulk of it seems to be random instructions on how to live, bathe, pray and even urinate in a ‘spiritually scientific’ way.

The crux of their theories is this: The universe is made up of three particles or the triguna: The sattva, raja, and tama. The sattvik man leads an honest life with no expectations of a reward. The rajasik man lives only for his own gain, while an tamasik man will push other people down to rise up himself. The goal, according to the Sanstha, is to minimise our exposure to raja-tama waves and lead as much of our lives with good sattvik energy as we can.

How does one do that? They’ll tell you exactly that.

Wedding cards are sattvik when they’re cheap and printed in our mother tongues with pictures of deities. Marriages performed as per Hindu traditions are more sattvik than registered marriages.

Covering your head while urinating or defecating is crucial because apparently it is imperative to shield one’s Brahma chamber (opening in the spiritual energy system) from the raja-tama waves around the bathroom.

Stressing on the science of it all, the Sanstha goes on to quote an unnamed French scientist who allegedly discovered the that “Hindu” way of urinating or defecating – that is, crouching – is the sattvik way to do this because standing and peeing increased one’s chances of coming in contact with the dreaded raja-tama waves. Sorry, boys.

The Sanatan Sanstha: Of Spirituality and Pseudo-Science
(Screenshot from Sanatan Sanstha’s website)
The unnamed white male scientist “said” on the issue, as reported diligently (and without any source) on the website: “Urinating in the standing posture causes urine droplets to fall on the feet and scatter on the floor as well. The genitals should be washed after urinating. If not washed, subtle crystals of urine will form after drying of the urine and will be responsible for diseases.”

It is bad for men to grow their hair, because of raja-tama, but it is the opposite for an ascetic. Why? Because ascetics emit enough radiant waves to form a “spherical sheath of radiant waves in the environment”, thus “denoting a reduction in body awareness”.

Women also have a natural “protective sheath”, which is why they can have long hair and look “more humble” and “polite”.

Also, it’s acceptable for Sikhs to have long hair: The hair, along with the raja waves, help create a “kshatravrutti (combating attitude)” and a “warrior community”, the original goal of the Sikhs.

Their website also has a few general rules for an ideal life. “One who aspires to live long should not climb on the back of a cow or a bull, should not allow the smoke from a funeral pyre to touch his body, should not sit on the bank of a river (other than the Ganga) at dusk, should not allow the rays of the rising sun to touch his body and should not sleep during the day.” There’s more about how and where you should bathe, what men and women should wear on their weddings — the verging-on-absurd list goes on. 

Rana Ayyub, an investigative reporter, encountered a surreal site on her visit to the Sanatan Sanstha’s sprawling headquarters in Goa in 2009. Writing for The Hindu, she says:

“On display in the complex are burnt and stained clothes (results of spiritual magic by the gurus, we are told), placards exhorting Hindus to fight their enemies and a painting that has an image of India surrounded by four villains — including ‘people who oppose black magic’ and Mayawati’s BSP, an anti-Hindu party for the Sanstha.”

She further writes: “As I walk on, I bump into a worker who has laminated pieces of paper stuck over the upper half of his body, including the forehead, nape and back. The pieces of paper have mantras inscribed on them. Asked what it’s all about, the worker – or sevak as he calls himself – says it’s like an amulet to ward off evil powers.”

What is the Sanstha's History of Violence?

Over the years, the Sanatan Sanstha has come to be known more for its entanglements in bomb blasts and murder cases than its contribution towards scientific spirituality.

In 2011, Ramesh Hanumant Gadkari and Vikram Vinay Bhave, both alleged members of the Sanstha, were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment in connection to bomb blasts at a Panvel cinema screening Jodhaa Akbar and another at a Thane auditorium staging the Marathi play Aamhi Pachpute, which allegedly showed Hindu Gods and Goddesses in poor light. Additionally, low-intensity explosives were recovered pre-blast from a Vashi auditorium that was also staging the same play.

The duo was released on bail two years later. The appeals against this are still pending in court. This was when the base of the Sanstha’s operations was Mumbai; soon after the outfit shifted to Goa, and the blasts followed.

In 2009, the Sanstha’s members, Vinayak Talekar, Vinayak Ashtekar, Dilip Mangainkar, Dhananjay Ashtekar, Prashant Juvekar and Vinay Patil were arrested for being responsible for bomb blasts in Goa’s Margao on 16 October 2009. The IED detonated prematurely, killing two persons (also Sanstha members), Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik, who were ferrying the explosive. In December 2013, the six accused were acquitted by a special court for the lack of evidence.

The NIA received a major setback as a special court at Mapusa, Goa, acquitted all the six Sanatan Sanstha members in December 2013.
The NIA received a major setback as a special court at Mapusa, Goa, acquitted all the six Sanatan Sanstha members in December 2013.
(Photo: PTI) 

An appeal was filed against this acquittal in the Bombay High Court in 2014. The case was admitted but no hearing has taken place in the case except one when the court issued notices to concerned parties.

In December 2011, social activists from Raigad filed a PIL against the Sanstha, accusing it of indulging in terrorist activities and practicing Ericksonian Hypnosis to induct people into the ‘cult’ and execute orders given to them by a hypnotist. The court dismissed the PIL, again on the lack of evidence to support the claim.

What is Eriksonian Hypnosis?
It is a method of indirect hypnosis named after Dr Milton Erickson, who is widely regarded as the “father of hypnotherapy”. This style of hypnosis uses indirect cues such as metaphors, contradictions, symbols, and antidotes to influence people’s behavior and introduce a trance-like state, rather than direct orders.

Have any Sanstha Members Been Accused of Murder?

In 2013, the Sanstha came into the limelight in the worst way, when they were linked to the assassination of rationalist and author Dr Narendra Dhabolkar, who was a Gandhian crusader against superstition.

Days after the murder of Dabholkar, the Sanatan Prabhat (the Sanstha’s daily) published, “Everybody gets the fruit of his karma. Instead of dying of illness in a bedridden state or dying a painful death after an operation, the death Dabholkar met with was a grace of God.”

In 2015, two more high-profile murders took place: one of communist leader Govind Pansare and the other of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi.

Indian authorities in June 2016 arrested Sameer Gaikwad, a Sanatan member since 1998, in connection with the 2013 assassination of activist Narendra Dabholkar based on CCTV footgae. In September, another Sanatan member was arrested for the 2015 killing of Pansare and the search for one Ravindra Patil, also from the Sanstha, who is wanted by the National Investigation Agency in the 2009 case bomb blasts, is on till today.

The Central Bureau of Investigation has said the weapons used in the cases of Dhabolkar and Pansare killings matched those used in the 2015 deadly attack against Kalburgi. In all three slayings, the killers accosted their victims on motorbikes, killed them, and left.

Just last year, journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered at her doorstep, and the current SIT probe is looking at five members of Sanatan Sanstha as the suspects, two of whom have also been named in the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi. The gun used to shoot her was also the same as the other three people who dared to oppose the Sanstha.

The four rationalists, anti-superstition activists allegedly murdered by the Sanatan Sanstha. 
The four rationalists, anti-superstition activists allegedly murdered by the Sanatan Sanstha. 
(Photo: Twitter/PTI)
All the victims had come into conflict with orthodox Hindus. Dabholkar, had led a campaign in Maharashtra to pass an anti-superstition bill aimed at reducing the influence of gurus and so-called godmen. Pansare wrote a biography of Shivaji, that emphasized his secularism. Kalburgi spoke out against religious superstition and blind faith before being shot in September at his home in Karnataka state. Gauri Lankesh also received several threats; she was a journalist-activist who spoke against extreme right-wing Hindu terrorism.

Investigators say they found incriminating emails on a laptop belonging to one of the suspects, Virendra Tawde, the alleged mastermind of the Dabholkar assassination.

CBI officials said the emails suggest that Sanatan was attempting to organise an army of 15,000 people against “anti-Hindu forces.” One former Sanatan member has told the CBI and investigators from Maharashtra's state police that Tawde approached him asking for two revolvers and had dispatched men to track Dabholkar and Pansare.

The day after Dabholkar was shot, Sanatan Sanstha's newsletter ran a front-page statement saying that his death was a blessing. Pansare later received an anonymous letter that read, "You will meet Dabholkar's fate."

This is all a conspiracy. None of the cases against us have been proven and false allegations are made against us. We practise spirituality and nothing else.
Abhay Vartak, Sanatan Sanstha speaking to One India

What is the Politics around the Sanstha?

After the 2008 bomb blasts around Mumbai, when the time came to shift the Sanstha’s base outside Maharashtra, Ramnathi in Goa seemed like a natural choice, given how the area is home to some of the biggest and best known temples in the state.

It is also the political base of the controversial Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s (MGP) politicians Sudin and Deepak Dhavlikar. They are the biggest benefactors of the outfit in Goa; in fact, both the brothers’ wives, Jyoti and Lata, are sadhaks at the Sanstha, something they talk about openly.

Deepak Dhavilkar is a two-term MLA in Goa’s state Assembly and the President of the MGP. Sudin Dhavlikar currently serves as a minister in the BJP-led government with the portfolios of PWD and transport, among others.

But shouldn’t the presence of two Goa ministers attending prayer functions in the Sanatan ashram – the premises of an organisation linked to the murders of at least three people – raise questions in Goa?

In 2012, after the BJP won a majority on its own in Goa in the elections, the Sanatan Sanstha and its offshoot/front, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), put together the first All Indian Hindu Convention “for establishment of Hindu Rashtra”. The convention took place in Ramnathi in June that year.

The second Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Adhiveshan in June 2013 saw Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat’s chief minister, sending a message to the audience with the organisers. The event is still held every year.

Though at various points, several other political parties have spoken against the Sanstha: The Congress, AAP, CPI and CPI (M) and NCP have asked for a ban on the organisation due to their involvement in terror activities on more than one occasion. Even Maharashtra’s CM Devendra Fadnavis has stated that he would not hesitate to ban Sanatan Sanstha if any evidence was found against the organisation.

While the Congress was in power, then Home Minister P Chidambaram turned down the suggestion by the Maharashtra State government because “none of the three [state governments] have addressed the real issue and they may be asked to indicate whether the organisation be banned or members of the organisation be prohibited from undertaking any activity under section 153 (b) IPC [imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration].”

Narendra Modi’s message to the Second All India Hindu Convention, 2013.
Narendra Modi’s message to the Second All India Hindu Convention, 2013.

In September 2015, one Goa BJP MLA, Vishnu Wagh, demanded that Sanatan Sanstha be banned for its involvement in the Pansare and Karburgi murders. However, Chief Minister of Goa, Laxmikant Parsekar – also from the BJP – dismissed any possibility of it.

However, between the soft political patronage given to it by Goa’s politicians and the subtle endorsement by the Prime Minister himself, the Sanatan Sanstha has continued to expand to several states across India and publish lakhs of copies of propaganda material for making India a Hindu Rashtra, successfully evading arrest and prohibition.

Is it an Organisation or a Cult? How do You Become a Member?

Almost two decades after the Sanatan Sanstha moved its base to Goa – it was registered in the state in March 1999 – very little is known of organisational structure of the Sanatan Sanstha’s ‘ashram’ in Ramnathi, or how it runs. The founder, Jayant Balaji Athawale, has become a recluse now at 75+ years of age, and has has not made a public appearance at the ashram since 2004. Very little is known about who calls the shots inside now, with the common understanding being that it is a shared responsibility among all trustees.

So who’s running the show? And how do you get in and become a member? The website of the Sanatan lists several volunteering opportunities, but how do you become a ‘seeker’ as they call it, a member of the inner group? Unfortunately, there is no precise information since not even the locals in the area around the ashram are allowed: only members of the Sanatan can enter the premises.

There also exist reports and case studies which suggest that the Sanatan Sanstha may in fact just be a cult made of people whose minds are controlled by Athavale by using Eriksonian Hypnosis, a method of indirect hypnosis which directs the subconscious mind.

A PIL filed in the Bombay High Court in 2011 asked for a ban on the organisation for its use of hypnosis to lure the petitioners’ wives, sons, daughters and other kin to suddenly leave their home to join the organisation. The petitioners claim that the Sanstha uses the “principles of Ericksonian hypnosis”. By this “technique”, the petition reads, “individual members... as well as masses in the society can be hypnotised” and “any person under the impression of this technique loses his prudent wisdom and work(s) only according to the direction of hypnotist.... As a result of practising this system, it is very easy to plan and commit... destructive activity.”

In February 2017, the Centre filed a reply to the court saying there is not enough material evidence to ban the organisation. However, in September 2016, during the investigation of the murder of rationalist Govind Pansare, the police allegedly found a huge stock of narcotic drugs inside the ashram, which are used for hypnosis in order to influence minds. The people in the ashram told police that the drugs were bought after being prescribed by a doctor!

Did You Know? 
In 2008, villagers around Ramnathi woke up to a strange smell coming from their fields while it was raining. As the water receded, it left behind over 2,000 used condoms. When the police enquired into the incident, it came to light that the Sanatan Sanstha had ordered approximately 3,000 condoms from the Goa government and one thousand of them were rotting in the locals’ rice fields. Since that year, rumours of the Sanstha being a sex cult have been rife!

In 2010, activist Suresh Khairnar visited the headquarters of the Sanatan only to have his worst fears come true, as documented in Sabrang India, a news platform edited by journalists Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad to combat religious intolerance and communal violence. This is what Khairnar had to say:

Based on my understanding of what fascism is, I have not the least doubt that this is a fascist outfit. The mind control at work, the trance-like state of the people I saw or met in Goa, the body language, the look in their eyes, their highly charged state, all these remind me of Hitler’s SS at work in Germany. I have met people from many Hindu and Muslim communal organisations; the youth always seem so charged up. But there’s something far more ominous here. I would say that I did not see normal mortals at Ramnathi. Instead, they all seemed to me to be malleable clay there to be shaped according to some grand design.

One of the biggest hurdles in convicting members of the Sanatan Sanstha or its front Hindu Jagriti Samiti is should the law enforcement punish the organisation, or the individuals who are a part of the organisation? Can the outfit – the Sanatan Sanstha – as a whole be implicated in what all evidence points to without any proper organisational structure in the first place? The SIT investigating the various murders and the courts seem to still be figuring that out.

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