India is home to thousands of religious gurus, but a controversial new “godman” has been making headlines for the past fortnight.
Supporters of Dhirendra Krishna Shastri, popularly known as Bageshwar Dham Sarkar, claim that he has divine powers and that he can heal the sick, cure people possessed by ghosts and help people tide over business and financial problems.
The 26-year-old chief priest of the Bageshwar Dham temple, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, dresses in colourful clothes, sports hats similar to those worn by 18th-Century Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra, and counts powerful government ministers and politicians among his followers. He has become a TV and social media sensation.
In recent weeks, India’s Hindi-language news channels have devoted hundreds of hours to the guru and his professed powers. And his utterances on controversial topics such as religious conversions and inter-faith marriages are now being reported as “breaking news”.
His social media following has risen rapidly to reach 7.5 million – with 3.4 million followers on Facebook, 3.9 million YouTube subscribers, 300,000 followers on Instagram and 72,000 on Twitter. Some of his most popular videos have been watched between three and 10 million times.
Mr Shastri burst into the national limelight in January, after a well-known rationalist questioned his claims that he had healing powers and could read people’s minds.
Shyam Manav, who runs an anti-superstition movement through his organisation Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, offered to pay 3m rupees ($36,500; £30,000) if Mr Shastri correctly read the minds of 10 people chosen by him.
The challenge was made when Mr Shastri was holding a camp in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra – the state where Mr Manav is based.
When Mr Shastri left the city without taking the challenge, some said he’d run away.
Since then, he’s given a number of TV interviews where he’s denied running away and said that he was willing to take the challenge, but not in Maharashtra. Instead, he proposed the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh, a “neutral” venue.
But Mr Manav says that since he made the claims about his superpowers in Maharashtra, he must prove them there.
Since the controversy began, reports say Mr Manav has received death threats and police have tightened his security. A few days ago, Mr Shastri also filed a complaint with the police saying that he too had received a death threat over the phone.
The controversy and the breathless media coverage – with one mainstream reporter kneeling at his feet and promoting his claims of healing the sick and ability to read people’s minds – have only added to his popularity.
In YouTube videos put out by the Bageshwar Dham temple, he is seen addressing large gatherings attended by thousands of people. At one rally he claims that “there are 400,000 people in attendance”.
On stage and the TV screen he is often very animated – punctuating his sentences with claps, he giggles as if laughing at some private joke. At times he bobs up and down on his seat, points a finger at the camera, mutters to himself and speaks in different voices.
At one gathering, he summons “a man called Mukesh, who is dressed in a vest and is not wearing a shirt” from the crowd.
When such a man appears on the stage, he writes down on a sheet of paper what ails Mukesh and his family without talking to him. Mukesh readily agrees when he hears his troubles read out from this sheet.
At another event, he writes down some mantras for a mother whose child suffers from seizures. “Recite them daily, these will help your son and also take care of your financial hardship,” he tells her.
Such performances have helped Mr Shastri gain a reputation as a “miracle worker”, with his supporters claiming that “he has a third eye, and can peep inside your heart, mind and soul”.
But critics accuse him of practising witchcraft and spreading superstition and doing cheap tricks to impress the gullible masses.
Magicians and mentalists (mind-readers) have come forwards in the past few days to demonstrate that they can pull off similar feats too, saying that it’s just an art and not some divine gift.
“What he’s doing is mentalism. You cannot call it a miracle. It’s an art form, a skill that’s learnt. If anyone tells you that it’s a miracle, then he’s spreading superstition, he’s spreading lies,” Suhani Shah, a mentalist, told a news channel.
Mr Shastri has said he is “being falsely accused of promoting superstition” and that he hasn’t claimed he can solve “every problem”.
Even some prominent Hindu religious leaders have questioned his prowess – one of them said that if Mr Shastri is really able to perform miracles, then he must repair the houses which have developed cracks in the sinking Himalayan town of Joshimath.
Mr Shastri has also been embroiled in political controversies over what appear to be anti-minority statements and calling for India to be made a Hindu rashtra (nation).
He was also accused of practising untouchability last year, after a video went viral that showed him telling a man “don’t touch me… you’re untouchable”.
But he has significant support among many right-wing Hindu leaders, who say he is being picked on for opposing religious conversion of Hindus.
“If anyone speaks against religious conversion… [they] will be falsely accused and attacked. This is the reason behind the attacks against Bageshwar Maharaj. That’s why we’re with him,” Kapil Mishra, a leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted recently.
Mr Shastri often describes himself as a “country bumpkin” and “an illiterate man” and, according to the temple’s official website, he was interested in religion from early childhood and often bunked off school to visit it.
Born in 1996 in a poor Brahmin family in Chhatarpur district’s Gada village, he dropped out after a few years of education to work to supplement the family income.
One of his schoolmates told BBC Hindi that a few years ago, Mr Shastri disappeared for a year. It was after his return that politicians and other influential people started visiting the temple to meet him.
“Until five years ago, he used to travel on motorbikes,” he said.
Today, he travels in a convoy of a dozen cars and flies around, sometimes by private jets, in India and abroad.