The self-immolation of three devotees of Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj in the Chowli Math near Bidar on Monday raises several questions about religious institutions like maths that are worlds unto themselves, with little accountability to any overarching authority.

Jagannath Swami (30) of Nagur in Andhra Pradesh, Eera Reddy Swami (45) of Manur in Andhra Pradesh, and Pranav Swami (16) of Chowli village, immolated themselves on the math premises on Monday. While Jagannath Swami was staying in the math for over 15 years, Eera Reddy Swami was there for nearly seven years, and Pranav Swami had left home two years ago to stay with Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj.

The incident comes five weeks after what appeared to be suicide of Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot Maharaj, the reclusive seer who founded the math. He also had left a suicide note. While the police suspect that he had consumed poison, the devotees did not file any complaint. His body was buried without a post-mortem.

“Some inmates told us that Ganeshwar Avadhoot had spoken about mass suicide along with his followers,” said a police officer investigating the case.

Parallels drawn

Psychologists say parallels can be drawn between this incident and the cult suicides of the People’s Temple and Heavens Gate in the U.S. “Like physical ailments, depression is transmitted among members of groups. They spread faster in cult groups that share the same ideology or consider the same person as their spiritual leader,” said Triveni Ananthram, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Karnataka University, Dharwad. “While the general feeling of sadness after the departure of the senior seer might have been common among the group, the intense feelings of suicide can be spread among small groups,” Prof. Ananthram said.

The math attracted a large number of devotees from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. But its inmates remained reclusive and its activities were shrouded in mystery to outsiders, including residents of Chowli village.

“We seldom saw the seer coming out of his room. He used to deliver weekly discourses. But that had stopped a few years back,” said Basavaraj Channappa, a resident of Chowli.

The math was started by Shiva Kumar, a young man from Gugwad in Sangli district bordering Athani in Karnataka. He was brought to Chowli by Sangayya Swamy a police officer in 1989 or 90. Sangayya Swami was murdered in the early 90s, though the police say it was not related to the affairs of the math.

Sri Ganeshwar Avadhoot, as he began to be called in Chowli, set up a small math on a piece of farmland donated by Omkarappa, a village resident. Locals called the seer Chowli Mutya. He was a Marathi-speaking Lingayat, but did not run the math on Basaveshwara’s ideals. It has no idols of Basaveshwara or other Sharanas. Instead, there are over 100 statues and idols of Chowli Mutya. One of the statues is over 40ft high.

The math’s finances and influence expanded in the last decade. Land prices in Chowli shot up after 2007 when the outer ring road of Bidar passed through the village. The math’s expansion plans suffered as land prices soared and Chowli farmers refused to part with their land. This had led to a few disputes too.Some devotees lodged cases against land owners of Chowli village. For instance, devotees pressured the police to arrest a person called Basavarajappa and a few others for the alleged kidnapping of Maruti Swamy, a devotee who went missing on January 31, said Pandhari Nath, a resident of Chowli. The math has 16 branches spread across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and each branch is independent in its own right. “People who are complaining of police failure should realise that the devotees did not allow the police to investigate the earlier cases properly,” said a police officer.