Gurus and Godmen
Ever the mystical East, Asia in the 20th century produced a colorful array of godmen who attracted millions of followers, brought down governments and even had songs written about them by The Beatles. At the nice end of the spectrum are men of god who preach the secular gospel of democracy and human rights, like the Dalai Lama. At the other end are leaders of doomsday cults who sometimes exhorted followers to mass murder--think Japan's Shoko Asahara. In between is a group of more genial gurus, whom rational folks might describe as eccentrics--but whom followers have seen as messiahs.
SATYA SAI BABA
His orange robes and Afro hairstyle make him look like a throwback to the 1960s, but he claims even greater antiquity--as a reincarnation of a Hindu godman from the 19th century. He has a massive following--100 million in 133 countries, his handlers say--and a multimillion-dollar empire of charitable trusts and organizations. Not bad for a 73-year-old whose main claim to fame is an ability--dismissed as simple sleight of hand by professional magicians--to make "holy" ash and assorted baubles materialize in his seemingly empty palm.
REV. SUN MYUNG MOON
At 79, the leader of South Korea's Unification Church is not the messiah he used to be. His business interests have been hit by the recent downturn in the Korean economy. His movement began to lose steam in the mid-'80s, after Moon was jailed briefly in the U.S. for tax fraud. Last year, one of his daughters-in-law wrote a book alleging corruption and abuse within Moon's own True Family. Membership in the church is said to be down from hundreds of thousands in the 1970s to mere thousands. Still, that's enough for an occasional mass wedding, a Unification Church specialty.
NGO VAN CHIEU
At a 1919 seance, this Vietnamese civil servant received a visitation from the Supreme Being. Inspired, Ngo created Cao Dai, which fused elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism and was structured along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church. Later the movement took on an anti-communist hue: at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, much of the Cao Dai leadership was arrested and many priests perished in jail. (Ngo himself died in 1926.) Nonetheless, the church claims to have 2 million followers. Like Ngo, many of them commune with "superior spirits"--Victor Hugo, Shakespeare and Sun Yat-sen among them.
MAHARISHI MAHESH YOGI
The small, bearded Hindu holy man turned The Beatles on to spiritualism in 1967 and made "guru" a household word in the West. The Fab Four quickly tired of him--John Lennon dismissed him as a "lecherous womanizer," and wrote Sexy Sadie in his dishonor--but the resulting publicity did the Maharishi more good than harm. He went on to propagate Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reduction technique that, he claims, can make people levitate. The proceeds from TM schools worldwide are said to run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Now 81, the Maharishi plans to build the world's tallest building somewhere in India. Even godmen, it seems, like to be closer to God.