Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu, 77, has been found guilty of raping a 16-year-old follower in a case that has shocked Asia.

The holy man was arrested in 2013 after a sexual assault complaint was filed against him by the girl’s parents.

But who is Bapu and how influential is he?

The “godman” is a teacher of meditation and yoga who claims to have 40m followers worldwide and 400 ashrams.

He was born Asumal Thaumal Harplani in April 1941 in Bernai, a village in Sindh that was then in British India and is now part of Pakistan. 

The son of a trader in coal and wood, Asaram ran away to join an ashram in Bharuch, Gujurat, aged 15 to escape an arranged marriage to a woman called Laxmi Devi, which ultimately went ahead anyway. 

After reportedly pursuing a number of careers including selling liquor and tea and repairing bicycles, he became involved with spiritualism in the 1960s when the family relocated to Ahmadabad, at which point he adopted his present name.

Bapu founded his first ashram in Motera on the banks of the river Sabarmati in 1972.

In the intervening decades, the guru has amassed a huge following and a considerable property portfolio, an area of interest for Indian police currently investigating him for corruption and forgery.

The endorsement of local politicians was crucial to his early success and even current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi heard his sermons.

He has routinely been a figure of controversy, however.

The deaths of several boys at his residential schools in 2008 led to accusations of black magic being practised there while his comments finding the victim in the 2012 Dehli gang rape case culpable for her assault drew widespread criticism.

He has also previously been accused of raping another woman in Surat between 2002 and 2004, a case also due for trial.

In the present case, for which he has now been convicted, the victim was reportedly sent to Bapu’s ashram by her family for spiritual healing after they believed she was “under the influence of some supernatural ghostly powers”.

Bapu allegedly entered the girl’s room and assaulted her while her parents were chanting prayers outside.

As many as nine witnesses who came forward in relation to the two rape allegations against him have been attacked over the last five years, three of whom subsequently died of their injuries.

Bapu has denied his followers were behind the violence.

Today’s verdict by the court in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, was read out inside a prison because of fears the conviction might lead to rioting by Bapu’s acolytes.

Violence erupted in Haryana state in 2017 following a similar case, when flamboyant guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda cult was found guilty on two counts of sexual assault. Those protests saw 29 people killed and more than 100 more injured.

The highest penalty for rape in India is life imprisonment, with Judge Madhusudhan Sharma set to announce Bapu’s sentence later after hearing from the prosecution and the defendant’s lawyers.

For his part, Bapu continues to deny the charge against him and has the right to appeal to a higher court.

His son, Narayan Sai, is meanwhile currently embroiled in a separate sexual assault case, having also been accused of rape by two sisters.