In fairness to Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, he does not look at all excited about the ceremony he presided over on January 12, for which he’s since been roundly derided. On YouTube you can see he’s wearing sneakers with his rumpled suit and a blank expression of boredom. Clearly he’s not seeing this as a great moment in his city’s history, such as the opening of the nation’s first successful plastics factory, in 1872, or the births of Philip Roth and Frankie Valli.
While the featured speaker, a slender woman draped in the sort of saffron robes favored by Hindu monks, burbles on about the karmic serendipity that has brought the gritty New Jersey metropolis together with her exotic-sounding homeland of Kailasa as “sister cities,” Baraka scrolls and taps assiduously on his cell phone.
His disengagement is perhaps unsurprising when you realize Newark is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of sister cities, with 23 prior entries on its dance card. Nevertheless, seeing the cell phone right there in his hands and knowing what we now know, it’s hard to resist saying, “For the love of God, Mr. Mayor, google friggin’ ‘Kailasa’!”
Fake countries come and go, but they always seem to leave us laughing, or at least smiling at the human impulses that brought them about. The Marx Brothers’ Freedonia, Jonathan Swift’s Laputa, and C. S. Lewis’s Narnia are fictitious cases in point, but greed, libertarianism, and pure whimsy have also produced plenty of real-life examples.
In 1821 the Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor decided to call a stretch of swampland on the Mosquito Coast the “Territory of Poyais.” Declaring himself “cazique,” or supreme ruler, he traveled to Britain, where he wowed the populace with his D.I.Y. royal finery and snookered the London Stock Exchange out of approximately $1 million in development funds.
In 1948, Russell Arundel, the president of Pepsi-Cola, founded the Principality of Outer Baldonia on a rocky, 40-acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia. He declared that all its citizens had the inalienable right to swear, drink, gamble, and lie about the size of the fish they caught. The Soviet Union, seizing upon any sign of Western dissolution, condemned Arundel for “turning his subjects into savages,” but, otherwise, hilarity ensued.
Kailasa, too, quickly became comedy gold. It had a flag and an anthem, and a founding father in the person of an ever smiling, 45-year-old Indian swami who called himself Nithyananda Paramahamsa. But while Kailasa would sell you commemorative coins and issue you an e-passport, it lacked certain typical characteristics of actual countries, such as citizens and land.
“How can an entire city get catfished?” asked Kal Penn, sitting in as host of The Daily Show, when the scamming of Newark was reported, in early March. “Not a single person realized they never heard of this country before? Not on a globe? Not at the Olympics? Not as a stage in Street Fighter? If you can’t find it as a cuisine on Grubhub, it’s not a real country!”
While Kailasa would sell you commemorative coins and issue you an e-passport, it lacked certain typical characteristics of actual countries, such as citizens and land.
The city of Newark expressed regret and voided its sibling connection to Kailasa, but conservative media outlets couldn’t resist bashing the Black mayor of a blue city for what they suggested was a farcical level of wokeness. “Send them a nice e-mail from a Hindu city and they’ll name a street after you!” said Fox News’s Jesse Watters. To the right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, the incident proved that “Newark is the armpit of civilization.” But if that’s the case then the world has more arms than Shiva.
By the time the Kailasa Express pulled into Newark, Nithyananda and his crew had convinced some 30 American cities (including Richmond, Virginia; Dayton, Ohio; and Texarkana, Texas) and two members of Congress (Democrat Norma Torres, of California, and Republican Troy Balderson, of Ohio), as well as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, to issue various proclamations of cultural solidarity with a country that didn’t exist. And they’d done it all just by asking nicely, or filling out a form on the pertinent entity’s Web site requesting a proclamation.
In February, Kailasa also visited the United Nations in Geneva, presumably in an attempt to gain recognition from that ultimate designator of statehood. The same saffron-robed woman who showed up in Newark—seemingly the leader of Nithyananda’s team of roving ambassadors—spoke at two U.N.-sponsored meetings that were open to the public. However, a representative for the United Nations said that the statements she volunteered were “tangential” and “irrelevant” to the subjects under discussion—women’s rights and sustainable development—and should be summarily disregarded.
Humor can be cathartic, and an earnest acolyte in traditional dress speaking nonsense about serious and daunting issues sounds deliciously like a Gilda Radner sketch from the golden age of Saturday Night Live—just what we all need after another hard day of depressing headlines. Are our political leaders being played—and the rest of us deliberately entertained—by a master satirist in guru’s clothing?
“I have always thought Nithyananda a comic figure whose charm derives from his amusing personality,” Faisal Devji, a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford, tells me. The problem is that the deeper you dive into the swami’s career, the more you see his resemblance to a certain American cult leader who wears his saffron in his hair, and is as funny as a crutch.
Nithyananda is like Trump in two key ways: Since his early days as a kind of teen-idol mystic who claimed with a giggle that he could stop the sunrise and make cows speak Sanskrit, he has hardened into a self-styled “supreme pontiff” of Hinduism who warns his followers that only he represents true Hinduism and can lead them to enlightenment. It also seems that, like Trump, he’s trying to transform himself into a head of state as a way of staying out of prison.
No mystery surrounds Nithyananda’s absence from the ceremonies and forums in which he contrives to have Kailasa participate. Ever since a tape of him cavorting in bed with a Tamil actress surfaced, in 2010, he has been caught up in a series of scandals that, as news agencies throughout the subcontinent have noted, are all too common with minor-league Indian “godmen.”
There have been accusations that children were taken to Nithyananda’s ashram in Ahmedabad against their will; several former followers of Nithyananda, both men and women, claimed to have been sexually abused by the swami; and an American woman who lived at the compound has pressed rape charges against him through Indian and U.S. courts. Interpol has in theory been pursuing him for the last couple of years, for kidnapping and rape, but, even though he still live-streams on Facebook, where he has more than one million followers, the authorities don’t know where he is.
The deeper you dive into the swami’s career, the more you see his resemblance to a certain American cult leader who wears his saffron in his hair, and is as funny as a crutch.
The answer can’t be Kailasa, because, while he for a time hinted that the country was a physical place, guessed to be an island off Ecuador with, he said, snow-covered mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, Kailasa’s Web site now says it is a “great cosmic borderless Hindu nation” that operates through “a group of NGOs in multiple countries across the world.” In other words, it’s more of a notion than a nation.
Nithyananda’s base remains faithful and ever ready to viciously counterattack his accusers and critics on social media, even though the only miracle he has performed to date is never running out of civic leaders who can be suckered into one form of endorsement or another. And yet he may have finally overplayed his hand.
No one paid much attention when Nithyananda forged official friendships with Issaquah, Washington; Brownstown Charter Township, Michigan; or even Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and so he was able to keep going with his campaign and keep building a case for legitimacy and possible diplomatic immunity from prosecution. But his initial success in Newark and the attention it gained on Fox News and in the New York–area media may have forced him to rethink his tactics, if not abandon his promotional campaign entirely.
It’s hard to imagine any mayor, governor, or prime minister for whom the debacle won’t ring a bell now, and for at least the foreseeable future. The press secretary for Kailasa did not respond to Air Mail’s question about whether the country would continue reaching out to civic entities, but it doesn’t appear to have forged any new relationships in several months. By being the biggest link in the swami’s chain of fools, Ras Baraka may have presided over a historic moment after all.
Charles Leerhsen is a former executive editor for Sports Illustrated and the author of several books, including Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. His latest book, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, was published last year by Simon & Schuster