Dehri, India., Nov. 26 - Madan and Murti Simaru were desperate for a son. So when nature failed to provide them one, the impoverished field hand and his wife did what many Indians do in times of need: They went to see a tantrik, practitioner of an ancient spiritual art - tantrism - that aims to harness supernatural powers for the resolution of worldly ills.
The outcome could hardly have been more shocking.
Acting on the instructions of the tantrik, the couple arranged for the kidnapping last month of a 6-year-old neighbor and then - as the tantrik led them in chanting mantras - mutilated and killed the child, Monu Kumar, on the bank of an irrigation canal, according to a police report. Murti Simaru allegedly completed the fertility ritual by washing herself in the child's blood.
"I was never expecting such a heinous crime against any child," said Narendra Kumar, the victim's 22-year-old father, who cultivates wheat and sugar cane near this quiet village roughly 100 miles north of New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. "This is not a matter of Monu only. These tantrik practices must be stopped."
Local authorities seem to agree. After a rash of similar killings in the area - according to an unofficial tally in the English-language Hindustan Times, there have been 25 human sacrifices in western Uttar Pradesh in the last six months alone - police have cracked down against tantriks, jailing four and forcing scores of others to close their businesses and pull their ads from local newspapers and television stations.
The killings and the stern official response have focused renewed attention on tantrism, an amalgam of mystical practices that grew out of Hinduism. But tantrism also has adherents among Buddhists and Muslims and, increasingly, in the West, where it is usually associated with techniques for prolonging sex. Often likened by its critics to witchcraft, tantrism has millions of followers across India, where it is thought to have originated between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D.
"This is a problem you can identify somehow with the Indian psyche," said Police Superintendent Sunil Kumar Gupta, who launched the crackdown in the state's Saharanpur district. "Let's hope that now we will have a national focus on this and let's hope in due course this will go out of society."
For all its association with black magic, tantrism has many benign forms and is practiced across a broad spectrum of Indian society. Billboards in the capital carry advertisements for tantriks, who often charge handsome fees for their services. Some tantriks enjoy near-celebrity status in India, hosting seminars at five-star hotels and hobnobbing with politicians and film stars.
Tantriks caught up in the crackdown in Uttar Pradesh say their reputation has been imperiled by the disreputable actions of a few. "Tantrism has nothing to do with human sacrifices," said Mohammed Nafees Malik, 24, a Muslim tantrik who was forced to close his practice in Saharanpur after the latest killing here.
If killing is necessary, he explained, "you can offer any animal like a goat or a cock. Sacrifice is very common in cases where someone is possessed by supernatural ghosts or witches."
Malik, a diminutive, lightly bearded man who wears Western clothes and studied tantrism for three years under a guru in Bombay, hastened to add that he does not perform animal sacrifices. He prefers to treat his client's problems with tiny Koranic inscriptions contained in a metal capsule called a taveez, which is then strapped to the arm or worn around the neck.
"People who are suffering from diseases, family problems, business problems, they come to us and we provide them relief," said Malik, who used to charge 51 rupees - slightly more than $1 - for each office visit.
Perhaps the biggest danger posed by tantrism stems from the difficulty of defining it. "No one really knows what it is," said Sudhir Kakkar, a psychoanalyst and author who has written widely on Indian mysticism.
Some tantriks, for example, believe that the path to salvation lies in shattering taboos - involving sex, diet and other forms of behavior - in order to "uncondition yourself from all the conditioning you have had," Kakkar said. Followers of one tantrik cult near the Hindu holy city of Varanasi are said to eat charred human flesh pilfered from cremation grounds.
Others seek to appease the Hindu goddess Kali, who occupies an especially prominent role in tantrik mythology, through "blood rituals" involving sacrifices of animals and, occasionally, people. In cases involving infertile couples, the idea is that "if you want a child, you sacrifice one to get another life back," Kakkar said. "You give it to the goddess and the goddess gives it back to you."
There are no statistics on sacrificial killings, and Gupta, the police superintendent, described the phenomenon as "very, very rare." At the same time, he said, tantriks have been implicated in at least two killings in his district in the last month, including that of Monu Kumar and a man who was beaten to death by his wife and her lover. Indian press reports have described a number of similar cases, including that of a 2-year-old girl who was kidnapped and killed in the state's Bijnor district on Oct. 18.
While not unheard of in urban areas, such killings most often occur in rural India, where poverty and illiteracy provide fertile breeding grounds for superstition. That appears to have been the case here in Dehri, a warren of narrow lanes and thatched-roof houses - flanked by mango groves and sugar cane fields -- that is home to roughly 2,000 people, most of them casteless "untouchables" at the bottom of India's social hierarchy.
The accused couple, Madan and Murti Simaru, already have a daughter, but - like countless other couples in this male-dominated society - yearned for a son to look after them in old age and carry the family name.
After consulting with the tantrik, Murti Simaru asked her brother, Popin, to bring a child to her, the police report said. Police say Popin did this on the afternoon of Oct. 7, a school holiday, when he allegedly kidnapped 6-year-old Monu - who loved to play cricket and had just entered the first grade, his parents said - as he played in a field on the edge of the village.
The brother was arrested after a witness reported seeing him in the company of the child. He confessed to the killing and described it in a detailed statement to police, who then arrested the Simarus, the tantrik and one other relative, authorities said. All five are awaiting trial in Saharanpur.
Gupta, the police superintendent, said he was doing his best to prevent a recurrence, having arrested four other tantriks on what he smilingly acknowledges is the legally creative charge of "apprehension of breach of peace."
But in the end, he admits, there is only so much the police can do. "The major role has to be played by society itself," he said.