NEW DELHI — The conviction of the bling-loving guru of a hugely popular quasi-religious sect on charges of raping two female followers has set off violent riots by followers across much of north India.

More than two dozen people have died. Buses, trains and buildings have been set on fire. Police and TV journalists have been attacked.

For his followers in the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, is the embodiment of God on Earth. It’s not surprising that over a 100,000 trekked from all over India to gather around the courtroom in the northern town of Panchkula where his conviction was announced.

He can summon up several times that number when he appears in a “darshan” or audience once a week at his ashram in Haryana state’s Sirsa town. Followers weep and clap and flatten themselves to the ground at the sight of him. The sect claims as many as 50 million followers.

Like many spiritual leaders who find blind devotion in the still largely conservative nation of 1.3 billion, the 50-year-old guru promotes vegetarianism, campaigns against drug addiction and holds massive blood donation camps.

But the flashy leader – he’s fond of red leather jackets, bejeweled hats, bicep-baring T-shirts – has another love. Cinema.

He has started a film franchise in which he stars as the “Messenger of God,” or MSG, with divine powers to save the world.

Friday’s conviction isn’t his only brush with the law.

He’s facing other criminal investigations as well. There’s an ongoing trial over the murder of a journalist. He is also under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation over allegations of forcing several male followers to undergo castrations to bring them closer to God. He has denied the accusations.

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