BANGALORE - Spirituality has never had it
With the economy booming, an
increasing number of Indians are turning to
spirituality to help them cope with pressures
generated by their materialistic lifestyles.
Catering to a huge and growing
international market for instant relief from
stress and alienation, India's gurus and godmen
are smartly packaging spirituality and selling it
in ways that are in tune with thinking in today's
globalized India. Many have successfully built
multi-billion dollar empires, confirming that in
India today the spirituality business is a booming
At the Art of Living (AOL)
Foundation's international headquarters in
Bangalore, overworked information technology
spend weekends learning the
sudarshan kriya, a rhythmic breathing
technique that the foundation's website claims
"facilitates physical, mental, emotional, and
including Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle hire
AOL's teachers to run workshops to ensure that
stress does not wreck their employees'
Besides AOL, Prasanna Trust,
Isha Foundation and Dhyana Foundation have entered
the highly competitive but lucrative business of
boosting the spiritual quotient of employees,
helping them with "inner engineering" or improving
their "wellness". Heading these organizations are
India's new age gurus.
between these gurus and those of the past is
India's spiritual teachers of the
past were known for their Spartan lifestyle. They
renounced all material comforts, even kingdoms -
as did the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha -
and spent long periods in solitude to meditate and
contemplate the big questions of life and death.
They were reclusive, as was Ramana Maharishi. They
did not seek crowds, the media or publicity. They
owned nothing. Yogis (those who practiced yoga),
in particular, led austere lives, subjecting their
bodies to incredible hardship and discipline.
Compare this with the publicity and
power-seeking godmen of today, who in the name of
raising money for social causes have built huge
empires that would rival even giant business
corporations. These gurus come alive under arc
lights, surround themselves with the rich, the
beautiful and the powerful, and travel in fancy
cars and private jets. Acharya Rajneesh, aka Osho,
was known to have a huge Rolls Royce collection.
In an era of economic globalization, gurus
and godmen have restructured their messages to
suit their clientele's preoccupations. They do not
urge their followers to free themselves of greed.
Rather the guru in the age of globalization helps
his followers recharge their entrepreneurial
energies so that they can acquire more wealth.
Today's yogis and gurus are wealthy men
and women. Take India's leading yoga guru, Baba
Ramdev, who is currently in the news for his
anti-corruption crusade. Ramdev presides over a
mammoth business empire, estimated to be worth
US$245 million - he recently declared his assets
but only partially, excluding the roughly 30
companies that are run by his trusts. That
includes spas, yoga centers, an ayurvedic
pharmaceutical company and pharmacies. In his
hands, yoga and ayurveda have become money
Ramdev isn't the only guru to
tap into the immense business potential of India's
ancient wisdom. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose
following included the Beatles and 5 million
others, taught Transcendental Meditation (TM) to
the West and built a global network.
Simultaneously, he built an empire that included
real-estate holdings and for-profit organizations
worth billions of dollars. Satya Sai Baba, who
died recently at Puttaparthi in southern India,
created a charitable trust with assets of around
US$8.8 billion, according to conservative
Every brand needs its USP
(unique selling proposition) to be noticed in the
market place. And in the crowded spiritual
marketplace, these gurus have developed their own
USPs to set them apart from the rest, be it a
breathing technique or a healing chant.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the AOL
has made a niche for himself in the spirituality
bazaar with his sudarshan kriya, Mata
Amritanandamayi, who is "amma" or mother to
her followers, has captured the world's attention
with her hugs. Sai Baba is reported to have
performed "miracles"; he produced watches,
necklaces, rings and sacred ash seemingly out of
That some of these gurus do have
wisdom and skills to share and teach is without
doubt. Few can match Ramdev's obvious skills in
yoga. Shankar's sudarshan kriya is reported
to have calmed many a stressed individual.
What is distasteful to many is their
amassing of wealth, lavish lifestyles, soft spots
for Westerners and pursuit of political power.
Most of the high-profile gurus wield enormous
power over politicians and have close links with
parties, especially the Hindu right wing.
In the past ashrams (hermitages)
offered pilgrims a place to stay for free. Only
the super-rich can afford the ashrams run
by the new age gurus. In several ashrams it
is not uncommon to find separate accommodation and
dining rooms for Westerners and Indians.
Worse, several ashrams - even the
not so fancy ones frequented by backpackers - are
out of bounds for Indians. Some Western
spirituality seekers, keen to soak to themselves
in Indian culture, seem keen to keep their
distance from its people, a demand that gurus have
no problem meeting.
It is hard to miss the
striking similarities between business
corporations and the new age gurus. Both adopt
tactics to weaken competition. Ramdev campaigns
vigorously against use of foreign brands and
advocates use of "swadeshi" (made in India)
goods. "Except for aeroplanes," Ramdev uses only
"100% swadeshi products", says a booklet
brought out by his trust, calling on his followers
to use only swadeshi commodities.
"Even in swadeshi, first prefer
products of rural domestic industries over other
domestic industries ... [And] even in domestic
products, preference has to be given to
ashram-made [those made by Ramdev's trust]
products as it gives the best available
ingredients and medicines ... and at minimum
prices," the booklet says, raising questions
whether his so-called "nationalist" demand to
boycott foreign goods is really about promoting
sales of his own produce.
have justified their asset-building activities.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for instance is reported to
have said that he would not have been able to
build an international transcendental network if
he hadn't charged his followers fees and attracted
donations of land and money. Sai Baba's miracles
were controversial no doubt but it created an aura
around him, drawing people to listen to his
message and pushing them to donate to his
And Sai Baba did engage
in extensive philanthropic work. He set up scores
of hospitals and clinics that provided medical
treatment of the highest quality, where the poor
could access treatment for free. The educational
institutions run by his trust are among the best
in India. His drinking water projects slaked the
thirst of millions.
Critics of the new age
gurus say that they are making knowledge that
belongs to all accessible only to those who can
pay. If these gurus are indeed good men who want
to spread happiness and peace, why can't they do
it for free? Why can't they work among India's
The content of their teachings is
not their own discovery. It is wisdom passed down
through the ages that they are regurgitating in
some cases, and giving a new spin in others. What
gives them the right then to patent techniques?
AOL maintains that the sudarshan
kriya was "developed" by Shankar. Its critics
point out that what AOL teaches is old Vedic wine
in a new bottle.
Those who undergo
training in sudarshan kriya are expected to
sign non-disclosure agreements. They undertake not
to teach the breathing technique to others without
"personal training from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and
the Art of Living Foundation".
triggered criticism of AOL's multinational
Critics of the
new age gurus say that selling spirituality is
completely distasteful. Indeed, a true teacher
after all wouldn't sell knowledge that wasn't his
in the first place. He would share it.
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at[email protected]
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