Frontline special

Selling spirituality

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Baba Ramdev addressing the annual press conference of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd in New Delhi on May 4. Also in the picture is Acharya Balkrishna, managing director of the company. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Whether it is FMCG products, breathing techniques or yoga and meditation “programmes”, spiritual entrepreneurs like Baba Ramdev satisfy a varied set of consumer demands in the spirituality market, all for a price.

ONE morning in early May this year, a large and brightly lit room in the Constitution Club of India, an influential club in the national capital, was brimming with reporters and camerapersons. They had gathered for the annual press conference of Patanjali Ayurved Limited, India’s fastest-growing fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, and Baba Ramdev, its public face, was expected to make some important announcements.

A few minutes past noon, Ramdev began speaking: “Last year, in 2016-17, the Patanjali Group registered a turnover of Rs.10,561 crore, which, in the world of FMCG, is historic.” This was a 100 per cent rise compared with the previous year, he explained, and the company planned to exceed the performance in the future. “In 2017-18, this pace of 100 per cent rise will only be improved upon; it won’t be less than this, so you can estimate what it will be. In the next one or two years, Patanjali will be the number one [FMCG] brand in India,” Ramdev said.

Predictably, these numbers put Ramdev and Patanjali in the headlines yet again, and colourful epithets were deployed to describe the rise of both. Indian FMCG’s new Bahubali, said one, describing Patanjali. Baba worth 10 thousand crore, screamed another, obviously referring to Ramdev.

This was only the latest instance of the ongoing and unrelenting rise of India’s well-known yoga guru and emerging spiritual business tycoon. While the Patanjali boss is perhaps the most popular yoga guru involved in business, in recent years a significant number of other “godmen” have also emerged as quasi-entrepreneurs in their own right. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are the other prominent names in this list.

Interestingly, none of them explicitly identifies himself as an entrepreneur. Even Ramdev has no executive position at Patanjali, nor does he own any shares. Indeed, he claims the FMCG firm exists only for “charity”. But the methods adopted by Patanjali and other organisations controlled by such men resemble those adopted by entrepreneurs and private firms. They provide goods and services in demand in India’s ever-rising market for spiritual needs, which, some estimates speculate, may be valued at Rs.2.5 lakh crore, or $40 billion. So whether it is FMCG products or breathing techniques or yoga and meditation “programmes”, these spiritual entrepreneurs satisfy a varied set of consumer demands in the spirituality market—all for a price, of course.

Modern Indian gurus

Meera Nanda, the reputed philosopher of science, has explained this process in her book The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India More Hindu. Having surveyed a vast variety of modern Indian gurus, she explains: “The modern gurus, who are practically CEOs of huge business empires, know that they operate in a highly competitive spiritualism market and try to differentiate their products and services accordingly. Spiritual seekers, too, shop around for just the right guru, often trying out many before settling on one. Depending upon their bent of mind and their spiritual needs, they go for one of the three main types of gurus: type I, the miracle-making gurus; type II, the philosophical gurus who specialise in expounding on Vedic wisdom; and type III, the yoga-meditation-alternative-medicine gurus who may or may not combine yogic postures and breathing techniques with new age techniques of astrology/tarot, vastu/feng shui, reiki, pranic healing, aromatherapy, etc.” Meera Nanda does not believe that these are “watertight” categories, and some gurus may “mix” their services according to the needs of their followers.

Sociologists and anthropologists believe the market for spiritual needs has exploded, especially in the past quarter century, as India underwent economic liberalisation. Studies among employees of the information technology (IT) sector, which has long been seen as the success story of India’s economic liberalisation measures, point to possible material reasons for an unprecedented rise in demand in the spirituality market.

For instance, in the research the social anthropologist Carol Upadhya of the National Institute of Advanced Studies conducted among IT professionals in Bengaluru in the early 2000s, she found that they believed that “the price of their new-found wealth is the inability to maintain social and family relationships or even to have a meaningful existence outside of work”. In her reading: “[T]his lack of a sense of social connection or community may account for the fact that a large number of IT professionals attend courses offering ‘fast food’ packaged spirituality, such as ‘Art of Living’.” The research the British sociologists C.J. Fuller and John Harriss conducted among IT professionals in Chennai around the same time yielded similar insights. They pointed out that non-resident Indians and resident middle-class Indians both seek to fill their “cultural vacuum” by turning to “godmen” and religious teachers.

Conscious of these social conditions and the market opportunities created as a consequence, spiritual entrepreneurs have chosen their business models accordingly. Apart from making a pitch for Swadeshi goods and roaring against “Western capitalist MNCs” (multinational corporations), Ramdev has priced Patanjali’s products reasonably since it is in intense competition with existing players in the market. Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) has evolved its own model. After interviewing Ravi Shankar and his followers in 2003, the British publication The Economist reported: “AOL has what you might call an appealing business model. Besides attracting donations from its often well-heeled disciples, it also sells classes to businesses in the guru’s breathing and meditation techniques. These, he says, are proven to raise productivity and reduce absences through sickness. His followers agree. One is Nikhil Sen, who runs Britannia, a food firm that recently went through a bruising boardroom battle. He describes how AOL’s courses helped staff adjust to the difficult conversion of a factory in Delhi from making bread to making biscuits.”

While keeping the business of spirituality centre stage and claiming to retain a non-political and ideological stand, these spiritual entrepreneurs and their outfits have actually been effective in becoming platforms to promote “soft Hindutva” to a large and influential captive audience. The rise in religiosity and conservative tendencies within Indian society appears to have only aided the efforts these platforms have made to push forward soft Hindutva.

Meera Nanda observes: “Ramdev’s admirers and followers get more than medical advice: they also get a lesson in Hindu traditionalism and Hindu pride. Interspersed with yogic postures and medical virtues of herbs and food items, Ramdev offers a steady harangue against Western culture, Western medicine, and Western corporations. He equates the promotion of the physical health and well-being of Indians with the promotion of desh ka swabhiman (national self-pride) through a revival of its ancient sciences. He has made no secret of his association with the Sangh Parivar: a picture of him doing the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] salute at a convention of the women’s wing of the RSS is available in the RSS weekly, The Organiser. But Ramdev’s open embrace of Hindu right-wing ideas has not diminished the enthusiasm of the masses, which is a strong indication of how normal and ordinary the world view of Hindu supremacy and revival has become.”

Perhaps aware of this, Ramdev has been even more belligerent about advertising his common cause with all issues dear to Hindutva ideologues.

At the press conference in May, he also announced that his successor at Patanjali would be, like him, an ascetic, not a corporate professional. He revealed that the company would spend money on the education of the children of martyred soldiers. Soon after the press briefing, Ramdev displayed to the assembled journalists more than 200 Patanjali products. Curiously, a statue of a white cow was part of this exhibition. Clearly, the yoga guru and business tycoon understands well the importance and effects of symbolism.

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