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    South Asia
     Jan 28, 2006
Indian swami takes the fizz out of Coke
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Swami Ramdev may not be known to the West yet, but he is giving the jitters to many multinationals operating in India, where his enterprise, which revolves around yoga, is valued at more than US$50 million and is said to have touched 100 million people.

The swami is open in his derision of cola drinks, packaged and fast food, and pharmaceutical companies selling allopathic drugs,



even as he seeks to generate health consciousness through spiritual and simple breathing exercises (called pranayam) claimed to be particularly useful in dealing with lifestyle diseases (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac problems, arthritis, cholesterol, overweight, kidney disorders, cancer) and aging.

His take on cola giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola is that such carbonated drinks should be used to clean toilets, not consumed. The swami's mantra is that most diseases can be controlled by proper breathing and diet (essential tenets of yoga) and Ayurvedic medicines, although regular drugs are essential to cure some diseases and during emergencies. He has even spoken out against french fries.

Such is the impact of Ramdev, who appears on television to reach his dedicated followers, that yoga classes have mushroomed across India alongside new-age avatars such as cyber-cafes, gymnasiums, coffee shops and glitzy retail outlets of foreign brands such as Nokia, Nike and Reebok. It is said that Ramdev has revolutionized the way of life of Indians and drawn them away from junk food, non-vegetarianism and has made millions, including youngsters, wake up early in the morning to listen to his sermons on TV. Indian advertising guru Alyque Padamsee has said the advertising mantra of the yogi rivals David Ogilvy's.

Ramdev's live pranayam sessions (he holds more than 150 a year) could put any rock star to shame, filling up the biggest stadiums. The swami has an earthy narrative style that connects with people, even as he coaxes them to continue with their deep inhalations while he talks. During his shivirs (live gatherings), many exult on camera the benefits of his exercises, though some yoga practitioners have criticized Ramdev for being simplistic.

Nobody, however, doubts that Ramdev is India's first tele-guru and has been called the Amitabh Bachchan (Bollywood's mega-star) of spiritual TV. Ramdev's sermons sit on top of a slew of similar shows on exclusive channels such as Aashtha (with Ramdev as the mascot), Zee Jagran, Quran TV, God TV (beamed from Israel) and Sanskar that have gained remarkable popularity in the recent past, with advertising revenues crossing $2 million. Surprisingly, television ratings show that people in the 15-35-years age group make up more than 35% of the viewers, even as these channels have begun peppering discourses with movies, music, discussions and comedies to retain the eyeballs and compete with youth-oriented programming on MTV and Channel V.

Not much is known about the guru, except that he originates from the state of Haryana and has lived in Haridwar, a holy city on the banks of the River Ganges, for the past decade while learning his art. Pictures show him to be a man probably in his late 30s or early 40s. The swami's Divya Yog ashram at Haridwar has a huge herbarium and a drug-manufacturing unit (for Ayurveda medicines) backed by a team of doctors. A new factory is being built close by. The swami's dream project is a 120-hectare Ayurvedic ashram near Delhi, which Ramdev has said will rival the World Health Organization. Revenues are generated through brisk sale of medicines, registration fees for his live sessions, books, video discs, television and of course donations, especially from non-resident Indians, from across the world.

Recently, an unseemly spat ensued between a prominent leftist-party leader, Brinda Karat, and the swami. Karat, angered by allegations of labor-law violations at a drug-manufacturing unit run by the guru, said some of the medicines being manufactured by Ramdev used human or animal body parts. Ramdev lashed out at Karat, accusing her of "championing multinational drug companies to undermine comparatively cheaper Ayurvedic medicines".

Though many multinational marketing and sales executives privately relished the controversy, Karat had to beat a hasty retreat when politicians across the spectrum, including her own party, spoke in favor of Ramdev. The Bharatiya Janata Party sought to give the incident a swadeshi (indigenous) versus videshi (foreign hue) slant. Union minister and Bihar political satrap Laloo Yadav said: "If herbal medicines help, it hardly matters if they contain bones, whether human or demon.'' Karat finally had to sing the virtues of Ayurveda and yoga publicly.

Indeed, it is to the credit of Ramdev that he has not only managed to teach the virtues of yoga to so many, but also turned it into a selling proposition. "He is a fitness guru with an Indian twist. He uses the Indian religious language to sell the idea of fitness to [the] masses," Santosh Desai, president of ad firm McCann Ericson, said in a recent interview with Economic Times.

Yoga is already a $30-billion-a-year business in the United States, with Western followers familiar with the meditation techniques of Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living, and Bhagwan Rajneesh, who appealed to his audience through a modern interpretation of Buddhist philosophy. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sri Satya Sai Baba also have large, loyal followings, but the numbers do not compare to Ramdev's.

It is said of Ramdev that he has moved beyond the abstract ministrations of the mind propounded by the above mentioned to actual physical exercises that are seen to provide succor to increasingly stressful lives associated with the advent of consumerist lifestyles and the proverbial rat race in India.

It is estimated that close to 20 million Americans practice yoga, with most fitness clubs offering instruction. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and REI stock up on yoga accessories, including video discs, apparel, mats and other equipment. The average yoga practitioner's annual expenditure for enlightenment turns out to be $1,500. It was indeed ironic that the benefits of yoga, which owes its origin to India traditions that are 4,000 years old, has been so successfully packaged in the West and not in India. That is, until the unlikely Ramdev brand emerged.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


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