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    South Asia
     Jun 16, 2011

Business with the mystics
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Spirituality has never had it so good.

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 industry.

At the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation's international headquarters in Bangalore, overworked information technology professionals

spend weekends learning the sudarshan kriya, a rhythmic breathing technique that the foundation's website claims "facilitates physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being".

Business corporations including Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle hire AOL's teachers to run workshops to ensure that stress does not wreck their employees' productivity.

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.

The contrast between these gurus and those of the past is stark.

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 spinners.

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 estimates.

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 nothing.

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.

Several gurus 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 humanitarian work.

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 poorest?

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".

This has triggered criticism of AOL's multinational corporation-like behavior.

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 sudha98@hotmail.com

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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