Indian Gurus: Preaching Spiritualism or Business?

Indian Gurus: Preaching Spiritualism or Business?

Bypassing the big supermarkets, Harsh Chopra is browsing through the shelves of a neighborhood store that stocks products of a company launched by a yoga guru.

She wants to pick up toiletries and food items like biscuits because she believes they do not contain chemicals.

Harsh Chopra is among thousands of consumers attracted by Baba Ramdev's products, pitched as herbal and organic(VOA)

"In my daily life, I prefer natural products, even soap and everything. There are so many shampoos, but I prefer this soap with 'reetha' (soap nuts) and all these things," Chopra explained.

The 50-year-old orange-clad, long-bearded, Baba Ramdev has long been a household name in India as the guru who popularized yoga through a television show. Now, tapping into growing demand for products that are herbal and organic, he is building a fast growing consumer goods company that has multinationals taking notice.

Pitching the products as healthy and based on India's ancient knowledge system of ayurveda, Baba Ramdev is the clear frontrunner among Indian gurus who are no longer content with preaching spiritualism, but have forayed into the world of commerce in one of the world's big retail markets.

In modern factories located in a sprawling facility in the northern, holy city of Haridwar, Patanjali Ayurveda churns out about 500 products ranging from soaps, shampoos, cookies, honey, health drinks, fruit juices and flour. Items like breakfast cereal, instant noodles and muesli cater to urban consumers.

The range of products offered by Patanjali include those in demand by modern urban consumers such as cereal and muesli. (VOA)

Their success, said Patanjali managing director Acharya Balkrishna, comes by providing people with an alternative.

"We have taken the ayurvedic concept and given it to consumers in a way that modern day consumers require. If we had to make toothpaste or shampoo, we thought what are the maximum herbs we can put inside," he said.

Helping the company is the fact that many of the goods cost less compared to similar ones in the market.

Retail consultants say Patanjali has successfully leveraged the growing concern among consumers about products that contain synthetics.

For Mumbai-based brand expert Harish Bijoor the company is at the right place at the right time. "When there is an option which is all about being holistic, clean, good for the environment, good for the body, good for the mind, then people tend to say this is a no brainer and I must switch," he said.

The company recorded sales of $300 million in the financial year that ended in March 2015. Estimates suggest that could have doubled in the past year.

Calling Patanjali one of the "most spectacular arrivals" in the consumer goods market in recent times, Arvind Singhal, head of the retail consultancy Technopak, said big consumer companies now see it as a contender to be reckoned with.

"Even six months ago, probably they were not looking at the same kind of attention as they are doing now. But when the numbers start to come out in the public domain, anyone who was not taking them seriously would now be taking them very seriously," Singhal said.

FILE – Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev drinks a fruit juice offered by children to break his fast in New Delhi, India, August 14, 2012.

Baba Ramdev is not the only Indian holy man tapping into the country's huge consumer market. In what has been dubbed a trend toward spiritual capitalism, some others are beating the same path, though they have not achieved the same scale.

Another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, last month launched his own line of organic food products. In southern India, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes products such as toothpaste and shampoo.

These holy men insist they are not in manufacturing for the profit. Saying that he has no stake in the company he promotes, Baba Ramdev, a self-avowed nationalist, said he wants the nation to become healthier and wants to promote goods made in India to keep the country's wealth at home.

But he has sometimes attracted controversy for positions he has taken — for example opposing homosexuality and sex education in schools. Many were outraged when he said recently that only the rule of law restrains him from beheading anyone who refuses to say a nationalist chant, "Bharat Mata ki Jai" ("Hail Mother India").

Such controversies have put off some people, like Suhasini Sood in New Delhi.

"I don't feel he has projected himself in a manner that I can trust, so that has sort of translated into the company's products as well," she said.

The launch of Patanjali noodles last year was accompanied by a controversy over whether the company had the necessary permissions (VOA)

Under fire

Patanjali too has come under some scrutiny. Its launch of noodles last year came amid allegations that necessary approvals were not obtained – reports the company denied. A recent government laboratory in Uttar Pradesh state said that Patanjali noodles was one among three brands in which they found higher than permitted ash content in the taste-maker.

Acharya Balkrishna insists the company is keeping an eye on its product line as it prepares to build many more factories to cope with demand. "As we go ahead we will ensure that we have our own set-up and our production will be in-house. From cultivation to procurement, until the end user, we have our own network," he said.

Experts caution that maintaining quality will be vital. Brand consultant Bijoor said the road ahead will be good "provided he is able to occupy the high ground of quality and the high ground of being consistent in what he is offering. Even one small error, one small mistake, could create havoc for Patanjali."( VOA)

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