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Indian Gurus: Preaching Spiritualism or Business?

Patanjali noodles was one among three brands in which they found higher than permitted ash content in the taste-maker

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Yoga guru Baba Ramdev is the brand ambassador for Patanjali products which are gaining in popularity Image: VOA

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. (A. Pasricha / VOA)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. (A. Pasricha / VOA)

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.

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. (A. Pasricha / VOA)

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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Forbes Rich List 2017: Acharya Balkrishna of Patanjali Named as 19th Richest Indian

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Acharya Balkrishna
Acharya Balkrishna. Wikimedia

Oct 05, 2017: Patanjali Ayurveda’s Acharya Balkrishna, the partner of yoga acharya Ramdev, has bagged the nineteenth position this year in the Forbes magazine’s Annual India Rich List 2017 with total assets of $6.55 billion (Rs. 43,000 crores).

Reliance Industries Ltd. foreman Mukesh Ambani managed India’s wealthiest position for the tenth straight year as his total assets swelled to $38 billion (Rs. 2.5 trillion), while Anil Ambani was positioned much lower at the 45th place with $3.15 billion.

Sun Pharma’s Dilip Shanghvi moved down from his previous second place to the ninth.

Also Read: British-Indian Actor Kunal Nayyar Ranks Fourth on Forbes Magazines List of World’s Highest-Paid TV Actors 

Wipro’s Azim Premji held the second position with total assets of $19 billion, climbing two spots from a year ago.

The Hinduja brothers are at the third position with $18.4 billion, while Lakshmi Mittal is presently positioned fourth ($16.5 billion) and Pallonji Mistry fifth ($16 billion).

Forbes said the rundown was arranged utilizing shareholding and budgetary data secured from the families and people, stock trades, investigators and administrative offices.

 

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Rapist Ram Rahim Case: What Draws Millions of Indians towards Self Styled Godmen Even after their Conviction in Rape to Fraud and Murder Charges

There are an estimated three thousand big and small "deras" headed by gurus in the northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, where "godmen" are popular

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Rapist Ram Rahim
Unidentified persons sit outside the store belonging to Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, after it was closed down by authorities near Sonipat, India, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
  • Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was handed a 20-year prison sentence this week for raping two of his followers
  • Ram Rahim, who positioned himself as the reincarnation of “the Supreme Creator,” acquired rock star popularity
  • Although Singh is now in jail, a number of his devotees continue to believe that he has been framed

Sep 02, 2014: Quirky spiritualism? Solace? The assurance of food and healthcare? What draws millions of Indians towards gurus whose allure has not dimmed even after some high-profile “godmen” landed behind bars in recent years for crimes ranging from rape to fraud and murder?

The latest guru to be discredited is 50-year-old Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was handed a 20-year prison sentence this week for raping two of his followers. The judge who ruled in the case said he acted “like a wild beast.”

Asaram Bapu, a controversial spiritual guru who was arrested on Sept.1 on a rape charge filed by a teenage girl is brought to a hospital for a medical check up in Jodhpur, India, Sept. 9, 2013.
Asaram Bapu, a controversial spiritual guru who was arrested on Sept.1 on a rape charge filed by a teenage girl is brought to a hospital for a medical check up in Jodhpur, India, Sept. 9, 2013. VOA
At least two more gurus who once had big followings are in jail. Asaram Bapu is accused of raping a 16-year-old girl and Sant Rampal is accused of committing murder.

Scholars say the growing clout of Indian gurus is fueled by poverty, illiteracy and the failure of government to meet such basic needs as education and healthcare.

Also Read: Quick View on Dera Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Case: 20 Years of Imprisonment enough for a Rapist in India? 

The power of ‘deras’

Rahim Singh’s sprawling 75-acre campus in Sirsa town did not offer itself as just a spiritual center. It ran schools, colleges, a hospital and virtually functioned as a parallel administration. The “godman” boasted of ridding thousands of drug and alcohol addiction.

“These ‘deras’ [facilities] have somehow managed to give this impression that there is a world altogether different,” said Sukhdev Singh Sohal, history professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab state.

He said they offer an escape route in a country where blind faith is part of the culture. “They go there, they see that infrastructure and they get infatuated. How they are exploited, they are not aware in the long run.”

There are an estimated three thousand big and small “deras” headed by gurus in the northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, where “godmen” are popular. Not all are under a cloud. Many do charitable work and offer spiritual sustenance. And in a country where traditional religion has long marginalized the lower castes, they also offer a sense of community and equality.

But increasingly many gurus are tapping into India’s illiterate millions to build a mass following, with some even offering magical powers of healing.

Komal Ghodiwal, who works as a housemaid in Gurugram, has twice traveled with her alcoholic husband to a guru in Rajasthan state. She can barely explain what he does but is convinced that his supernatural powers help her husband get rid of his addiction, at least temporarily.

“He stays away from drinking for a year, but then he starts again,” she said.

The illiterate woman, who donates about $25 at a temple where the guru presides during each visit, does not know where else to go. There are no government-run addiction centers close to where she works. She said many in her slum go to him believing he can cure sick people or help childless couples.

FILE - Sikh protesters hold a poster of Indian religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Ram Rahim Singh's debut film “MSG: The Messenger of God” in Jammu, India, Feb. 13, 2015.
FILE – Sikh protesters hold a poster of Indian religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda chief Baba Ram Rahim Singh’s debut film “MSG: The Messenger of God” in Jammu, India, Feb. 13, 2015. VOA

“The spiritual component of these “deras” is very wonky and people are looking for some kind of a superman who will solve their problems,” said M. Rajivlochan, history professor at Punjab University. “In the case of Baba Rahim, he posed himself as that superman, dressing weirdly, demonstrating that he could do close to everything.”

Rahim Singh, who positioned himself as the reincarnation of “the Supreme Creator,” acquired rock star popularity because he was not just a cult leader. He made films, he was a singer, he dressed flamboyantly and lived opulently. And although the rape charges against him surfaced 15 years ago, they did little to diminish the faith among his followers.

FILE - An Indian spiritual guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, attends the premiere of the movie 'Jattu Engineer' in New Delhi, India, May 17, 2017.
FILE – An Indian spiritual guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, attends the premiere of the movie ‘Jattu Engineer’ in New Delhi, India, May 17, 2017. VOA

The larger-than-life image of gurus like Rahim Singh is reinforced by political leaders cutting across party lines who pay them obeisance and sometimes make donations to these centers hoping to plug into a voter bloc during elections. Several ministers had visited Rahim Singh. Some legislators even defended him after his conviction, saying he had done good work.

The rich are not immune from the culture. Several high profile gurus count the wealthy among their followers.

Also Read: Criminal Babas in India- Rapist Ram Rahim and Rapist Asaram: Why Delay in Justice of these Godmen? 

Political clout

With their political clout, the gurus also escape close financial scrutiny, making it difficult to assess how some accumulate vast wealth.

Although Singh is now in jail, a number of his devotees continue to believe that he has been framed. Such emotions led his followers to go on a rampage after his conviction. The rioting killed 38 people as government buildings and vehicles were set on fire.

Still, his flock might slowly disperse, given the massive coverage he received on national television, the sealing of his centers, and the swirl of murky stories since his conviction. Among them, stories that he made 400 men undergo castration “to come closer to god.”

But the phenomenon of the “godman” is not about to go away. “There is no end,” said Professor Sohal. “Such tragic things would happen time and again and they [the devotees] think that God is there to rectify them.” (VOA)

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Baba Ramdev: Babri Case is not a matter of Land but Conscience

"This is not a matter of land or Ramjanmabhoomi and Masjid. This is a matter of conscience."

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Baba Ramdev
Baba Ramdev said to the audience, "This is not a matter of land or Ramjanmabhoomi and Masjid. Wikimedia
  • Baba Ramdev recently spoke at World Peace and Harmony Conclave
  • The Patanjali founder called the Babri Case a matter of Conscience and not land 
  • Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq also spoke at the event

August 14, 2017: Yoga guru and Patanjali founder Baba Ramdev spoke at the World Peace and Harmony Conclave on Sunday.

On the topic of the Babri dispute, Baba Ramdev sided with Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, a Shia cleric, that peace is the only way the matter needs to be resolved. The Shia cleric also spoke at the event.

ALSO READ: 65-episode scripted Biopic series on Baba Ramdev to be aired on Discovery’s Hindi channel

Baba Ramdev said to the audience, “This is not a matter of land or Ramjanmabhoomi and Masjid. This is a matter of conscience.” Maulana Kalbe Sadiq also promoted peace as a solution to the Babri dispute. He further said that if the Supreme court verdict is in favor of the temple, then Muslims should give up their claim on the disputed land, mentioned PTI report.

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Further, the cleric expressed full faith in the proceedings of the Supreme Court. ANI reports that the Maulana also said, “If Babri Masjid verdict is not in favor of Muslims, then they should peacefully accept it.”

He also said that giving away one thing that is close sends thousands in return, a remark which has received a lot of criticism.

On Friday, the Supreme Court began the cross-hearing in the Babri case. Maulana’s comments imply that Shia Waqf Board accepts having a mosque built at a distance from the disputed land.

– Prepared by Saksham Narula of NewsGram. Twitter: @Saksham2394