The God Market: Meet the gurus of karma capitalism

Jun 11, 2011

The God Market: Meet the gurus of karma capitalism
India's religious supermarket is spiritual seekers' dream come true: it gives
them an enormous choice of ways of exploring and expressing their
religiosity. Reuters

Editor's Note: In her thought-provoking book, God Market: How Globalisation is Making India more Hindu (Random House, Rs 395), Meera Nanda looks at the growing Hinduisation of the country. In this excerpt, she explores the different types of celebrity god-men, including Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, Baba Ramdev,  and Dayananda Sarasvati. The book was released in 2009 (hence the dated references to Sai Baba who has since passed away.), but it offers a timely and provocative context in which to view recent events.

There has always been a great affinity between the well-heeled Indians and miracle working gurus, many of them self-proclaimed avatars of God. All the well-known modern gurus fish for followers in the same fish bowl of upwardly mobile Indians, non-resident Indians, and western seekers. It is only to be expected that as Indian middle classes come to acquire the lifestyle of their NRI and western counterparts, they will come to share their taste in new age-ish spirituality –only more so, as so much of the new age in the West has borrowed heavily from Hindu and Buddhist traditions in the first place.

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.

Yoga The three categories are not watertight: gurus offering miracles will also offer philosophical discourses and new age techniques; those into Vedic heritage will not shy away from astrology, yagnas, and stories of miracles of their own gurus; while those offering yoga and alternative medicine will also offer reiki, acupuncture, biorhythms, colon irrigation, and the like. For their part, spiritual seekers also mix and match their gurus, and sometimes they move from one type to another, depending upon the need. On top of it, doing meditation in an ashram does not prevent anyone from visiting a temple or attending a yagna. India's religious supermarket is spiritual seekers' dream come true: it gives them an enormous choice of ways of exploring and expressing their religiosity.

A (wo)man of miracles

While Satya Sai Baba is the very archetype of the miracle working guru, he faces fierce competition from Mata Amritanandamayi, the famous 'hugging guru'. Unlike Sai Baba who actually materialises physical objects through his supernatural powers (or is it magic?), Amritanandamayi encourages her followers to think she is making everyday miracles happen on their behalf. Either way, miracles– extraordinary happenings that defy all known laws of nature –are of huge importance to those who seek deity-saints.

Miracles serve as the visiting card of God in the human body of the guru. Indeed, tangible, physically observable miracles –and not just a promise of spiritual transformation–serve as the evidence which seems to prove the godliness of their chosen. As a result, the devotees end up convinced that their faith is rational, because they have actually seen the miracle with their own eyes.

Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma as she is called by her followers, is a self-proclaimed avatar, an incarnation of shakti, or female divine energy. Her fame rests on the power of her embrace: devotees describe great spiritual, emotional, and material benefits from being embraced by Amma. But on special occasions, Amma 'sheds her human form', dons the regalia of a goddess, and reveals her 'divine aspects' to her devotees. Devotees come for the motherly embrace, but often stay for the miracles which seem to cement their faith.

The devotees see Amma as a 'divine stage manager' who takes care of their well-being and safety, while liberating them from their bad karma accumulated from indulging in western-style consumerism. Indeed, Amma actively encourages them to trust her as a helpless infant trusts her mother. She urges her followers:

[to cultivate] an attitude of complete surrender, profound love for the deity [i.e., herself, because she is supposed to be 'identical' with Krishna, Devi and Brahman] and extreme humility. She urges them to achieve an emotional state of helplessness, where they cry out in utter longing and despair, and plaintively seek divine help to see them through the travails of this life…

Amma's followers take this advice seriously. They ascribe every little lucky break they get–finding a gas station when the car is running low on gas, for example, or making a train reservation–to their guru's grace.

But how is this relationship of dependence and the illusion of miracles created and sustained? The simple answer is through old-fashioned supernaturalism, complete with pujas and astrology. Amritanandamayi teaches the traditional Hindu philosophy of karma and rebirth and explains the travails of her followers as a result of the karmic burden they have accumulated from previous births and from excessive consumerism and the excessive reliance on reason and intellect that comes with modernity. She offers them a menu of ritual prayers and observances which promise to burn off all the negative karmic residues.

Prem Rawat aka Guru Maharaj Ji's Life and Career Her embrace itself is supposed to transfer her karma-destroying 'energy' to the devotees. But beyond the hug, she prescribes a whole number of pujas, the most popular of them being the grahadosha nivarana puja, intended to counter the influence of malevolent planets on one's horoscope. For those who may not care for pujas, Mata Anandamayi prescribes mantra chanting and meditation. There is something for everyone, without anything fixed for everyone.

Regardless of the competition, India's best-known living God–Satya Sai Baba–continues to have a devoted following. Miracles, wrapped up in deeply conservative and nationalistic Hinduism, make up the bulk of the substance of Satya Sai Baba's teaching. To the faithful, however, Sai Baba's magic is evidence of his divinity. Through his magic, Sai Baba both sanctifies consumerism and, at the same time, brings it under the moral guidance of the spiritually superior Hinduism.

The philosopher guru

While many are content to accept miracle working gurus, others in the same socio-economic class hanker for more philosophy and less magic. Those with a more philosophical bent may still consult their astrologers and their vastu shastris, do their obeisance to miracle making god-men/women and may even host an occasional yagna or go on a pilgrimage. But all that doesn't satisfy them entirely and they want more philosophical depth to their spiritual experiences. For these believers, there are the type II gurus, the ones who can talk about the intricacies of the Vedas, Vedanta, and Bhagvat Gita in an idiom that the seekers are comfortable with.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati–not the Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, but the founder of the more recent Hindu mission headquartered in the US–is the very model of a type II guru. Swami Dayananda Saraswati started out as a missionary of the Chinmaya Mission, but later took off on his own. He runs a gurukul called Arsha Vidya in the rolling hills of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, USA, which advertises itself as a centre for 'traditional study of Advaita Vedanta, Sanskrit, Yoga, Ayurveda, Astrology, and other classical Indian disciplines'. Arsha Vidya has established two branches in India, one in Coimbatore and the other in Rishikesh. With a growing cohort of disciples associated with his American and Indian operations, Swami Dayananda Saraswati has emerged as an influential preacher of ancient wisdom both in India and the US.

Swami Dayananda has a substantial following among the industrialists of Chennai. The Swami and the representatives of his Indian mission speak before packed halls of well-to-do business folks and professionals. Chris Fuller and John Harriss, two British sociologists, followed the guru and had intensive conversations with his followers in order to understand the attraction. What they found is a very good description of the widespread appeal of the so-called 'karma capitalism' to the captains of capitalist enterprises in India and abroad.

What attracted the Chennai capitalists to the guru the most was his demeanour: a pious and learned man, well versed in the scriptures, and yet fully at ease in the modern boardrooms. His teachings, especially his interpretations of the Bhagvad Gita, resonate well with their own belief in self-made men and women.

Dayananda interprets the Vedic heritage to mean that success or failure are not social but individual problems, and that individuals alone, through their own karma, can achieve moksha in this life, here and now, by freeing themselves from a sense of inadequacy. He interprets the teachings of Lord Krishna in the Gita to mean that desires are a 'manifestation of divinity' which should not be renounced but brought under control. Dayananda thus turns the Bhagvad Gita into a 'plan for living' which sanctifies desire for this-worldly success and riches. Incidentally, Swami Dayananda is but one of the many Indian gurus who have taken Indian philosophy to business schools and corporate boardrooms abroad, a trend that has been dubbed 'karma capitalism'.

Another feature that seems to attract businessmen to gurus like Dayananda is their insistence on a consonance between modern science and ancient Hindu wisdom. Hinduism, in this perspective which is repeated endlessly by each and every modern guru, is as scientific and as universally valid within its own axioms as Newtonian physics is within its own parameters. The presumed scientificity of Hinduism is a source of much pride for modern Hindus as it sets their faith apart from that of the religions of the book which appear more dogmatic.

Finally, there is the message of return to traditions in order to become fully modern that resonates powerfully with those who want to beat the West without themselves becoming westernized. Dayananda insists that by becoming more truly and more fully Hindu, Indians can best tackle the problems of the modern world: tradition is modernity and to go forward, Indians must face backward. That conservative message is very attractive to many upper-class Indians who have never been at the receiving end of the kind of restrictions tradition can impose.

The celebrity yogi

But it is neither the miracle making, reason defying type I, nor the Veda expounding type II, but the yoga–meditation type III gurus who have taken the country by storm in recent years. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Ramdev top the list of type III gurus.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has built a global spirituality programme which goes by the happy name of Art of Living, popularly known as AOL. The core of Art of Living is sudarshan kriya, a technique for rapid and rhythmic breathing which is supposed to bring the breather in contact with his/her spiritual self which, following the Vedantic axiom, is simultaneously the cosmic self. This contact with the cosmic self (or cosmic energy as it is also called) is supposed to ensure success in worldly ventures while bringing mental peace.

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The Art of Living claims 20 million members and a teaching staff of 5,000 in 140 countries around the world. It is a highly profitable enterprise with a yearly income running into tens of millions of dollars, most of it from the fees it charges for teaching the breathing technique to people with high incomes and stressful jobs in India and abroad. Corporations like Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Cisco Systems hire AOL teachers to conduct seminars at $150 per person. Fees in India range from Rs 1500 for a basic course to Rs 2,500 for an advanced course.

This focus on turning the body into a conduit to the Cosmic Self is pretty much in the tradition of transcendental meditation of Mahesh Yogi and his famous disciple, Deepak Chopra. (Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra are guru bhais: both received their training under Mahesh Yogi.) Together, they represent the cutting edge of the new age phenomenon in India. They have managed to reinterpret Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Vedanta, and the Bhagvat Gita as manuals of material success in the modern world. (Deepak Chopra even calls his interpretation of the Yoga Sutras Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.) Cultivation of inner spirituality becomes the means for attaining and enjoying the best of the material world.

What sets AOL apart is its popularity with generation next: reportedly 60 to 70 per cent of its members are below 30 years of age, and most them work in the IT industry. Part of the attraction is simply stress relief: the disciples report that Sri Sri's approach to yogic breathing eases tension and relieves the pressures of their tension-filled professional lives. The 'rock satsangs' in a Bangalore ashram are very popular as well and draw a crowd of nearly 3000 people every evening after work where they sing along and dance to devotional songs.

Prem Rawat aka Guru Maharaj Ji's Life and Career
The Art Of Living Ashram in Bangalore.
Image by Gaurav Mathur/Flickr

Another reason that followers themselves offer their attraction to AOL is that it places very few demands on them: 'There is no reading of scriptures. It's very practical,' as one follower explained. The only question is, as another member put it, 'are you happy?'

Finally, mention must be made of the enormous popularity of Swami Ramdev, the yoga teacher and Ayurvedic doctor. His yoga camps draw tens of thousands who pay to attend his lecture-demonstrations and millions more watch him on TV. In his many discourses on TV, he offers 'complete cure' in 'weeks, if not in days', of 'diseases from A to Z', from 'common cold to cancers', including cholera, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, kidney disease, leprosy, liver disease, so on and so forth.

There is practically nothing that his method of Divya Yoga, alone, or in combination with his own Ayurvedic formulations, cannot cure. He claims that all his 'miraculous' cures are not merely 'confirmed by science', but are claimed to be 'science in its purest form'. When examined objectively, the quality of his medicines and the claims he makes for yogic cures are highly dubious. But that has not deterred him from developing a huge following in big cities and small towns in India. He is now in the process of establishing a presence among the NRI communities in Britain and the US.

A soft Hindutva

Regardless of their styles, the prominent gurus of all three types have one thing in common: their soft Hindutva. While using the language of universalism, tolerance, good health, and peace, they very clearly propagate a world view of India as a Hindu nation, Hinduism as a superior religion, and the need to make India (indeed the whole world) more Hindu. Given their underlying Hindu nationalism, it is not a surprise that the Sangh Parivar counts on them to use their charisma to bring moderate Hindus into the Hindutva camp.

Take the case of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. He seems to be equally at home in supposedly secular gatherings organized by chambers of commerce in Indian metropolises, as in the gatherings organized by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh in New Jersey. As reported by Christopher Fuller and John Harriss who attended his lectures to the Chennai elite, Swami Dayananda has openly mocked Christianity, declared the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya as a non-negotiable demand of the Hindu majority, and supported the Tamil Nadu government's ban on conversions. On all these hot-button issues, his position is no different from that of the Sangh Parivar. Yet, he has successfully cultivated the persona of a teacher of traditional wisdom and Vedic heritage.

Likewise, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar hides a Hindu nationalist passion behind the carefully cultivated image of playfulness, love, and joy. He has repeatedly displayed his Hindutva colours on matters of the Ram mandir and minorities. The British magazine The Economist described his politics quite accurately: 'Art of Living is open to people of all faiths. But, in fact, discussing the Ram temple, its guru starts to sound less like a spiritual leader and more like a politician, talking of the long history of "appeasement of the minority community", and of the unfairness of a system that subsidizes Muslims to go on the haj to Mecca.'

Given Sri Sri's underlying Hindutva, it is not surprising that Indian techies, who make up the biggest chunk of his followers, also show a distinct affinity towards Hindu nationalist parties. (This is not to say that their guru has directly caused these sympathies, but only that those with Hindutva biases can feel quite at home with Sri Sri and his organization.) In recent years, the open saffronization of IT workers has become large enough to constitute a trend in its own right. In an effort to mobilize IT and IT-enabled service providers, the RSS has been organizing IT-milans (meets) which are basically RSS shakhas exclusively meant for IT workers (only men are invited to join).

According to media reports, these milans have started to become more common over the last three years. They started in Bangalore but have now spread to all the major cities with a substantial concentration of IT-related businesses. The milans are proving to be a great success for both sides: the Sangh Parivar gets its websites and databases updated, while the saffron techies get to meet like-minded people and get a sense of participating in something bigger than just punching keyboards all day.

Prem Rawat aka Guru Maharaj Ji's Life and Career
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.

Finally, consider the open Hindutva of Swami Ramdev. 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 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.

Supporters of Hindutva, incidentally, are fully aware of the usefulness of the new gurus for their cause. They realize, in the words of Swapan Dasgupta, an ex-Trotskyite historian who now supports Hindu nationalist causes, 'the real energy of contemporary Hinduism does not lie in Brahmanical institutions like the Shankaracharya of Kanchi'. What drives Hindus are either venerated temples or individual preachers and 'living saints'. They are to Hinduism what evangelical preachers are to Christianity and Dasgupta urges the leaders of the Sangh Parivar to invite them to lead the Hindutva cause:

There is a thriving tradition of what can be loosely called evangelical Hinduism. It comprises the likes of Asaram Bapu, Murari Bapu, Swami Ramdev, Amma, Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and many others who feature on the various religious channels on TV. They are the Pat Robertsons and the Billy Grahams of modern Hinduism. They are able to inspire and motivate individual Hindus far more successfully than purohits and pontiffs. The failure of organized Hindu nationalism lies in not being able to link the congregations of individual evangelists with bodies like the Hindu Acharya Sabha. (emphasis added)

It seems as if the Sangh Parivar has paid heed to this advice. There were reports that the VHP enlisted Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, Murari Bapu, Asaram Bapu, and Pranav Pandya of the Gayatri Parivar to create an alliance that would marry political, religious, and environmental causes in the run-up to the 2009 elections. (Indeed, all of these gurus, except Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, were members of the VHP's Dharma Raksha Manch which campaigned for a Hindu vote bank and the BJP in the 2009 elections.) Rather than embark upon communally charged yatras over the Ram temple and other hotspots, they engaged in 'constructive agitations' around issues of cleaning the Ganga, saving Adam's Bridge and 'saving' temples from government interference. The idea is to use the goodwill these gurus have among the middle classes to reach out to moderate Hindus who may be fed up with the Ram temple but may be more open to concerns about the environment and temple affairs in general.

Meera Nanda is an award-winning author who writes on science and religion. She is a philosopher of science with initial training in biology. This excerpt first appeared in Random Reads, Random House India's in-house literary blog.