The Business of Spirituality in India

01/06/2017 | 10 minutes

It was not too long ago when India witnessed intense violence after the sentencing of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh aka Baba Ram Rahim for rape and murder. The self styled guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was far removed from the traditional guru figure India is so well known for. Contrary to the image of a guru that renounces worldly pleasures and devote themselves to spiritual studies, Gurmeet Singh was quite colorful and known for his foray into films, music and consumer products. In fact, his last film is known to have made a profit of 59.374 million USD in just one month!


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Figure 1 Poster of one of Gurmeet Ram Rahim's movies (Image courtesy: India Today)


So what has happened to the ‘gurus’ of India? Have all the modern spiritual gurus turned in to entrepreneurs investing in people’s need of spiritualism? The answer is more likely yes. The idea of religion and spirituality bring huge investments and profits. Indians, who are essentially frugal in buying habits, spend generously when it comes to divine or possibility of divinity’s grace. The gurus in modern India have turned spiritual teachings in to business. The new age spiritual leaders are far from the ancient Indian gurus that ate fruits, drank water and taught their followers how to be one with the divine. The God-business has become a sublime way to make ridiculous wealth. Brands and businesses associated with spiritual gurus and ashrams are giving a tough competition not only to the FMCG market but also the healthcare and wellness industry. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s firm-Pitanjali Ayurveda is a perfect example of this.



Figure 2 Baba Ramdev with his Pitanjali products (Image courtesy: Hindustan Times)


But Baba Ramdev is only one amongst the long list of rich gurus in modern India. In a country as big as India and as diverse, a few names are popular in all regions. Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, Guru Sant Rampal, Swami Nithyananda, Guru Mata Amritanandamayi and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are just a few of the gurus that have followers all across the country, and the world. Their wealth estimate is anywhere between 163-273 billion USD!


So is the country that is known for spiritual gurus and practices since ancient times lost to commercial practices by modern gurus who seek to exploit the vulnerable? Well, one will have to look hard, but it won’t be difficult to find gurus who would not be as commercially popular, but would have set up iconic institutions for the spread of Vedanta.


Late Swami Chinmaya Nanda and Swami Sivananda were known to be real gurus who made a qualitative difference to the world with their religious and spiritual teachings as well as charitable acts. Swami Sivananda is also known to have authored books on yoga and Vedanta and translated Bhagavad Gita into English from Sanskrit that is said to be one of the most definitive translations. Swami Chinmayananda was popular for teachings of Bhagavad Gita and spread knowledge of Advaita Vedanta, the non dual system of thought found in the Upnishads, which epitomizes the philosophical teachings of Vedas.



Figure 3 Images of Swami Sivananda and Swami Chinmayananda (Image courtesy: Google)

Some of these Indian gurus who led frugal lives and dedicated the offerings to set up institutes for the spread of spirituality have also been popular with the western world, particularly Hollywood. Their popularity was a result of their teachings and had no marketing strategy to it. Baba Neem Karoli had several followers from America in the 60’s and 70’s. Steve Jobs is said to have travelled to India to study spiritualism and meet Neem Karoli Baba who unfortunately died a few days before. Some of the prominent figures to be influenced by his teachings are actor Julia Roberts and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.


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Figure 4 Archive Image of Neem Karoli Baba seen here with his followers (Image Courtesy: hindutva.com)
Figure 5: Julia Roberts in India in 2010 (Image Courtesy: The Times of India)

Although Elizabeth Gilbert in her famous memoir Eat Pray Love does not identify the guru and ashram she visited in India during her year long sabbatical, it is famously speculated to be Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Gurumayi’s ashram has also attracted celebrities such as Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith and Diana Ross.


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a disciple of Shankracharya of Jyotimath in the Himalayas introduced India and the world to Transcendental Meditation (TM). He found followers in the Beatles and the Beach Boys and went on to set up non-profitable organisations to promote TM. He declared his aim to revive the spiritual tradition, to show that meditation is for everyone and not for recluses and that Vedanta is compatible with science.



Figure 6: Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Image Courtesy: http://www.pophistorydig.com)


Similarly K Pattabhi Jois through his Iashtanga Yoga that was based Korunta Yoga attracted celebrity loyalists such as Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow.


The list of names that have spread spiritualism and brought yoga and meditation to the world are longer. Parmahansa Yogananda, the founder of Kriya yoga was one of the first to introduce the western world to meditation. His yoga actions emphasize on uniting with infinite through certain asanãs. Adi Shankara, who had renounced the world and mastered the Vedic scriptures at an early age and travelled across India preaching his knowledge of Vedas. His works discuss the existence ātma and its unity with Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without attributes).


Most of these gurus are no longer present in the physical world, but their charitable trusts continue to spread their teachings. Their discovery of spirituality and teachings is what stories of spirituality from ancient India are made of. Then there also modern spiritual gurus in the making who are not so famous but may be waiting for right moment and marketing campaign to acquire popularity with the masses that translates in to money.


Deepa Tripathi Chaturvedi