In India, Cosmic Meets Commercial

Leveraging their spiritual appeal across a growing global base of devotees, Indian gurus and "godmen," a particular type of charismatic ascetic, are belying their poverty-stricken image to climb onto the commercial bandwagon to get rich.

Some Indian spiritual leaders have long been accustomed to luxury. The Maharhishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles and a long list of other celebrities, built a vast organization whose US assets alone were estimated at US$300 million and loved to be seen traveling in his Rolls-Royce sedan.

But the numbers of spiritualists who have forsaken simplicity and poverty to cater to a burgeoning domestic and international clientele is growing, setting up corporate empires that profit off a population faced with stress, alienation and lifestyle disorders, packaging and selling their goods in ways that resonate with modern consumers.

There appears to be no escaping India?s crowded spiritual supermarket. From ayurvedic therapies, (a system of healing that originated in ancient India), personal care and packaged food items, ayurvedic elixirs to slippers, yoga mats, spiritual music, meditation books, self-help guides and mind-healing workshops, there are plentiful offerings in this Instant Nirvana bazaar.

They promise a better quality of life through their products. One of the most popular gurus is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, with millions of followers and a worldwide operation. His Art of Living organization peddles everything from slippers and yoga mats (a craze in America) to music, chants and clothing.

Snapping at Shankar's heels is yoga guru Baba Ramdev, whose Patanjali line of ayurvedic products promises respite from many lifestyle diseases. Also on the rise with the Indian bourgeoisie are spiritual trusts like the Aurobindo Ashram, Pujya Bapuji's Sant Shri Asharamji Ashram, Coimbatore-based Isha Foundation and Swaminarayan Akshardham.

All had humble commercial beginnings in the marketplace. But gradually, from selling their merchandize at the local grocers, mom-and-pop stores and in ashrams, their sales skyrocketed. They have now progressed to selling at supermarkets and online stores. Patanjali?s representatives say they also sell directly to consumers? homes.

"We have a strong distribution network and can't keep up with the phenomenal demand for our products," one sales representative told Asia Sentinel.

Tapping into a ready-made constituency of devotees they see as `consumers," they boost sales further through aggressive marketing blitzkriegs. Ramdev?s US$245 million empire, consisting of a bouquet of companies, plows back nearly 10 percent of its profits in print and online advertising. It is bullish about capturing the largest slice of the rural market as well among competitors. According to industry reports, the group is looking to quadruple its sales to US$400 million in 2011-12.

The AOL trust, which also manufactures creams, shampoos, body care lotion, scrubs, cleansing milk, soaps, ayurvedic energizers and juices, is also eyeing new markets in the West. South-based Aurobindo Ashram, one of the first to enter the fast moving consumer goods market, has broadened its product line to include incense sticks, soaps, candles, perfumes and furniture through local outlets and even overseas. Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a socio-spiritual Hindu organization, retails dental care products, honey, tea and shampoo at 800 temples across India, the US and UK and sells online.

What explains the success of these products? According to Guru Paramhans, a yoga and spiritual teacher, new feel-good spirituality is sweeping affluent urban society.

"This new spirituality," the guu says, "is as much about material wellbeing as it is about spiritual health. It promises its followers inner peace, satisfaction, harmonious relationships in the private and public spaces and good health. Who can resist this bottled magical concoction?"

Indeed. Author Marina Budhos writes in Yoga Journal that the centrality of spiritualism in India dictates that this discipline is not just a set of beliefs and personal faith but also the driver of a thriving industry. This business of alternative religions, inspired by India's spiritual gurus has spread around the globe, she writes.

"In a globalized world, when anachronistic dichotomies of East and West are beginning to crumble, quintessentially Indian disciplines like yoga and meditation have become mainstreamed globally for health and self-improvement," Budhos writes.

Indeed in urban India, a stressed-out generation of educated and middle-class Indians is turning to alternative religions in ways not unlike those of their counterparts abroad -- for relaxation and holistic wellbeing. "This isn't faith that uplifts or enlightens but is more aimed at augmenting the quality of life in a society driven by materialistic impulses," Paramhans adds.

Academicians ascribe this quest for spiritual wellbeing to a tectonic shift in Indians' personal aspirations. The accent now, they say, is on improving the quality of life and letting spirituality help people achieve mainstream ambitions. However, they add that the spirituality that urban Indians are now seeking is happening after basic needs have been met.

"The worry for sustenance is over and people are ready to embark on a quest for a holistic, happier life," says spiritual healer and tarot card reader Meena Vohra.

This "quest" for succor within the paradigms of traditional faith and in secular spiritual practices is coinciding with a spectacular rise in the gurus unleashing their wellness products.

However, while the gurus and their consumers may be a happy lot, they aren't without their critics. "Selling spirituality or products based on the discipline is abominable," says Shilpa Pradhan, an environmental activist. "This knowledge is thousands of years old and has been passed down to us through generations. It can't be appropriated by a few to become profit-driven ventures."

Also, while the gurus have premised their businesses on teachings that advocate frugality and simplicity, their own lifestyles are far from Spartan. Many hobnob with jetsetters and powerful politicians, travel in fancy cars and private jets. Acharya Rajneesh, aka Osho, for instance, was infamous for his gargantuan Rolls Royce collection.

Under India's leading yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, yoga and ayurveda have become money spinners. Ramdev, who is currently at the forefront of an anti-corruption crusade, orchestrates a gigantic business empire estimated to be worth US$245 million. He declared his assets but only partially, excluding the roughly 30 companies that are run by his trusts. They include spas, yoga centers, an ayurvedic pharmaceutical company and pharmacies.

But to all critics, the yogis say they are channeling their profits back to serve society. AOL claims to be funding philanthropic initiatives like servicing 185 free schools which it runs in the Naxal and the tribal belts of India through the sale of its products.

Ramdev's managers are "proud" that their products are sold at "almost cost price" to help "build a disease-free society.". Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is also reported to have said that he would not have been able to build an international transcendental network without commercializing operations to some extent.

Here's hoping that the gurus' consumers are savvy enough to know what works best for them. Let's say Om to that.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at Neetalal@hotmail.com)