Nirvana sects big business in today’s world
THE recent confrontation between the Punjab state government and the head and followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda brought to the fore the rise of various religious sects all across the country. But the Dera Sacha Sauda is but only one of the hundreds of such faith-based sects. Indeed, a casual television viewer would be surprised to find that India has now come to have its own version of the American television evangelists, what with each saffron-robed preacher marketing nirvana in his own unique way.
And some of them are so successful that multinational companies buy advertising space on their television channels. Most of these modern-age men manage multimillion empires, running them like corporate entities investing in lands, buildings, factories, shares and so on.
Of course, one of the most successful marketers of instant nirvana is the saffron-clad ascetic holy man named Baba Ram Dev. Said to be in his early 40s, this son of a poor intermediate caste family from Haryana is now so successful that his sect controls land, buildings and factories manufacturing Indian medicines worth more than several billions of rupees (hundred millions of ringgit).
Headquartered in the holy Hindu town of Haridwar in the hilly state of Uttarakhand, Ram Dev commands a following of millions. Recently, he too was involved in a public controversy when the firebrand Marxist MP Brinda Karat accused him of using human bones in the medicines manufactured in his factories. Ram Dev denied the charge, challenging Karat to prove it or else withdraw from public life.
The matter died down. Most politicians would not want to entangle with a man who commands a huge following cutting across party lines. For someone who lacks a college degree, and is not well versed in the modern, westernised ways of the world, Ram Dev does come across as a gifted speaker, convincing his large audiences with commonsensical reason and wit. For example, he would rail against aerated drinks, especially foreign colas, telling his audiences to use them for cleaning the stained toilet bowls. He condemns the use of alcohol and cigarettes as grave sins. But the reason for his popularity is that he has taken the practice of the ancient Indian science of Yoga to ordinary Indians throughout the length and breadth of this country.
Cutting across religious, caste and financial lines, countless Indians watch Ram Dev on television every morning as he practices, before a live audience of tens of thousands, various physical or breathing exercises and explains the benefits said to flow from each exercise. Invariably, Ram Dev holds camps in various cities, where entry is ticketed and those who like to sit up front have to shell out 10 times more than those occupying rear seats. So successful have these camps been, that each year Ram Dev holds several of them. Indeed, some time ago he also held successful camps abroad, including London and New Jersey. Ram Dev is now building two universities and already has an ayurvedic hospital running in Hardwar.
Then there is the Bapu Asaram sect headquartered in Ahemdabad, Gujarat, but with branches in Delhi and other big towns. Asaram, too, is a preacher in the mould of Ram Dev though his emphasis is more on the redemption of the human soul via scriptural discourses rather than on yogic exercises. A convincing preacher who peppers his discourse with moral lessons drawn from everyday occurrences, he boasts of some of the richest Gujarati businessmen as his followers. Recently when there was a public split between two heirs of the country’s biggest corporate empire, Asaram had played the peacemaker.
Women far outnumber men at his religious discourse. The bearded guru, too, has a dedicated 24-hours, seven-days-a-week television channel where he can be seen preaching. One estimate put his empire at more than three billion rupees (RM259mil).
Another modern-day guru is the tall and bearded Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living foundation. He, too, gives religious discourses, sings hymns, runs a pharmacy and health centres and controls vast tracts of land. A guru of the rich and the famous, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has a corporate programme called Achieving Personal Excellence and runs camps for professionals where his disciples puts paying inmates through breathing exercises and helps them find mental peace through meditation.
One of the more successful women gurus is Kerala’s Mata Amritanandamayi, or simply Amma to millions of her followers at home and abroad. Her multimillion empire includes schools, hospitals and professional institutes. Of course, she has a dedicated TV channel to promote her and advertise her good deeds. She often goes abroad where rich followers, especially with roots in Kerala, play host. Important political leaders, including Defence Minister A.K. Antony, is an unabashed devotee of Amma.
Another sect, the Swaminarayan, is extremely popular with the Patels of Gujarat. It originated in the early 19th century as a social and educational reform movement, but has since splintered into several rival factions. Another old sect, Radha Soami, has more than 2,000 branches spread all over India and in key locations in Nepal, the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere. Claiming to have a following of more than 20 million, the Radhi Soami sect was established back in 1890s by an ascetic preacher, Baba Sawan Singh.
The scenic Mt Abu in the desert state of Rajasthan serves as the headquarters of the Brahmakumaris sect. Women members of the sect generally wear dhoti and their feet are unshod and mouths covered with a strip of cloth.
The above list is by no means exhaustive. The pressures of modern-day life have thrown up god men in every nook and cranny who presumably help followers find mental peace by interpreting an ancient religion in a modern phraseology. Rising aspirations, growing consumerist demands and alienation from one’s roots lead more and more Indians to seek salvation through god men and gurus.
Without doubt, middle and upper classes form the mainstay of these gurus. That would also explain the immense riches of a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or a Ram Dev. Or even a Sai Baba.