The controversial cultural event organised by "Sri Sri" Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation (AOL) on the Yamuna floodplains last week highlighted the resurrection of political patronage of that unique Indian institution: the "god-man". Not since the days of Indira Gandhi's yoga mentor, Dhirendra Brahmachari, has this hybrid temporal/spiritual institution acquired such overt support from the political establishment. With sadhus and sadhvis figuring among the ruling party's members of Parliament and some in ministerial berths, the rise of the "god-men" is inevitable within a ruling regime with a specific cultural agenda.
AOL's World Culture Festival was actively promoted by Indian missions abroad, the army was commandeered to build logistics infrastructure and the prime minister attended despite accusations of serial violations of environmental norms against the event that attracted global attention. The other "god-man" to enjoy the fruits of political patronage is "Baba" Ramdev, the yoga instructor. Only a few years ago, Mr Ramdev was in the headlines for making an ignominious escape from the police dressed in women's clothing for holding an unauthorised event. Already, Mr Ramdev's fast-moving consumer goods empire, Patanjali, a brand extension from his yogic exploits, has exploded from a smallish Ayurvedic enterprise into a Rs 2,500-crore business that has established players like Hindustan Unilever scrambling to react.
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To be sure, neither Mr Ravi Shankar nor Mr Ramdev are creations of this political regime nor do they owe the successes of their enterprises to such backing. Indeed, both enjoyed a wide following from rich and middle-class Indians well before the National Democratic Alliance came to power, with their combination of robust charitable work and spiritual succour, whether via breathing techniques or yoga. Also, in their broad appeal, they do not appear to replicate Dhirendra Brahmachari, also a yoga guru, with his private aircraft, involvement in questionable business deals and the strong influence he exerted over Indira Gandhi that earned him the sobriquet of the Indian Rasputin. They can be described as the emerging market leaders of that omnibus growing trend of spiritual "gurudom", expected perhaps in a developing country where globalisation has accelerated the pace of social and economic change sharply. In a sense, they stand on the shoulders of the early movers - people like "Maharishi" Mahesh Yogi, spiritual mentor to the Beatles and a host of Hollywood stars in the 1960s, Rajneesh, also an international hit, Satya Sai Baba, the suave Jaggi Vasudev and Mata Amratanandamayi Devi, the best-known "god-woman". All have elaborate establishments in India and often overseas, including whole islands donated by followers. It can even be said that their activities in establishing schools and hospitals and other charitable work serve a public purpose.
In a country where the only certainty is uncertainty, it is no surprise that most politicians and business leaders follow some guru or the other. But the return of an explicit guru-political complex may be cause for concern not just because of the cultural signals it sends out in multi-cultural India but also because of the inherently opaque nature of these organisations. Unlike conventional businesses, these organisations tend not to be subject to rigorous scrutiny, on the source of their vast wealth. It is no coincidence that several face controversies over their temporal empires, as Sai Baba and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi did after their deaths. They are also rarely subject to public scrutiny, leading to the kind of practices for which Asaram Bapu or Radhe Maa stand accused. A regime's association with "god-men," thus, can be as risky as, say, crony capitalism.