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Thursday, June 30, 2011

(Published in on 30 June, 2011, retrieved from

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As the results of appraisals filter in, and the deadline for filing tax returns approaches, it’s that time of year we contemplate our finances, our growth and our prospects. And some of us realise that we’re probably not in the right professions, since the economy seems to affect ours. That’s about when it strikes us that there’s one breed that’s immune to the vagaries of the bottom-line. And yes, it’s certainly been the Year of the Swamis.
First, Nithyananda made a raunchy entry into our living rooms as footage of his alleged tryst with an actress beamed across news channels.
Then, Puttaparthi’s Sathya Sai Baba took ill, battled for life, and finally passed away, leaving behind heartbroken devotees and a staggering treasure trove.
Next, Baba Ramdev, who was last heard saying something along the lines of homosexuality being bad for health, suddenly flew in to a red carpet welcome in Delhi and was given an ugly send-off. Between thrashing about in the throes of death within nine days of the inception of his reported fast, publishing details of his financial assets online, and claiming that black money worth two lakh crore has been stashed away in Swiss banks, he’s remained in the headlines long enough to make PR professionals sit up.
So, what is it about these self-styled spiritual leaders that keeps money pouring into their coffers, and devotees into their ashrams? Call them businessmen, call them conmen, call them healers, but each of them has operated with a USP that fills a gap in the market. In the process, they’ve given their spiritual outfits the kind of brand identity that could make Fortune500 companies envious.
My first acquaintance with a spiritual leader came through footwear. Someone gifted me ‘Osho slippers’, and for a long time, I thought Osho was a Japanese shoe manufacturer. The fact that ridiculously expensive internet cafés were cropping up around the time I was finishing school may have played a part in my sustained belief in the origins of my slippers.
When people referred to sayings of Osho, I assumed he was the founder of the company. But when their contents were divulged, I was inclined to think of him as a well-meaning, if eccentric, Bengali professor.
A few years later, a schoolmate who has now built something of a reputation for being a stalker decided to disarm me – and several other schoolmates, of both genders – by sending us an incredibly long and boring lecture by the ‘real’ Osho  a.k.a. Rajneesh a.k.a. Chandra Mohan Jain about falling in and out of love. Most of us didn’t cross the first paragraph.
My last encounter with Osho was a YouTube video that became sensational in my office on a slow day – it contained a homily on swearing by the man popularly called the ‘sex guru’. I assume the former colleague stumbled upon the discovery this while surfing the internet for porn.
Now, Osho knew how to live it up. He left for the US on a tourist visa, and ended up establishing an international commune, in his name, in Oregon and building a fleet of Rolls-Royces. When he was arrested and deported four years later for immigration violations, he did a world tour – apparently forced, because twenty-one countries denied him entry – and skipped back to Pune.
At a time when Indian students of nonexistent American universities are being made to wear radio collars, and Indian diplomats are being patted down at American airports, Osho’s acumen invokes a degree of admiration. His USP was, clearly, shock and annoy.
However, the founder of his ilk may have been Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who according to the New Yorker helped the Beatles forget about LSD (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, come on!), and according to The Independent inspired them to write new songs.  
They’ve got it spot on, considering John Lennon told an interviewer that ‘Sexy Sadie’ was originally titled ‘Maharishi’. Mark Lewisohn, in his book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions notes that the working lyrics of the song, which were altered at the insistence of George Harrison, compared the subject of the song to a female body part, which – though somewhat involved in birth – can’t be considered a complimentary epithet.
The Maharishi lived in the scenic surroundings of ashrams in Switzerland and The Netherlands, and travelled in style, complete with a helicopter. An ascetic version of Richard Branson, one might say.  Others may disagree with the implication of abstinence. His USP was finding favour with troubled pop celebrities, ranging from Mia Farrow to the Beach Boys.
When media-savvy gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living Foundation and Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation offer opinions on natural and political disasters on television, they end up raising a fair bit of money for the rehabilitation of the victims. Their meditation camps seem to bring in enough money to run the trusts they found along with their ashrams.
In terms of USP, my mind’s rather preoccupied by one experience a friend who attended a Sudarshana Kriya workshop shared. Apparently, at some point, people could hear voices, see colours or sense particular aromas. Some began to cry, and others to laugh. My friend claimed he could smell Teacher’s Highland Cream Whisky. “I can usually identify the drink, yaar,” he said, “like whether it’s rum or vodka or whisky.” Then, in an awed tone, he continued, “But this time, I knew it was Teacher’s. I knew the brand! That’s quite impressive, don’t you think?”
The new age formula which both these foundations, as well as the Sathya Sai Baba Trust, seem to have applied is to do charity work.
Sathya Sai Baba went a step ahead to draw devotees with his miracles, though. Some of the world’s richest entrepreneurs turned philanthropists, contributing to the various establishments, including hospitals and institutions, run by his trust.
The opening of the Sai Baba’s personal chamber Yajur Mandir was preceded by the kind of media hysteria that would have made the actual event something of a washout – if 98 kg of gold, 307 kg of silver and Rs 11.56 crore in cash had not been found inside.
However even those enormous figures pale in comparison to Baba Ramdev’s personal Sensex – the 30 companies that are reportedly worth more than Rs 1100 crore. Small wonder, since the Baba may well have leapt right out of a Dan Brown thriller, complete with his political ambitions and army of 11,000 men and women, in a manner not unlike the famous dive off the dais at Ramlila Maidan.
But despite their unique selling propositions, all these yogic men have one thing in common: they wear monochromatic robes, usually in colours associated with purification, simplicity and sacrifice – white or saffron.
Whatever wheels they own or thrones they grace, and however they choose to reach out to the multiple ‘new generation’s, they bear the external appearance of asceticism, and the dichotomy seems to appeal to yuppies whose paucity of time and profusion of money makes designer spirituality particularly appealing.


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