New Delhi: In recent years, dozens of religion-based and guru-led Indian organizations got into the business of making and marketing offerings, be it health tonics, DVDs or education.
Now, amid rising competition, including from those trying to piggyback on these brands, these organizations are realizing that they can’t just rely on a wing and a prayer.
And, for starters, religious organizations are increasingly applying for a raft of trademark protections and initiating legal action against copycat websites.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), Divya Yog Mandir of Baba Ramdev fame, and Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) that manages Akshardham and other temples in various countries, have all filed for hundreds of trademarks in recent years as they look to protect their growing brand recognition and revenues, and eye new franchise extensions.
For instance, Divya Yog Mandir has made hundreds of applications to trademark Baba Ramdev, Swami Ramdev and Divya Yoga, seeking to stop those names being used by others on building materials, education and training.
BAPS Trust has applied for dozens of trademarks for Akshardham name and its charitable organization—BAPS Care —in multiple categories, from paper tissues and industrial oils to carpets and rugs. Iskcon has applied to trademark its soon-to-be-unveiled restaurant chain.
Divya Yog Mandir sells Ramdev-linked herbal products, books and DVDs through a network of some 700 group-owned and franchisee-operated retail stores, which makes it one of India’s largest retail chains, not counting an e-commerce website that allows those outside India to buy using dollars and the pound.
BAPS’ herbal care unit sells health tonics, Ayurvedic medicines and body care products through its website and has also tied up with New Delhi-based chain of retail stores, LM365, to peddle its products.
Iskcon is also getting more focused on branding and protecting brand names as it ramps up its business plans.
The Bangalore-based Iskcon, which operated a restaurant under the organization’s name, is now planning a chain of restaurants, branded The Higher Taste, to promote vegetarian food, a name the group says is derived from Hinduism’s holy books, or Shastras, where “higher taste” is referred to as pure and divine foods. The group has since applied for a trademark for The Higher Taste in the restaurants category.
Funds from the chain, Iskcon says, will go to its Akshaya Patra programme that helps provide free mid-day meals to about one million schoolchildren. The group is also planning to open a theme park, along the lines of Disneyland on a 350- acre site in Bangalore, which will also have commercial space to lease out as well as a hotel, a mall, a revolving restaurant and a food court.
Business concerns: Hundreds of websites unrelated to Ramdev are doing business in his name, claims Divya Yog Mandir. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
The business growth of these spiritual or religion-based offerings stems in part from growing prosperity, especially in urban India, accompanied by lifestyle changes and resulting health issues.
Self-appointed gurus such as Ramdev have became cult figures by espousing yoga and vegetarianism as a way to cope with both physical and emotional issues.
Tens of thousands of people now practise yoga in front of their television sets to Ramdev’s lesson beamed live over satellite television. He is also in demand, be it from multinational companies or the Indian security forces, to hold yoga camps.
Cashing in on Ramdev’s growing popularity, Divya Yog Mandir has rushed to sell yoga DVDs to herbal products through hundreds of stores. But the group claims that others unrelated to Ramdev are using image and selling knockoffs of popular herbal offerings.
“Even if you want to take action against violators, they would ask: ‘Show us if you have trademark for this,’” says Lalit Mohan, head of human resources for Divya Yog Mandir. “If we have to take action against anyone, we needed a base to do so. That’s an obligation we had to fulfil.”
Others have also found themselves in a similar situation. The Art of Living Foundation has a registered trademark on the group’s name as well as the image of its founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. A spokesman for Art of Living says cases of some people in the US trying to trademark Shankar and the name of the organization way back in the 1990s prompted the group to apply for trademarks.
While these groups can go after copycats without having applied for trademarks, “registration gives an additional right to be able to take infringement action and, in certain cases, criminal action as well,” says New Delhi-based intellectual properties attorney Neil Mason.
It isn’t just products. Some of the groups say they have discovered copycat websites as well, many of which routinely show up in a simple Google.com search for Baba Ramdev or Swami Ramdev.
“We are caught up with hundreds of websites that are doing (business) in the name of Swami Ramdevji and people are very confused,” says Divya Yog Mandir’s spokesman S.K. Tijarawala. “Many of the websites’ origins are from outside India and to stop them you have to go to international courts. The Indian laws are very weak in this area. We are finding ourselves very helpless.”