Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh: It’s a quiet evening at Yog Gram, the sprawling “yoga village” adjoining the Rajaji National Park, in the Hindu holy town of Haridwar in Uttarakhand. Sitting near a two-storey cottage in the complex is a group of men looking at maps and discussing promotional leaflets. They are waiting for an audience with yoga guru Baba Ramdev.
New role: Baba Ramdev has come a long way from the man who sang devotional songs in small towns of Gujarat. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Baba Ramdev’s motorcade rolls in just as the sun is about to set. The men are on their feet as he steps out of his black Land Rover. Soon there’s a small crowd near Ramdev eager to touch his feet. One of them waits for the others to finish. As he prostrates, Ramdev taps the man’s head and says kush raho (be happy)! The man and his friends are there to convince the baba to devote two days of his time to their “save the cow” campaign.
Today, the Yog Gram is hosting a 1,000-strong group— chartered accountants and their families. As the group returns to the conference hall after yoga lessons, Ramdev explains: “We are holding a special shivir (camp) for the chartered accountants right now. These people help the country’s financial health and I am helping them maintain theirs.”
“I am holding 20 such shivirs for people of different professions and tell them about our Bharat Swabhiman Trust.”
The newly-formed trust has been assigned the task of spreading Ramdev’s election-related preachings with the stated objective of achieving a 100% turnout in the month-long general election beginning 16 April.
His so-called Bharat Swabhiman Andolan, which translates as Indian self-respect campaign, addresses such issues as corruption in public life, national security and even the economy. In January, his organization shot off warning letters to all political parties not to field candidates tainted by corruption scandals.
Ramdev, who has a cult-like following, disowns any political ambition, but it is clear that this is the election in which he steps into politics, albeit guardedly. Ramdev, observers say, is paving the way, through the Bharat Swabhiman Trust for a change in his public role although, at this point, it is difficult to predict what the new role will be.
Saving the cow
At the Yog Gram, meantime, the visitors smile, exchange glances, not sure if they should proceed on to their own agenda or wait for him to finish. Tucking a lock of his hair behind his ear, Ramdev takes charge. “To bataiye. Hum aapki kya seva kar sakte hain?” (So tell me, how can I help you?)
The eldest in the group begins wheezing as he explains that they belong to a group devoted to protecting the cow. “We are going on a yatra (march) across rural India to save the cow from slaughter,” he says. “Here is a map of how the yatra will proceed through 500 districts. Will you please join us on the opening and concluding days?”
Ramdev does not answer, but asks some questions of his own. He asks about the route the march will take, where it will stop and when, and about the posters, banners and pamphlets to be distributed along the way. And then he asks: “Aap bolenge kya?” (What message are you going to convey?)
When the men began to explain how the cow was a symbol of rural India, Ramdev stops them. He has understood the message, but doesn’t like the way it is being told.
“Look, you want people to stop sending their cows to slaughter houses. For that you will have to speak in an emotional way. You have to appeal to their faith, not science,” he admonishes them.
“Don’t say things like—gau jahan hogi vahan shubh hoga (the presence of a cow is auspicious). When you say things like that, people may clap their hands, but when they go home and see the poverty they will think, uh, I have had a cow for years. But where are the good things that are supposed to come?”
The men nodded their heads vigorously, before coming back to the question, “So you will come, right?”
They had missed the point. Ramdev, whose wry humour holds millions of followers transfixed to his yoga show on television every morning, was giving them a lesson in message control. He was teaching them how to capture the audience’s attention and hold it.
Inventing & reinventing
Baba Ramdev, the avatar Ramkishan Yadav invented for himself, has come a long way from the man who sang devotional songs as his colleague, Swami Karamveerji Maharaj, taught yoga in small towns of Gujarat. “When I was a young man, all I knew was that I wanted to become a sadhu (monk). I wanted to wear orange clothes and wear khadau (wooden sandals as worn by monks in ancient times). I did not know what I would do when I became a sadhu, though. Sometimes I thought I will become a sadhu and a professor. Sometimes I thought I will become an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer and report to duty in orange clothes,” he giggles over the dreams he had once woven.
He can afford to. His life as a sadhu has been far bigger than those dreams. While his trust has become an umbrella for 21 organizations, the Ayurveda division has acquired a life of its own. “These medicines are sold not only in India, but also abroad,” said Acharya Balakishan, a core member of Ramdev’s team who looks after research and development of Ayurvedic drugs, an enterprise that, according to unofficial estimates, is worth Rs300–400 crore. The figure could not be verified and members of the organization prefer not to speak with the media.
Millions tune into Aastha TV to watch his yoga and pranayam show every morning. About two months ago, he bought over the channel that beams to at least 160 countries, for an undisclosed amount.
Last year, he set up the first overseas centre of Patanjali Yogpeeth, the Haridwar-based centre for research in yoga and Ayurveda, in the US. The $4.5 million (Rs22.6 crore) centre is being built over 60 acres in Houston.
Just a few years ago, Ramdev was often found cycling in Haridwar, buying fodder for his cows and waiting in queues at government offices. Some people also say he borrowed Rs5,000 from three people to register his trust, the Divya Yog Mandir.
“I was there when he conducted his first yoga camp here,” said Sarad Kumar Gupta, who runs an agency for Bharat Gas in Haridwar. “About 10, 12 people had gathered at the Kripalu Bag ashram in Kankhal (now the headquarters of Ramdev’s empire), where Ramdev was setting up his class under litchi trees.”
“I was taking a walk by that route when I saw something was going on. I wandered in and they told me this swamiji was conducting yoga classes. So I also joined them,” said Ghosh, a resident of Haridwar.
“When swamiji brought out his takhat (seat), there was nothing to put on it. So some of us ran around the garden trying to find some pieces of plastic to spread on it,” said Ghosh. And while Ramdev sat on plastic, the students practised on the ground, for he had nothing to offer them to sit on.
After the class, Gupta gifted him a blue tarpaulin for the next batch. The second camp began the very next day and 30 people attended. This time Gupta gave Ramdev a microphone and speakers. Ramdev used it in the third camp to draw in more students—this time 150 came. Soon the ashram orchard could no longer hold the yoga enthusiasts. “So many people had suddenly begun to come that there was not enough space for everyone,” said Ghosh.
Attracted by his simple approach, wry sense of humour and commitment to yoga, the numbers continued to swell with every class. Ramdev now decided to charge a fee—a decision that led to the first split in the founding group of three. Swami Karamveerji Maharaj, who had inducted Acharya Balkishan and Baba Ramdev into his mission of spreading yoga to the masses, disapproved of the decision.
“I come from an old school of thought. I believe that the life of a sadhu is to give, not take. A sadhu’s life has no place for making money, running organizations and protecting his own interest. His life is lived in the interest of society. I did not agree with what he was doing. But he was adamant. So was I. And I decided to leave,” he explains.
Ten years ago, a seven-day camp cost a couple of hundred rupees. Today, it costs about Rs15,000. The derelict one-acre ashram has expanded into a 1,500–1,600 acre empire in Haridwar, with one hospital (Patanjali Yogpeeth I), three research laboratories, two nurseries (to grow herbs for Ayurvedic drugs) and two sprawling residential complexes (Yog Gram and Patanjali Yogpeeth II), where anywhere between 5,000–7,000 people can stay and learn yoga.
About 10,000 people walk through his hospital every day. With his following, the donations have also increased, but it is impossible to get a sense of the trust’s finances since no one, including Ramdev, will speak on the subject.
Ramdev has raised the bar for himself. He is no longer content with simply fixing the health of Indians. His vision now extends to the economic, social and cultural health of the country. His team has expanded to include economist Rajiv Dixit.
Dixit, who had launched the Aazadi Bachao Andolan (save the freedom movement) in early 1990s, has been a campaigner for the protection of Indian industries. At the Yog Gram, both men stand on the porch steps of Ramdev’s cottage, debating ways of wealth creation among the farmers and the importance of self-sufficient villages. Evening turns into dusk around them, and Dixit continued to explain complicated economic theories to the orange-robed man who had never seen the inside of a school when he was a boy.
And so far, it seems to have worked. At the new Aastha TV headquarters in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, Surendra Tijarawala, the public relations manager for Ramdev, is setting up office space. “We are planning to continue operations of Aastha TV and Aastha International. We are also planning to launch two more channels under the Aastha banner. One of those will focus exclusively on an ideal Indian life and culture,” he explains.
And while Aastha employees are busy setting up the media outlet that will convey the vision of Ramdev to the masses, he himself is busy polishing his message. “My call is to the call of India’s soul. Those who do not respect themselves and their heritage cannot thrive. My mission is to remind Indians of who they are, their heritage and be proud of it. By next year, my Bharat Swabhiman campaign will have reached 50 crore people. And then, there will be a revolution,” says Ramdev.
The road less travelled
The man was not always so driven. A sickly child, he remembers he was so fat that he had to be carried from one place to another. Then came facial paralysis and by the time he was nine, he had begun to practice yoga to cope with his physical disabilities.
As he grew older, “I began to think about the gurukul (ancient Hindu school) system and decided that I will study in a gurukul and become an acharya (teacher) there. I decided I would be the teacher who could reawaken love for our ancient scriptures among students. But over the years, I discovered that few were interested in learning and I reached a point where I felt I was wasting my life trying to teach these people. That’s when I left teaching and went to join my old friend, Acharya Balakishan, in the Himalayas.”
No one knows how long he wandered and he evades a specific answer to the question. But it was during this time that Acharya Balakishan introduced him to Swami Karamveerji Maharaj, and together the three of them founded the Divya Yog Trust in an ashram donated to them by an ageing sanyasin (a Hindu woman who has renounced the world) who could no longer run the place.
In 1995, the making of Baba Ramdev began.
Looking back, they were very difficult days, says Acharya Balakishan. “But you know, somehow, when God wants to make you the instrument to do his work, things just happen. Everything falls in place and things that you could not accomplish within a whole lifetime get done in a matter of months and years. Buildings get made. Institutions are created and work is done. That is when you know someone else is at work. Not you,” said Balakishan.
Will the Baba Ramdev empire be able to sustain the rapid pace of its expansion?
“I don’t think much about it,” he says. “When there was no trouble setting all this up, why do you think there will be trouble in maintaining it?”
He pauses, reflecting on his journey so far. “It is God’s work I am doing. I never forget my past, I will never deny my roots, but I have so much more work to do.”