Haridwar: Over a roundabout they loom, over the town and its people—bearded babas, godmen and yoga gurus, in a blast of colours, photos and messages—all clamouring to offer spiritual solace in a materialistic world.
A serious-looking Swami Narendracharyaji Maharaj exhorts readers to think about “Hindu dharma in danger!” and why there is no Hindu state left on Indian soil. An angry Soham Baba (a monk from the Netherlands) stares at the sun with bloodshot eyes and proclaims: “It is my karma and dharma to stop global warming.” Another blue board sports a mild-looking man, with Mt Kailash behind him, reminding visitors that Morari Bapu’s Ram Katha has already begun.
Hundreds of such hoardings, clustered together on the road side, perched on buildings and stretched dangerously between electric poles, shouted fragments of advice at visitors to the Kumbh Mela this year. Godmen with nothing to say simply draped their pictures on posters and welcomed visitors to the gathering, which ended on Wednesday.
But absolutely no one, it was evident, wanted to be left out in this self-promotional blitzkrieg. Between Rs4 crore and Rs8 crore was spent by godmen, babas, sadhus and kathakars (religious storytellers) on hoardings in Haridwar in the last four months, according to Rishi Sachdeva, owner of the Galaxy Advertising Agency, which won the Kumbh’s advertising contract this year.
Advertising spree: Hoardings with various messages clustered together at Chandi Ghat in Haridwar. Rishi Ballabh/HT
“The main city of Haridwar is just eight (square) kilometres in area,” Sachdeva said. “About 1,500 hoardings went up in a small area during the Kumbh months. This is the first time so much money has been spent on advertising in Kumbh.”
Estimates vary, but most observers agree that, in 1998, during the last Kumbh Mela, there were no more than 350 billboards hawking religion to visitors. Even those were mostly advertisements for organizations, not personal promotions of babas, explained Sachdeva. “This trend of godmen setting up personal hoardings began with this Kumbh,” he said. “We have to watch what they do next.”
As more and more godmen diversify into religion-related businesses—selling food, Ayurvedic medicines, pooja products or doctrinal lectures—their organizations have come to resemble small, self-governed corporations.
After launching personal websites and giving paid lectures on religious television channels such as Aastha, the Kumbh was, for most babas, an obvious forum for self-promotion. Some godmen, such as Sri Radhe Guru Ma installed television screens inside their pandals (enclosures), beaming pictures of themselves in various states of meditation or giving lectures to captivated audiences.
Others, such as Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, had followers distributing pamphlets on the street, encouraging them to come in for a demonstration of the power of Sahaja Yoga. Shri Satpalji Maharaj, who is also a Congress member of Parliament from Garhwal, invited and hosted at least 200,000 followers from Gujarat and Rajasthan to Haridwar for a lecture series.
His Holiness Sri Sri 1008 Soham Baba, a mahamandaleshwar (a title issued by the organizations of sadhus called akhadas) of the Juna Akhada, ranks as the largest spender on hoardings this year, having plastered roughly 100 pictures all over Haridwar.
But Soham Baba was an absolute unknown until this campaign for visibility began. The baba, who runs a tax-exempt international organization from the Netherlands, said he is dedicated to “promoting peace on earth by offering self-less service to humanity”. For those who want to contribute (in euros), his website helpfully provides bank account details and bank transfer numbers. Ajay Chaudhary, who runs the advertising campaign for Soham Baba, refused to return calls from Mint. Calls to Soham Baba’s camp were also not returned.
Anand Halve, a media analyst and co-founder of Chlorophyll, a Mumbai-based brand and communications consultancy, said he can only guess why these babas spent this kind of money.
“I don’t think it’s just to become famous. I think it may also be that they want to become so big that the government cannot touch them,” Halve said.
But for the godmen, any publicity is good publicity. Rakesh Kumar Bhardwaj, an assistant to the additional mela administrator, who was involved in issuing contracts to advertising agencies for the Kumbh, said: “They just wanted to be known. Most of these hoardings were illegal. But if we tried to pull down the illegal ones, the babas simply ganged up and cried: ‘Baba pe atyachar (tyranny against babas)’. And we would have to back off.”
Toll on tradition
The rise of these babas, hungry for fame, has taken a toll on traditional practices and on the feel of one of the oldest living festivals of Hinduism. Some traditions are dying because of this changing nature of the Kumbh, worries Trayambak Bharti, general secretary of the Niranjani Akhada. “It was never about this baba or that sadhu,” he said. “It was about the dharma.”
In the past, religious leaders, scholars, sadhus, saints, yogis and babas from all over the country did their best to attend the Kumbh, using the gathering as an opportunity to address the issues of the Hindu community.
“Those were different times,” said the ageing Jyandasji Maharaj, president of the All India Akhada Parishad, who has attended many Kumbhs during his long career as a sadhu.
“It was not so commercial and ostentatious,” he said. “Even until the last Kumbh… I remember a fantastic debate about whether women had the right to study the Vedas in 1998. It went on for five days. People from all over came to watch these two scholars arguing with each other in Sanskrit… Everyone was just mesmerized. The scholar who was arguing that women could study the Vedas won that contest. We lost that sort of traditional celebration of logic and debate in this Kumbh.”
Godmen such as Rasiya Baba, a kathakar from Vrindavan, said they aren’t very concerned about the change, change being “the only constant of human life”. Sitting in an air-conditioned cottage furnished with a television, bed and bathroom, the baba expounded on his theory.
No time for debate
“Time is bound to change everything,” he said. “So the Kumbh has changed. Every age has its own demands.”
Rasiya Baba brushed aside a compliment paid by another potential follower and said: “We have to provide the best we can for devotees who come to witness the Kumbh. In ancient times, great sages like Vashishtha (one of the seven great sages in Hindu mythology) made beautiful ashrams with their thought powers alone. In this age, why should we not build with what science offers?”