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Home / Opinion / Views /  Why the ‘Himalayan yogi’ may not be fiction

If you read Mint, you’d certainly know that Chitra Ramkrishna, former chief executive officer of the National Stock Exchange (NSE), appeared to be taking instructions from a man she considered a spiritual being, a “Siddha Purusha", as she told a regulatory body when it asked who he was. He was a “paramahansa, who may be largely dwelling in the Himalayan Ranges", one of those spirits whose “spiritual powers do not require them to have any such physical coordinates". But he did have an email address through which he communicated with her and she passed on information that was out of bounds for a person outside the NSE, even if he were out of this world.

The yogi appeared to have instructed her to make a key appointment in 2013—Anand Subramanian, whom no one in the NSE had heard of before, as chief strategic advisor. He was paid about ten times more than his previous salary, which later increased three-folds to over 4 crore. In Subramanian, Ramkrishna reportedly said in one of her emails, she saw the human form of the Himalayan yogi. Nevertheless, the guru said Subramanian would “surrender" his pay to the guru. The emails between the spiritual being and the former NSE chief are over six years old. They have been revealed only now by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), which was conducting a probe.

Many people don’t buy the story of Ramkrishna enthralled by a Himalayan yogi. They don’t buy it even though Indians have heard versions of such stories all their lives. Some say the story is a cover, alleging that Ramkrishna was in cahoots with this person. In one of the emails, the yogi said, “Today you are looking awesome. You must learn different ways to [plait] your hair which will make your looks interesting and appealing." Some suspect Subramanian was the yogi. The Sebi report offers this hypothesis, but disputes it on the basis of emails that suggest otherwise.

There is a reason why many Indians want to believe this story is more about fraud than spirituality. Ramkrishna, at the height of her power, was seen as an icon of modern India, an accomplished woman who led one of the largest stock exchanges in the world. Even after she resigned in disgrace in 2016, facing accusations of favouring some brokers, her stature was not so diminished. But Sebi’s revelations that she could have been controlled by a man who claimed to be a spiritual being is the kind of thing that embarrasses Indians.

Purely going by precedence, I would posit that Chitra Ramkrishna and her guru were not co-conspirators. She may really have believed in the divine powers of this mysterious guru, and the guru himself may not have been a complete con. A part of him, or all of him, may have thought he is a supernatural being. A con-man is not likely to have this kind of power over a person; a deluded person can. At the heart of human influence is the principle: to fool others, you must first fool yourself.

If Ramkrishna had fabricated the ‘Himalayan yogi’ as a cover to swindle, how could she expect a supernatural being with internet access to help her get off the hook if it went wrong? It does not make sense. Indian law may recognize deities as legal people, but I don’t think anyone has gotten away by claiming “a siddha purusha asked me to do it". Also, Sebi’s allegation that Subramanian’s appointment was “a money-making scheme" sounds odd. It would be a clumsy and low-stakes swindle for the CEO of a stock exchange to be involved in the salary heist of a single underling, given how lucrative a fraud involving, say, a split-second stock-data advantage for traders, could be.

I do not entirely dismiss a financial angle. Also, I do accept that the ‘Himalayan’ part of the ‘Himalayan yogi’ is not very convincing. The reputation of this mountain range as a source of ancient sages is indisputable, but whose guru is from the Himalayas anymore? That one’s guru lives in the Himalayas is something a person with no guru is likely to say. Even so, I find it very easy to believe that a person can be made to behave in strange ways by a spiritual guru.

Shared psychosis is fairly common. In this form of psychosis, a severely deluded person can transfer the delusion to a person who is sane and has the psychological predisposition to come under the influence of the insane. People who spend a long time in an environment where the supernatural experience assumes prophetic overtones have been observed to undergo such transformations when nudged by someone with deep conviction. It is like the click of “everything" falling in place. We think that just because there is a ‘click’, it has to be something true, deep and right. But a convenient lie falling in place probably has the same satisfying sound.

In 2018, in a Delhi suburb, a man followed the instructions of his dead father, and influenced at least nine of his family, all known to be sane and normal people, to stand on stools in a circle along with him, with nooses around their necks, and hang themselves. In this world, it is hard to get people to subscribe to good newspapers or get vaccinated, but one man can get nine sane people to voluntarily hang themselves.

Influence is a strange thing. A delusion is infectious, while truth simply does not travel.

By those standards, Ramkrishna’s submission to a spiritual being, as one version of the NSE’s remote management story has it, would not have been extraordinary. Many American CEOs have or have had gurus. Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs may once have been under the spell of an Indian mystic too. If their communication when the relationship was at its peak were to be revealed today, it may seem bizarre.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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