Wednesday, May 24, 2023
Support Our Journalism
HomeFeaturesScroll, like, exhale: Instagram is now like Aastha TV for influencer gurus

Scroll, like, exhale: Instagram is now like Aastha TV for influencer gurus

These gurus on social media have flipped the stereotype of elderly sages spouting enigmatic words of wisdom or chanting bhajans in monotone.

Text Size:

Instagram nirvana is the new thing. No, not the kind where you roll out your yoga mat and sit in the lotus position and press the Reels button. If the Aastha channel collides with influencer culture and India’s ceaseless quest for gurus, then the Instagram guru influencer is born.

Whether it is a matter of friendship or faith, there’s a rough-and-ready pravachan (religious sermon) available on Instagram by a new set of women gurus. Some of their followers call them ‘devi’. Others inspire their fans to breach the virtual wall and travel to their ashrams to physically meet the ‘devis’. 

These influencers are not typical sanyasinis (female hermits) clad in saffron with sandalwood tikas (a coloured spot) on their foreheads. Most are in their 20s, if not younger, and have a finger on the spiritual pulse of social media.

Twenty-seven-year-old Jaya Kishori, christened the ‘Meera of Modern India’ by her followers, delivers pravachans for Gen Z. At 25, Krishna Priya exudes serenity as she channels her brand of inner peace tinged with national pride. And the “divine love” of Radha and Krishna is the muse for 24-year-old Chitralekha’s sermons.

Many of these Instagram gurus discovered their calling as teenagers, and have influenced thousands, if not millions, of people with their pravachans.

Fourteen-year-old Ushma made her social media debut barely a year ago and already has over one lakh followers. 

Unlike other Instagram influencers selling their perfect lives, these Instagram gurus privilege peace instead of perfection. Scroll, like, comment, and exhale.

Also read: India’s Tuition Republic is bigger than ever. Coaching culture is an epidemic now

Flipping stereotype 

Jaya Kishori retrofits traditional teachings and stories from the epics for a reel-loving, trend-following, nirvana-seeking generation hooked on to social media. Friendship, loneliness, and self-actualisation are some of her more popular reels.

“Friendship existed between Krishna and Arjuna and the same relationship was seen between Karn and Duryodhana. But there were a lot of differences between these two types of friendships,” she explains in one of her reels. She then delves into nuances of the relationships. While Krishna and Arjuna wanted the best for each other, Duryodhana was only taking advantage of Suryaputra Karn.

“That’s why Karn lost even after being righteous and Arjuna emerged victorious,” said Kishori, drawing from the epics to discuss friendships in a post-modern society.

In another reel, she defines friendship as a relationship built on a strong foundation, not on frivolity. So even if you haven’t met for months or spoken to each other for a year, it won’t matter. For a Gen Z always on the go, whose relationships are often transient, this message is comforting.

Kishori’s ease at unpacking religious texts attracts thousands of followers who form an instant connection withJaya didi”. She is their guide, their friend, their sister. “Love you Sister. Your words are true,” wrote one follower in the comments. “I only consider you as my good friend,” said another. Today, Kishori, who lives in Kolkata, has more than seven lakh followers on Instagram, 22 lakh followers on YouTube, and nearly 19 lakh followers on Facebook.

On her website, she describes herself as a motivational speaker, spiritual orator, and life coach. She tailors her sermons to reach out to students and young adults. How to focus on work. Students’ marks vs their relatives. How to become a spiritual orator. Three life lessons from Mahabharata. Kishori claims to have the answers.

And she is not a lone woman in this long line of ‘devis’. 

If Jaya Kishori seeks to bridge the chasm between teenage angst and spiritual enlightenment using contemporary motifs, Krishna Priya espouses a more traditional form of spirituality. Her followers call her ‘Sadhvi’ and ‘Protector of Sanatana Dharma.’ 

“You should always chant the name of God… Whatever the circumstances are, whether you are eating, drinking, sleeping or waking up, chanting in the name of God is the only way,” she said on her Instagram reel.

But she wields social media with the precision of a master swordsman. “Nowadays, the activity of people on social media has increased to such an extent that we have to utilise its reach to convey our message to the people,” Priya said.

Final-year chartered accountant student Bhagat Agarwal has turned to both women for guidance and help after he discovered them on Instagram. He credits Priya for his career choice.

“I’ve known Sadhvi Krishna Priya since 2014 and meet her twice a year to seek advice,” he said.

After Agarwal passed Class 10, he was confused about what he should major in and sought Priya’s help. She gave him homework. “She told me to read one book on each subject and see which one I understood the best. It’s how I came to know that commerce is the right subject for me,” said Agarwal, who lives in Rajasthan’s Balotra. He also met Kishori, but it is Priya he turns to for help.

These ‘devis’ have flipped the stereotype of elderly sages spouting enigmatic words of wisdom or chanting bhajans in monotone. Their reels are slickly produced, and their posts are a hook for the lost generation. And by some trick of light, they radiate a glow that would put J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves to shame.

Also read: Disability influencers on Instagram have one loud message. They don’t exist to inspire you

Balancing school and spirituality 

Though she’s only 14, Ushma channels a similar inner peace unblemished by teenage angst.  

To date, she’s posted only around 30 kathas, or sermons, on YouTube and 354 Instagram posts since she joined the platform last year. But in a short span of time, she has gathered 8,000 followers on Instagram and more than a lakh subscribers on her YouTube channel

“I’ve been singing bhajans (devotional songs) since I was a child,” said Ushma, who was encouraged by her father to start recording sermons. She studies in Class 9 at a private school in Jhansi and straddles student and spiritual life with relative ease. 

Followers often invite her to speak at religious functions for which she gets a leave of absence from her school. She’s travelled to Jharkhand, Bihar, and Rajasthan.

“I get a lot of support from my teachers. If I have to travel to give a katha, I can leave school early. I also get extended leave for four to five days,” said Ushma.

Her days are packed. When she’s not in school or at home doing homework or preparing for exams, she’s writing kathas, creating reels for her Instagram handle, and updating her social media accounts.

“I do not get any chance to play with my friends because I do not have enough time to go out and meet them,” she said. But it’s a “sacrifice” she’s happy to make.

Like Ushma, 24-year-old Chitralekha from Haryana’s Palwal discovered her love for spirituality as a child while visiting temples with her mother and listening to stories about Radha and Krishna. Her Instagram and Facebook handles are a perfect blend of the spiritual and the social. “I have made Insta a medium to convey my words to the people,” she said. 

Called ‘devi’ by her number of followers, she posts reels in quick question-and-answer formats. Think 30-second spiritual homilies, the virtual equivalent of a fortune cookie.

Her messages from Haryana have reached BJP worker Anil in Gujarat, who sees her as a mentor and guide. “We have listened to other gurus, but we have faith only in Chitralekhaji. I was fortunate to meet her in 2019 when she came to Gujarat to give a sermon,” he told ThePrint. 

Devi’s reels are pithy and to the point. 

“God says bring devotion in life, be devoted, and then I might meet you,” she proclaimed in one reel, which had more than a lakh views. 

Among the praises and adoration, a few viewers question her motive. “Do you talk about donating to us only or have you ever donated something yourself, or have you opened a business account in the name of God?”

The commentator is pilloried by her followers, but spirituality is a lucrative business, especially since the pandemic when people started seeking more meaningful lives. 

Also read: Protests ended, but Shaheen Bagh’s young Muslim women have been launching daily mutinies

The business of sermons 

Ushma, Kishori, and the other ‘devis’ are part of the big fat Indian spirituality market that The Economic Times pegged at $40 billion in a 2016 report. It’s an industry that offers apps for pujas and pandits, online prasad (religious offering), daily bhajans in your inbox, astrologers, and vastu experts. 

For new entrants, platforms like Udemy even offer tailor-made courses to build spirituality online. One such programme, titled ‘3 keys to growing your influence as a spiritual business’, has more than 19,000 students and a rating of 4.3 stars. Students will learn how to create their own spiritual movement, identify their target audience, market their spiritual influence, and build their community. 

The more followers influencers gather, the more donations and ‘sponsors’ they get. Almost all the ‘devis’ ThePrint approached refused to talk about the donations and invitations that came their way.

With a little bit of prodding, one young woman said she gets paid anywhere between Rs 1-1.5 lakh for her sermons. But the requests to give motivational speeches and sermons, as well as other monetary opportunities, are directly proportional to her popularity on social media. To stay relevant, she has to upload short reels or messages as often as possible. 

They are successfully marrying attention-economy with vedic thoughts, Reels with rosary, influence with inner peace, Krishna with clickbait, and most importantly FOMO (fear of missing out) with zen.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular