When Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (as well as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev) to “inspire people towards greater democratic participation”, he was only recognising the guru’s unofficial endorsement of him. Over the past few months, Jaggi Vasudev has tweeted and spoken on a number of subjects that show a remarkable congruence with the BJP’s agenda, whether it is on democracy not being used to ‘point fingers’ or on the ‘ease & benefits’ of GST. All these are usually accompanied by photographs where he is posing with his arms outstretched like a spiritual Shah Rukh Khan.
A vocal guru with a Ducati
He has spoken against the continuation of Article 370 and supported Major Leetul Gogoi’s tying of a Kashmiri youth to his jeep in 2017. He has condemned the Pulwama attack and criticised “motivated groups spewing venom all the time”. He has echoed Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar’s criticism of Rahul Gandhi’s “petty politics” and announced that homosexuality should not become an identity to parade on the streets. He believes women of menstrual age not being allowed inside the Sabarimala temple is a matter of discretion rather than gender discrimination. In a conversation with actress Kangana Ranaut, he controversially declared that “people who claim to be liberals are actually fanatics. If you don’t agree with them, they will finish you.”
He has faced backlash for soft-peddling BJP’s agenda, with some Twitter accounts even posting old stories, which questioned his wife’s “mahasamadhi”. Others have questioned the call centre for his river rally being the same as the one used by the Gujarat government on several occasions when Narendra Modi was chief minister.
But it has made little difference to the guru or his devotees. For the seven million volunteers of the Isha Foundation, which Sadhguru began in 1992 in Coimbatore Tamil Nadu, he is the man who has given them a new way of living, a feel-good pick-me-up for these troubled times. If Baba Ramdev is the king of a swadeshi empire and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has acquired a man-of-peace persona, Sadhguru is emerging as the guru of the good life for post-millennial India.
Through a combination of an active YouTube channel with over 2.5 million subscribers, regular tweets to his nearly two million followers, an Isha Foundation programme on campuses called Youth and Truth, several wealthy patrons whose homes he often commandeers, and prolific appearances at media summits, Jaggi Vasudev has built a reputation as a mystic with the mostest. He rides a Ducati Scrambler up and down Tamil Nadu’s Velliangiri hills, holds conferences while being driven around in a Land Rover, uses his pilot’s license to fly his chopper, plays golf in Dubai with world-renowned columnist Thomas Friedman, and is regularly interviewed by Bollywood’s famous and fawning, from Kangana Ranaut to Juhi Chawla.
An inner engineering course
The secret of his success? An inner engineering course that has transformed many lives, and won him a dedicated following among several qualified professionals. Like Moumita Sen Sharma, who was a vice president in a multinational bank with everything she had wished for. “Yet, every morning I would wake up with a deep longing to understand the purpose of my life and to know my place in this endless cosmos,” she said. Within days, a friend called out of the blue, urging her to do the Isha Yoga programme by Jaggi Vasudev.
It led to her working in microfinance. In the next seven years, she did incredibly satisfying things, first with microfinance and then with establishing sustainable development within the bank and setting up a foundation. Awards and recognition followed, but the microfinance crisis a few years later, finally drove home the message that you can’t change the world. ”Only when people transform themselves, will the world change. I realised then that it was time for me to take the proverbial bull by the horns and make fundamental changes to my life. And so, I did the most obvious thing. I joined Isha Foundation as a full-time volunteer,” she says. Now 51, the chartered accountant and a former banker has dedicated her life to Isha Foundation as the director of Isha Leadership Academy, which runs the programme INSIGHT: The DNA of Success.
What makes Jaggi Vasudev’s teaching so attractive? It’s not merely the Shambhavi Mahamudra, a 21-minute meditative practice that Isha Foundation’s Inner Engineering course teaches – the hook so to speak like kapalbhati for Ramdev’s devotees or pranayama for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s followers. It is also his easily marketable set of beliefs, among them that spirituality is a technology rather than a philosophy and it is meant to align the body, emotions, mind and energy in a process of self-actualisation. At its core is the attractive idea that individual wellbeing comes from within and cannot be sought from external factors. As Jaggi Vasudev often says in his quaint, American-accented English: “Spirituality is knowing yourself thoroughly”. And it has absolutely nothing to do with organised religion, he says, a quality that makes him popular with youngsters, who feel free to ask him anything in the Youth and Truth series on campuses, as varied as Christ College, Bengaluru, to IIT Delhi, from masturbation to exam-related disorders. This doesn’t explain his magnificent obsession with Shiva, the Adi Guru or the first guru, from whom the yogic tradition follows and whose 112-foot statue is the most stunning part of the ashram, inaugurated with much hype and hoopla by Prime Minister Modi in 2017.
The self-styled Robin Hood
To those who criticise him for five-star fixes, he has this to say: “Seventy per cent of Isha Foundation work is in the villages and is free. I’m just robbing you to keep this alive.” Shekhar Kapur, the filmmaker, met the self-styled Robin Hood in Puerto Rico almost 15 years ago, and has watched his influence grow. “I am not surprised,” he says. “He makes the spiritual meaningful to modern, often doubting minds. He has changed an amazing number of lives through his teachings based on a deep understanding of all that is spiritual and also scientific and practical.” Kapur considers him to be his mentor.
Jaggi Vasudev’s teachings work for many in the Age of Apprehension. Like Jeby Cherian, who was managing partner for IBM’s Global Business Services for India and South Asia till 2014 before quitting to become a full-time Isha Foundation volunteer and help him with all the leadership programmes. He attended a session with Sadhguru in Chicago in 2005 as a sceptic, wanting to spend no more than 30 minutes listening to him. He ended up taking the seven-day course with him, which moved him from living in a state of perpetual anxiety to a state of equanimity. “It moved me from looking outside of me for answers to looking within me. It freed me from religion to spirituality. Above all, it raised in me a level of awareness of my thoughts, and emotions – this was the first necessary step towards a journey of inner joy,” he said. There is also the comfort of ensuring spiritual growth while addressing the “needs of material well-being with ease“, enabling people to fulfill their ultimate potential as a human being.
Add to it a series of socially useful productive works such as the foundation’s tree plantation drive in Tamil Nadu, with the award-winning Project Green Hands; its Rally for Rivers to address water scarcity and protection of rivers, and its Action for Rural Rejuvenation, a health and community-oriented programme focused on 4,200 villages in Tamil Nadu, and it’s a package that is irresistible to our world of eternal seekers.
Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra says Jaggi Vasudev has given him the courage to succeed and the permission to fail. “For only then can I find a new path, a new meaning. He has taught me to maintain my courage to work on any obstacles with ease,” he said. And he has done this while allowing dissent and argument, says Jaggi Vasudev’s biographer, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. “Knowing him has taught me that one can have a remarkably unstuffy equation with a spiritual guide,” she said, adding that she is amazed at how many people he is present for, as a guru, helping them through life-and-death situations on a moment-to-moment basis. “You’ve got to be a yogi of extraordinary calibre to be capable of this.”
A guru for the (good) times
From business magnates to Bollywood celebrities, from politicians to exhausted wisdom-seeking professionals, the Sadhguru’s moksha is easy to attain. He doesn’t demand exacting standards. Jaggi Vasudev allows one to be a businessman or a politician or a Lutyens potentate, one golf swing at a time. His late burst of tweeting about democracy and nationalism has provided a more palatable alternative to hyper-nationalists who now often find themselves cringing at the extreme ardour of BJP’s telly evangelists.
Indian politics is not unused to the idea of powerful yoga gurus. The tradition began with Dhirendra Brahmachari and Indira Gandhi. Brahmachari, whom India Today described in a cover story in 1980 as a “man with no official standing but awesome power”, was known to have enormous influence on Indira Gandhi’s government, and was helped considerably by a weekly programme on Doordarshan. P.V. Narasimha Rao relied on the controversial Chandraswami.
The Modi Years and the official endorsement of yoga through the International Yoga Day since 2015 has seen a tremendous growth in the business of babadom, most prominently of Baba Ramdev, who of late has been more of a businessman and less of a baba, and about whom Sadhguru once joked: ”Baba Ramdev is a classic rags to riches story. But he still consciously chooses to remain in rags.
Fortunately for Modi’s new image-conscious BJP, Jaggi Vasudev is a better match: shawl for shawl.
The author is a senior journalist.