Perspectives

Ramdev: swami without sampradaya

By CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT | 1 July 2011
DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY / AFP PHOTO
Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru who for a few days mobilised thousands of supporters against corruption, is heir to an old legacy of spiritual masters with strong ties to the Sangh Parivar.

FOR A FEW DAYS IN EARLY JUNE, Baba Ramdev mobilised thousands of his supporters in India against corruption. The context was favourable: the country had already witnessed numerous scams involving politicians, followed by a virtual non-response from the Union government and the protest organised by veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare over the preceding weeks. But Ramdev’s display of strength was also a product of his long association with the Sangh Parivar.

In a recent interview with Tehelka (12 June 2011), Swami Ramdev declared: "I don’t understand why I’m seen as being close to the Sangh Parivar."The proximity, however, is easy to explain. For more than half a decade, Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, has approvingly covered Ramdev’s actions. The affinities between his views and the doctrines of Hindu nationalism are obvious: he promotes yoga, defends Ayurveda, opposes globalisation in the name of swadeshi and is a staunch advocate of Indian majoritarianism. Following his visit to the UN in 2006, Ramdev was welcomed back to India as a hero by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Satyamitranand Giri, who compared him to Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, Ramdev has been associated with nearly all the offshoots of the Sangh Parivar over more than half a decade. In September 2005, he presided over the 15th annual sammelan of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the RSS, along with the then RSS sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan. In February 2007, he delivered the keynote address at the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch meeting. He was also a guest at the book launch for the Hindi language edition of LK Advani’s autobiography in Bhopal in July 2008.

Organiser’s analysis (23 November 2008) of Ramdev’s defence of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a prime suspect in the September 2008 Malegaon anti-Muslim bomb blasts, is telling:

Taking strong exception to Congress-led UPA government’s accusation against Hindu organisations, popular Yoga Guru Ramdev lashed out at the ‘secular brigade’ for making use of phrases like Hindu terrorism. Spiritual guru Baba Ramdev, the man behind the Yoga revolution in India, has also come out in support of Sadhvi Pragya, who has been framed in the September 29 Malegaon blast. Stating that Sadhvi Pragya seems innocent, Baba Ramdev said he supports her.

Baba Ramdev is heir to an old legacy that harks back not to Vivekananda but to Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, located in the Mumbai suburb of Powai, and one of the cofounders in 1964 of the VHP along with former RSS member SS Apte. Since then, dozens of saffron-clad sadhus have epitomised the same characteristics—belonging not to a traditional sampradaya (system of spiritual knowledge), but often serving instead as self-initiated ‘spiritual masters’. They do not retain the individualised and interactive guru-shishya modus operandi of teaching spiritual knowledge, but communicate their message in a one-way, simplified and simplistic style, whether from Olympian platforms or from TV studios, which were the launchpad for Ramdev’s yoga classes in the 1990s, just as they were for countless Protestant evangelists in the US and Latin America.

The ‘style’ of these modern gurus is in line with the expectations of the middle class, which feels uncomfortable with temple rituals, whose mechanisms seem like superstitions brought to life. But while middle class people do not have the time to go to temples anyway, they look for religious support to cope with the hardships of stressful professional, urban lifestyles. Yoga is seen as an excellent antidote to stress—and Ramdev’s exercises are appreciated as relaxing indeed.

The middle class, known for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, also finds in these preachers advocates for their social and political inclinations. On the one hand, India’s tele-sadhus are not social reformists. (Swami Agnivesh is an exception who only confirms the rule.) Baba Ramdev, for example, regards homosexuality as a disease. On the other hand, they do serve as promoters of Hindu pride. In fact, the modern gurus of India are global propagandists of Hinduism, seeking to restore the self-esteem of an intelligentsia that has been for centuries at the receiving end of the Western superiority complex. They travel all the time to meet their followers in the West—where they lecture to rooms full of white people. In 2006, Ramdev predicted that "Bharat will become a superpower by the year 2011"(Organiser, 12 November 2006). Since then, he has acquired a £2 million isle in Scotland, courtesy of a Scottish disciple-couple of Indian origin.

What is new is the way in which the pro-Hindutva sadhus take part in politics in different capacities. For years, they were confined to the VHP, which gave them due respect and a platform—marginalising, in the process, the traditional Shankaracharyas—via the ‘grand’ Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal. In the 1990s, half a dozen of these sadhus and sadhvis, including the recently-reinstated Uma Bharti, joined politics to contest elections, which they did successfully. Over the following decade, three of them—Pragya Singh Thakur, Swami Amritananda Dev Tirtha (Shankaracharya of the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir-based Sri Sharada Sarvagya Peeth) and Swami Assemanand (an accused in the Samjhauta Express bombing of 2007)—became part of terrorist organisations. Today, Baba Ramdev is initiating another path by mobilising people in the street to fight corruption. Sadhus have been in the street before: in 1966, the anti-cow slaughter movement brought together 100,000 demonstrators in front of Parliament House in New Delhi; in the 1990s, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement had a similar effect. Today, saffron-clad leaders have embarked on a more ‘secular’ warpath, but one thing remains unchanged: the support they receive from the RSS.

So, even as Baba Ramdev wonders why he is viewed as close to the RSS, the party leaders themselves have no similar questions in mind. The organisation, in its annual national meeting in Puttur, Kerala, in March this year, adopted a resolution extending all support to him.

A significant feature of the Ramdev episode was that it exposed the ambivalent attitude of Congress leaders. To begin with, they tried to pacify him. When they realised that he would remain adamant—and was being backed by the Sangh Parivar—they resorted to repression. Not only was the final reaction—or overreaction—costly to the Congress in terms of image, the party’s oscillations also reflected its hesitation between two lines of conduct that calls to mind the Rajiv Gandhi years.

In 1966-67, Indira Gandhi, despite her craze for her yoga teacher Dhirendra Brahmachari, gave no quarter to the cow-protection movement, even when VHP-supported saffron-clad leaders were about to storm Parliament. This policy of non-negotiation was brought into question in the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi tried to balance the Shah Bano affair by launching his 1989 election campaign from Faizabad, whose twin city, Ayodhya, is considered to be Ram’s birthplace.

Today, the Congress might be tempted to compromise its secular legacy in the presence of increasing majoritarianism in Indian politics. This comes at a time when the party is looking to Muslims as a potentially captive vote bank. (Who else could they turn to, anyway?) But a cautionary story can be traced to the late 1980s when, instead of recapturing its secular balance, the Congress prepared the ground for the BJP in much the same manner—by running after the Hindu vote.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Sangh Parivar.

FOR A FEW DAYS IN EARLY JUNE, Baba Ramdev mobilised thousands of his supporters in India against corruption. The context was favourable: the country had already witnessed numerous scams involving politicians, followed by a virtual non-response from the Union government and the protest organised by veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare over the preceding weeks. But Ramdev’s display of strength was also a product of his long association with the Sangh Parivar.

In a recent interview with Tehelka (12 June 2011), Swami Ramdev declared: "I don’t understand why I’m seen as being close to the Sangh Parivar."The proximity, however, is easy to explain. For more than half a decade, Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, has approvingly covered Ramdev’s actions. The affinities between his views and the doctrines of Hindu nationalism are obvious: he promotes yoga, defends Ayurveda, opposes globalisation in the name of swadeshi and is a staunch advocate of Indian majoritarianism. Following his visit to the UN in 2006, Ramdev was welcomed back to India as a hero by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Satyamitranand Giri, who compared him to Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, Ramdev has been associated with nearly all the offshoots of the Sangh Parivar over more than half a decade. In September 2005, he presided over the 15th annual sammelan of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the RSS, along with the then RSS sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan. In February 2007, he delivered the keynote address at the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch meeting. He was also a guest at the book launch for the Hindi language edition of LK Advani’s autobiography in Bhopal in July 2008.

Organiser’s analysis (23 November 2008) of Ramdev’s defence of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a prime suspect in the September 2008 Malegaon anti-Muslim bomb blasts, is telling:

Taking strong exception to Congress-led UPA government’s accusation against Hindu organisations, popular Yoga Guru Ramdev lashed out at the ‘secular brigade’ for making use of phrases like Hindu terrorism. Spiritual guru Baba Ramdev, the man behind the Yoga revolution in India, has also come out in support of Sadhvi Pragya, who has been framed in the September 29 Malegaon blast. Stating that Sadhvi Pragya seems innocent, Baba Ramdev said he supports her.

Baba Ramdev is heir to an old legacy that harks back not to Vivekananda but to Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, located in the Mumbai suburb of Powai, and one of the cofounders in 1964 of the VHP along with former RSS member SS Apte. Since then, dozens of saffron-clad sadhus have epitomised the same characteristics—belonging not to a traditional sampradaya (system of spiritual knowledge), but often serving instead as self-initiated ‘spiritual masters’. They do not retain the individualised and interactive guru-shishya modus operandi of teaching spiritual knowledge, but communicate their message in a one-way, simplified and simplistic style, whether from Olympian platforms or from TV studios, which were the launchpad for Ramdev’s yoga classes in the 1990s, just as they were for countless Protestant evangelists in the US and Latin America.

The ‘style’ of these modern gurus is in line with the expectations of the middle class, which feels uncomfortable with temple rituals, whose mechanisms seem like superstitions brought to life. But while middle class people do not have the time to go to temples anyway, they look for religious support to cope with the hardships of stressful professional, urban lifestyles. Yoga is seen as an excellent antidote to stress—and Ramdev’s exercises are appreciated as relaxing indeed.

The middle class, known for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, also finds in these preachers advocates for their social and political inclinations. On the one hand, India’s tele-sadhus are not social reformists. (Swami Agnivesh is an exception who only confirms the rule.) Baba Ramdev, for example, regards homosexuality as a disease. On the other hand, they do serve as promoters of Hindu pride. In fact, the modern gurus of India are global propagandists of Hinduism, seeking to restore the self-esteem of an intelligentsia that has been for centuries at the receiving end of the Western superiority complex. They travel all the time to meet their followers in the West—where they lecture to rooms full of white people. In 2006, Ramdev predicted that "Bharat will become a superpower by the year 2011"(Organiser, 12 November 2006). Since then, he has acquired a £2 million isle in Scotland, courtesy of a Scottish disciple-couple of Indian origin.

What is new is the way in which the pro-Hindutva sadhus take part in politics in different capacities. For years, they were confined to the VHP, which gave them due respect and a platform—marginalising, in the process, the traditional Shankaracharyas—via the ‘grand’ Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal. In the 1990s, half a dozen of these sadhus and sadhvis, including the recently-reinstated Uma Bharti, joined politics to contest elections, which they did successfully. Over the following decade, three of them—Pragya Singh Thakur, Swami Amritananda Dev Tirtha (Shankaracharya of the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir-based Sri Sharada Sarvagya Peeth) and Swami Assemanand (an accused in the Samjhauta Express bombing of 2007)—became part of terrorist organisations. Today, Baba Ramdev is initiating another path by mobilising people in the street to fight corruption. Sadhus have been in the street before: in 1966, the anti-cow slaughter movement brought together 100,000 demonstrators in front of Parliament House in New Delhi; in the 1990s, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement had a similar effect. Today, saffron-clad leaders have embarked on a more ‘secular’ warpath, but one thing remains unchanged: the support they receive from the RSS.

So, even as Baba Ramdev wonders why he is viewed as close to the RSS, the party leaders themselves have no similar questions in mind. The organisation, in its annual national meeting in Puttur, Kerala, in March this year, adopted a resolution extending all support to him.

A significant feature of the Ramdev episode was that it exposed the ambivalent attitude of Congress leaders. To begin with, they tried to pacify him. When they realised that he would remain adamant—and was being backed by the Sangh Parivar—they resorted to repression. Not only was the final reaction—or overreaction—costly to the Congress in terms of image, the party’s oscillations also reflected its hesitation between two lines of conduct that calls to mind the Rajiv Gandhi years.

In 1966-67, Indira Gandhi, despite her craze for her yoga teacher Dhirendra Brahmachari, gave no quarter to the cow-protection movement, even when VHP-supported saffron-clad leaders were about to storm Parliament. This policy of non-negotiation was brought into question in the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi tried to balance the Shah Bano affair by launching his 1989 election campaign from Faizabad, whose twin city, Ayodhya, is considered to be Ram’s birthplace.

Today, the Congress might be tempted to compromise its secular legacy in the presence of increasing majoritarianism in Indian politics. This comes at a time when the party is looking to Muslims as a potentially captive vote bank. (Who else could they turn to, anyway?) But a cautionary story can be traced to the late 1980s when, instead of recapturing its secular balance, the Congress prepared the ground for the BJP in much the same manner—by running after the Hindu vote.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Sangh Parivar.

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READER'S COMMENTS [11]

Very very silly of us!! Being Hindu is not a crime, being anti-other religions is a problem here. Distrust and hatred between two communities cannot be a single handed clap. The starting point of global Islamic terrorism is Israel's occupation of Palestine. The increasing terror activity in India is result of Babri masjid demolition. Every time extremist elements in the majority community tries to antagonise a minority community, extremist elements in the minority community seizes the oppurtunity to enact terror activities against the nation. In a country where extremist elements of a majority community is well equipped to create, nurture and spread a public opinion through various forums like Sanghs, Parties, Yoga classes or Television Channels, the responsibility of maintaining stability in the society lies with people who can think differently, whose thinking cannot be influenced by their roots i.e., caste, religion or language. When those kind of people try to express their views, they can easily be targetted for being anti-majority, may be called as pseudo-secularists, communists, ISI agents, etc.So, dont worry, if RSS, VHP, and BJP are essential for the well being of a majority community and IUML, Deobandhs, Dawheed Jamaats are essential for the protection of minority rights, peace-loving people working for the well being of a country as a whole is also essential. Keep up the good work!!

To my knowledge Baba Ramdev has never denounced other religious communities. In fact he has been invited by religious groups other than Hindus. This article seems to be based on bias rather than on facts.

@Kumar: You r having pea-nut brains! Why should we take criticism which are fundametally biased? Why did India remained secular when it was divided for religion?(This was a big ploy by gandhi/nehru) nexus to keep muslim and play divide and rule politi

Comments show hindutva politics in India has created a bunch of insecure folks who cant take anything that sounds like criticism or negative. Grow up folks.

Hey,,, The editors beginning from the Deputy editor of the caravan - Vinod - is a hard core anti-Hindu campaigner. These tribe has a phobia towards anything that is saffron. Christophe is definitely one among them. Presume he is a French who has an eye of disdain on the Indian culture and tries to show it always in a poor light.

Had this article not publiashed in your esteemed magazine, CARAVAN, I woud not have the pleasure to go through those sprited & thought provoking comments, especially of Hanif! My hearty compliments to all of them!

If you are saying that this Guru has evangelised over TV (not a forbidden medium as far as I am aware), yes but Hinduism itself is rather open and free-wheeling in a way. To top it, you can hardly fault a "angry young man" Swami (if that is what he is) for not sticking to the century old styles of tradition (=Sampradaya). Reformists were milestones in the history of every religion in some way and many have had ardent following. Finally Ramdev does appear to have a strong popular appeal, which lends credo to the topic of political substance. But whether or not, remains to be seen ! Certain matters like calling for demonetisation of 500 Rupee bills and such seem not well thought out though. However when every thinking Indian is speaking out against corruption, it would be hard to argue that the influential Swami should stick to his traditionally ordained role, given that Hinduism itself permits the fluid structure.

**** house of an article. Abe hindustan hinduon ka hi tha hai aur rahega. Its just that we are also tolerant of other religions. This elitist media is projecting as if being Hindu itself is some kind of crime. I really pity the author of this shitty piece. On top of this Congress itself has been trying to appease the minority and every hindu who asserts himself is a fanatic as per them.

it is not very surprising. According to a lot of caravan editors /contributors everything that is saffron is a bad word..If caravan is really unbiased it must get some one like Francois Gautier to do a piece on Hinduism ..christopher is known to hate anything that is saffron in colour..but I dont see that happening as obviously the magazine has to cater to socio intelligent crowd; and if anything good is said about hinduism the socio intelligent crowd consisting of someone like GUHA will ban it..it is not really caravan's fault ...that is the state of english magazines in India

Its obvious that Christophe nurses a chip on his shoulder against Bharat. He refuses to acknowledge that a person who supports baba ramdev and is against nepotism, corruption and sycophancy can be a normal man or even a non hindu person like myself.
Wonder what Christophe thinks of the millions speant on conversion of low caste hindus to christianity annually ? Wonder if he cares to investigate where it comes from ?
Why is loving your country and culture scaring him so much ?

One correction to the article - Puttur is not located in Kerala, it is part of Karnataka state.

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