Yoga guru Baba Ramdev is behind one of India's fastest-growing consumer goods companies. Forbes magazine calls his Patanjali empire the "Indian version of Body Shop". Ramdev sells honey, health drinks, fruit juices, sweets, cookies, spices, tea, flour, muesli, pickles, soap, balms, shampoos and noodles.
Encouraged by Ramdev's commercial success, another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, has unveiled his own line of food products. Better known for his bling and for tacky performances on stage the guru will now also sell pickles, honey, bottled water, and yes, noodles. The guru, who runs a thriving sect, wants the "nation to become healthier" by consuming "organic products". He lists 117 "humanitarian activities" on his website, including efforts to eliminate homosexuality, running an international blood bank, promoting vegetarianism and feeding birds.
In southern India, Sri Sri Ravishankar, a guru popular with the middle and upper classes, has a line of ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) products, including toothpaste, protein shampoos, herbal tea, anti-diabetic tablets, balms and syrups, produced out of a "world-class" facility in Bangalore.
The country's most famous woman hugging guru Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma, runs hospitals, a TV channel, engineering colleges and business schools, among other things.
Sri Satya Sai Baba, an orange-robed guru with an afro hairstyle, left behind a multi-billion dollar empire, straddling hospitals, clinics and universities, when he died in 2011.
Indian gurus have long used their followers for commercial gain. Mahesh Yogi, for example, sold yoga and meditation to millions of foreigners. Selling yoga to foreigners is nowadays almost passé.
"Gurus - spurious or genuine - are key players in the business and politics of spirituality," says Lise McKean, anthropologist and author of Divine Enterprise, a book that examines the business side of the Hindu religion. "The activities of many gurus and their organisations in the 1980s and 1990s are related to the simultaneous expansion of transnational capitalism in India and abroad."
The new-age gurus have set their sights beyond their followers and are reaching out to India's growing domestic market, a move that must be making a number of multinational companies skittish. So, their products are now finding buyers even among the non-believers. Spiritual capitalism is alive and well in India. The business empires of devotion are flourishing.
World Socialism Party (India)