Swami Baba Ramdev’s retail empire took £530m in the past year. In the past few years Ramdev has become a national business icon, selling hundreds of products from biscuits to aloe vera juice. Ramdev’s endorsement means big bucks in contemporary India. His brand of bodywash is in stores nationwide and has quickly come to compete with long-established brands such as Dove and Nivea. The swami regularly appears on billboards and television shows to recommend his products to his millions of followers.
He surged to popularity as a yoga teacher in the past decade, bringing the discipline to the masses on his 24-hour television channel, Aastha. His rise has been accompanied by a revival of Hindu nationalism. Ramdev has shared the stage with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, urging supporters to vote for the Hindu nationalist BJP during the election campaign. Modi, who has recognised the brand value of new-age gurus, has associated closely with a string of holy men.
A rival guru, Swami Agnivesh, wrote: “Ramdev has been in the business of converting spirituality into material profit … Religion became, in the process, the means for indulging in covetousness. The mega bucks he earned became his entry into politics.”
Ramdev is leading a new generation of business-savvy ascetics in India who are using their spiritual capital to take on the giants of the retail world. Patanjali’s products are cheap, Ramdev says, because the company sources its materials locally, and because the holy man’s legion of followers are an easy market to tap into. His company has come under scrutiny in parliament recently. Reports of worms and high levels of monosodium glutamate in Ramdev’s instant noodles sparked controversy last year after a food standards authority said the product never received its approval. Another product called Putrajeevak Beej, which claims to improve women’s fertility, has come under fire for suggesting it could help couples who want sons rather than daughters. Ramdev’s claims that his products can reduce the risk of conditions such as diabetes and Aids have also prompted criticism.
Ramdev’s name carries power. Harish Bijoor, a brand strategist, says the name has “sent the shivers out in corporate boardrooms in India”. According to Bijoor, the brand is set to dwarf its competitors because of Ramdev’s smart marketing tactics. “He wears saffron,” Bijoor explains, a colour that is closely associated with the Hindu religion. “That’s a colour that is the flavour of the decade in India today.”
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