No biz like god biz

Ashutosh Kumar and Deepak Lokhande

Follow the money, and more often than not, it will lead to a guru — a CEO of spirituality with fingers in many pies. The god business, run with corporate finesse, is a loss-proof proposition. It’s a sublime way to make ridiculous wealth. For Baba Ramdev, yoga and Ayurveda have been the main money-spinners since he shot to fame in 2004. Besides crusading against corruption and black money, he runs a 100-bed hospital, an Ayurveda college, a university, a real estate business and a mini hospitality industry at the sprawling Haridwar campus of Patanjali Yogapeeth.

Herbal kick

The business operations are divided among four trusts: Divya Yog Mandir, Patanjali Yogapeeth, Patanjali Gramodyog and the recently-formed Bharat Swabhiman. The Ayurvedic medicines and products are manufactured at a 150-acre facility near Haridwar. “We have a three-pronged distribution channel. While all the Ayurvedic medicines are marketed through Patanjali Chikitsalaya, the products are marketed through Arogya Kendras. There are 960 chikitsalayas and 2,342 kendras in the country,” says Jaishankar Mishra, the editor of the in-house magazine Yog Sandesh.

The Patanjali Yogapeeth Trust takes care of the Ayurveda college, the university, and the hospital. “The college gives a degree of Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medical Sciences (BAMS). It is a four-and-a-half-year course with one year of on-campus internship. We have also started Acharyakulam – a school where children are taught in the Vedic tradition,” Mishra adds. The first batch of the school has started this year with 250 children from across the country.

The annual fee for a student is Rs 1,60,000, which includes boarding and meals.
The PatanjaliUniversity, which confers Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts in yoga and yoga-related subjects such as philosophy, psychology and Sanskrit, has at least 300 students. The pro vice-chancellor Kartar Singh, a retired Brigadier, is quick to point out that the “fees are highly subsidised compared to the government colleges”.

The sprawling campus has other lucrative uses. Ramdev’s trust has come up with a unique model for three kinds of flats for the elderly. Category I, Ganga, the biggest in size, comes for Rs 21 lakh; Yamuna is Rs 11 lakh and Saraswati Rs 5.5 lakh. “Any person of the age of 50 and above can apply for these flats,” says Mishra. One can start living there once the payment is made. If the person dies, the spouse gets to use the accommodation. But once the spouse dies, the flat goes back to the trust and is re-allotted. These flats have ACs, reverse osmosis, geysers, and pipeline gas connections.

Apart from these flats, there are seven towers in the campus for visitors, where the per day charge varies between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. The towers can host 10,000 people at a time.

Ramdev is also getting into publishing with encyclopaedias on yoga and Ayurveda. Little wonder then that from Rs 2 crore, the Patanjali Yogpeeth Trust had grown to a mammoth Rs 178 crore in 2010. The lust for zeroes continues in 2013, though the baba’s lieutenants claim that a large part of the earnings come from donations.

Mother cult

In the pecking order of spiritual business and philanthropy, Amma or Matha Amritanandamayi ranks up there. The Matha Amritanandamayi Math in Kerala is home to about 3,000 people. Its activities are directed by 15 sanyasins across the country. Amma travels to about 28 countries every year to oversee the operations of her global spiritual empire, which is run with corporate efficiency.

The Matha has reaped a windfall in the business of education and entertainment. There is Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a five-campus university, and 56 schools — from pre-primary to high schools — across India. The Amrita Institute of Medical Science is a deemed university. The Math also runs a Malayalam TV channel, which dishes out entertainment and news.


Colour of money

Once in the thick of controversies for fraudulence and sexually deviant ways of the master and his disciples, the Osho enterprise is still a bluechip company in the spiritual market. The Osho Ashram (now Osho International Meditation Resort) has mostly foreign nationals as devotees who come to India for moksha. Along with ‘selling happiness’, the brand also slyly pitches a variety of money-making enterprises. So you have an entry fee (even if you just want to have a tour of the ashram), for first time visitors, which is Rs 1150, apart from a daily entry sticker priced at Rs 1130 for international visitors and Rs 550 for Indian nationals. The beautiful ashram also features a sophisticated canteen, with food prices that complement the ‘international’ look and feel. A meal here would easily add Rs 500-700 to the Osho bank account.
Interestingly, it is after Osho’s demise that business has shot up. The commune was rechristened Osho International Meditation Resort a few years after the godman died in 1990. “We respond to the moment and movement creatively and intelligently. The growth has been 300 times better,” says Ma Amrit Sadhana, member of management team at the resort. About 20,000 seekers visit the 1-lakh sq ft resort every month now — a 100% increase in numbers since the change. A rare phenomenon as the commune is still embroiled in many property-related controversies. According to many estimates the ashram, that once spanned 40-acres, is reduced to 25-acres. An approximate figure puts the value of the various Osho properties at Rs1500 crores. The resort is a perfect marriage of spirituality and luxury. The zen environment with bamboo trees, water bodies, peacocks, Buddha busts, mood lighting also packs in everything that a luxe holiday would entail: swimming pool, cottages and great food.

Vinita Deshmukh, RTI activist, says, “This process began after the demise of Osho (Rajneesh) to attract westerners. It has now come to such a stage where Osho’s teachings are relegated to the background.” An ex-follower of the commune says: “How does one deal with the fact that most of what is sold to us under the pretext of spirituality is part of the money-making exercise?”

The Osho ashram, like the other instances mentioned elsewhere in this report, is a lesson in the business of spirituality. Like any corporate office, it has a dress code for the sanyasis. While it is not a new thing, it has reached a new level of strategic spirituality. A former commune member provides some insight: “One can connect the dots if he observes how the ashram has been selling things. For instance, earlier the sanyasis would wear white robes. When the design became popular and was being replicated by certain apparel brands, the colour was changed to maroon.” The dots that our source was referring to also includes popular merchandise like the Osho chappals, CDs and books. The ancillary industries that provide for hundreds of jobs that have mushroomed around Osho ashram are hard to miss. There are hotels, hostels, serviced apartments, restaurants, and shops selling junk jewellery.

Breathe easy.

The success story of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL), headquartered in Bangalore, is no less fascinating. The organisation’s crowning glory is its international appeal. Founded in 1981 by the soft-spoken guru, AOL has become an educational and humanitarian movement across 150 countries claiming to have touched 370 million lives, with its stress management and other spiritual initiatives. Like all good things in life, the healing and rejuvenation process comes for a price. A three-day course in Sudarshan Kriya, its most popular programme, in the ashram costs more than Rs 3,000 for an individual, with accommodation and food.

Other AOL programmes, which include Youth Empowerment & Skills (YES) workshop — a life-skills programme for those aged between 18 and 30 — the Sahaj Samadhi Meditation, described as a natural, effortless system of meditation; and the Sri Sri Yoga courses designed by the spiritual leader himself to nurture the body, mind and spirit, too command a range of fees between Rs 3,000 and Rs 6,000.

One has to admire the efficient business model of the AOL. When a person is interested in joining a course or a programme, the AOL website guides him/her to a name and a number of a teacher who would be conducting the programme. If you are interested, you click on ‘interested’ and the website then asks you for  your personal details (name, phone number, email ID). Within minutes a person calls you with all the information you need. The payment is made on the spot via cheque or cash, or online if the programme is at the ashram. The money collected by the teachers goes to the ashram funds, which is sent in by the teachers who are basically volunteers working part-time. Thousands of people daily take the courses.
There are other spiritual gurus not so famous as the ones above. The chances are that most of them are waiting for the right moment. The moment when fame acquires critical mass and translates into money. Inside every successful godman lurks a suited CEO with a power point presentation at hand.

Courtesy: DNA,

Date:  Sep 15, 2013