Boom for 'God men' as new rich seek balm for the soul


FORTUNES OF INDIA:India’s middle classes are not becoming more secular and their wealth has turned religion into a big business, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, in Karnataka, India

INSIDE THE imposing five-storey meditation hall shaped like a lotus and covered with more than 1,000 marble petals, there are representations of several Hindu deities, but none as prominent as that of Lakshmi, a goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Every year, millions come here to the sprawling headquarters of the Art of Living Foundation, located close to Bangalore. It is from these lush surroundings that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – once dubbed “India’s Pat Robertson” by author William Dalrymple – peddles breathing techniques along with an approach to spirituality that has proved phenomenally successful with the country’s urban elite.

Many of those who flock to the man they call Guruji are young Indians working in the country’s thriving high-tech sector who feel pulled between tradition and their role as players in India’s rush towards globalised modernity.

They praise Sri Sri’s stress-relieving meditation exercises and say his teachings help add depth to their high-powered lives. Some, like twentysomething Karthik, an Indian engineer who previously worked in the US and Europe, even choose to give it all up for a job with the foundation.

“In the rat race of daily life, they are really longing for something that binds them, especially in the urban areas,” says Sri Sri, a man in his 50s dressed in flowing white robes. Many of the devotees milling outside have copied his appearance, right down to his long hair and beard. “People are rediscovering their roots and finding new meaning in their lives. They want to feel more purpose in what they are doing.”

A former disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who introduced the Beatles and many others to transcendental meditation, Sri Sri has developed Art of Living into something of a global empire – the foundation claims 20 million people have taken its meditation courses. He is the most prominent of a burgeoning band of “God Men” – TV-appearing gurus offering balm for the souls of India’s new rich.

Their popularity reflects a wider trend of growing piety in India, the subject of a recent book by Delhi academic Meera Nanda. She notes that India’s rise in a globalised world has not only made the country wealthier, but also more religious.

“Globalisation has been good for the gods,” as she puts it in The God Market.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that levels of religiosity in India had risen significantly. Interestingly, the same poll noted that “urban educated Indians are more religious than their rural and illiterate counterparts”.

India is now home to some 2.5 million temples and other places of worship – compared with only 1.5 million schools and 75,000 hospitals. Religious tourism is booming – pilgrimages now account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours.

“It is becoming fashionable to be religious and to be seen as being religious . . . rather than retiring their gods, as secularisation theory expected, the emerging middle classes in India are remaking them,” writes Nanda. “The local deities who were once considered guardians of the village, and protected against scourges like smallpox, are now being beseeched for blessings for success in an increasingly competitive urban environment.”

The religious revival is not just confined to Hindus, who make up more than 80 per cent of the population, but is also being felt within India’s Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities.

Social activist Swami Agnivesh believes it may have something to do with the unease prompted by social and cultural shifts that have followed the country’s embrace of economic liberalisation.

“India is not able to reconcile this imposed materialism and superficiality with the innate spirituality that exists here,” he says. “The conflict that results from this rages within every individual.” There are plenty of critics of what Nanda calls “karma capitalism” and others have dismissed it as “spiritual fast food”. In a debate with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Javed Akhtar, one of India’s leading screenwriters, decried the mushrooming of “crash courses in self-realisation – cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons” and labelled spirituality “the tranquilliser of the rich”.

Preeti, who works for a software company in Bangalore, describes the appeal for some of her peers as little more than “belonging to the right club”. On the journey back from the Art of Living ashram, my driver, a young father struggling to survive as life in his hometown of Bangalore gets more expensive, says such places only welcome the rich.

Others worry about the political undertones of India’s growing religiosity in a country still haunted by the ghosts of communal violence. A 2007 Pew survey which revealed that more than 90 per cent of Indian respondents – the highest in the world – agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others” was interpreted by some as a signal of Hindu triumphalism.

“The same innovations in religious ritual and dogmas that are enabling the ‘Great Indian Middle Class’ to adjust to global capitalism are also deepening a sense of Hindu chauvinism, and widening the chasm between Hindus and non-Hindu minorities,” writes Nanda.

The far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organisation to which Mahatma Gandhi’s killer had belonged, and from which the BJP, which governed India from 1999 until 2004, sprang, has wooed large numbers of young professionals. Many popular gurus, including Sri Sri, have been linked with nationalist groups.

This resurgence in popular Hinduism comes as more rigid interpretations of Islam find root. In July, a university lecturer in Kerala had his hand chopped off by Muslim activists alleging blasphemy. But many drew comfort from the muted response to last week’s anxiously awaited verdict on the Ayodhya mosque dispute which had unleashed widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims in 1992. For now, it seems, the threat of conflict remains dormant.

This series was supported by a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Fund