Om sweet Om

Selling spirituality has become a booming industry in Bangalore

The Telegraph, Calcutta/February 12, 2006
By Varuna Verma

Ask Mamta Kailkhura about the silver jubilee celebrations of the Art of Living, and she goes into a number crunching overdrive. Starting February 17, 2.5 million people from 100 countries will gather in Bangalore to join the spiritual centre’s landmark three-day birthday bash, says the Art of Living (AOL) spokesperson.

There’s more. Ten international figures —from the president of Mongolia and vice-president of South Africa to the army chief of Surinam — will be part of the gathering. Over 3,800 musicians will conduct a musical symphony. Seven multi-cuisine food courts are being set up — all for those seeking solace in spiritualism. “Never in the history of Bangalore has a spiritual event been so commercialised,” says Dr Ali Khwaja, head of Banjara Academy, one of the oldest counselling cells in the city.

Clearly, spiritualism is now a style statement. And Bangalore — never a city to lag behind on matters of style — is going overboard in wooing its people with the salubrious effects of instant faith.

Selling spirituality has become a booming industry in Bangalore. Bowing to a demand-driven trend, the city boasts of over 40 ashrams and spiritual centres. These range from global biggies such as the Art of Living, Mata Amrithanandamayi Math, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and the Satya Sai Baba ashram to relatively smaller outfits including the Ramana Maharishi Centre for Learning and the Sri Mathrudevi Vishvas Shanti Ashram.

Each outfit has a growing group of high earning, professionally on-the-move followers. Art of Living claims that 400 software professionals sign up for its meditation programme every month. “The Sri Sri sudarshan kriya and meditation course has been conducted at most top companies in the city, including Infosys, HCL and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS),” says Vinod Kumar, director, Sri Sri Centre for Media Studies. A basic AOL meditation course costs Rs 1,500.

The organisation has also designed a special Corporate Executive Programme (CEP) — essentially a meditation and pranayama capsule — for senior corporate managers. “The programme helps managers increase team productivity,” explains Kumar.

Bangalore’s ISKCON centre organises weekend stress and time management classes as part of its Friends of Lord Krishna (FOLK) programme. “Over 200 people attend the day-long session every Sunday,” says Ashesha Govind Das, head of public relations at ISKCON. Classes begin at 4 am with a tulsi puja, followed by a meditation session and, in tune with the changing times, a power-point presentation on managing work and lifestyle stress.

Das claims ISKCON’s stress management courses are most streamlined at its Bangalore centre. “That’s because the demand for the course is the highest in the city,” he says. “A FOLK workshop conducted last week was attended by 1,500 people.”

Like Das, others in the realm agree that there is an increasing demand for such classes in Bangalore. The Dhamma Sumana Vipassana Meditation and Research Centre — which has 60 ashrams across India — stresses that Bangalore is among its most sought-after centres. “Although the maximum student capacity of our course is 80, we have had to extend it to 100 several times, to cater to demand,” says Archana Shekhar, trustee, Bangalore Vipassana Centre.

Initially, Shekhar had thought Bangalore’s busy professionals would make unlikely Vipassana candidates. “I was surprised to find so many young professionals ready to take 10 days off work to live on porridge, sleep on a hard bed and soul search,” says Shekhar.

Of the 1,000 devotees visiting Bangalore’s Ramakrishna Math every day, 50 per cent are young professionals. “The Math’s ideals of peace of mind and being goal-oriented appeal to the youth,” says Swami Shantimayananda, head, Ramakrishna Math.

Building a spiritual quotient is the latest buzzword among Bangalore’s professionally high-flying software employees. But spiritualism, for most, is essentially about stress management. “People join the Vipassana meditation course mostly to beat stress and depression,” says Shekhar. “We have had scores of 30-something professionals who come to us complaining of chronic depression. They turn to meditation as a last resort.”

The software and spirituality industries are growing hand in hand in Bangalore. “With long work hours and deadline pressures, software professionals are stress-prone. This makes them a ready-made market for spiritual organisations,” says Banjara Academy’s Khwaja. He adds that Bangalore’s cosmopolitan nature has also allowed new-age spiritual concepts to thrive in the city.

And, clearly, new-age thought is being heralded with great pomp and show. An imposing stage is being erected for the hundreds of thousands slated to meditate together under Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s guidance. The 3.5-acre platform — the largest in the world, claims Kailkhura — is being readied at the Jakkur aerodrome on the outskirts of the city.

Looks matter. Spirituality is also selling because of superb packaging, says Khwaja. “Having multiple food courts and musical symphonies at a spiritual event is a marketing brainwave,” he says.

Attractive wrapping aside, spirituality has adapted to the need of the hour. “Today’s spirituality speaks of how to manage this life — not the next. There is high purchasing power for this thought,” says G.K. Karanth, head, department of sociology, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Khwaja feels a growing disillusionment with religion is also pushing the young to non-ritual based, out-of-the-box spiritual practices. “Wars waged in the name of religion have given it a bad name. It’s no longer fashionable to be known as a Hindu or a Muslim. The youth now looks to new-age spirituality for religious moorings,” he says.

Shrinking relaxation avenues have pushed people towards spirituality. A decade ago, an overworked executive would have packed his family into his Fiat and driven off to a park or for a picnic. “Now there is no family to turn to — everyone has their own hectic schedules. And there are barely any peaceful places around big cities,” says Karanth. So, people search for peace in spirituality.

This, according to Karanth, means that there is no spiritual search in signing up for a Sri Sri meditation course. “There is only a search for physical relief. People are looking for solutions to problems such as tension, stress, acidity and migraine — and not the path to moksha,” he says.

Khwaja feels that like all fads, spirituality will also fade with time. “Nothing lasts for long. Every big fad, from the Hare Krishna movement to Reiki and Pranic Healing faded away. The youth is always looking for something new,” he says.

But for the time being — as 2.5 million prepare to mass meditate in Bangalore — Sri Sri will continue to help them find new spiritual ways to a stress-free life. The city which gave new meaning to stress is finding ways of easing it.

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