India tunes into Ramdev, Sri salvation

Financial Express (UK)/July 10, 2006

Mumbai -- Early one summer morning in the holy town of Haridwar, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, about 500 people sit on mats facing their saffron-clad Hindu guru, following his every word.

Swami Ramdev speaks of the benefits of ancient yoga in a society rapidly moulding the frenetic and stressful pace of Western-style capitalism to traditional values.

About 1,500 km away in Kolkata, Arpita Ghosh and her husband watch Ramdev's every move on television.

"We follow his instructions on TV and do it (yoga)," Ghosh, a middle-aged bank worker says. "Yoga has changed our lives. It has calmed us and given us peace."

A booming economy has brought unprecedented prosperity to millions in India's cities and towns. But the pursuit of wealth and pressures of modern life have also left their bodies stressed and souls jaded, those behind popular faith channels say.

Many are turning to televised spirituality.

"Improvement in standards of living and the increase in materialism have not quenched humankind's innate yearning for spirituality," says Zakir Abdul-Karim Naik, whose Peace TV telecasts soothing interpretations of the Koran.

Deep Breathing

In India, where the airwaves are increasingly congested with brash news and entertainment channels, spiritual stations are increasingly being seen as a soothing alternative.

"Many people are bored with life and then there are many viewers who are fed up with what the other channels offer," says N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies.

"The programme packages of the spirituality channels give such people a window into an alternative lifestyle."

The first channel in India -- Aastha (Trust) -- hit the air in 2001 with discourses on Hinduism, yoga and meditation classes.

About half a dozen similar channels have followed.

They offer talks shows, devotional songs, spiritual films, interactive astrological shows, mythological series, classes on alternative medicine and yoga in English, Hindi and Urdu.

Such has been their popularity even regular stations now include early morning sessions on spirituality and yoga.

"No one denies the benefits of yoga and if you have someone instructing you on TV you might just like to try yoga out at your home," Rao told Reuters.

For centuries, the troubled and restless have turned to India's religious mysticism, yoga, 'pranayam' and transcendental meditation to find inner peace.

Yoga, a 5,000-year-old combination of exercise and self-knowledge, is aimed at liberating the self by forging a union between mind and body.

Spirituality Sells

"Our spirituality is functional and you can get tangible benefits of practicing something like yoga," Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living order and a prominent face on all spiritual channels, often tells his disciples.

"I believe in Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's philosophy of life which I came to know of through TV," says Mili Banerjee, 29, a public relations professional who also organises spirituality camps for the Art of Living.

"It gave me a new direction, new focus in my life."

India's spirituality channels have travelled abroad, and now beam into more than 125 countries.

"The overseas market is starved of programmes based on Indian spiritualism," says Pramod Joshi of Aastha TV, which will soon begin broadcasting in South Africa, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji by satellite.

Advertisers have taken note.

Since its launch, those able to see Aastha TV rose from 27 percent of 65 million households receiving cable and satellite programming in 2001 to about half four years later, said Joshi.

"In terms of growth in viewership, they are ahead of the news and entertainment channels. These channels are dynamic, changing their position regularly to appeal to a younger clientele," says Rao.

Analysts say in two years the channels could double their share of 15 percent of TV advertising spending of $2.6 billion.

"Look at the changing profile of the advertisements on these channels. A year ago, you would see only adverts of balms and incense sticks. Today, you find everything from tyres and cement to airlines to public issues," says Rao.

"It's simple. Spirituality sells in a world jaded by consumerist excesses."

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