Business of the gods

Tehelka, India/June 24, 2007
By Shantanu Guha Ray

Yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, Art of Living. Holding on to faith and letting go of stress in these troubled times comes at a price. But millions are ready to pay. The healers, amassing fortunes and building empires, seem to be the happiest.

Last month, the Delhi Police's Economic Offences Wing (EOW) received a strange complaint from disciples of one of India's top godmen, a figure immensely popular for his crowded, five-star discourses in select farmhouses on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road on the Capital's southern fringes.

The bizarre incident revolved around a disciple who offered Rs 35 lakh in three installments as donation to gain instant access to the godman's inner circle. Enthused by the donation and the disciple's meteoric rise in his business, the godman requested his help in a personal investment that would guarantee quick returns. Rs 4 crore — the amount could even be higher — changed hands. The disciple disappeared overnight.

No one knows why the godman and his followers did not press charges, but the general perception among those who attended that meeting at the EOW office, was that the issue was buried instantly because the complainants felt investigations would actually create more tensions for the godman than for the offender. What if the police asked about the source of that cash?

"Obviously no one wanted to reveal the godman's source of money, which is mostly in cash and collected after the discourses. The collections are just huge," a top EOW officer told Tehelka.

Solace comes for a price

As per estimates with the finance and home ministries, the total turnover of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's empire is approximately Rs 400 crore that includes his Art of Living (AOL) institutes, pharmacy and health centres, and a hill 40 km from Bangalore on lease from the Karnataka government for 99 years. In the same league are others like Asaram Bapu (turnover Rs 350 crore, includes the multicrore controversial ashram in Delhi's Ridge area close to the Rabindra Rangashala); Mata Amritanandamayi, "Amma", of Kerala (turnover Rs 400 crore, includes a virtual corporation that runs schools and hospitals and receives mega donations from all over the world); Baba Ramdev of Hardwar (turnover Rs 400 crore, includes pharmacies and land for two universities); Sudhanshu Maharaj (turnover Rs 300 crore, includes meditation centres across the country and special discourses at the homes of the rich and famous in India and abroad) and Murari Bapu (turnover Rs 150 crore, includes special discourses at political rallies and at private residences in India and abroad).

"Godmen seem to be the biggest beneficiary of the economic boom," says Pradip Ghosh of the Kolkata-based Science and Rationalists' Association (SRA). His personal interaction with Baba Ramdev on NDTV some time ago ended in a virtual fracas when the self-styled healer refused to cure a bald man whose name Ghosh suggested.

Writes Ghosh in his book Yoga: Control of the Mind and Meditation, "If Cadbury's, Samsung or Maruti depended only on the quality of their product, and cancelled all their advertisements and promotions, we can imagine what would have happened in this era of competition. Indian yogis are men of clever business acumen."

On the outskirts of Hardwar, the gigantic ashram of Baba Ramdev welcomes visitors with a huge board that has rates precisely cut out for those interested in his healing touch. Ordinary membership: Rs 11,000. Honoured membership: Rs 21,000. Special membership: Rs 51,000. Life membership: Rs 1 lakh. Reserved membership: Rs 2.51 lakh. Founder membership: Rs 5 lakh.

Money talks, all the way. "Funds are required for a whole range of our activities because nothing is free in India," explains Swami Balkisen, who is helping Baba Ramdev construct two of India's biggest universities in Hardwar and in Madhya Pradesh on highly subsidised land offered by the state governments. This, he says, will become the central point from where the jet-set yogi hopes to cure millions of Indians from a host of diseases. "I am not saying I will do everything for free. It is not possible. The scale of the business will go. Our papers are all audited," Baba Ramdev recently told a Hindi news channel.

Adds Swami Tijarawala, the yogi's repre-sentative in Delhi: "More than 3,000 patients visit us on a daily basis for treatment. Once we start this operation, the numbers will multiply. But if you are expecting it to be free, then it is like asking for the moon."

Glance through the price chart and you will have your answer. The rates of medicines and other products are sky-high at all these centres, the majority of which work through trusts that seek huge Income Tax (I-T) concessions. Recently, the I-T department revealed in a note that the Divya Yog Mandir Trust of Baba Ramdev has emerged in just a few years as one of the richest of its kind in India.

Is the godman route the best to earn big bucks? Or to avoid the tax net? Consider the latest case in Delhi where I-T sleuths discovered 19.55 acres of prime land worth Rs 1,900 crore in the illegal possession of religious bodies ranging from the Sant Nirankari Mandal to the Jwala Mukhi Durga Mandir to the Sanatan Dharma Sabha Shiv Temple to the Asaramji Trust.

"The Asaramji Trust has defaulted on tax payments worth Rs 2.15 crore while the Roman Catholic Church in India has not cleared dues worth almost a crore of rupees," says Ashok Singh, a senior I-T official in Delhi, adding: "This trust business is becoming very, very murky. If the ownership of the trusts is kept among family-members, there will be no question of income tax."

On the southern fringes of Delhi, farmhouses routinely host discourses conducted by these godmen where devotees wearing spotless white pay an entrance fee of Rs 5,000 per head for a one-hour pravachan that comes with vegetarian dinner.

Cash speaks, Cash rules

No wonder, then, that business is booming. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has a sprawling, threestorey ashram on a hill 40 km from Bangalore. It comes with an artificial lake, a helipad, dining halls, cyber cafes, a bookshop, pharmacies, residential quarters and a dedicated channel on Worldspace satellite radio. Devotees from more than 125 countries came here to attend AOL'S silver jubilee celebrations. There are plans to start an online university to teach Vedic mathematics.

And it is not cheap: delegates pay Rs 5,000 each to attend the annual AOL festivities. This year, nearly 5,50,000 attended. "You have to run it like a corporation to make it financially viable," Sri Sri Ravi Shankar told Tehelka in an interview.

Pune's plush Koregaon Park neighbourhood is home to the 40-acre Osho International Meditation Resort (OIMR) that has white marble pathways, blackpainted buildings and landscaped gardens. "OIMR is run as a trust. It is a combination of meditation centre and resort, which makes it unique," says Ma Sadhna at OIMR. Osho's business has grown almost 300 percent after his death. Osho's books are published by 49 international publishers in 55 languages — next only to Harry Potter (64 languages), and the website is among the world's top sites with approximately six million hits last year. The Osho guesthouse has 60 air-conditioned rooms with double beds and attached bathrooms. Four are designed to accommodate people with physical difficulties. You can even book your room online. There is a special Amazing Weekend Package offered from April 1 to October 31 which makes the five-star facilities available at three-star rates: two nights and three days for one person at $184 (Rs 8,250), and for two persons at $ 268 (Rs 12,500). This covers registration fees, food, two robes, meditations, health club facilities (including an Olympic-size swimming pool), Buddha Grove classes and evening celebrations. "This is the best nirvana and it comes for a price," says Ma Prem Usha, who heads the Delhi centre of OIMR.

Despite her lower-caste origins, "Amma" Amritanandamayi — the saint of Kerala who has hugged at least 21 million people over the past three decades — has a huge following. She runs her own Amrita television channel, as well as 33 schools, 12 temples, a state-of-the-art super specialty hospital, and a deemed university whose yearly turnover would easily touch the Rs 175-crore mark. As per home ministry records, she is the second largest recipient in India of foreign funds. In 1998- 1999 alone, she earned foreign funds worth Rs 51.55 crore ($11.5 million). When she celebrated her birthday in Kochi some years back, all Kerala dailies got a highly paid, four-page colour supplement.

She spent Rs 100 crore for tsunami rehabilitation, helped victims of the Kashmir earthquake and donated $1 million to the Bush-Clinton Hurricane Katrina fund two years ago. This year, she has promised Rs 200 crore for the distressed farmers of Vidarbha. Her ashram has a UN special consultation status for non-governmental organisations and she is firmly ensconced in the top echelons of the Sangh Parivar.

"She is sitting pretty on an empire worth Rs 1,200 crore. Amma runs high-power institutions through which big favours can be distributed to people who matter. The payment for a medical seat at her super-specialty hospital-cum-medical college is Rs 40 lakh. There would be concessions in the case of children of VIPs," says U. Kalanathan, noted Malayali atheist. "Amma's benefits are going to the devotees. So where is the question of this huge annual turnover?" argues Swami Dhyanamrita, a long-time Amma confidant.

Outside the huge complex in Delhi that houses the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple, a large billboard says, "Become a life member — all donations accepted here." The price tag for a life membership starts at Rs 10,000.

"We run 400 temples, 100 vegetarian restaurants, and a wide variety of community projects," says Vrajendra Nandan Das, vice president of the million-member strong organisation that almost went bankrupt a decade ago. Today, new projects are being taking shape in Bangalore, Noida, Ghaziabad and Tirupati through big donations that come from an impressive list of donors, which includes veteran actor and Rajya Sabha MP Hema Malini and one of the sons of Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav. "ISKCON needs the cream, not the crowd," says Das.

Obviously, the crowd's contribution is abysmal as compared to the cream. That's the thumb rule if you are seeking solace, sorry, sampurna nirvana.

With input from Ka Shaji in Kochi, Shalini Singh in Mumbai, and Harsimran Shergill in New Delhi

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