January 8, 2006

Swami & Friends

Call it the Power of Pranayam. Swami Ramdev’s supporters have taken to the streets and politicians are queuing up in the yogi’s support. As the bones-in medicine controversy rages on, Sunday Times finds out who is running out of breath and why
Avijit Ghosh and Jaskiran Chopra

In a land where mendicants know a hundred ways to serve soul curry, he is revered as the master healer. For millions every morning, Swami Ramdev is the 5 am family physician, the omniscient interpreter of maladies. For many with galloping blood pressure, breathless asthma, and soaring blood sugar, the yogi on sunrise television is the last port of refuge.
So when CPM politburo member Brinda Karat furnished an ambiguous lab report to level allegations of animal fat and human bones being used in his medicine, morning newspapers in every kasbah across Uttaranchal sold out within hours. A few hours later, the newspapers reappeared at market crossroads to form incendiary material in angry hands. Angrier slogans against the CPM MP knifed through the cold mountain air. Soon the broadsheets were used to torch hastily constructed Karat effigies as spontaneous protests broke out in the hill state.
The dissent was not restricted to Uttaranchal, the swami's main base. And it wasn’t confined to right-wing groups either. In Agra, middle-aged women organised yoga on the streets, causing traffic jams. In Lucknow, supporters held a peace yagna. Karat effigies were burnt even in Left-ruled Kolkata. And the vortex of events has caused many to wonder: Why are millions queuing up in his support?
To begin with, only a limited number of Ramdev followers have ever used his medicine. Most owe their improved health to the breathtaking art of pranayam that Ramdev teaches. Since ancient times, yoga is known to repair ailing bodies, restore wilting spirits. Gurus have peddled it in Hardwar ashrams, in Houston halls. But many have been defeated by the daunting asanas: the sirshasanas, the vrikshasana and the like. Ramdev, however, has concentrated on pranayam, breathing exercises that are easy for the aging and the obese. “By simplifying it, he has made yoga far more accessible,” says furniture designer Rekha Krishan, who has attended a camp. ‘‘Thanks to pranayam, my 70-year-old husband’s high blood sugar has dipped to normal.” And that’s without any medicine.
Architect Nirupama Chanana, who attended a camp at Hardwar at the insistence of her family doctor, recalls: “Many who had benefited from his classes had come to the camp as a thank-you gesture. Some of them were allopathic doctors, including one from Sweden.”
It is people like these who form the backbone of the support base that Ramdev has assiduously built since 1991. Clearly, his primary appeal lies in the power of his pranayam rather than his ayurveda pills. Acharya Balkrishanji, director, Divya Yog Pharmacy, points out, “While Swami Ramdev started teaching pranayam about 15 years ago, we started selling medicines only a yearand-a-half back. The turnover is Rs 1 crore annually.” In fact, during most of his camps and TV programmes, Ramdev suggests home remedies.
Which is perhaps why Karat’s allegation — that remains to be conclusively proven in labs — hasn’t cut ice with a majority of his followers. By curing them, or at least providing them a degree of relief, he has built a substantial popular base. Social scientist Ashis Nandy calls him a ‘‘folk hero”. This is illustrated by the innumerable SMSes —
Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Ramdev tera naam rahega —running on news channels.
Ramdev began teaching yoga in Hardwar. In the beginning, there were only a few students. The Divya Yoga Mandir Trust was formed in 1995. Once he started appearing on TV in 2002, his fame zoomed. Now the name, Swami Ramdev, throws up 17,500 web pages on Google. Like most New Age gurus, the master of breath has expanded his repertoire. Now his trust markets books, cassettes and VCDs. Says Acharya Balkrishanji, “Our overall assets are worth Rs 45 crore.” 
Born as Ram Kishen at Kalwa village in Haryana’s Narnaul district, Ramdev ran away from home at 16, studied at various gurukuls and performed sadhna in Himalayan caves. The shrunken left eye is the only reminder of a paralytic stroke he suffered as a toddler — he is said to have cured himself through yoga. The super-fit yogi of indeterminable age sleeps for five hours, eats only fruits and vegetables and enjoys pillion-riding on twowheelers. Ramdev also regularly speaks out against fast-food and MNCs. One of his favourite lines is, “Cola matlab toilet cleaner.” He also claims to have never watched a movie or ever had sex. “I sublimate my libido to positive energy through yoga,” the New York Times quoted him as saying.
Ramdev’s camps are always well-attended. Every breath he takes is dutifully imitated by 40,000 men and women or more, while the ambience is lightened by the swami’s banter. Even his digs at MNCs and fast-food are never aggressive. His lexicon is a mix of Hindi, English, biology and native common sense. When explaining the famous kapalbhati — where the stomach obeys the commands of breath — he says, “Everytime it goes in and out, you burn one calorie.” Golden words for weight-watchers.
Watch him on TV and you see a friendly dispenser of wayside wisdom, rather than a pulpitpreaching saint. And though his idiom is occasionally religious, he seems to be enjoying the secular exercise of making people healthy. If politicians cutting across ideologies have joined the pro-Ramdev bandwagon, it is because they understand the people’s pulse. But the point is deeper. Ramdev's followers are not driven by faith — unlike some other godmen — but by their own experience. And despite the adverse but inconclusive medical report, they are unwilling to change their opinion. And they are making no bones about it.

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