Ramdev: Swami without Sampradaya

Baba Ramdev is from the new breed of saffron-clad sadhus: breakers of tradition, political animals without spiritual qualms

Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru who for a few days mobilised thousands of supporters against corruption, is heir to an old legacy of spiritual masters with strong ties to the Sangh Parivar. DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY / AFP PHOTO
01 July, 2011

FOR A FEW DAYS IN EARLY JUNE, Baba Ramdev mobilised thousands of his supporters in India against corruption. The context was favourable: the country had already witnessed numerous scams involving politicians, followed by a virtual non-response from the Union government and the protest organised by veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare over the preceding weeks. But Ramdev’s display of strength was also a product of his long association with the Sangh Parivar.

In a recent interview with Tehelka (12 June 2011), Swami Ramdev declared: "I don’t understand why I’m seen as being close to the Sangh Parivar."The proximity, however, is easy to explain. For more than half a decade, Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, has approvingly covered Ramdev’s actions. The affinities between his views and the doctrines of Hindu nationalism are obvious: he promotes yoga, defends Ayurveda, opposes globalisation in the name of swadeshi and is a staunch advocate of Indian majoritarianism. Following his visit to the UN in 2006, Ramdev was welcomed back to India as a hero by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Satyamitranand Giri, who compared him to Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, Ramdev has been associated with nearly all the offshoots of the Sangh Parivar over more than half a decade. In September 2005, he presided over the 15th annual sammelan of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the RSS, along with the then RSS sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan. In February 2007, he delivered the keynote address at the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch meeting. He was also a guest at the book launch for the Hindi language edition of LK Advani’s autobiography in Bhopal in July 2008.

Organiser’s analysis (23 November 2008) of Ramdev’s defence of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a prime suspect in the September 2008 Malegaon anti-Muslim bomb blasts, is telling:

Taking strong exception to Congress-led UPA government’s accusation against Hindu organisations, popular Yoga Guru Ramdev lashed out at the ‘secular brigade’ for making use of phrases like Hindu terrorism. Spiritual guru Baba Ramdev, the man behind the Yoga revolution in India, has also come out in support of Sadhvi Pragya, who has been framed in the September 29 Malegaon blast. Stating that Sadhvi Pragya seems innocent, Baba Ramdev said he supports her.

Baba Ramdev is heir to an old legacy that harks back not to Vivekananda but to Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Sandeepany Sadhanalaya, located in the Mumbai suburb of Powai, and one of the cofounders in 1964 of the VHP along with former RSS member SS Apte. Since then, dozens of saffron-clad sadhus have epitomised the same characteristics—belonging not to a traditional sampradaya (system of spiritual knowledge), but often serving instead as self-initiated ‘spiritual masters’. They do not retain the individualised and interactive guru-shishya modus operandi of teaching spiritual knowledge, but communicate their message in a one-way, simplified and simplistic style, whether from Olympian platforms or from TV studios, which were the launchpad for Ramdev’s yoga classes in the 1990s, just as they were for countless Protestant evangelists in the US and Latin America.

The ‘style’ of these modern gurus is in line with the expectations of the middle class, which feels uncomfortable with temple rituals, whose mechanisms seem like superstitions brought to life. But while middle class people do not have the time to go to temples anyway, they look for religious support to cope with the hardships of stressful professional, urban lifestyles. Yoga is seen as an excellent antidote to stress—and Ramdev’s exercises are appreciated as relaxing indeed.

The middle class, known for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, also finds in these preachers advocates for their social and political inclinations. On the one hand, India’s tele-sadhus are not social reformists. (Swami Agnivesh is an exception who only confirms the rule.) Baba Ramdev, for example, regards homosexuality as a disease. On the other hand, they do serve as promoters of Hindu pride. In fact, the modern gurus of India are global propagandists of Hinduism, seeking to restore the self-esteem of an intelligentsia that has been for centuries at the receiving end of the Western superiority complex. They travel all the time to meet their followers in the West—where they lecture to rooms full of white people. In 2006, Ramdev predicted that "Bharat will become a superpower by the year 2011"(Organiser, 12 November 2006). Since then, he has acquired a £2 million isle in Scotland, courtesy of a Scottish disciple-couple of Indian origin.

What is new is the way in which the pro-Hindutva sadhus take part in politics in different capacities. For years, they were confined to the VHP, which gave them due respect and a platform—marginalising, in the process, the traditional Shankaracharyas—via the ‘grand’ Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal. In the 1990s, half a dozen of these sadhus and sadhvis, including the recently-reinstated Uma Bharti, joined politics to contest elections, which they did successfully. Over the following decade, three of them—Pragya Singh Thakur, Swami Amritananda Dev Tirtha (Shankaracharya of the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir-based Sri Sharada Sarvagya Peeth) and Swami Assemanand (an accused in the Samjhauta Express bombing of 2007)—became part of terrorist organisations. Today, Baba Ramdev is initiating another path by mobilising people in the street to fight corruption. Sadhus have been in the street before: in 1966, the anti-cow slaughter movement brought together 100,000 demonstrators in front of Parliament House in New Delhi; in the 1990s, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement had a similar effect. Today, saffron-clad leaders have embarked on a more ‘secular’ warpath, but one thing remains unchanged: the support they receive from the RSS.

So, even as Baba Ramdev wonders why he is viewed as close to the RSS, the party leaders themselves have no similar questions in mind. The organisation, in its annual national meeting in Puttur, Kerala, in March this year, adopted a resolution extending all support to him.

A significant feature of the Ramdev episode was that it exposed the ambivalent attitude of Congress leaders. To begin with, they tried to pacify him. When they realised that he would remain adamant—and was being backed by the Sangh Parivar—they resorted to repression. Not only was the final reaction—or overreaction—costly to the Congress in terms of image, the party’s oscillations also reflected its hesitation between two lines of conduct that calls to mind the Rajiv Gandhi years.

In 1966-67, Indira Gandhi, despite her craze for her yoga teacher Dhirendra Brahmachari, gave no quarter to the cow-protection movement, even when VHP-supported saffron-clad leaders were about to storm Parliament. This policy of non-negotiation was brought into question in the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi tried to balance the Shah Bano affair by launching his 1989 election campaign from Faizabad, whose twin city, Ayodhya, is considered to be Ram’s birthplace.

Today, the Congress might be tempted to compromise its secular legacy in the presence of increasing majoritarianism in Indian politics. This comes at a time when the party is looking to Muslims as a potentially captive vote bank. (Who else could they turn to, anyway?) But a cautionary story can be traced to the late 1980s when, instead of recapturing its secular balance, the Congress prepared the ground for the BJP in much the same manner—by running after the Hindu vote.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.