Monday, September 28, 2009


The West has been attracting Indian Gurus, both fake and real, for a very long time. Perhaps the first one to head for and live in the US was Parmahansa Yogananda, whose Autobiography of a Yogi continues to attract readers. Swami Prabhupada, who founded ISKCON, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are the other two who shot into limelight and acquired a large following after they set foot in the US.

The latest to join the 'pantheon' is controversial Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev. Born Ramkishan Yadav in a village in Haryana, he suffered from paralysis as a child and was able to regain full functionality of his body through Patanjali's Yoga. Dropping out of school in class eight, he joined a gurukul, assumed sanyas and took his present name. In 1995, he established the Yoga Mandir Vidya Trust. In 2002, Sanskar TV channel started airing his yoga classes. Overnight he became a sensation and soon started appearing on many TV channels.

Ever since then, his rise has been meteoric and his now vast organisation is reportedly worth hundreds of million dollars already. His Yoga camps are attended by thousands of people, and as many as 20 million view them live on TV regularly in 170 countries. Hundreds of thousands claim to have benefitted from the methods being taught by him to rid their bodes and minds of all kinds of ailments.

Thus, unlike most gurus who have preceded him in their Westward journey, Baba Ramdev is already a real rock star in India, the likes of which India has never seen. That may be because he is not a religious guru in the sense that commonly understood; he does not preach any religion. Yoga can be practiced by people belonging to all religions.

The Guru of Good Health is now expanding rapidly overseas too. He has just bought Little Cumbrae, a 684 acre, conch shaped island in Scotland for a little over $ 3 million. Technically, of course, it has been bought by Sunita Poddar to establish a centre of Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Yoga Peeth there. She and her husband have made their fortune in Scotland running a chain of Glasgow nurseries called Little Einsteins, and have now put their accumulated wealth in Baba Ramdev's retreat rather than in a holiday home or some such somewhere.

What led them to take this extraordinary decision? When Sunita first met Baba Ramdev in Britain in 2006, she was severely obese and on 12 tablets a day. She attended his Yoga camp for six days and lost six-and-a-half kilos. That motivated her to get more involved and help others too by getting a teaching certificate. Her husband claims that she lost 36 kilos in six months and has been completely cured of the many diseases that she had and needs no medication now. "My husband and I have worked very hard for what we have but now it's time to pay back the community, so we decided to buy this island and build this centre here" says Sunita. Little Cumbrae looks straight out of an Enid Blyton story with hidden coves, rugged cliffs, a Victorian residence, a Castle Keep and a lighthouse. The couple want to make it a "Shanti Dweep", an island of peace.

On September 27, 2009, Baba Ramdev took the first steps to turn this island into "a place of pilgrimage" and a "peace haven to spread Indian values", with "bhoomi pujan" and a "hawan" ceremony, as hundreds of people, including bemused journalists and locals, flocked to see him. Those gathered also got a glimpse of his yogic skills as he demonstrated some of them in what appeared to be a most unlikely setting.

1400 years back a nun from Lindisfame named St Veya established a religious sanctuary on this island. And now, something similar is being planned. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. Baba Ramdev does not plan to stay in Little Cumbrae but is expected to visit at twice a year. The Poddars will run the centre and also pursue their aim of making Scotland the healthiest nation in the world within 10 years by spreading the message that they have the tool of preventative measures to achieve that.

It is perhaps only a question of time before Baba Ramdev also crosses the Atlantic and sets up base in the ultimate destination of all gurus, "Patal Lok", the United States, in even more spectacular fashion. The Yoga Guru seems to be getting richer and bigger by the day at a blistering pace. But, he does not have a bank account, sleeps on the floor, has steamed vegetables twice a day and practices abstinence. There is also little doubt that some of his controversial views aside, he has consistently displayed a genuine interest in helping people attain good mental and physical health by making authentic yoga a part of their daily lives. He has become what he has not due to any gimmickry but because of the the real, positive changes that hundreds of thousands of people have experienced and are experiencing due to him.

Baba Ramdev has done nothing yet to show that he is another of those fake gurus who head for the West in search of riches and more. But one cannot help wondering why his gaze too has simply floated over and away from the huge continent of Africa. Is it colour and wealth that are pulling him, like others before him, to the West? Or is it something else, something akin to what Parmahansa Yogananda has written about in his autobiography?

Picture: The Guardian