Can you sell detachment and merchandise at the same stall?

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The spiritual guru comes from a long line of non-materialistic sanyasis of yore, who espoused detachment and introspection. How do we reconcile the enlightenment role of the guru with the mediation function his modern-day avatars appear to be playing?

The construction of Isha Foundation's 112-foot-tall statue of Adiyogi is under legal scrutiny over allegations that it does not comply with required environmental and building norms.

The e-commerce site — sattvastore.com — is slickly designed and features a wider variety of merchandise ranging from CDs and books to puja accessories and apparel. Among the more interesting things featured in the website are an ‘anti-radiation’ chip which is apparently the result of ‘20 years of research and practical applications’ and claims to be a ‘radiation protector’ from mobile phones. Other interesting products are a board game based on the Mahabharatha, a ‘Vajrasan’ chair and a ‘smart’ pen that claims to teach children Sanskrit. The website, belonging to the Art of Living Foundation headed by Sri Sri Ravishankar, is an odd amalgam of Amazon and a more contemporary Ramanand Sagar.

The e-commerce hub of the Isha Foundation headed by Jaggi Vasudev is similar to the Art of Living's, but it has the added advantage of the Sadhguru's mystique, complemented by the Adiyogi statue, shades, SUVs and faux Texan accent. The merchandise featured is eerily similar to the Art of Living site, albeit branded differently. It features a variety of foods, puja items and items of clothing and earrings that are ostensibly replicas of what the guru wears.

 

At a different point on this same spectrum is the Patanjali brand that belongs to Baba Ramdev, perhaps the most business-like of the lot. It is more on-the-ground than the others and has become wildly popular. Its run-ins with marketing laws notwithstanding, Patanjali has taken on the much-hyped might of Unilever and P&G, injured them seriously in one fell David-like swoop and captured the imagination of many. Besides these big players, other minor gurus too hawk their wares in websites and kirana stores. All of them have benefited from the fact that the ‘guru’ in question is closely associated with the products. It has lent these businesses a halo that, to an extent, overrides the ruthlessness that one has come to associate with business.

It’s a puzzling phenomenon, this ‘business of gurudom’. In the traditional Hindu categorisation of an individual’s life-stages, the Sanyas ashrama was the last in a sequence of four. Preceded by the Brahmacharya, Grihastha and Vaanaprastha ashramas, the Sanyas ashrama was the final stop in the life of the Hindu upper-caste male. Sanyasis were supposed to cut themselves off from the world, focus entirely on spiritual matters and have no connection with worldly affairs. All of the gurus mentioned in this piece, and many who aren't, cultivate the sanyasi persona very consciously. By their own telling, they are detached from worldly affairs. And yet here they are peddling fancy clothing, toothpaste and the like. Is the detached persona, then, more an act than a true state of being?

This is a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction worth thinking about. These items which are up for sale are by default are tied to messages of spirituality, detachment and healthy living that the gurus preach. But, what is the spiritual message that one could derive from a food item, a fancy pen or an item of clothing? How is one to reconcile toothpaste and spirituality or a ‘healthy’ food item and detachment? In their defence, perhaps these items are merely an adjunct. Perhaps they are a way of generating funds for the various social welfare projects these organisations also run, such as educational institutions, health-care facilities, environmental projects et al.

But in my view, this phenomenon needs to be understood in its entirety.

 

The gurus of yore drew followers by shunning comfort and luxury. The gurus of today whisper the solace-giving message of ‘It’s alright’ into the troubled devotee’s ears and thereby mediate his guilt at worldly attachment.

Firstly, the guru himself (sometimes herself) needs to be decoded. It would not be incorrect to say that what the gurus are offering is a spiritual Disneyland of sorts. This Disneyland performs a mediating function and, to an extent, also assists in a cultural reclamation project of sorts. Just as one enters Disneyland convinced (or at least hoping) that spending a few hours there will help reclaim one’s childhood (read happiness), people are entering these spiritual Disneylands in the hope of deriving ‘spiritual solace’ (read happiness) of a sort and thereby attempting reconciliation with the ruthless world they claim to be trapped in. This mediation is critical. Connecting with a ‘guru’ will help you reclaim a lost innocence and thereby maybe even absolve you in some convoluted way of accountability for your actions. It is almost as if the guru is indirectly telling you to continue eating whatever it is you are eating, and simply take a dose of spiritual antacid periodically to keep indigestion at bay.

Guilt (over possessing material attachments) is more than a serious worry for many. To these fears, the guru is able to successfully convince many that he (or she) is the solution. By giving to the guru, one is "doing one’s duty" and thereby is allowed self-indulgence otherwise. The rule of compensation or expiation is at work here.

One could perhaps understand this by understanding the gurus in the light of some of their own products. Take, for instance, the anti-radiation chip. It’s supposed to be an armour of sorts. It does not tell you to cut down on cell-phone usage to ‘protect’ yourself. It offers you the luxury of usage without damage. The guru is an armour too. He (or she) is the armour the devotee dons to protect himself from the world at large. The guru is also the medium, the shoulder, perhaps even the protector. The guru’s is the presence that eliminates the guilt.

The ‘smart pen’ that teaches Sanskrit is an embodiment of the guru too. Harnessing hoary tradition and packaging it in digestible capsules is what the guru does in his preaching. The smart pen uses technology to ‘bring back’ the ancient which also happens to be sacred to many. The clothing and earring replicas allow you to own a ‘piece’ of the guru and hence perform the function of connection. Spiritual solace, protection, conservation and connection are what the devotee desires and what he gets. The mediator in all cases is the guru.

‘Inhabiting’ Guruland for a while every so often by attending a prayer meeting, a cultural mela or the like is an important ‘connecting’ mechanism. It is akin to a weekend getaway.

 

The collective draws you in and one loses all sense of the self. In that process, perhaps some experience a high of sorts. A high that one could even experience when one does the breathing exercises, chants the mantra or whatever it is that one has to do to ‘belong’ to the cult.

Lastly, there is also the ‘cocking the snook’ angle. The gurus keep exalted company. Politicians and filmstars flock to their side and they seem to have an social stature that affords them and their organisations greater leeway within society. Events held by the organisations go on even if there are concerns over their compliance with environmental norms and impact on biodiversity. All of this counts for something in the follower’s eyes. He sees it as worthy of admiration, constitutional law be damned.

The products themselves count for very little in the overall scheme of things. They are just a faint attempt at cashing in on the adulation that surrounds the guru though sometimes their success (as in the case of Patanjali to an extent) overtakes the guru. It is really the guru who is the overriding presence.

Clearly, sanyas in present-day practice has less to do with detachment and more to do with mediation. The gurus of yore drew followers by shunning comfort and luxury. The gurus of today whisper the solace-giving message of ‘It’s alright’ into the troubled devotee’s ears and thereby mediate his guilt at worldly attachment and render him battle-ready for the big, bad world. And for this, a fat middleman’s fee (aka donations, contribution etc.) changes hands.

Everyone is making money and having a good time, so why can’t they? Is that a good bottom-line?

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