Varghese K George and Charu Sudan Kasturi trace the journey of how Ramkishan Yadav became Baba Ramdev — over two decades, myths and truths merged to create the cult of the yoga guru. Success is a trick, Baba Ramdev figured out early on, while he was still Ramkishan Yadav. As a child, Ramkishan found
the way to beat his stout elder brother Debdutt in wrestling – tickle.
“I couldn’t stand tickling. But he would do it only in crucial matches,” recalls Debdutt showing no grudge. Later on, Ramkishan’s success as Baba Ramdev combined the tricks of trade from Yoga, marketing and media. It was on display when he dressed up as a woman and tried to flee when the police came for him to Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi last week.
Life as Ramkishan
All stories of attributed greatness are part myth and part truth. Baba’s story is no different. Ramkishan was born in 1975, insists his brother, in Syed Alipur, an arid village amidst rocky hills in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, 150 km south west of Delhi. “It is wrongly reported that he is 46.” By his account, Baba Ramdev is all of 36. Months after his birth someone noticed that the left part of his face was partly paralysed, perhaps a congenital disability, which makes Baba Ramdev wink involuntarily.
Ramkishan had visions about his epiphanic role to serve the nation and wanted to leave home, says Nandlal Yadav, 55, who had mentored him.
However, uncle Jagdeesh Yadav’s version about the summer morning of 1988 is probably closer to truth. Working in the farm and grazing cattle were part of Ramkishan’s life. After a scolding from his father – ‘he used to be harsh,’ Baba said later – he ran to his uncle. “He wanted to go away. I took him to the gurukul (residential schools that teach Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures) at Khanpur, 30 kilometres away, and put him under Acharya Pradyumn,” recalls Jagdeesh.
“I wanted every child to go to gurukul,” explains Jagadeesh on why he took Ramkishan without even informing his parents. He had sent his son Virender also. “We forced Ramkishan to return home, but he ran back to the gurukul,” recalls Debdutt. Virender left the gurukul and is now with Haryana police. Ramkishan stayed on, and the rest, as they say, is history. And some myth.
Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist movement started by Swami Dayanand in 1875, had grown strong roots in Haryana. Missionaries of the Samaj toured villages and taught scriptures and Yoga. In Syed Alipur there are septuagenarian farmers who can walk on their hands and stand on their head. Yadavs, traditional cattle herders, were particularly mobilised by the cow protection movement, a major initiative of the Samaj. The movement prompted a Hindu consolidation, viewing Muslims who ate beef as the ‘other’. Congress was seen as the protectors of Muslims – rather than of cows – in this narrative. “Indira tere shasan mein, lakhon gaye katthe hain (Under your rule, lakhs of cows are being slaughtered), we used to shout,” Nand Lal recalls about early 1970s. The Arya Samajis joined in great force in Jaya Prakash Narayan movement of 1973, merging its politics into an overarching anti-Congress sentiment. It was into these slogans and sentiments that Ramkishan was born.
The Samaj had started numerous gurukuls in the region. From Khanpur, Ramkishan shifted to another gurukul in Kalva in Jind district. On the Diwali day of 1992, Ramkishan completed gurukul. Nandalal, Jagdeesh and Ramanand – a friend of Ramkishan -were witness to his graduation and all four set out for Syed Alipur. Around noon they stopped for a changeover of bus. “From here, I go my way. And you go yours,” the 17-year-old announced, dramatically. Syed Alipur would hear of him again 10 years later as Baba Ramdev.
Rise and rise of Baba
In 1992, outside the confines of the Gurukul, India was stirring up for a materialist revolution and Indians were moving to towns in multitudes. Ramkishan reached Haridwar and joined the Kripalu Bagh Ashram on the banks of a canal in the Kankhal area, run by Swami Shankardev. He assumed the name Ramdev.
In 1995, Ramdev became Baba – or Sanyasi, one vowed to celibacy and renunciation. The same year Shankardev, then 65, founded the Divya Yog Trust along with Ramdev and two of his friends – Balkrishna and Karamveer. All three had been friends since Khanpur. Baba joined Swami Shankardev’s modest yoga camps, by his side. As Shankardev’s health started to fail, Ramdev became the face of the trust. The trust ran about 50 camps a year those days – mostly in towns of Haryana and Rajasthan. Now, Ramdev gets 50 invitations a day says Swaroopanand, an aide. During intervals between camps, baba stayed in Haridwar and rode a scooter. “The SUVs, security and the aura came after 2002,” says Anil Kumar, the mechanic who used to service his scooter.
By 2000, Ramdev, Balkrishna and Karamveer took charge of the Trust and Ashram – as Shankardev withdrew to background. Ramdev was the face, Balkrishna the financial manager, and Karamveer the administrator. In 2005, Karamveer was expelled from the scene on suspicions that he engineered a campaign that some ayurvedic medicines produced by the trust contained human remains. Ramdev brought younger brother Ram Bharat into his core team. Bharat manages all the trusts, companies, and the factories within the empire today.
In 2002, baba entered a different orbit when his yoga classes began to be telecast on Sadhana TV, after one of its owners attended a shivir. Next year, Aastha TV – Sadhana’s rival – also started televising his shivirs. The initial shows were amateurish. But by 2004, Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth Trust – which he had started independent of Divya – launched own studios to produce high quality videos of yoga sessions.
Ramdev’s brand of Yoga did not demand patience as the traditional system demanded and new India lacked. It focused more on breathing exercises, and the baba combined it with a dose of polemic – ranging from ill effects of multinationals to homosexuality. An occasional bhajan would add a tinge of devotion too. For the stressed-out new middle class of India, relief was not only instant, but beamed into their drawing rooms.
By 2009, Aastha channel came under baba’s empire. Ramdev now has daily shows on 25 channels broadcast in seven languages – Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi and Bengali – and in five continents.
Becoming a brand
Ramdev instinctively knew the tricks of the market and addressed the bottom of the pyramid. The puritans despise the Ramdev brand of Yoga. “The way he teaches yoga can have severe negative impact – for instance, kapal bhati (the practice of forceful exhalation) can shoot up blood pressure and aggravate lower-back pain,” says a sanyasi at Bihar Yoga School, Munger, an authentic seat of yoga.
Though a critic of proliferating fast-food culture, Ramdev repackaged yoga as MacYoga – on demand, instant, gratification. Between 1995 and 2007, the number of diabetics in India had doubled; deaths due to heart diseases rose fast. He addressed their distress and exploited their helplessness. A seven-day yoga camp was offered as panacea – for diabetes, arterial clots, and even cancer – on the lines of Christian healers. He also made Yoga into a performing art. Trick, if you will. “There is a definite correlation between the changes that India witnessed post liberalisation and the rise of Ramdev. Urban India creates huge demand for spiritual and yoga gurus” sociologist Ashis Nandy said.
But for believers, Baba Ramdev is like a rock star, who they want to watch performing live even after watching on TV many times. At the massive gatherings he attracts, people can’t even see the details of the asanas – they just see Baba. He goes to about 40 shivirs a year now and has led around 600 shivirs in 16 years. In 1995 about 250 people attended a shivir; today over 50,000 do. At the conclusion of a camp in Munger town in 2005, a woman offered Rs 10 lakh for a rudraksh that Baba had gifted to a police officer. Minister, politicians and senior bureaucrats began to woo him.
As brand equity grew, Baba’s shivir began to work on franchise model. In 2005, Ramdev and his aides realised that TV technology still had limitations. Keen to go deep into the rural market that did not have access to cable television the Trust launched a concept called the Patanjali Yog Samitis. Ramdev began yoga “teacher training” camps. Each participant who was approved by Ramdev could then hold yoga camps under the Patanjali banner, under brand Baba. “His magnetic personality is behind his ability to attract both commoners and leaders,” Ramdev’s public relations officer Jay Shankar Mishra said.
Baba the neta
With the BJP on the downslide since 2004, Ramdev thought his popularity could be converted into political support and occupy the BJP’s space. He began strengthening his bonds with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), ideological and organisational fountainhead of the BJP. In 2006, Sarsangachalak KS Sudarshan was the chief guest at the inauguration of Patanjali Yog Peeth and Ramdev gave strong support to the yearlong Gau-Gram campaign organised by the Sangh last year. Though the RSS considered Ramdev’s proposal to float a political party, it decided against dumping the BJP. Ramdev then launched himself on the anti-corruption platform, claiming it to be non-political movement. “The country is so fed up of corruption that people are willing to listen to anyone. Perhaps Ramdev thought he could take his popularity onto another stage – politics,” Nandy said.
Baba’s foray into politics has been less than successful. Baba’s outrageous demands such as death for the corrupt, technical education in regional languages and withdrawal of higher value currency notes have confused his supporters. Sirshasana – standing on head – helps advanced practioners of Yoga to have multiple perspectives by viewing the world upside down, it is said. Baba Ramdev is perhaps seeing the world upside down.