India's Baba Ramdev is guru, TV star and source of controversy

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

HARIDWAR, INDIA -- At the crack of dawn, 4,000 people sitting on yoga mats silently watched the renowned guru Baba Ramdev on stage. After his introduction as the one who will dispel the darkness of ignorance, the orange-robed Ramdev chanted "Om" into a microphone. The audience followed with a reverential hum.

"Eat this every morning to prevent cancer," he said, holding up four holy basil leaves.

"No blood pressure and asthma problem if you do this daily. Be free from medicines!" he exclaimed after performing a few yoga postures and demonstrating six breathing techniques. The crowd cheered.

Ramdev's daily two-hour session has been the most-watched show in India since 2003, drawing an average of 26 million viewers and beating news programs, soap operas, movies and reality shows. Thousands of people travel to the New Age tele-guru's ashram every day to catch a glimpse of him or to touch his feet.

His mission is to promote yoga and rid people of their dependence on expensive modern medicines. Through controlled breathing, he says, people can increase their intake of oxygen 10 times, making their bodies "pure as fire" and immune to illnesses.

But his concerns include both the body and the body politic.

"Yoga is my battle against untruth, injustice and sin. I want to clean the nation of its corrupt and poisonous ways," Ramdev said in an interview at his four-acre ashram, called Patanjali Yogpeeth.

The center, in northern India, includes a yoga school, a hospital, and a factory that manufactures herbal medicine based on ancient Indian texts. Now, he wants to create a cadre of about 600,000 people who will abide by his austere ways, remain unmarried and teach yoga in every village in India. "It will be the biggest platform to unite Indians and restore national pride," he said.

Ramdev was born into a family of farmers. He is a vegetarian, ties his long hair in a bun, wears wooden footwear, does not take pills and sleeps on the floor. But an armed bodyguard accompanies him everywhere, a sign of VIP status in India. He hobnobs with politicians, businessmen and Bollywood stars. And he expresses his opinion on almost everything.

He likens homosexuality to drug addiction and claims yoga can "cure" it. He calls Pepsi and Coke "toilet cleaners." He supports throwing foreign companies out of India. He says that Western civilization is going downhill and that India will rule the world with yoga.

The clamor around Ramdev represents Indians' endless search for gurus and holy men they can revere, finding an escape from worldly tensions and pains. His diatribes against corruption, multinational companies, changing lifestyles and urban stress resonate with the social anxieties accompanying the awkward but rapid transition of an ancient land into a 21st-century economic powerhouse.

"What Baba Ramdev preaches is simple: If you control your body, you can control the world," said Shiv Viswanathan, a social anthropologist with the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Ahmedabad. "His message is 'Breathe well, eat well and live well,' whether you have a digestive block or an impending divorce."

Ramdev is not without critics. The Indian medical community, in particular, does not approve of him. When the swine flu panic gripped India this year, Ramdev said yoga and breathing exercises could prevent infection.

"Under Indian law, nobody can make tall claims about curing diseases. Yoga is good, but Ramdev should not say he can cure this and that," said Anil Bansal, the joint secretary of the Indian Medical Association. "But he is a very powerful man, and many politicians are his followers. Nobody can say anything against him."

During his daily television performances, he pontificates on terrorism, water contamination, colonialism, tax laws, black money and cow protection, while instructing people to raise their legs, tie their hands behind their backs and breathe deep.

He even launched a political manifesto this year.

"I will not fight elections, but I will endorse and offer good, honest candidates to political parties," he said.

In response to a recent ban on yoga by Islamic clerics in Malaysia, Ramdev told Muslims that they can do the exercises chanting Allah's name instead of "Om." He demonstrated health benefits of breathing techniques and yoga postures at a gathering of 500,000 Muslims last month at one of India's oldest Islamic seminaries.

He has held public meetings in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles and runs 15 yoga and herbal medicine centers in the United States. A gleaming ashram is under construction in Houston. In September, his followers bought him a remote Scottish island called Little Cumbrae, near Glasgow, to set up a center for yoga.

Sampoornam Palaniswamy, 59, is overweight and has knee pain. She cannot understand Hindi, the language that Ramdev speaks. But she watches him on television and traveled from southern India to the ashram in the north.

"He teaches very simple exercises aimed at specific ailments. It is easy to follow and is not time-consuming," she said.

Another patient came from Britain.

"I want to learn the correct breathing exercises for diabetes," said Eric Ross, 64, a management consultant from Manchester. "I have escaped from the medical mafia at home."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company