Sri Sri event: When rockstar gurus bring political rivals together

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 11, 2016 09:02 IST
Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar waves to followers on March 1. (Hindustan Times)

They say Indian political parties squabble on everything and throw the rule books at each other but come together when praising its soldiers and cheering the national cricket team.

You may want to add one more category: helping popular gurus.

The AAP and the BJP, at loggerheads in the National Capital Region and trading charges of conspiracy or anarchy on nearly everything, have come together in clearing the way for Sri Sri Ravishankar’s World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna – despite expert opinion on how its massive stage threatens the fragile riverbed and its floodplain.

Read | Will go to jail, but won’t pay Rs 5-cr fine: Ravi Shankar on Yamuna fest

Political parties usually invoke probe panels, committees, tribunals and courts to fix responsibility on their rivals, but this time both the BJP and the AAP have sidestepped the remarks of the National Green Tribunal, which has all but formally admonished the Art of Living Foundation while giving grudging approval to its spiritual jamboree resembling Woodstock, rock music’s epic festival held on August 15, 1969 in the US.

This could be because spiritual gurus are India’s rockstars, with songs, dances, messages and above all, formidable mass following.

Earlier this week, the Mahashivaratri day saw Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev hold what looked like an all-night rock festival in his headquarters near Coimbatore. While #RoarOfShiva trended on Twitter, the long-bearded guru danced and watched ecstatic crowds cheer performers of various genres sing and dance to spiritual themes. Those welcomed on stage included business tycoon Prathap C. Reddy and fashion designer Sabyasachi.

While the army stepped in to build a pontoon bridge to help Sri Sri Ravishankar’s festival, yoga guru Baba Ramdev is being helped by the Central Industrial Security Force, which is providing security to his Haridwar-based food park.

Read | Ramdev wants to teach Yoga at JNU and the students seem ok with it

All three gurus have one thing in common: they have made meditation popular among India’s emerging middle class, which, after decades of struggle for roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter), seems to be discovering the basics of spirituality – offered in a heady mix of paid-for breathing sessions, musical soirees and consumer goods such as health food and Ayurvedic medicines.

This nifty mix of the “good life” with the “pure life” has an irresistible appeal among common citizens stuck between two extremes of a perceivably corrupt political life and the drudgery of everyday existence.

These are more than vote banks. By and large, India’s vote banks still exist in rural areas or in urban slums – but the deft blending of simplicity and glamour is favoured by an emerging social elite which has its influence in television channels and corporate circles.

The corporatisation of spirituality has a non-controversial and yet powerful pull that few can ignore. Social work, charity, healthy living and respect for heritage come together in a potent mix to create a new soft power of gurus that stand above the low-brow mass appeal of cricket or Bollywood.

Let us imagine the consequence if the National Green Tribunal had rejected the AOL Foundation’s juggernaut spirituality. In a week full of news on corporate loan defaulters, rapes and political acrimony in parliament, a rejection would have been seen in urban middle class circles as a spoilsport interference. Perception is reality in the world of politics – never mind the nuances of flood threats and biodiversity problems that the tribunal had in mind as it gave an approval for the festival with a fine and compensatory action imposed on the AOL guru.

Clearly, white and saffron robes have a soothing influence in India’s public life, even if the green tribunal sees red in some of their ways.

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