Stephen Baldwin, the former hell raiser and now an active evangelist, has become a contestant on the last season of Celebrity BigBrother. The game’s begun. Baldwin, reportedly, stays up till late in the night talking to fellow contestant Vinnie Jones, explaining parts of the Bible to him. He says his prayers before going to sleep. He even delves into serious spiritual discussions with his inmates, attracting more eyeballs than any of the previous celebrities did.
Back home, Baba Ramdev’s 6 am shows on Yoga, on Aastha TV, are lessons for those who can’t attend the camp at that moment. His followers in Ireland have reportedly even gifted him an island to set up his ashrams there. Whether saint Asaramji Bapu sings and dances with foreign women at his ashram or not, he is still nearly worshipped when he delivers gospels on various spiritual channels and his gurumantras are followed to the T. Sri Sri Ravishankar’s shows on the art of living and spirituality are a must-watch for the distressed souls.
In an early-morning slot on Etc Punjabi, raagis are found singing shabads against the backdrop of the Golden Temple. Anandmayi Guru Maa sings bhajans on Aastha International. Zee-Gujarati shows Atmagyani Maa Dr Niruma counseling a woman who is determined to commit suicide. On MiracleNet, Dr Peter Pereira extols the virtue of repeating a psalm seven times.
The channels together have 38 million followers in India alone, at the moment (official figures from TAM India), and have a 0.6 per cent share in the TV viewing pie. A year ago, religious and spiritual channels contributed to roughly one per cent of the total television viewer ship. In 2007, it had gone up to 2.8 per cent, almost matching the viewer ship for music channels that stands between 2 and 2.5 per cent. The following for these religious channels was more than 40 million at that time. According to Siddharth Mukherjee, a senior official from TAM India, the viewing hasn’t reduced.
"Two years ago, the top five religious channels, including Aastha, Zee Jagran and Sanskar, went a whole hog on self-promotion. That’s when these channels became visible. They still have a great amount of following but the viewer ship pie is more divided now than ever before. There are more channels, more variety in shows, to choose from and a lot of channels show spiritual and religious programmes in their early morning slots. So, the figure says that the viewer ship has gone down but the situation is not all that drastic," explains Mukherjee, adding that these channels find more viewer ship in homes that have dual TV sets, a number that’s rising steadily in the metro cities.
SK Gupta of Aastha TV says that percentages are gimmicky and don’t indicate anything: "These channels are beneficial to everyone. Why would they not have viewers? General entertainment channels are trying to take our steam away but they haven’t succeeded."
Recently, names like Divya and Karthik were added to the list of the existing dozen-plus channels in almost every spoken language in the country. According to reliable industry sources, setting up such channels doesn’t involve a heavy investment.
Our source, on the condition of anonymity, says, “The cost is only incurred on setting up the technical department, which comes up to Rs 3 crore approximately. Everything else is paid for by interested parties. The system works on the basis of slots. Anyone who wants to become famous and have followers overnight pays to buy slots on a religious channel.” He further divulges, “At the outset, the channel runs the shows for free. Over a period of six months, the same slots are sold for Rs 4 to Rs 9 lakh, depending on the buyer. If they are even slightly famous, they get a discount. The newbies are the ones willing to pay any amount to be shown as a dhyaani gyaani on the most ‘economical’ national and international platform. After three months, a new baba takes over. There more than 2,000 babas queued,” adding that Baba Ramdev apparently owns Aastha Channel, that made him a household name.
Dr Zakir Naik’s Peace TV is one of the most highly watched Islamic channels. Enquiries reveal that the channel doesn’t have up-linking rights in India but is still watched widely, illegally. The speaker’s videos are sold like hot cakes. “Only one Islamic channel had the up-linking rights from India. It never saw the light of day,” informs a source.
Gupta admits that Aastha is self-financed and accepts funding from saints who wish to be shown on TV. “It’s a widely connected network in over 200 countries. We have tie-ups across the world and everyone is exposed to our religious discourses, ayurvedic cures, health advice and devotional music,” he adds.
The decade old genre has just begun to sustain 24-hour-programming with an eclectic fare — from the Vedas to the Quran, on the dozen channels. Shailesh Kapoor, of ORMAX Media Research, says that most viewers on these channels are above the age of 35. A large chunk is also in their twilight years.
“These channels have sustained with their programming but will need to do more in the future. They will have to suit a 50 year old, a decade later. That might be able to pull in ads,” he adds.
However, Kewal Kishore, of Sanskar channel, disagrees. “Aastha and my channel are competitors and the only ones that will survive. There is no space for any more entrants. The new ones will fade out. It’s not a soap trend that we’re talking about. Spirituality and religious talk can’t be done in a healthier way than we do,” he asserts.
Top faces of televangelism in India:
Better known as Swami Ramdev, Gunnu Ramkrishna Yadav has 85 million followers worldwide, thanks to his yoga lessons. He had admitted on TV that he was paralysed as a kid and was cured purely through yoga.
His Divya Yog Mandir Trust was accused by Brinda Karat in 2006 that it used animal and human bones in the medicines. It hasn’t been proven till date. In 2005, 113 employees of the trust had raised their voices against their low salaries. Last year, he opposed homosexuality, calling it an illness. He claims that his medicines can cure cancer and aids.
Sri Sri Ravishankar
He’s a popular humanitarian and spiritual leader. He was born to a businessman in 1956. He’s the founder of The Art of Living Foundation, that started in 1982, and which is now active in 140 countries.
Its programs are popular in the US and Europe for weaning youngsters away from violence, drugs and alcohol.
At the age of four, he would recite verses from the Bhagvad Gita, a clear hint of where he would be headed later in life. He graduated at the age of 17 from St Joseph’s, Bangalore.
At 53, he has authored 36 books on spirituality and has honours like Yoga Shiromani bestowed upon him.
Acharya Balkrishna Ji
He is actively involved in Ayurvedic treatment and research work of Swami Ramdev’s Ashram. His shows on Aastha sometimes grab more eyeballs than Ramdev’s. He has apparently practised austerities in the caves of the Himalayas.
He developed drug treatments for almost-incurable ailments like high blood pressure. The man is a Post Graduate from Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishvavidhalaya, Varanasi, in Sankhya Yog, Ayurveda and Pranayama Yog.
Born to Prabhudas Bapu and Savitri Ma Hariyani in Talgajarda, Gujarat, he has five brothers and two sisters, and is married with one son, three daughters and multiple grandchildren.
At the age of five, he started learning the Ram Charit Manas from his paternal grandfather Tribhovandas Bapu. He memorised the verses while walking to and from school and would often sing them to trees and plants. He trained to become a schoolteacher.
Ten years later, he quit it. His first Ram Katha was held at the Ram Mandir in Talgajarda in 1960. His first Ram Katha outside the country was in Nairobi in 1976 when he was just 30.
He’s probably the only saint who is into blogging. Right now, he’s been slapped with numerous legal cases against him. The self-realised saint is called bapu by his followers.
He’s known to give gurumantras to his followers, who also take directions from him on leading their lives and eating food, cooked without spices, garlic and onion.
He was born to a wealthy Gujarati businessman in 1941, Thaumal Sirumalani, and was called Aasumal. Today, he has
several Bal Kendras and Ashrams running across the world. Though he eloped from his house, he was married off to Laxmi Devi and has children.
Mridul Krishna Shastri
The spiritual leader is famous for his Krishna bhajans across religious channels. He was born in Vrindavan in the family of Saint Swami Haridas Maharaj, the founder and rejuvenator of classical Indian music.
He was born to Acharya Goswami Shri Moolbihariji Shastri and Shanti Goswami. He is educated in Bhagvad Gita, Sanskrit Moolpath and Sanskrit language. At 16, he started Shrimad Bhagwat Path, in Haridwar, at the banks of the Ganges.
Today, he has 7,000 kathas to his credit. Shri Bhagwat Mission Trust runs Shri Radharani Gaushala in Vrindavan. The trust runs Shri Radha Sneh Bihari Ashram in Vrindavan that provides accommodation and food to many.