India's Great Lord
... and his Great Australian Dream
An island-owning, multimillionaire yoga guru known as Swami Ramdev is one of India’s most influential people. The right-wing nationalist Hindu televangelist claims his medicines can cure cancer... and homosexuality. When an Australian local council invited Ramdev to set up a yoga centre, Luke Williams travelled to India, seeking an audience with the Swami himself. Things didn't exactly go to plan.
I gesture at Ramdev. I try to make eye contact. I walk forward towards him. A commando officer in camouflage blocks me with his large, brown, semi-automatic rifle, just as a member of the public dives underneath me to kiss the man’s feet. Someone taps me on the shoulder and two private security guards tell me to come with them. I am led into a bright, isolated room with bars on the windows and told to sit on the floor...
The path to that unlikely moment began when I stumbled across a YouTube video while researching a story about anti-gay sentiment in India, which in 2013 reimposed a maximum life-imprisonment sentence for people caught having gay sex.
On that clip, I discovered a man who had visited Victoria’s parliament, made plans to build a yoga centre near Melbourne and was hosted by the University of Melbourne – all of which had slipped under the mainstream media’s radar.
The honoured guest in parliament’s elegant conference hall in April 2015 wore a bright orange robe. There was a glow on the faces of everyone on stage. In Hinduism, the orange robe signifies renunciation of worldly happiness to search for a more noble truth. It covered all but the man's arms and that face: messy beard, trademark nervous tic and a proud, disarming smile.
It’s a charismatic face, with 8.1 million Facebook followers and a TV show watched by 80 million fans in 157 countries. A face which spent several months hidden away in a remote Himalayan cave, but would later launch 34 companies and 101 consumer products.
Last year, 'Baba' Ramdev’s two-minute noodles joined his increasingly popular line of toothpaste, soaps, eyeliners, biscuits and beauty creams. His medicines, based on ancient Indian formulas called Ayurveda, are sold around the world, including in Australia.
It’s claimed some products treat and even cure hepatitis, schizophrenia and cancer. For $85 per pack, you can buy tablets he claims can prevent or even cure what he calls “mental retardation” in children.
MPs in Victoria said some very nice things about the guest on that April day. And why not? Ramdev’s main charitable trust states that its principle aim is “to achieve complete eradication of all the sorrows”, while the man himself has said God resides in every human being and that the body is a temple of God.
Ramdev personally applied to India’s Supreme Court asking it to reinstate life imprisonment for consensual gay sex.
The ALP's house speaker Telmo Languiller presented the guest with a plaque and praised his contribution to the “wellbeing of mind, body and soul”. Then came veteran state Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson, speaking against a deep red velvet curtain and the Australian flag: “We should never to be too busy to consider spirituality issues – and the opportunities to create a better world, by making sure that we address those relationships to other people that are so much a part of the Swami’s teachings.
After the event, The Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten tweeted that she found the man’s visit “inspiring”. The same man says he is a life-long celibate, called for sex education to be taken out of Indian schools and replaced with yoga education, and called for regulations to reduce the growth of India’s Muslim population.
He is also a ferocious, outspoken opponent of homosexuality. Ramdev personally applied to India’s Supreme Court asking it to reinstate life imprisonment for consensual gay sex.
THE VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT'S man of the moment was a 51-year-old multimillionaire Hindu televangelist. One might be hard pressed to find a more extraordinary person than Swami Ramdev.
Details of Ramdev’s early life are often contradictory (indeed, even his exact age remains in dispute), but one account says the Swami grew up lower caste to illiterate parents in a rural Indian village and worked as a cow herder, before running away aged nine to join a Hindu guru.
In his early 20s, he claims he decided to live by himself in a cold, dark, remote Himalayan cave at the glacial source of the Ganges in North East India. Around the same time, he set up several charities selling traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicines. Business openings were followed by a TV show, and he is now the face of India’s fastest growing consumer products company.
Ramdev was arrested during a protest against the then National Congress Government in 2011. Afterwards, he threatened to train an army of 11,000 followers armed with “weapons and scripture… ready to make the ultimate sacrifice” to protect him from being arrested again.
His first visit to Australia wasn’t a big news story, but it should have been. As well as a series of yoga camps in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne at up to $300 per head, Ramdev said he wanted to build his own yoga centre in Australia in Wyndham Vale, about 35km southwest of Melbourne's CBD.
Several Wyndham City councillors support him. When the council hosted Ramdev last year, Cr Gautam Gupta said: "We are keen to set up a Yoga centre in the Wyndham Vale area and we are happy to offer our support and assistance [to Ramdev] including finding a site for the same."
Another Wyndham City councillor, Intaj Khan, took Ramdev on a ride to explore the north Tarneit and Wyndham city area. Ramdev would later tell reporters: "Australia is a very good nation and we want to promote practice of yoga and Ayurveda here."
“Many gullible people fall prey to Ramdev's claims of medical solutions with yoga, and his untested herbal mixtures.”
This is the same yoga and Ayurveda which he says can also fix your asthma, arthritis, infertility, baldness, impotence, muscular dystrophy and homosexuality. If you think some of these claims sound a tad far-fetched, keep in mind that many of Ramdev’s products are already on sale in Australia, with some of those businesses funding his trip.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) claimed to have received many reports of Ramdev’s medicines making people sick and causing health complications, particularly for diabetics. The IMA has demanded immediate action from the Indian Government to halt the marketing of some of his products.
I also spoke with Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association. He lives in exile in Helsinki because he told me that his constant criticism of Indian gurus has made him fear arrest in India. Edamarukun said that Ramdev’s “pseudo-medical claims put people's life in jeopardy. Many gullible people fall prey to Ramdev's claims of medical solutions with yoga, and his untested herbal mixtures”.
How did somebody who believes he can cure cancer and a list of other ailments, who promised to create his own Hindu militia and campaigns against homosexuality, become so powerful in India? And how on Earth did this guy end up being praised by Victorian politicians and being helped to build a yoga centre just outside Melbourne?
I felt compelled to meet Ramdev, or at least see him in action. I started making enquiries to meet him face-to-face in his spiritual and commercial stronghold of northern India.
BY THE TIME I flew into Delhi, I had spent several weeks trying to contact Ramdev without much luck. There was no reply to my emails. Phone numbers rang out. I left messages on message banks.
Eventually I decided to take the plunge, booking a one-hour flight from Kathmandu to Delhi, and began trying to piece together the Ramdev puzzle.
It was my first time in India. The world’s most polluted city was more than everything you might expect. I tried not to appear obviously shocked and vulnerable as I walked through loud, fragrant, crowded streets full of beeping cars, beggars, cows and scam artists.
Even if I hadn’t known who Swami Ramdev was before I arrived, that would have changed within two hours in downtown Delhi. You can’t walk past 30 shops without seeing that beard and those orange robes – the bare chest, that smile, and that warm, inviting face. His picture was plastered on plastic banners all over his Patanjali shops and the other retailers who sell his products.
Ramdev's face appears on a side bar on India’s news and current affairs programs as he holds up noodles, shampoo or aloe vera juice.
As well as setting up a TV station – like all the companies Ramdev helped establish, he has no official ownership – Ramdev has his own program shown twice a day on two networks in India. His Patanjali Ayurveda consumer products are also advertised frequently on other Indian television channels. Among favourite targets are India’s news and current affairs programs, during which his face appears on a side bar as he holds up noodles, shampoo or aloe vera juice.
In at least one week last year, the company was the biggest consumer goods advertiser on Indian TV. In 2016 alone, Patanjali Ayurveda inserted as many as 1.14 million advertisements across television channels, according to viewership measurement agency BARC India. Patanjali advertisements were displayed on TV channels for 7,221 hours across 161 channels, an average of 19 hours and 43 minutes of advertising time per day.
Ramdev himself was elusive, but I spoke to Sanjeev Sabhlok, a thoughtful and softly spoken postgraduate student who attempted to start his own political party in India about seven years ago. In 2010, he received a phone call from Swami Ramdev asking if he would meet him to discuss the possibility of founding a political party with an anti-corruption platform.
At 14 Ramdev joined a strict Hindu school which based its teaching on a 19th-century cultural revivalist, religious reform sect called the Arya Samaj.
“I ended up staying with him for three weeks at his headquarters in a city named Haridwar,” Sabhlok told me. “Make no mistakes about it, Swami Ramdev is very, very intelligent – possibly the smartest person I have ever met.
“He speaks in a language people can relate to, he has a remarkable memory, and he recites Vedic scriptures off the top of his head. He remembers everybody’s name, he remembers little details about people he meets, he is extremely charming and very easy to like. I have to say he has a very pleasant personality – exceptionally pleasant, to be honest.”
Most accounts say Yogarishi Swami Ramdevji Maharaj was born Ramkishan Yadav in 1965, in a basic North Indian rural village which sits in the rocky caverns, rough grasslands and short rolling hills between the Delhi metropolis and the deserts surrounding Jaipur.
He was apparently an ambitious, studious and adventurous teenager. At 14 he joined a strict Hindu school which based its teaching on a 19th-century cultural revivalist, religious reform sect called the Arya Samaj. Understanding this sect is critical to understanding both Ramdev and modern India, a nation ravaged by conquest and which often subsequently sought refuge in vivid fantasies of a glorious past.
The Arya Samaj emerged from the more radical wing of the Indian independence movement. It was created by a man called Swami Dayananda, a bearded man who wore orange robes, and one of the first people to proclaim an “India for Indians”.
So if you were an Indian attracted to Dayananda and his teachings, you believed in an independent India, that invading empires had crushed your original culture and that, perhaps, violent action and a return to pristine religious ideals were the only way back.
Sabhlok explained Ramdev was “indoctrinated by several gurus” who “taught Ramdev his particular brand of Hinduism and Indian philosophy”.
You would have come to believe in the importance of karma, reincarnation and celibacy. You may have joined one of the missionary programs designed to bring back people who to Hinduism who had converted to Christianity and Islam.
Responding to British attempts to create mass Western-style education across northern India, Dayananda created Arya Samaj schools, colleges and universities which taught students about Vedic scriptures, traditional culture and Hindi language. You would have been taught about the sacredness of cows, the importance of preaching “Om”, the rejection of Islam and Christianity as well as caste discrimination, and the benefits of Ayurveda medicine.
Arya Samaj schools taught a lot of young men who became revolutionaries. Their work was in turn read by Swami Ramdev, including Nobel Prize nominee Aurobindo Ghosh and the more radical Ram Prasad Bismal, who was executed by the British for attempting to rob a treasury train.
“I am sure he was seen as being exceptionally bright and as someone who could really revitalise a certain style of Hindu religion and politics.”
Then came the second phase of Ramdev’s early life: Sabhlok explained Ramdev was “indoctrinated by several gurus” who “taught Ramdev his particular brand of Hinduism and Indian philosophy”.
Sabhlok has spent several years looking into Ramdev’s financial affairs and background since the pair fell out five years ago when Ramdev declined to join his political movement. He said that this period helps explain Ramdev’s primacy on yoga, his opposition to homosexuality and his “clean up the Ganges” campaign.
“I am sure he was seen as being exceptionally bright and he would have been seen as someone who could really revitalise a certain style of Hindu religion and politics,” Sahdlok said.
Ramdev joined the Kripalu Bagh ashram in a then remote, forested area in the flatlands of Haridwar, north of Delhi. An ashram is a religious school where people live, pray, do yoga, and are taught philosophy.
Kripalu Bagh was named after its founder Swami Kripaludev and built in 1932. Kripaludev had long been an anti-imperial patriotic revolutionary, and distributed anti-colonial newspapers for revolutionary groups in India’s west. He was also inspired by the Arya Samaj, and aligned his nationalist politics with yoga and spirituality.
When Ramdev arrived there, Kripaludev had long passed on and his protégé Swami Shankardevji Maharaj had taken over. Maharaj, a slight man with shaved grey hair and manicured beard, would become Ramdev’s guru and later help him set up the original charitable trust from which his business empire grew.
It is believed that under Maharaj, Ramdev formally took his renunciation vows, let go of his birth name Ramkishan Yadav, and became Swami Ramdev.
Ramdev is thought to have gone to meditate in a remote Himalayan cave on a snowy hill, deep in the mountains. One account suggests that when he returned, he met up with a schoolmate from the ashram where he made Ayurvedic medicine: the fresh-faced Acharya Balkrishna.
They decided to form a charitable trust with the aims of making yoga and traditional Indian medicine popular again, and encouraging political and social reform through Hindu patriotism.
It was an opportune time. In 1991, a country which had never had an industrial revolution embraced free-market capitalism. India’s economy grew, a new consumer class emerged, and the country's embrace of international trade led to more multinational companies doing business in India - and a new resentment against Western influence.
While per capita income was growing, India’s per capita health spend had dropped significantly. And while Indians could watch just two television channels in 1995, after that satellite TV became available – giving people the opportunity to watch 300 channels – while the number of television sets in India doubled to around 105 million by 2007.
Swami Ramdev claims he doesn’t believe in “superstitions”, including astrology, but there can be little doubt that for the enterprising man, then in his late 30s, the stars had begun to align.
WEEKS PASSED IN India as I stayed in a dingy Delhi hotel, with neon lights flashing outside and cockroaches with dotted antennae crawling inside my window pane.
I woke up to the hot sting of mosquito bites on my feet, broke, confined to watching bad Hollywood movies and 24-hour news channels, trying not to question why Indian drivers were constantly on their horn.
Yet, as prior visitors had warned me might happen, I was starting to warm to India and its peculiarities. That didn't include the continuing silence from Ramdev – I had been in Delhi a month with not a whisper from any of his contacts, including a good 50 calls made to his personal assistant's mobile – none answered.
But there was an email from the Australian Sex Party's Fiona Patten. She explained she was asked to join the reception after it had started and only found out more information about Ramdev later.
She wrote, “It seems that Ramdev really can only be described as an extremist. I am absolutely appalled with his position on homosexuality, the many tax evasion allegations levelled against him and his outrageous claims of curing cancer! I can only presume that the parliament was not aware of this when they agreed to welcome him to the House.”
Ramdev’s PA was stern, even abrupt, chastised me for getting Ramdev’s title incorrect, but agreed promptly when I requested an interview.
There had been a similar message from Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson, one of the most socially progressive members of Victoria’s opposition. He told SBS: “I would totally reject some of Ramdev’s published views; in particular the ridiculous assertion that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, an assertion I was not aware of prior to his visit to the Parliament.”
I also learned that the Speaker, Telmo Languiller, accepted the India Australia Exchange Forum’s request for Ramdev to attend the parliament. Languiller holds the safe ALP seat of Tarneit, which includes the Wyndham City Council area, and once sparked controversy by giving references for three accused drug dealers – including one linked with infamous underworld figure Carl Williams (Languiller says he was unaware of the man’s criminal associations at the time).
I further understand that Languiller told colleagues he contacted the Indian Consulate-General in Melbourne, which reportedly told him Ramdev was a suitable guest. The Consulate-General did not reply to requests for comment.
During my sixth week in India, Ramdev’s PA finally answered. He was stern, even abrupt, chastised me for getting Ramdev’s title incorrect, but agreed promptly when I requested an interview. So I headed up to Ramdev’s headquarters in Haridwar, at the mouth of the mighty Ganges, taking a 14-hour train ride to India’s holiest city.
THE TRAIN ROCKED softly, gliding along on a brilliant blue, cool winter's day in northern India’s rural flatlands. The plateau was covered in lily-pad lagoons, tree farms, peacocks, and long stretches of slums, with a sewage smell so bitter I involuntarily held my breath for minutes at a time.
It is in rural India where you see the real poverty. The type of corporate banners Ramdev uses to advertise his products are the same ones many people use to line their shack roofs. I couldn’t help but wonder just how far $60 million in profits – the amount Ramdev makes each year for Patanjali Ltd – would go in a country where almost 700 million people live on $3 a day, or less.
My train carriage clicked and rattled like clockwork, almost hypnotically. The Indian locals were incredibly friendly and kind, sharing food and tea, and unfettered in their praise of the Swami. The train’s sleeper carriages were full of India’s middle class – the people most likely to buy Ramdev’s products.
As we sipped boiling hot, ginger-spicy masala tea, a yoga teacher told me that any suggestion Ramdev shouldn’t be allowed to make money is misguided, adding “he makes no personal profit, he gives to charity”, “he doesn’t drive a Lamborghini”, “he builds hospitals and schools”, and “it is simply not possible that millions [of people who love him] could be wrong”.
As it turned to night, it never occurred to me India could get that cold. I was shivering on my seat when a young high school teacher came over and offered to share his blanket. What did he think about Ramdev?
“A very good man,” he said. “Swami Ramdev a very, very good man... he fixed my mum’s diabetes, and the authorities have combed his accounts and found no corruption, none!”
In a nation struggling to find heroes outside of cricket or Hindu idolatry, it felt rude – smug, even – to press the issue any further.
Swami Ramdev was a little-known yoga teacher in Haridwar in 2002, when an Indian TV station owner signed him up for a show after attending one of his sessions.
Ramdev proved telegenic. He soon became more famous than his Christian equivalents Pat Robertson or Benny Hinn in their home countries. He moved to a bigger television station and eventually his program was shown both early in the morning and then repeated during prime time.
Tens of millions of Indians became transfixed by his simple philosophy, by his flat stomach, his remarkable flexibility. Sales of his Ayurveda medicines skyrocketed.
They weren’t the only ones impressed. Ramdev was internationally recognised, invited by Kofi Annan to speak to the United Nations in 2006 and honoured by the British House of Commons. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Ramdev was also flanked by inquiries by potential investors.
In 2006, Ramdev’s television program showed a woman declaring she had been cured of AIDS. He subsequently received a cease-and-desist order.
In 2006, Ramdev set up his first business. Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd was named after Patanjali, the man credited with putting yoga teachings into scripture many centuries ago. But Ramdev took no ownership stake. Most of the company was owned by the man with whom he set up the Divya Yoga Trust, Balkrishna, and a Scottish-based non-resident Indian couple.
Just three years later, Patanjali Ltd had generated $92 million in sales and the TV station another $500,000. Along with Balkrishna, Ramdev had by 2011 set up another 32 known companies, such as Patanjali Textiles and several manufacturing plants. Twelve months earlier, he chanted ancient Vedic hymns on a large patch of land surrounded by cotton fields in Texas for the consecration of his $20 million yoga centre.
But by then, some of Ramdev’s more controversial views were becoming known. In December 2006, Ramdev’s television program showed a woman declaring she had been cured of AIDS in one of his Yoga Science camps. He subsequently received a cease-and-desist order from the Indian Union health ministry.
Ramdev's response: "I never claimed AIDS can be cured through yoga. It has wrongly been presented in media. I only said cancer can be cured, but in case of AIDS, one can get encouraging improvement by doing yoga.”
As well as being a place where deeply rooted beliefs about magic, reincarnation and animism linger underneath the modernising surface, India was and is a morally conservative place. A 2014 poll showed more than 67 per cent of Indians regarded homosexuality and premarital sex as morally unacceptable.
“Never in my life have I met a man with such power lust, nor such a clever, clever man.”
When the Indian LGBT rights group Naz Foundation applied to the High Court to have homosexual acts decriminalised, Ramdev was among a group of defendants who petitioned the court for the life imprisonment penalty to remain. In his petition, he said that homosexuality was a curable disease which could be treated with yoga, breathing exercises and chanting “Om”.
The Indian High Court struck down the anti-gay law. Ramdev then applied to the Indian Supreme Court to have homosexual acts recriminalised.
In his application, he wrote: "These [homosexual male sex acts] are unnatural acts not designed for human beings. The decision of the High Court, if allowed to sustain, will have catastrophic effects on the moral fabric of society and will jeopardise the institution of marriage itself. This offends the structure of Indian value system, Indian culture and traditions, as derived from religious scriptures."
A man I’ll call Vijay Paes worked closely with Ramdev between 2008 and 2010. He didn’t want to use his real name because he feared for his family’s safety. He was a high-ranking executive in Ramdev’s empire.
“Never in my life have I met a man with such power lust, nor such a clever, clever man,” Paes told me.
“They had come to believe that Ramdev had supernatural abilities in relation to healing and the like.”
“We are talking here about a very shrewd businessman who wanted to have a lot of power in Indian society,” Paes said. “There are the middle classes who buy his products, and then there is what I think is the exploitation of the poor and uneducated as well. We have a big problem in India with people not thinking critically about what they told by authorities and with gurus in particular.”
Paes even alleged that Ramdev’s staff had visited poor rural villages in the 2000s and claimed their boss possessed godlike powers. In turn, he said, some of those villagers came and lived at Ramdev’s headquarters.
“Over time, there were over 1000 of them living at his headquarters; they are completely and utterly devoted to him,” Paes told me. “They will do anything for him. They basically worshipped him and would do anything he said.”
“They had come to believe that Ramdev had supernatural abilities in relation to healing and the like … the people who believe are poor people, uneducated, brainwashed, the slight majority of them are women.”
Though Paes said he thought it was influencing India’s highest room of power that ultimately drove Ramdev’s mission.
“By the end of the 2000s he had also employed many ex-army men, many ex-policemen, he was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
“To me he was someone who wanted first and foremost to be someone who was above the Prime Minister, and someone who the Prime Minister consults before he makes any important decision.”
Indeed, Ramdev’s eventual path to an (unofficial) seat right next to Prime Minister Nahrendra Modi was paved via various right-wing Hindu nationalist groups - the Arya Samaj, the Kripalu Bagh and then a “radical” outfit where he and Modi found ideological common-ground.
In the 2000s, Ramdev became involved with the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, yet another Hindu nationalist revivalist group which sprang from the original anti-colonial Indian independence movement. Like Ramdev, the RSS are against Western food imports and believe, just like Ramdev, that drinking cow urine could cure cancer.
Modi hails from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party during Ramdev’s rise to prominence a decade ago, and the BJP grew out of the RSS’s ideological wing.
The anti-colonial struggle set the divisions of contemporary Indian politics. The National Congress party, which stems from the middle-class intelligentsia, are the BJP’s main opponents. The BJP derives from the more Hindu nationalist side of the Indian independence movement. The National Congress banned the RSS for a short period after one of its former members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
The Indian Medical Association wrote to the Federal Government asking them to take action against Ramdev for his false claims which amounted to “quackery”.
The National Congress are supposed to be an Indian (rather than Hindu) nationalist party with a social democratic bent. The BJP, by contrast, are a highly superstitious, masculinised, somewhat theocratic version of the American Republican Party. They held power in India from 1998 to 2004, after which, the National Congress held the reins in a coalition government.
Then came extensive corruption scandals. In one, a Cabinet Minister was accused of taking financial kickbacks from telecommunications companies, a scandal listed by TIME Magazine in its top 10 all-time Abuses of Power list in 2011.
Many Indians were outraged. Ramdev began speaking out against corruption and called for ratification of the United Nations anti-corruption convention, as well as new laws including the death penalty for officials found guilty of corruption. His public standing meant that even senior ministers from the National Congress met with him to discuss his demands.
His political power reached new heights. During this period, the Indian Medical Association wrote to the Federal Government asking them to take action against Ramdev for his false claims which amounted to “quackery”.
Eventually Ramdev gathered thousands of his followers in central Delhi, his staff set up a giant tent to shelter from the 40C summer sun, he performed yoga sessions, gave sermons and led chants calling for “black money” - many billions of dollars held untaxed in overseas bank accounts - to be returned to India.
He went on a hunger fast to the death. Some in Congress suggested his protest was being sponsored by the RSS and BJP.
The Congress-led Government called for him to leave and end the protest. He didn’t. At midnight on the third night, 5000 police officers swooped and detained Ramdev, who had dressed as a woman as he tried to leave - and used tear gas and canes to disperse his 30,000 supporters.
“Just as Mahatma Gandhi told the British to go back, Ramdev is demanding that the black money be brought back.”
It would prove a monumental miscalculation for Ramdev’s opponents.
He was elevated to a position of moral and spiritual authority, having apparently - and perhaps ironically - awoken the long-dormant Gandhian spirit with his actions.
But while the hunger strike was entirely Gandhian, but what followed wasn’t – his threats of training an 11,000-strong Hindu militia.
A year after those threats, BJP president Nitin Gadkari publicly bowed to Ramdev and touched his feet saying, “Just as Mahatma Gandhi told the British to go back, Ramdev is demanding that the black money be brought back." A BJP spokersperson described Gadkari's action as "simply a measure of respect to a guru, a baba, a saint".
In 2013, after Ramdev praised the Indian Supreme Court for reversing the High Court’s 2009 judgement liberalising gay sex, he publicly offered to cure homosexuals at his Ashram.
Ramdev was still in his ascendancy.
Allowing his products to be sold outside his chain of stores, a 2012 move, saw an immediate rise in profits. Per capita wealth was on the march in the country, from $900 in 2000 to $2800 in 2015, and the new middle class wanted what he was offering.
The number of places selling Patanjali products went from 1200 to 4000 in 2015. Patanjali Ltd revenue grew sixfold from 2011 in a few years, from $90m to almost $500m in 2014-15, with projected revenues of $1.25 billion this year.
With fame and money came political influence. In mid-2014, India voted in Narendra Modi, a 62-year-old man who dresses in traditional Indian attire, as their new Prime Minister. Modi, who won in a landslide, is from the BJPP – and, the RSS.
Ramdev publicly and glowing endorsed Modi before the election and was credited by the BJP with bringing out people to vote.
I BOOKED INTO a hotel, a three-storey brown brick building opposite Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth headquarters, a 20-minute bus journey from Haridwar. The Patanjali Yogpeeth itself sits in a slowly industrialising semi-rural landscape.
Amidst the agriculture, amidst the mist – which may have been smog - there were factories and incongruously, many slick, high rise apartment buildings under construction. On the road-side were hut-like shops, whose owners dressed in drab, ill-fitting Western-style clothes. Their customers burned pungent, plastic rubbish to keep warm.
It was the day before the interview, and I thought I’d have a wander around Ramdev’s headquarters. Across the roaring, beeping highway stood Pantajli Yogpeeth’s grand entrance – an imposing 10 metre-high ornate Asian arch at the entrance, heavily guarded by a half-dozen private security guards.
This leads into a huge area with more buildings spread around it than you could take in at one glance. I walked around sheepishly, doing my best to smile at the staff dressed all in white, down a driveway flanked with manicured lawns, palm trees, trimmed hedges, flowering rhododendrons and about half a dozen elegant fountains.
A slick banner flies outside the entrance to the main building – an advertisement for brand-new luxury apartments with a picture of the Swami saying: “With the blessings of Baba Ramdev”.
Ramdev once said “profiting from patients is against the philosophy of Ayurveda”.
The contrast of the complex to the world outside its gates was one of the most vivid metaphors of economic inequality I had seen after nearly two months in India. Most of Patanjali Yogpeeth's buildings looked like a cross between a palace and a private hospital.
And that's exactly what the front section of Ramdev's headquarters was - a private hospital, albeit one that dispenses mainly herbs and which has framed pictures of a smiling, radiant Ramdev in every single room. Just out of view were Patanjali Yogpeeth's University campus and a 5600 sqm air-conditioned auditorium.
I was on the lookout for people being given free food or medicine. Ramdev’s trust describes “charitable” aims for healthcare. He has also claimed that all of the profits from Patanjali limited go to charity. He once said “profiting from patients is against the philosophy of Ayurveda”.
What activities Ramdev’s charities undertake is not clear because he is not required under Indian law to report their financial activities. In the past, he has explained allegations of the trust’s apparent accounting irregularities by saying that missing stock not accounted for sales tax records had been given to the “poor and the needy”. These claims have previously been questioned by investigative journalists in India.
If Ramdev does do charity work, I didn’t see any direct evidence of it happening at his headquarters. I didn’t see anything like the Sikh temple in Punjab where there are thousands of people lining up at time to get fed, nor did I see anybody, in a nation which has one of the lowestper capita public health spends in the world, lining up to receive free medicines.
Indeed, I was reminded of when the Indian Medical Association asked: if Ramdev can cure cancer, why he doesn’t offer it for free in his country’s overstretched public hospitals?
I returned to my hotel that night, and called Sanjeev Sabhlok to ask about Ramdev’s charity claims. Sabhlok said that one of Ramdev’s trusts did offer free daily yoga classes.
He added that there is a place for homeless people to stay in an emergency. “The building is pretty ramshackle, with broken windows. I think there were some poor people living there, but if I'm not mistaken, they are expected to leave after a few days. This is not intended to be a permanent shelter for the poor”.
“There is undoubtedly some charitable work being undertaken,” Sabhlok explained. “However, there is no beeline of people coming from across the country to get these free facilities since the main business model is for-profit and/or donation based.
“I have nothing against a commercial model. The only issue would be: are any tax benefits being obtained in the name of being charitable, consistent with activities on the ground.”
That night, I tracked down a third former employee of Ramdev’s. He had been a very high-ranking member of the executive who left Patanjali Yogpeeth because he said the organisation had “hypocrisy at its core”.
However, he said he remains moderately loyal to Ramdev and refutes the suggestion he is “dangerous”. He said he believed that Ramdev had opened up orphanages and “during disasters at Kedarnath in 2013, Patanjali organised rescue camps sent truckload of food medicine.” He said he believed Patanjali at times distributed food to rural villages.
Vijay Paes, though, told me: “The only charity he does is for the cameras. Ramdev is a businessman, if he does anything it is for the cameras.” Paes alleged that staff within Patanjali use “charitable money to avoid tax and build his empire, he charges for everything, his products, his hospitals”.
Trusts associated with Ramdev, including the Patanjali Yoga Peeth and Divya Yoga Trust, have previously been required to pay tax after Government officials found they had declared activities charitable, but the national Revenue Department declared they were actually commercial in nature because people attending had to pay a fee. Local investigative journalists have also raised issues about discrepancies in the sales-tax records of a company associated with Ramdev, Divya Pharmacy – which the company explained by saying the missing stock in question had gone to “the poor and the needy”. Tehelka, the media group which uncovered these issues, also questioned whether trusts associated with Ramdev had circumvented land law regulations and tax liabilities by purchasing land in the name of other people, often Patanjali employees whose declared income indicates it would be near impossible for them to own large tracts of expensive land (almost always surrounded by land official owned by Patanjali or Ramdev).
The Wall Street Journal has also previously raised questions about missing information in Ramdev’s financial records for his charitable trusts. Ramdev has come under the tax scanner in 2012 when the National Congress were in power, with the revenue department saying that it “believes that the activities of Ramdev's trusts are commercial in nature and are far from charitable works.”
TWO MONTHS AFTER my initial enquiries about speaking with the Swami, the interview day had arrived. When I walked across to the Patanjali Yogpeeth, I decided that when I had my time with the 'Great Lord' Ramdev, I would go by instinct and ask whatever came to mind.
I called Ramdev's personal assistant who wasn’t answering. I walked inside the main building, past the water foundations, the trimmed hedges and the brilliant rhododendrons - still no answer from the PA.
Somebody was speaking on a microphone outside. Through a window, I saw a group of at least 200 people waving Indian flags standing around a stage in the middle of a garden.
On the stage, Swami Ramdev. Joining him, I counted no less than 14 private security guards and three deftly expressionless government commandos in blue camouflage holding large, black guns which if stood upright on the ground would have gone up way past their waist.
It was him. Moving outside, I felt more than a twinge of celebrity-recognition. So, too, did the people hunched in tightly around the little stage. As well as bombastically waving Indian flags, many were watching him through their smartphones as they made recordings.
One even managed to elbow in me in the head as she tried to get closer. Most giggled in delight as Ramdev circled the stage with a microphone.
“Swami Ramdev says you must be very proud to be Indian… and if you do yoga all the time, you won't need to see a doctor.”
The audience were a cheerful and orderly bunch. They weren’t poor or sick or hungry, they weren’t angry or calling for a revolution, they reminded me of people at a middle-income shopping mall who had just stumbled across their favourite TV celebrity signing his latest book.
Ramdev was relaxed and in good humour. He owned the crowd. He was confident enough to leave long, dramatic pauses.
He made lots of eye contact and lots of jokes - I knew that not only because everybody laughed on cue, but because of how he stopped and looked around, like a little boy who knows he is cute and has said something cute to a bunch of adoring relatives.
I asked a young man dressed in a tracksuit, standing next to me, what the speech was about. He responded in delight: "Swami Ramdev says you must be very proud to be Indian, because being Indian is a wonderful thing … and if you do yoga all the time, you won't need to see a doctor.”
I kept trying to call Ramdev’s personal assistant. No answer. I headed to the back of the stage, which was also crowded with people, hoping to meet Swami, or at least his PA.
Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. "You can't stand here," said the young man in the tracksuit.
“Army trainees do our military training here. We do yoga and meditation. He teach us. He is a wonderful man and you are wonderful for coming to see him.”
I had somehow missed the fact that this entire section of the crowd was in tracksuits, and lined up in very ordered single-line rows as if at primary school assembly.
"I am in the army," he said. "Actually, you shouldn't have been standing in this part - this is for the army and in rank order.”
"Why is the army here?" I asked.
"We live here," he said. “Army trainees do our military training here. We do yoga and meditation. He teach us. He is a wonderful man, and you are wonderful for coming to see him."
The links between Ramdev and the BJP are persistent. A BJP state government offered Ramdev cabinet ministry status (which he actually declined).
The federal BJP Government has also granted Ramdev and his Patanjali Yogpeeth ‘Z-Class security’ which means that he and his headquarters are entitled to be guarded by up to 40 government paramilitary commandos.
One of the biggest policy shifts to favour Ramdev was Modi's decision to upgrade the 'traditional medicines' department to cabinet status.
Ramdev has long argued that killing cows should be banned nationally.
In its 2014-15 budget, the Modi Government slashed an already stressed health budget by 20 per cent (cutting over $1 billion, to about 1 per cent of its GDP), and in particular reduced the national HIV/AIDS budget by 30 per cent (more than $270 million).
India has more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country, as well as a growing "cancer epidemic". Yet in the 2015-16 budget, PM Modi increased the traditional medicines department budget by almost double compared with 2013-14 levels, injecting another $90 million into Ayurvedic medicines. One of the biggest changes, which will directly benefit Ramdev, was to tax laws, exempting businesses or trusts running yoga activities from service tax.
Ramdev’s support for the BJP and Modi has continued. During late 2015, there was a spate of mob-killings of Muslims for allegedly eating beef in north India. Fingers were pointed at the BJP for feeding on religious intolerance, as the party had accused the National Congress of mass cow-slaughter in the lead up to the 2014 elections. Ramdev has long argued that killing cows should be banned nationally.
Ramdev put his fist in the air and groaned. Everybody else did the same. He repeated it three times.
In late 2016, Ramdev defended Modi's controversial plan to demonetise higher-value currency notes in India, telling the media that crowds lining up at ATMs were fakes planted by Modi's political opponents. Ramdev would also enter the debate after a Muslim leader refused to chant "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" ("Victory for Mother India"), a nationalistic slogan traditionally used by the Indian Army. Ramdev reportedly said that "if weren't for the rule of law", he would behead people by the thousands if they would not chant the words.
A number of country’s top intellectuals have accused the BJP of cynically turning the electorate against minority groups to gain power, leading many to hand back their national awards, including Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy.
Earlier last year, Ramdev was awarded lucrative national Government defence contracts to help the military manufacture and marketing their own herbal supplements and food products.
And as I discovered during my visit – a few days before the official announcement – Ramdev is now directly, and often personally, training soldiers at his Patanjali Yogpeeth, which I learned is at once a university, a hospital and a military training centre.
When Ramdev got into a car, accompanied by four security guards, his facial expression changed.
Call number 22 for the day to Ramdev's PA. One of the security officers came over and told me it was forbidden to talk on the phone when Ramdev was speaking.
Then the talk came to an end. Ramdev put his fist in the air and groaned. Everybody else did the same. He repeated it three times.
He was hurried away by security. I tried desperately to make eye contact but he seemed to be deliberately avoiding me.
When Ramdev got into a car, accompanied by four security guards, his facial expression changed. He stopped smiling and suddenly appeared businesslike as he made a call on his phone. He was driven off with a vehicle full of security behind him and the government paramilitary car in front.
Two security officers came over and told me to accompany them. They know I’m the journalist, and they placed me in a small room with two barred windows and invited me to sit on the dusty, white floor.
I was free to go at any time – the door was still open – but I had the impression I needed to wait there for Ramdev’s PA.
An hour passed. His PA was still not answering his phone. Two hours passed and I was still sitting on the floor. None of the guards could speak English.
Two and a half hours passed and the PA answers. I tell him it's Luke, the journalist, and I'm here for the interview we organised four weeks earlier.
The PA replied, “I don’t know what you are talking about, I have no knowledge of this, please leave,” and hung up.
There would be no interview with Swami Ramdev.
UTTARKHAND'S STATE GOVERNMENT (where Haridwar sits), has almost 100 pending land law tax evasion claims open against the Swami. It has also launched an investigation into allegations Ramdev tried to market his infertility products for guaranteeing male children.
Uttarkhand state’s legislature is controlled by the National Congress, and Ramdev is quick to say his political opponents initiate such investigations.
It is equally true to say most of these investigations grind to halt, or exonerate him when the BJP or its allies come into power. In 2012, when the Congress Party held the federal reins, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) began investigating Patanjali Ltd and two of Ramdev’s trusts for misconduct including alleged violations of foreign exchange laws, money laundering and declaring corporate fees as charitable donations.
“If he has nothing to hide why doesn’t he just release [his accounts]?”
“I know a lot of the allegations made against Ramdev are possibly politically motivated, so what I have been publicly asking him for years to either release his accounts or get them independently audited so he can clear his name,” said Sahblok. “He has refused to do so. If he has nothing to hide why doesn’t he just release them?”
“I have often wondered if this isn’t just a massive scam, one big racket to fund one man’s political ambitions and make a whole lot of other people rich. I trusted him at first, but I really can’t help but think he is merely taking advantage of all the problems in India and making them worse.”
TO TRY AND put this in perspective, I looked for an academic in Australia who specialises in Indian politics and society. I discovered that the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne had hosted Ramdev when he arrived in April 2015. The Swami gave a talk called “The Purpose and Power of Yoga”, a combined event from the University of Melbourne, the State Government and the India Australia Exchange Forum.
When I asked why the university had hosted Ramdev, a spokesperson initially told me that it merely provided a venue. However, the university's website spoke of the event being “organised in partnership” with it.
I wondered, too, about the influence of then director and CEO of the Australia India Institute, Professor Amitabh Mattoo. He went on to work as adviser to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, for the BJP-affiliated People’s Democratic Party.
I further pressed the university, which replied the initial email was “poorly communicated”. It did co-host the Ramdev event, which had been organised through Amitabh Mattoo, who is still listed as an honorary director of the University’s Australia India Institute. (Mattoo did not reply to a request for comment.)
VS Naipaul wrote: “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ office sent a statement saying “Any invites to visit the Parliament by overseas parties are the responsibility of the Speaker and President to accept or decline. You would need to follow that with them”. However, Telmo Languillier’s office continued not to respond to requests for an explanation. So too, the India Australia Exchange Forum, which responded to my attempts to contact it through its Facebook page by blocking me. Despite these issues raised by Languiller about the IAEF and Ramdev, SBS has learned he has since organised another event at parliament house with IAEF.
Wyndham City Council said it had yet to receive a planning permit application regarding the yoga centre. It declined to comment on any issues connected to Ramdev raised in this article.
Patanjali Yogpeeth did not respond to questions from SBS.
Nobel Prize winning author VS Naipaul wrote in An Area of Darkness, the first and bleakest of his books on post-independence India: “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written.”
One of the most prominent gods in Hinduism has four hands and a halo of cobra heads. He is always clothed in yellow and holds a wheel that represents the Universal Mind.
His name is Vishnu. His skin is coloured blue and he is considered to be the god who preserves or protects.
A few weeks after I left Haridwar, a Scottish friend who had been living in India sent me a clip from a news program which claimed Swami Ramdev was the God Kalki, tenth incarnation of Vishnu (following Rama, Krishna then Buddha).
According to Hindu mythology, Kalki will come to earth on a horse, blazing like a comet, ready to save humankind and re-establish righteousness; his presence will bring out the End of Times, a universal return to heaven.
The description for the TV clip read: “I feel that Kalki avatar has taken birth on our planet in the form of Swami Ramdev ji. He is working hard day & night to cleanse our society of corruption and negativity. I couldn't find any reason for not believing that he is not the Kali avatar.”
As well as attempts to organise an interview with Ramdev during research for this story, repeated attempts were made to call Ramdev and Patanjali. Allegations reported in this story were repeatedly put to Ramdev and Patanjali in email. There was no response.