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A liberal guru can't compete with India's new televangelists.
Freed from state control in the 1990s, Indian cable has moved from soap operas to game shows to reality TV. Along the way, spiritual India's preoccupation with gods and gurus has inspired a bouquet of religious channels, too. They run the gamut from homegrown Sanskar TV, which broadcasts Hindu sermons and devotional music, to Power Vision, an all-God-all-the-time Christian channel that broadcasts in Hindi, Malayalam and English.
But in contrast to bygone gurus like the Hare Krishna movement's Swami Prabhupada or Beatles inspiration Mahesh Yogi, who sought to explode and transform society, India's new preachers are essentially conservative protectors of tradition. And the biggest stars of televangelism are its most controversial ideologues: Hinduism's Baba Ramdev and Islam's Zakir Naik.
Both televangelists appeal to a young, new India that's embracing commercialism and trying to make sense of a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape. Ramdev is more like self-help star Tony Robbins than Pat Robertson; he promises viewers tangible, individual benefits, like any brand, says Desai.
Similarly, Naik offers an imminently practical and useful service for Muslims. "He seems to have connected with the middle class Muslims ... [because] he tries to show that Islam is not incompatible with modern ideas," said Mujibur Rehman, a professor at New Delhi's Jamia Milia University.
"They are propagating themselves," said Agnivesh. "With each show, they are getting a little more followers, a little more power in that sense and, also, a little more money."
Their self-promotion, if that's what it's all about, can take an ugly turn. After claiming simple breathing exercises could cure cancer and AIDS, Baba Ramdev drew liberal ire — and additional fans — by opposing India's progressive move to decriminalize homosexuality. He went on to claim he could turn any erring lad with his yogic arts, and promptly announced he was forming his own political party.
For his part, Zakir Naik's opaque statements in support of terrorism and Osama bin Laden — though he claims they've been taken out of context — got him banned from entering the United Kingdom and Canada this June.
Arguably, this is reactionary radicalism in the guise of the rational. Whether the effect is intentional or not, Naik's propensity for inflammatory statements like "every Muslim should be a terrorist," make him a dangerous influence. And Ramdev's peddling of prejudice and superstition is perhaps more dangerous still in a country already flirting with Hindu fundamentalism.
"It's too much to say that Hindu right revivalism is directly linked to this, but certainly it softens up the audience for the revivalist agenda to some extent," said Desai. "In that respect, although it's couched in the language of modern, it has the effect of the other kind."
Indeed, with every bombshell, India's conservative gurus have grown more popular. Ramdev's programs reportedly attract an audience of more than 85 million people, and his yoga and homeopathic medicines businesses bring in $40 million a year. Meanwhile, Naik claims an audience of 50 million for his program on Peace TV, and one of India's top newspapers ranks him the country's third-most powerful guru, after Ramdev and the Art of Living's Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
At the same time, Agnivesh's most radical statements helped get his show canceled. He didn't just call out the government on the Maoist issue. He came out against Hinduism's massively important kumbh mela — a ritual bath in the Ganges that attracts millions of pilgrims — and threatened to launch a Right to Information inquiry into the huge sums that the government spends on the celebration. And he pilloried Dalit leaders, like the present Congress Party speaker of the Lok Sabha, who rise to power based on their caste affiliation and then abandon the empowerment agenda for party politics.
Sometimes, when the truth sets you free, it also leaves you unemployed.