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Why is Sadhguru So Popular?

Written by Shayari Devbarman,

November 15th 2020,

As I scrolled through my Facebook wall, I saw a news article on Jaggi Vasudev’s latest journey to explore America through the prism of spirituality. The mystic commonly known as Sadhguru was clad in a biker-jacket and standing next to an expensive motorbike -immediately making me scoff for a reason I couldn’t immediately identify. I wondered why my first reaction was to roll my eyes at the guru – there is nothing wrong with someone trying to achieve self-realisation through travelling. While I let the thoughts pass, the algorithms on Facebook calibrated accordingly and kept showing me videos and posts on Sadhguru for the next few days. As I fell deeper into the rabbit hole, I began to find his opinions increasingly disconcerting. But strangely, I couldn’t quite figure out why.

To abate the nagging doubt in my head, I started watching all sorts of videos featuring the much-revered mystic. Interestingly, Isha Foundation had organised a series “Youth and Truth” wherein Sadhguru would interact with students from several esteemed universities and institutes across the world. The guru had his two cents on every single topic – ranging from women’s rights, CAA, religion, and lynching in the name of security. 

 I could not neglect the massive following that Sadhguru possessed. Will Smith met with him as a part of the mystic’s American exploration journey. His daughter Willow is a devout fan as well. Undoubtedly, spiritualism and mysticism do help many navigate through their anxieties and provide their lives with anchors. However, can one view Sadhguru with a blinkered vision – separating his spiritual preachings from his increasingly political positions?

Sadhguru with Will Smith

I interviewed several individuals – followers, sceptics, and critics of Sadhguru to understand the effect of his teachings. To retain the essence of their impression of the mystic, I have quoted them verbatim not to lose them in translation or misinterpret them. All names have been changed to maintain anonymity. I seek to investigate the extent to which one can separate the tenets of spirituality predicated by Sadhguru from the identity of Sadhguru as a political spokesperson.

The Intersection between Political and Spiritual

Prateek, an MBA graduate working in Finance, is an ardent follower who wholeheartedly agrees with what the guru preaches. He feels that it is vital for icons like Sadhguru to engage with the youth.

“[It is important to] Learn from someone else’s mistakes/experiences. Life is too short to experience and try out everything on your own. [The] Smartest thing is to avoid the mistakes others made and save your time for the things others haven’t tried.”

When asked about Sadhguru’s views on mob lynching, the CAB and caste-based violence, Prateek feels that the mystic gives reason to why these injustices are happening in a composed manner. According to him, the problem lies in the political parties that distort and misuse these issues.

Another follower of the guru, Nimish – a manager in a multinational corporation, feels that it is essential for the youth to listen to spiritualists to unravel a different dimension of knowledge – one that is not available through mainstream education.

“I think spiritualists, monks, mystics are guides just like teachers back in our schools. For me, spirituality means being in touch with my inner self and living my truest version. These gurus can give us insights about life – a holistic approach to life. Life is a journey that requires discipline and mindset to live well, and just knowledge from books or classrooms isn’t enough.”

While representation is essential, criticism of it is equally, if not more, imperative. When I asked Nimish about the political content of Sadhguru, his response was a testament to individual agency.

“As long as we know what to sieve and implement in our life, applicable to our life and surroundings, they (political content) are fine. But we can’t forget they all have their own agendas and their motivational drivers. I did not buy everything that my first guru told me as a kid – that being my mom. So, I don’t believe anyone blindly and no one should.”

Similarly, critics of this godmen like Krutika, a management consultant based out of Delhi, agree that spirituality or mysticism as abstract concepts help people during vulnerable situations. However, she disagrees with giving Sadhguru the status of an icon who speaks the absolute truth.

“The idea is that spiritualism/religion plays an important role for many people by helping [them] with this “existential crisis” or by helping [them] understand “the meaning of life”. But it’s difficult to say that Jaggi Vasudev plays that role exclusively. He, in many instances, shows himself to be some sort of social reformer. He claims to be but isn’t distant from dominant Hindutva narratives, and is very political as well.”

Western societies have romanticised India’s relationship with spirituality. With spirituality and yoga being one of the boosters for tourism, the entire world has tuned in to Indian frequencies. Yet, a considerable portion of the Indian youth seems to be disconnected with this aspect of their culture. Sadhguru helps this group reconnect to spirituality by bringing the discussions online and making it accessible through the language and relatable analogies.

On the surface, everything that he says seems to be perfect – he vouches for equality of all life forms, does not prescribe to any religion, caste, or social structure. However, once you ignore the mountain of platitudes, dismiss his irrelevant analogies, and listen to his opinions on existing institutions, you realise that he tries to maintain the status quo by employing spirituality to legitimise the political. Reaching out to students to preach his spirituality falls into Louis Althusser’s theory of education as part of the ideological state apparatus. Althusser posits that education and other relevant institutions are employed by the State to indoctrinate and perpetuate their oppressive ideologies. Sadhguru targets this group of students precisely through his “Youth and Truth” tour by combining spirituality with the political.

Aastha, a software engineer, who used to follow Sadhguru at one point, feels that the guru should not pose his truth as the only truth to the world.

“With Sadhguru, it’s almost like if you listen and associate with him, it automatically gives you the feeling of being spiritual and at peace when in fact you’re just as intolerant and short-sighted as you initially were. But what can you really learn from someone who called students from IIM and IIT fools simply because they had a difference of opinion? Sadhguru plays a threatening game when he talks about gau rakshaks and the CAA with incorrect facts and calls students fools. Doesn’t sound responsible to me, leave alone enlightened.”

Sadhguru’s view on Feminism or the Feminist Struggle dismisses the intersectional crux of the movement. On multiple forums, when asked about the gaping gender inequality and sexuality, he is reductive in his approach by saying that all human beings should be treated equally. While obviously true – all human beings should be treated equally – this approach prevents any further unravelling of the situation by further discussion and discounts the lived reality of women even today. After the first blanket statement, Jaggi Vasudev slowly but surely unfurls seemingly outdated beliefs in the garb of sympathetic support. He turns a blind eye to the ever-evolving, dynamic nature of Feminism and positions the movement as a competition against men.

“Today in the name of Feminism, unfortunately, a whole lot of women are desperately trying to be like men.”

By feeling terrible for women who apparently wear four-inch heels and carry their bulky laptops out of compulsion and not their individual choice, he reinforces parochial views on gender norms. He promotes the ‘sanskari’ women who stay within their cloistered existence – created by and divorced from the male world where lugging laptop bags are more reasonable.

Krutika is very firm on her stance on Sadhguru. She feels that people with influence should either limit themselves to their domain of expertise or acknowledge that not everything that they say holds. With the iconisation of Sadhguru, he needs to be even more responsible since people look up to him to solve all their problems.

“He doesn’t pose himself to be a political guru. People come to him for his spiritual teachings. When they do that, because they are grappling with their existentialism – they are looking for answers and are vulnerable. They believe that he would be able to help with this. But when he intersperses his speeches with half baked, ill-informed, and generally terrible political/religious/social ideas, he is doing a very deceptive thing. And so, I think this becomes about whether you are okay with platforming bad ideas. And if the answer to that is a yes, then are you okay with using spiritualism to platform those ideas (knowing that people will be more vulnerable).”

In another tour, he gives reason to the recent increase in mob lynching in India. His articulation of mob lynching morphs the violence into acts of self-preservation in areas where law and order have failed. Again, it is difficult to argue when half of the statement made by the guru is true. Law and order did fail. However, Sadhguru completely ignores the pre-dominance of religion and caste in these violent and discriminatory acts. While he condemns the act of lynching, he justifies the brutality and voyeuristic complacency by comparing the lynching to murders of soldiers in borders by cattle smugglers. The mystic is adept enough to conflate the issue of mob lynching to border security – replacing one issue for another which would pander to the nationalist sentiments.

For Aastha, a convert, she cannot separate Sadhguru’s spiritual side from the political.

“Modern-day mystics cure other people’s existential crisis, but I think they prey on it rather than help them find their own path. They already have a path for you. If you don’t follow it, you don’t reach the destination as per them. I used to like Sadhguru when he talked about sensible things and how he always knew a mythological story for every situation. But then you realise that it always morphs into a mechanism where he twists logic and reason to serve his purpose. It’s then that I realised that spirituality and mysticism was now also a means to justify why things are the way they are and why shouldn’t they be changed. Talking about existential crises, they prey on it by defining Indian culture and nationalism as per their narrow definitions. That’s basically what he forms his entire marketing on. I’m all for mystics and spiritualists who know their roles in one’s life and don’t stand to cast judgements on who is a patriot and what makes one.”

In a world of constant social and mental rupture, spirituality can be one of the ways for people to find some solace in their personal lives. There is a vast majority of individuals who get drawn to Sadhguru. With his own brand of pseudoscience, ambiguous position on social injustice and elitism in spiritual approach, it is not the following, but the veneration that he receives, which is concerning. Somewhere along the line, a very strong divide was formed between people who questioned the guru and people who did not. Creating icons of gurus and putting a stamp of “all subsuming knowledge” on them prevents any form of criticism of their teachings. An icon proliferating spiritualism peppered with subtle reinforcement of regressive tendencies enables tolerance of its oppressive manifestations. Calling out these tendencies to have a discourse on them can make any follower or critic a conscious one.

Experience Further: There hasn’t been a voice as willing to question our obsession with the divine since John Lennon. In “God”, he laments our emphasis on the idea instead of the teachings. A condemnation of false idols, “God” is a reminder to listeners to critically think about their icons.

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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