LAST MONTH, the Delhi
Police’s Economic Offences Wing (EOW) received a strange complaint
from disciples of one of India’s top godmen, a figure immensely
popular for his crowded, five-star discourses in select farmhouses on
the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road on the Capital’s southern fringes.
The bizarre incident revolved around a disciple who offered
Rs 35 lakh in three installments as donation to gain instant access to
the godman’s inner circle. Enthused by the donation and the disciple’s
meteoric rise in his business, the godman requested his help in a personal
investment that would guarantee quick returns. Rs 4 crore — the
amount could even be higher — changed hands. The disciple disappeared
No one knows why the godman and his followers did not
press charges, but the general perception among those who attended that
meeting at the EOW office, was that the issue was buried instantly because
the complainants felt investigations would actually create more tensions
for the godman than for the offender. What if the police asked about the
source of that cash?
“Obviously no one wanted to reveal the godman’s
source of money, which is mostly in cash and collected after the discourses.
The collections are just huge,” a top EOW officer told TEHELKA.
COMES FOR A PRICE
progress: (above) devotees outside the ISKCON temple
Ramdev is building two universities in Uttarakhand and MP on subsidised
land offered by the state governments
As per estimates with the finance and home ministries, the total turnover
of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s empire is approximately Rs 400 crore that
includes his Art of Living (AOL) institutes, pharmacy and health centres,
and a hill 40 km from Bangalore on lease from the Karnataka government
for 99 years. In the same league are others like Asaram Bapu (turnover
Rs 350 crore, includes the multicrore controversial ashram in Delhi’s
Ridge area close to the Rabindra Rangashala); Mata Amritanandamayi, “Amma”,
of Kerala (turnover Rs 400 crore, includes a virtual corporation that
runs schools and hospitals and receives mega donations from all over the
world); Baba Ramdev of Hardwar (turnover Rs 400 crore, includes pharmacies
and land for two universities); Sudhanshu Maharaj (turnover Rs 300 crore,
includes meditation centres across the country and special discourses
at the homes of the rich and famous in India and abroad) and Murari Bapu
(turnover Rs 150 crore, includes special discourses at political rallies
and at private residences in India and abroad).
to be the biggest beneficiary of the economic boom,” says Pradip
Ghosh of the Kolkata-based Science and Rationalists’ Association
(SRA). His personal interaction with Baba Ramdev on NDTV some time ago
ended in a virtual fracas when the self-styled healer refused to cure
a bald man whose name Ghosh suggested.
Writes Ghosh in his book Yoga: Control of the Mind and
Meditation, “If Cadbury’s, Samsung or Maruti depended only
on the quality of their product, and cancelled all their advertisements
and promotions, we can imagine what would have happened in this era of
competition. Indian yogis are men of clever business acumen."
On the outskirts of Hardwar, the gigantic ashram of Baba
Ramdev welcomes visitors with a huge board that has rates precisely cut
out for those interested in his healing touch. Ordinary membership: Rs
11,000. Honoured membership: Rs 21,000. Special membership: Rs 51,000.
Life membership: Rs 1 lakh. Reserved membership: Rs 2.51 lakh. Founder
membership: Rs 5 lakh.
Money talks, all the
way. “Funds are required for a whole range of our activities because
nothing is free in India,” explains Swami Balkisen, who is helping
Baba Ramdev construct two of India’s biggest universities in Hardwar
and in Madhya Pradesh on highly subsidised land offered by the state governments.
This, he says, will become the central point from where the jet-set yogi
hopes to cure millions of Indians from a host of diseases. “I am
not saying I will do everything for free. It is not possible. The scale
of the business will go. Our papers are all audited,” Baba Ramdev
recently told a Hindi news channel.
figures: Baba Ramdev
Adds Swami Tijarawala, the yogi’s repre-sentative
in Delhi: “More than 3,000 patients visit us on a daily basis for
treatment. Once we start this operation, the numbers will multiply. But
if you are expecting it to be free, then it is like asking for the moon.”
Glance through the price chart and you will have your
answer. The rates of medicines and other products are sky-high at all
these centres, the majority of which work through trusts that seek huge
Income Tax (I-T) concessions. Recently, the I-T department revealed in
a note that the Divya Yog Mandir Trust of Baba Ramdev has emerged in just
a few years as one of the richest of its kind in India.
Is the godman route the best to earn big bucks? Or to
avoid the tax net? Consider the latest case in Delhi where I-T sleuths
discovered 19.55 acres of prime land worth Rs 1,900 crore in the illegal
possession of religious bodies ranging from the Sant Nirankari Mandal
to the Jwala Mukhi Durga Mandir to the Sanatan Dharma Sabha Shiv Temple
to the Asaramji Trust.
Trust has defaulted on tax payments worth Rs 2.15 crore while the Roman
Catholic Church in India has not cleared dues worth almost a crore of
rupees,” says Ashok Singh, a senior I-T official in Delhi, adding:
“This trust business is becoming very, very murky. If the ownership
of the trusts is kept among family-members, there will be no question
of income tax.”
On the southern fringes of Delhi, farmhouses routinely
host discourses conducted by these godmen where devotees wearing spotless
white pay an entrance fee of Rs 5,000 per head for a one-hour pravachan
that comes with vegetarian dinner.
SPEAKS. CASH RULES
No wonder, then, that business is booming. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has
a sprawling, threestorey ashram on a hill 40 km from Bangalore. It comes
with an artificial lake, a helipad, dining halls, cyber cafes, a bookshop,
pharmacies, residential quarters and a dedicated channel on Worldspace
satellite radio. Devotees from more than 125 countries came here to
attend AOL’S silver jubilee celebrations. There are plans to start
an online university to teach Vedic mathematics.
And it is not cheap: delegates pay Rs 5,000 each to attend
the annual AOL festivities. This year, nearly 5,50,000 attended. “You
have to run it like a corporation to make it financially viable,”
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar told TEHELKA in an interview (see box).
Pune’s plush Koregaon Park neighbourhood is home
to the 40-acre Osho International Meditation Resort (OIMR) that has white
marble pathways, blackpainted buildings and landscaped gardens. “OIMR
is run as a trust. It is a combination of meditation centre and resort,
which makes it unique,” says Ma Sadhna at OIMR. Osho’s business
has grown almost 300 percent after his death. Osho’s books are published
by 49 international publishers in 55 languages — next only to Harry
Potter (64 languages), and the website www.osho.com is among the world’s
top sites with approximately six million hits last year. The Osho guesthouse
has 60 air-conditioned rooms with double beds and attached bathrooms.
Four are designed to accommodate people with physical difficulties. You
can even book your room online. There is a special Amazing Weekend Package
offered from April 1 to October 31 which makes the five-star facilities
available at three-star rates: two nights and three days for one person
at $184 (Rs 8,250), and for two persons at $ 268 (Rs 12,500). This covers
registration fees, food, two robes, meditations, health club facilities
(including an Olympic-size swimming pool), Buddha Grove classes and evening
celebrations. “This is the best nirvana and it comes for a price,”
says Ma Prem Usha, who heads the Delhi centre of OIMR.
DESPITE HER lower-caste origins, “Amma” Amritanandamayi
— the saint of Kerala who has hugged at least 21 million people
over the past three decades — has a huge following. She runs her
own Amrita television channel, as well as 33 schools, 12 temples, a state-of-the-art
super specialty hospital, and a deemed university whose yearly turnover
would easily touch the Rs 175-crore mark. As per home ministry records,
she is the second largest recipient in India of foreign funds. In 1998-
1999 alone, she earned foreign funds worth Rs 51.55 crore ($11.5 million).
When she celebrated her birthday in Kochi some years back, all Kerala
dailies got a highly paid, four-page colour supplement.
She spent Rs 100 crore for tsunami rehabilitation, helped
victims of the Kashmir earthquake and donated $1 million to the Bush-Clinton
Hurricane Katrina fund two years ago. This year, she has promised Rs 200
crore for the distressed farmers of Vidarbha. Her ashram has a UN special
consultation status for non-governmental organisations and she is firmly
ensconced in the top echelons of the Sangh Parivar.
“She is sitting
pretty on an empire worth Rs 1,200 crore. Amma runs high-power institutions
through which big favours can be distributed to people who matter. The
payment for a medical seat at her super-specialty hospital-cum-medical
college is Rs 40 lakh. There would be concessions in the case of children
of VIPs,” says U. Kalanathan, noted Malayali atheist. “Amma’s
benefits are going to the devotees. So where is the question of this
huge annual turnover?” argues Swami Dhyanamrita, a long-time Amma
Amma is the second largest recipient in India of foreign funds
Outside the huge complex in Delhi that houses the International
Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple, a large billboard says,
“Become a life member — all donations accepted here.”
The price tag for a life membership starts at Rs 10,000.
“We run 400 temples, 100 vegetarian restaurants,
and a wide variety of community projects,” says Vrajendra Nandan
Das, vice president of the million-member strong organisation that almost
went bankrupt a decade ago. Today, new projects are being taking shape
in Bangalore, Noida, Ghaziabad and Tirupati through big donations that
come from an impressive list of donors, which includes veteran actor and
Rajya Sabha MP Hema Malini and one of the sons of Railway Minister Laloo
Prasad Yadav. “ISKCON needs the cream, not the crowd,” says
Obviously, the crowd’s
contribution is abysmal as compared to the cream. That’s the thumb
rule if you are seeking solace, sorry, sampurna nirvana.