Social media the new mantra for Indian gurus

April 28, 2016


Followers of yoga guru Baba Ramdev in 2014 could be forgiven for mistaking him for a media executive. He was sitting on a stage in a big hall in New Delhi, prepping volunteers for India’s parliamentary election that April. He urged support for Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi, including what he called a “dharma war” that would rally troops on social media.

“Social media will be so powerful that electronic and print media will be unable to do anything,” said Ramdev in words that people are more used to hearing from journalism bosses. “This time because of social media, 100 million votes will be cast in India and we have to polarise those votes.”

Ramdev’s social media campaigning might have helped Modi take India, but it didn’t end there. The saffron-clad monk with the famous long beard said he wanted 10 million followers on his Facebook and Twitter accounts by the end of 2015. (They beat that projection, said SK Tijarawala, his spokesman.)

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He organised social media camps where his trainers mixed ancient Indian knowledge — yoga, ayurveda and Hindu scripture — with technology training. His consumer goods company Patanjali markets herbal products on social media accounts, while Ramdev offers health advice on his Facebook page. (Example: “Chew 5-10 gram of walnut kernel in the morning without doing gargle and apply it on the ringworm. By doing this ringworm gets cured in few days.” Comments from readers: “Babaji, my child 16 month old is suffering from eczema on his face. Please suggest.” And, “Please tell medicine for dark circle below eyes.”)

Call social media a new avatar for India’s spiritual leaders. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living foundation, Coimbatore-based Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Gujarat’s Asaram Bapu (currently imprisoned), the “hugging saint” Amritanandamayi, preacher and actor Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan and many other Indian preachers are engaging with their millions of followers through social media. The new language of their gospel is expressed through the grammar of hashtags and trending topics.

According to a report last year, there were over 317 million users in India who accessed the Internet at least once a month. This number is estimated to reach 414 million this year. In cities, 67 per cent Internet users logged in to use social media while 33 per cent of users did that in the rural areas.

“Whether you are marketing soap or salvation, you are part of the marketplace. And if you are part of the marketplace, it makes no difference what your wares are. You have to use the tools of marketing which are continuously evolving with time,” said filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, a well known sceptic of these religious leaders, or “godmen,” as people in India call them.

“The spiritual gurus that are doing well have very well established and resourced teams. It’s not surprising at all that they’ve been able to organise around social media content and particularly around Twitter,” said Raheel Khursheed, Twitter’s head of news, politics and government in India. He said the spiritual teachers understood and adapted to the new technology with ease.

All together, these people claim millions of online followers. How did they get so many? Their representatives say it’s pure charisma.



Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at a Hangout. Picture taken from his Instagram account.

“People are very keen to know what is the latest on gurudev, what is the latest activity of the organisation. Direct engagement with the fan base – this flexibility is not there in traditional media,” said Mamta Kailkhura of the Art of Living foundation.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar uses Twitter and Facebook to send spiritual messages, tell people about events, and hold town hall meetings and Google hangouts.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev relies upon volunteers for his and his organisation Isha Foundation’s social media updates that range from his videos to live tweeting around events. With the organisation using Facebook’s commercial platform to promote their content, a look at their video page shows thousands of likes and Sadhguru talking about a range of issues.

Asaram Bapu’s Ahmedabad-based ashram does not limit its updates to information about upcoming religious festivals. With Asaram undergoing a trial in an alleged rape case, his followers use social media to evade what they call mainstream media’s bias against their guru.

“Sadhaks (spiritual practitioners) themselves generate hashtags. We only float concepts,” said Uday Sangani, one of Asaram’s aides. While he hoped to attract attention to the organisation’s pet issues such as opposing Valentine’s Day through social media, Sangani said social media could not replace traditional media just yet.

“It is the tool of the moment,” said Suma Varughese, long-time editor of monthly spiritual magazine Life Positive. “Even though spiritual sadhana (practice) will always be about going inwards and learning silence, another aspect of spirituality is the cultivation of sangha or like-minded company, lends itself very well to media such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter.”

Anjani Sharma, a 26-year-old Dubai school teacher, follows Ravi Shankar on social media. She attended a live Facebook meditation session that Ravi Shankar held in January. Sharma said it was the best way to connect with him from afar.

“Sadhna works on an individual basis while social media works as a sacred gathering,” she said.

Swami Suyagna, a volunteer who handles media for the Isha Foundation, said not only did Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev connect to his followers, his video sermons on YouTube and Facebook draw new enthusiasts. “Somebody said they were they were about to commit suicide and they happened to see Sadhguru videos (and stopped) …,” he said on phone from Coimbatore. Reuters was unable to verify this claim.

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Social media and marketing expert Karthik Sreenivasan said a quick check of the accounts of a few spiritual leaders reveals seemingly professionally created content plans, with “snackable content” on offer, as opposed to one long sermon. The communication is mostly monologue, with no reaction to reader comments.

Social media companies are working with the religious leaders to help them effectively use their platforms, which in turn promotes the platforms themselves.

Facebook’s insight and requests to Ravi Shankar led him to use the Facebook Mentions app and post more videos which, the California-based company said, drew more readers than text updates.

Twitter’s Khursheed said he provided the Art of Living and other organisations with data, technical assistance and ideas about better tweeting.

“Whatever is required for us to increase the quality or the quantity of spiritual content, we do that,” he said, adding that representatives of religious spaces such as the Sikh Golden Temple, India’s richest Hindu temple Tirupati Balaji, and Ajmer Sharif, a major Sufi tomb, were likely to join Twitter this year.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Shashank Chouhan on Twitter @shashankchouhan and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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