Swipe right for spirituality
- Many upwardly mobile millennials are looking to ‘gurus’ and spirituality as a dominant belief system
- The evolution of the mystic has also made spirituality appealing to younger audiences.
In an upmarket three-bedroom apartment in Ghaziabad, adjoining Delhi, the drawing-dining area is bare but for an assortment of bedsheets and cushions strewn across the floor. At one end is a microphone, a JBL amp and a lone chair. At 6pm, singer Gagan Rathod, with his unkempt curls and squeaking leather jacket, takes the seat, connects his guitar to the amp and begins to tune it, signalling to the sound engineer at the console that the echo needs adjusting. He strums an arrangement of chords and casually addresses the room, now packed with an audience. Rathod asks the crowd to throw their hands in the air, close their eyes and sing along. You’d easily confuse this setting for an in-house music concert featuring a local indie artist, except the makeshift stage is a gargantuan photograph of a smiling Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, garlanded and surrounded by offerings—mostly fruits. It is a satsang for the Ghaziabad sangat of followers of the guru and his organization, The Art of Living Foundation (AoL), established in 1981.
Rathod begins with bhajans in praise of Hindu gods and goddesses—Ganpati, Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga—interspersed with an old Hindi film song here or a Sufi melody there, and a session of meditation in between. The gathering sings along, clapping euphorically to the beat with their eyes closed. Towards the end, Rathod ups the tempo and everyone gets up to groove to his tunes—they spin, hop and dance with abandon.
In the gathering, comprising mostly middle-aged men and women, is Sachin Shishodia, 29. He’s carrying a Quechua bag, wearing blue anchor-print joggers, a grey hoodie and a matching beanie. Shishodia works at a data analytics firm in Noida, is a huge fan of the TV show Breaking Bad, loves Hindi films—“but not the Khans, more content-oriented cinema"—and has been a follower of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for three years, ever since his first Happiness Program with AoL. “Spirituality is part of my daily life. It gives me almost all my answers—professional, personal, views about society, individuals."
The following day, on a cold Sunday morning in north Delhi, a large carpeted outdoor hall resembling a hangar is brimming with people from every class, caste and region. Men and women have travelled from as far as Bihar and Punjab, toddlers in tow, to attend the weekly satsang conducted for the followers of the Sant Nirankari Mission, formed in 1929. On a pedestal sits a stand-in guru, clad in a white kurta pyjama. He is among the few authorized by 33-year-old Mata Sudiksha Savinder Hardev Ji, the current head of the mission, to impart its teachings.
On a lower stage, a singer, playing the harmonium, accompanied by a tabla player, belts out the words “sab naal pyar karo (love everyone)" repeatedly, as followers fold their hands and mouth the words in silent prayer. When the song ends, a young woman is called on to the stage.
Niharika Spolia, 24, works with the technical team at Accenture and lives in Jor Bagh in south Delhi. Her father has been a long-time follower of the mission, and she was initiated into it when she received gyaan, or teachings, in her teens. Spolia does not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or do drugs, and sees her guru as a role model who helps her connect with God. Dressed in a checked overcoat, black jeans and Adidas superstars, her thick-rimmed glasses and pulled-back hair frame a perfectly made-up face. She takes the microphone and confidently addresses the audience in English.
“Saints, in this world of modernization and urbanization, we talk about all the elements that drive us in today’s life. On this cold day, we have been layering clothes to warm our bodies. But how are we supposed to warm our souls? How do we keep our souls from freezing from all these Satanic forces in the world? Our hearts and our souls can only be warmed up by the gyaan of the satguru of the present time. It surprises me how the gyaan from the present master fits exactly in this scenario of the 21st century," she says.
In south Delhi’s Defence Colony, nutritionist Tahira Kochhar, 29, sits in her office—a cosy room with incense and scented candles—annexed to her bungalow. It’s like any other new-age workspace, but, instead of bright walls and vintage posters, a conspicuous feature is a picture of Guru Nirmal Singh, who, she informs, is “no longer present in his physical form. He took mahasamadhi in May 2007."
Kochhar has been a devout follower for five years. Her work notebooks and accounts diary have pictures of him on the covers and she believes in his ability to work miracles—she credits her success as a nutritionist, a high score in her examinations, and many of life’s positive occurrences, to his blessings and her belief. “A day or two prior to my exam, I remember I had a dream (darshan) where he was sitting in an orange chola, and writing an exam paper in a classroom. Once that dream happened and I got my result, I was like this (result) is only (because of) him," she adds. On her 25th birthday, Kochhar didn’t throw a big party; instead, she hosted a satsang for fellow followers of the guru at home. She visits the temple dedicated to him, in Delhi’s Chhattarpur, at least once a week, regularly attends satsangs, and believes the prasad offered there has medicinal value. “People around me question it, everyone wants to put logic in everything, but here it has always been clear that you leave your logic outside," she says. “And isn’t it lovely to believe in magic? It’s a great space to be in," adds Kochhar.
Shishodia, Spolia and Kochhar are among the urban, upwardly mobile millennials who are not looking to organized religion—which they believe is adopted without questioning—as a dominant belief system. Instead, they follow gurus and new-age spirituality.
US-based Meera Nanda, a science historian who has also authored books on religion, such as The God Market: How Globalization Is Making India More Hindu, believes the younger generation is drawn to spirituality because traditional support structures are collapsing. “Family support, neighbourhoods or mohallas are gone. These (spiritual groups) are intentional communities," she says. “They become support systems. These intentional communities are created to replace what used to be done by neighbourhoods and extended networks," she adds.
With varying levels of faith—ranging from unquestioning devotion, such as Kochhar’s, to simply following the practices prescribed by a guru organization, like Shishodia—these young people are attending satsangs, devoting a considerable amount of their time every day to spirituality and surrendering to the idea of the guru, whom they see as an aspirational figure—someone who lives life with the virtue and direction they hope to adopt, and whom they see as a guide or a role model. They grew up rejecting, or, at the very least, challenging the idea of religion. Spirituality provides answers to existential questions and offers solutions to everyday problems in a fast-paced professional routine.
Spirituality has also made inroads into the corporate world—multinational corporations sometimes invite gurus to speak to employees at events. The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B) even has a course titled Spirituality for the Practising Manager. IIM-B professor Ramnath Narayanswamy says, in an email interview, that the course “sensitizes aspiring and practising managers to some of the key insights contained in all the nine major wisdom traditions of the world and then focuses its attention on translating those insights into forms of spiritual practice to learners interested in discovering their paths to self-awakening."
Millennials also actively associate their spiritual faith with the ability to perform better in the workplace. Outside the satsang hall, Spolia says: “I think and analyse and get back to the person and see how to work it out. That feeling of hatred is not there. That’s one way of people management. I would give the credit to the sangat for teaching me to be this way."
Sukhmeet Singh, 28, a telecom engineer with Huawei, and a follower of the same institution, adds: “When we are in the corporate world, there are many situations of downgrade. At this time, when I sit with my colleagues, I feel cool. There is someone guiding my life. This knowledge means I will never go into depression or be affected," he adds.
THE HASHTAG GURUS
The evolution of the mystic from self-abnegating hermit, as projected in ancient texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads, to the 21st century guru, with personas varying from austere saint to slick businessman, and a vast reach, has also made spirituality appealing to younger audiences.
“The problem is, most people’s idea of a mystic is the Sivakasi calendar, where one man is sitting under a tree with a constipated look on his face. That is calendar art, not mysticism," Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who founded the Isha Foundation in 1992, tells an amused audience of young law students at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (Nalsar), Hyderabad, in a video titled Mystics Are Always In Tune With The Times. It is posted on his official YouTube channel.
Many of the gurus teach meditation practices and yoga, and offer discourses on topics, including those that address the anxieties of urban millennials—from relationships and sexuality to stress management, infidelity to digital addictions and mental health—served up with simplistic explanations and peppered with light humour. Spirituality becomes an accessible and relatable alternative or supplement to religion. The discourses are also available for consumption more directly than any scripture, on platforms that can be accessed anywhere—whether it’s a smartphone or a satsang.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, for instance, has four million followers on Twitter and over 350,000 on Instagram. Sadhguru has nearly a million followers on Instagram and two million on Twitter. Gaur Gopal Das, an electrical engineer turned monk and personal coach, has 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube. Older institutions too are making sure they remain current. The Sant Nirankari Mission has nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram, and #jaiguruji, dedicated to Nirmal Singh, has over 30,000 posts.
Their presence on social media and the wide availability of their books in popular stores across the country have made them huge hits. “The readership of these gurus is largely the younger generation in urban spaces between 20-45 years of age. These are mostly students in colleges and professionals—those who are trying to give and understand the direction of their lives and dealing with day-to-day stress," says Vaishali Mathur, editor-in-chief, language publishing, Penguin Random House India, who also handles the organization’s mind-body-spirit imprint, Penguin Ananda.
Maya Warrier, an expert on Hindu traditions in modernity at the University of Winchester, who has examined the contemporary forms of bhakti (devotion) and seva (service) practised by urban Indian middle-class devotees of the transnational guru Mata Amritanandamayi (popularly known as Amma), supports this claim in her paper titled Guru Choice And Spiritual Seeking In Contemporary India, published in 2003. She claims Indian followers are mostly white-collar employees, many in the newer and more prestigious occupations involving high-tech skills and comparatively high earnings. “These individuals place a high premium on a good education, seeing it as a vital investment towards ensuring their economic mobility and their ability to access global opportunities," she writes in the study.
Warrier finds that their spiritual quest usually begins when they are faced with situations of crisis, such as failing health, marital discord, or financial problems. Spiritual millennials insist that it has helped them deal with emotional difficulties in a way they believe mainstream therapy cannot.
Lawyer Prachi Narayan started following Sri Sri Ravi Shankar after her first marriage failed. We are sitting in her apartment in a high-rise in Noida. The wall has a framed picture of her second wedding and one of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with Narayan and her present husband Tarique Khan, a teacher at AoL. The 35-year-old says that during her divorce, she was faced with a severe “identity crisis". A psychiatrist prescribed medication for bipolar disorder.
A round of past life regression therapy and courses at AoL weaned her off the medication, erased her feeling of vulnerability and vengefulness towards her ex-husband, and led to what she believes is a peaceful life. Her practice of meditating for at least 45 minutes every day has helped her “be happy" instead of “feel happy"—which, she believes, is a more permanent state of joy. She even attended advanced courses at AoL through the course of her pregnancy. “They say the vibrations soothe the child and the child becomes happy. My mentor said I should do one course during the first trimester, because that’s when the heartbeat of the child arrives," she says. She did one course during each trimester, and believes it played a huge part in a hassle-free pregnancy.
Most of the spiritual millennials I spoke to believe religion is handed down by default, with rules and intrusive lifestyle-related restrictions, while their quest for spirituality is a result of critical thought and consistent personal benefit.
Rahul Reddy, 30, a software engineer with Microsoft in Hyderabad, was once a sceptic, but a change in lifestyle after AoL’s Happiness Program made him a believer. “When I was in college, I was one of those guys—if someone came and said ‘Art of Living’ or ‘baba’ or something, I would have shot some arrows," he jokes. He attended the course when he was in his fourth year at the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU), Varanasi. Reddy believes his daily meditation practice has made him more active and energetic through the day and helped him focus at work to complete tasks more effectively.
Gurus often introduce concepts from science into spiritual discourse in order to make it more palatable to young people. Spiritual teacher Maa Gyaan Suveera says over the phone from Kirti Hermitage, her ashram on the outskirts of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, that this is an important approach in order to bring them on to a spiritual path. She sees “scientific spirituality" as a ladder to a deeper system of belief. “To initiate a person into a belief system without taking the help of science is very difficult with the younger generation," she says. “When you talk about devtas, Shiva, or the devi principles, it has to be explained in terms of energy portals and existential planes, where you can connect to this energy via a prayer or a password," she adds.
As a student of engineering, Reddy too is quick to point out that he believes in a synergy between science and spirituality. “My introduction to spirituality was through science. Even in science in modern physics you have something called ‘god particle’," he says, referring somewhat incongruously to the Higgs boson, an elementary particle studied in particle physics.
However, Nanda rejects the authenticity of the association between science and spirituality, drawing a distinction between Shakti, or the divine energy revered in spirituality, and physical energy, which, she says, is a measurable force with no consciousness. “The danger of new-age spirituality is that they use the hard work of physicists as if it is supporting their understanding of spirit as a disembodied energy," she says.
Wild Wild Criticism
Over the last few years, gurus have come to be looked upon with suspicion, fuelled by the arrests of godmen such as Asaram Bapu, Baba Rampal and Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh Insan and, most recently, the popularity of the Netflix series Wild Wild Country on the extravagance and misdeeds of the spiritual leader Osho. The image of gurus as controversial figures has brought the faith of English-media consuming millennials under scrutiny from family, friends and colleagues alike.
“My family was never aware of such things and they were scared because what they had heard about AoL was that they were like marketing agents and when someone starts following them, they follow blindly and drain all their money out on gurus," says Shishodia.
He is ready with a defence against any criticism directed at AoL. In 2016, the National Green Tribunal fined Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ₹5 crore, holding him “responsible" for “causing damage and degradation" to the Yamuna floodplains during AoL’s three-day World Culture Festival. Shishodia cites a documentary the organization produced about their efforts to minimize damage to the site. “They put natural enzymes into the drainage because all the harmful bacteria had reached that area. So the water in the Yamuna could improve," he says. “The documentary...helped us challenge the NGT verdict—initially there were no birds or animals coming to that area and then, after their efforts, there were," he adds.
The other kind of criticism spiritualists face is with regard to their faith—this includes ridicule for placing faith in a baba or lifestyle changes as a result of their belief. Shishodia would often be mocked by friends and colleagues. “They would say, ‘your life is so f***** up that you need someone like a guru to uphold you’," he recalls. “Your own friends whom you think were so close don’t understand you and start putting labels on you. You feel down and degraded," he adds.
Model, actor and dance teacher Shynee Narang, 34, has dealt with both exclusion and name calling. She is a follower of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, which instructs followers to give up meat and alcohol. “The most difficult was when I had a corporate job. My group would go out for drinks every Friday evening and parties every weekend," she says. “People would see me as a behenji and wonder kaun sesatsangse kya seekh ke aa gayi hai (who knows from which satsang she’s drawing these beliefs)?" she adds. Narang, however, remained steadfast in her belief.
A counter to criticism is the involvement of believers in the philanthropic initiatives that spiritual organizations channel their funds towards—tree plantation drives, adoption of villages, education of the underprivileged and more. For instance, Narayan, with the help of the company she works for, has introduced AoL courses in Uttar Pradesh’s Ferozabad jail, to help convicts reform. “We put up a project for 200 prisoners in Ferozabad and 300 rural youth in Chhattisgarh where there is heavy Naxal influence," she says. “It’s a good prospect for my company too since we have not been able to penetrate the rural market in Chhattishgarh because of the Naxal problem. So it was synergetic for both." Such endeavours, she believes, justify the expenses—Narayan and the organization explicitly term these donations—of ₹2,500 per person for the six-day-long happiness course at AoL in tier 1 cities.
For them, vindication also comes in the form of a change in personal lifestyle choices. The Sant Nirankari Mission conducts mass marriage ceremonies for followers every year. Pankaj Popli, a 32-year-old businessman from Delhi, a city known for flamboyant weddings, got married in February 2012, along with close to 50 couples, on the mission’s grounds. The process is simple enough. It entails filling a form, which helps with registration formalities, and then showing up at the function. “You reach there, babaji and mataji arrive. The four principles related to life and household are read out. They are so simple and so special at the same time," he says. “After that, along with the discourses of babaji, the marriage is completed with his blessings. It is a blissful feeling. Simple marriages are wonderful, a lot of expense can be saved," he says.
As the AoL satsang ends, Shishodia picks up his bag and heads towards his bike. “No matter what energy I’m carrying, after I enter the satsang hall, all those vibrations which get produced are so strong for me," he says. Before riding away to prepare for the Anand Mahotsav the following day, where Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will be present to address an audience of thousands at Thyagaraj Stadium in Delhi, he says: “Satsangs elevate the state of my being. I feel so much bliss that sometimes I forget where I am and what I am doing. It’s like a state of trance, beyond all sorts of addictions—I’ve tried a few psychedelics, it’s much stronger than that," he adds.